Let’s assume that you’re a Christian or you’re interested in religion. Let’s also assume that you like reading books about religious stuff that are a bit fun and even irreverent at times since you aren’t living in a perpetual siege mentality fed by conservative fear-mongering, political divisiveness, and end times madness.
Does that sound anything like you? If yes, then I have five fun and irreverent religious books to recommend for you. Some veer more toward entertainment, while others bring up weighty ideas while making readers laugh along the way. All of them have an angle or tone that our more uptight/under-siege Christian friends will most certainly hate.
Whether you’re looking for yourself or someone else, here are five books to pick today for a fun read:
- Flunking Sainthood by Jana Reiss
Mormon writer Jana Reiss digs into the Christian traditions and spiritual disciplines in an ill-fated attempt to learn a new spiritual practice every month. She reads biographies of saints and books that are supposed to provide practical guidance. Instead, Reiss grows annoyed by the anxious striving of some saints and frustrated by the vagueness of others. Along the way Reiss introduces us to important spiritual practices throughout church history—many of which she fails to do.
It’s not that Reiss wanted to fail. She started out this project with sincerity and good intentions, and that’s what makes this book so good. Sticking with a ridiculous spiritual project doomed to failure feels quite familiar to me, even if I’ve never attempted anything on the same scale.
Whether you cringe at her irreverence or you nod your head in agreement, she provides a welcome outlet for evangelicals such as myself who grew up with a great deal of anxiety and pressure to reach particular spiritual goals. For the rest of us who struggle at spiritual disciplines or have our own histories of failures with these practices, this book will provide a welcome perspective shift that just may inspire you to give them another shot.
- Do I Have to Be Good All the Time? By Vicky Walker
British writer Walker writes with a blend of self-deprecation and sarcasm that especially appeals to my East coast heritage. For all of our talk in America about the ways British Christians aren’t as crazy as us, Walker uncovers a world of conservative churchianity that should feel quite familiar to American evangelicals where singles struggle to be valued alongside married couples, receive terrible life advice, and end up in unbearably awkward conversations during dates that sometimes end with, for instance, a man confessing he loves to rub cats on his bare chest.
Yes, that is a real conversation in Walker’s book. No, that’s not the only one that prompted me to drop the book in horror/laughter.
While my single friends will no doubt find Walker’s recounting and skewering of the British Christian single culture cathartic, her scope is far wider and will certainly appeal to many. One senses that Walker has ingested a non-stop barrage of dodgy life advice from conservative Christian peers and is using this book to tell them what’s what.
Pop in your monocle and give this book a shot. It’s especially delightful with a proper cup of tea and a scone.
- The Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans
I’m going to assume that most of my readers have at least heard of Evans’ book. Perhaps most of you are sick of hearing about it. However, if you haven’t read it yet, I assure you that you’re missing out.
After being accused by the critics of her first book, Faith Unraveled, that she was picking and choosing which verses of the Bible to obey when it came to faith and gender, Evans’ took up their challenge by obeying everything in the Bible as literally as possible. It’s not just an experiment in interpretation and application, it’s a work of performance art that asks big questions about what it means to be a “biblical” woman. Evans braves conservative books on biblical homemaking, weeps over frustrating crafts, and sits on her roof after growing contentious toward her husband.
Some reviewers didn’t get this project—or perhaps skipped reading it altogether. One conservative Bible professor lamented that Evans would fail his exegesis class. We may well respond that he would fail an MFA course. This isn’t a book about the “right” way to read the Bible. This is fun and thought-provoking exploration of what happens when we follow one theological system to its logical conclusions. If anything, this book is a humbling and humorous reminder that interpreting the Bible isn’t as easy as we think.
If you approach the Bible with greater humility and awe at the stakes of the interpretive task, the laughs provided by Evan’s journey will be well worth your time.
- Our Great Big American God by Matthew Paul Turner
Superbly researched and written with a heavy dose of self-deprecating love for our Christian forebears in America, Matthew Paul Turner delivers a surprisingly readable spin through American church history. Written in a style that brings to mind Sarah Vowell (a well-known contributor to This American Life), Turner traces the high points (what some would call “low points”) of America’s church history as he makes the case that we’re just as capable of creating God in our own image.
In fact, the staggering number of images Americans have for God makes this book both delightful and hilarious. While Turner isn’t providing a substitute for the work of scholars such as Mark Knoll and David Beggington, he has more than succeeded in providing a thoughtful and funny commentary on the history of God in America that proved to be one of my favorite books from the past year.
In my endorsement for this book, I noted that Calvinists will really, really hate this book. So that will either warn my Reformed friends to keep far away from this book, or I’ve just issued a dare to give it shot!
- The New York Regional Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker
I’m probably most picky about memoirs. And of the kinds of memoirs I read, I’m most critical of religious memoirs. Let’s face it: the narrative arc is typically either:
I had a crazy religious childhood and now I’m done with that.
I had a crazy religious childhood but now I’ve found a way to redeem it.
There are very few books that can succeed in such predictable narrative frameworks. Books such as Traveling Mercies or Girl Meets God provide refreshing alternatives to that script since Lamott and Winner trace their journeys from outsiders to insiders in the church. My friend Addie Zierman’s memoir When We Were on Fire is among the few faith memoirs that has succeeded in providing a truly riveting read, however, Elna Baker’s journey from the Mormon fold into the uncertain terrain of New York City is not only captivating but brimming over with wit.
While mentions of special underwear for married women and specific Mormon beliefs sometimes remind evangelical readers that Baker comes from a different tradition, a great deal of her story will look and feel familiar. Evangelicals will especially relate to her struggles to adopt her childhood faith as her own, the moral struggles of living in a city fully of temptations, and possible ramifications with her family should she leave her faith and/or HAVE SEX.
One could come away from this memoir with the impression that Baker’s story hinges on whether or not she will kiss a boy, but if you come from a conservative religious background, you’ll know that the story is about a great deal more than that. Baker takes us into the nitty gritty struggles that young adults face when their faith runs counter to the majority of people around them.
From cringe-worthy scenes at the New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, which is a real thing, to the unbelievable “home meetings” with fellow Mormon singles where an unmarried couple plays the parts of husband and wife hosts, Baker provides a perspective that is simultaneously familiar and foreign. I simply couldn’t put this book down. It’s that good.
If you don’t enjoy it, I’m afraid we can’t be friends.
Before you rush off to buy all five of these books (why haven’t you already???), you should know that each of the links here are affiliate links on Amazon. It just means I get a small percentage of the sale if you click through and buy a book. I don’t make a lot of money through these links, but every little bit helps. Having said that, buy these books wherever you like. From the perspective of an author, I’m always just happy people buy my book anywhere at all, but if you can support a local bookstore, go for it!
I know a few of these authors personally. We’re not best friends who swap childcare during the week or go out for drinks on the weekend. I’m picky enough about what I read that I honestly wouldn’t read and recommend something that I didn’t enjoy. However, I want to make sure everything I’ve written here is on the up and up.
Do you have a favorite religious book that is funny and irreverent?
Drop in the title and author in the comments below!