Some spiritual alternatives to trashy beach reading

WASHINGTON (RNS)—It’s that time of year again when we hit the road and head to the beach, mountains, valleys or maybe just a comfortable chair in climate-controlled environs.

As sure as we are to slide sunglasses and stuff T-shirts into duffels, many of us are liable to pack those books we’ve meant to at least scan, along with a few we hope to really read.

There are tomes intended to stretch our spirits, challenge our minds and comfort our souls. Some, we hope, will remove us from our realities for a little while. Others we procure to gain tools we might apply to living each day.

These new releases might do all those things:

Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith by Suzanne Strempek Shea (Beacon Press, $24.95)

Come Sunday, most people keep to their own—their own pews, their own booths for brunch, their own beds. Not Suzanne Strempek Shea, who for a year traveled the country visiting the Protestant churches that had been verboten during her Catholic youth. Her goal, she writes in her introduction, was to glean a first-timer’s first impression.

Her journey took her to well-known congregations including Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Some places are clearly a better fit for Shea than others.

Finally, in an interfaith chapel in the Denver International Airport, Shea recognizes, “We are always in God’s house, wherever we find ourselves.”

Controlling Interest by Elizabeth White (Zondervan, $13.99)

Controlling Interest centers on a smart but inexperienced blonde (Natalie Tubberville) who joins a streetwise but sensitive detective (Matt Hogan).

The two are trapped in a pantry and stuck on a cruise ship as they track a runaway bride (and new Christian convert) tangled up in matters of international intrigue.

In the midst of investigating faith and practice, family and tradition, the characters don’t claim to be flawless.

As Hogan tells Tubberville: “Look, Natalie, my life is what it is. I haven’t been a perfect Christian guy all my life. I could rake myself over the coals for all the mistakes I’ve made, or I can keep going and try to live the rest of my life for a better purpose. Right? Isn’t that all anybody can do?”

Walking With God by John Eldredge (Thomas Nelson, $22.99)

Best-selling Christian author John Eldredge returns to readers with Walking With God, this time challenging them to seek God’s presence not simply in the midst of big adventures but in the course of mundane decision-making.

But walking with God, as Eldredge outlines it, is not always a comfortable pursuit.

In 218 pages, Eldredge chronicles his journey, complete with physical and spiritual tumbles, during the course of a year. Bottom line: Seek—and heed—God’s will in everything, from when and where you go on a trip to what Scripture passages you read on a particular day.

Eldredge acknowledges, “The prevailing belief is that God speaks to his people only through the Bible.” But the “Bible teaches that we hear God’s voice,” he writes.

Sex & the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America’s College Campuses by Donna Freitas (Oxford University Press, $24.95)

If you’re off to college this fall or your child is (or soon to be), you may not be thrilled by what you find between the covers of the latest work by Donna Freitas.

Freitas set about the work after teaching a course on dating at St. Michael’s College in Vermont and discovering that students felt uncomfortable about the hookup culture and, she writes, wished to find meaningful relationships that integrated spirituality into their dating lives. She wondered if students elsewhere felt the same way.

The short answer, she learned after talking to and collecting data from students at seven geographically diverse U.S. colleges—public and private, Catholic and evangelical—was yes.

Freitas writes: “Many college students seem to encounter religion and sex as if they are two powerful and jealous gods. When they interact, as they do among evangelicals, it is a battle to the death. Either religion wins, and sex withers away (until marriage, theoretically), or sex wins, and faith founders. The alternative, evident among students at Catholic, nonreligious private, and public schools, is for these two gods to remain isolated from one another, warriors in entirely separate realms. Both options leave students in the lurch, consumed in many cases with anxiety about sex and, in some, about the state of their souls.”

Readers, meanwhile, have options, thanks to Freitas. She concludes her work with "A Practical Guide to Sex and the Soul," which includes 15 sex and spirituality questions to ask on a college tour.

The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully by Joan Chittister (BlueBridge, $19.95)

Internationally renowned writer Joan Chittister intends her series of essays about growing older to reach a broad audience: Those on the brink of “old age,” those concerned about aging parents and those who don’t feel old but are “older than they ever thought they could possibly become.”

It is, in short, for everyone.

In essays brief enough to consume with a cup of coffee, Chittister addresses matters of possibility and adjustment, learning and letting go, dreams and limitations.

She begins with a reflection about regret, calling it “the sand trap of the soul.”

Still, she notes: “The blessing of regret is clear—it brings us, if we are willing to face it head on, to the point of being present to this new time of life in an entirely new way. It urges us on to continue becoming.”

Flanders’ Book of Faith by Matt Groening (HarperCollins, $9.95)

Ned Flanders of The Simpsons answers kids’ questions about religion (“How do we know that everything in the Bible is true?” “Because God himself spoke these words and the 40 or so fellas who wrote the Bible then copied them down. Naturadiddly, when I say ‘copied,’ I am speaking in the biblical sense, not the Xeroxical sense”).

There are recipes from the Flanders’ cookbook too, including one for Devil’s food cake. But fear not. Flanders advises readers to procure a box of devil’s food cake mix and prepare it according to the package’s directions. Then: “Bring in a priest or pastor to exorcise the cake with holy water. Pray seven minutes for the cake, followed by the singing of a hymn.”

While the square tome remains focused on Springfield and its inhabitants, readers should not be surprised to see themselves—or someone they know—within its pages. The book offers a two-page spread of the 40 types of people you meet in church, including The Catnapper, The Hymn Hummer, The Wristwatch Watcher and The Happy Head Nodder.

America the Beautiful by Laura Hayden (Tyndale House Publishers, $13.99)

Before the story of presidential candidate Emily Benton begins, readers are reminded in fine print: “This novel is a work of fiction.” Still, failure to see any connection between fact and fiction is a bit of a challenge. The cover bears the book’s title, but more prominently, the image of a blonde woman with a stylized segment of the American flag in the background.

Before the first chapter ends, readers learn Benton is a divorcee who could be easily painted as “the good woman ridding herself of an unfaithful and feckless husband.”

As the campaign continues, issues of faith and questions of ethics circulate. At the book’s conclusion, the election is settled, but questions remain.

The next book in the series, Red, White and Blue, is set for release this fall.


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