Brief Thoughts on Marginalia, God, and Mary Oliver

A few years ago, I bought a used book from my favorite local bookstore. The book sat on my shelf for quite a while before I got around to opening it. (The story of my life.) When I finally did, I saw a note scrawled inside the faded blue front cover. One of my favorite things about buying used books isn’t only their prices, but their histories. I love to see what previous owners have underlined or what words they’ve written in the margins. It makes me feel connected to people I’ve never met and probably never will. Inside this particular book, a woman named Lois wrote a note to her nephew Mark. The book was a gift for him. She told him, “Enter in, struggle, and know you are loved.”

Those eight words captivated me. I read them over and over again. Even though this note was written to someone else quite a few years ago, it was as if the words were meant for me. Whoever Aunt Lois is, her advice here is excellent and important.

As a person who loves control, I hate that I can only control a small portion of what goes on around me. There’s a line in Anne Lamott’s novel Bird by Bird in which the narrator is talking to God:  “I’ll be responsible for everything on this side of my palm. You be in charge of the outcome of everything else.” I’m learning, though, that God isn’t just interested in the outcome of the everything else, whatever that might be; He wants my palm and the fist it turns into, grasping the hopes and fears and plans I am holding onto for dear life. Sometimes all life is for me is control, comfort, and safety. But even in my weakest moments, I know those three things feel incredibly good, but are not ingredients to a life lived with hope, risk, and courage.

When this truth frustrates me or makes me feel even wearier than I already am, I remember Mark’s Aunt Lois and the words she wrote: “Enter in, struggle, and know you are loved.” It’s one thing to exist, but another to truly live. And to truly live, I believe we must enter in. We must enter in, not as adults who have it all together, but as children who are full of wonder and not the least bit daunted by mystery. Lois knew that entering in would lead to struggle, and I know this too. It isn’t always easy to try, to see meaning in uncertainty or challenges. But what helps is the final part of her advice: know you are loved. Entering in and struggling are so much easier when I am certain of this last bit. Knowing I am loved helps me be a little braver, a little more vulnerable, a little more alive. And for me, that’s the goal: being a little more alive. I don’t want to merely exist; I want to live. As Mary Oliver famously wrote:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

I write this as a reminder to the Type A, control-freak part of myself who loves sticky notes, planners, and calendars a little more than she probably should. I write this a challenge to myself to take the advice of a random woman named Lois, the advice I received in a book on sale for $2.99. Sometimes we find the truth we so desperately need to hear in places we weren’t even looking. That truth is one of the most beautiful truths I know and it leads to the best part of uncertainty: pleasant surprises along the way that change us for the better.

Have you ever found a great note written inside an old book?

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A Look at Christian Faith in Mainstream Fiction

I’ve been a Christian almost as long as I’ve been alive. My dad was a pastor for many years, so I grew up in the church and have chosen to remain there. Despite my faith, I have little interest in consuming most contemporary Christian art. I’ve seen my share of Christian movies over the years, and I cringe at the memories. My Christian CDs have been put away for a long time now. I have little interest in reading Christian fiction. That’s not to say all Christian art is bad; it’s not. But sometimes it feels more didactic than beautiful. Even when I agree with the message, I don’t want to watch a movie or read a book that’s preaching to me. 

Thinking about these things made me want to reflect on the books I’ve read that deal with Christian faith, specifically novels. Some of my most beloved, 5-star books focus on faith. Instead of featuring protagonists that are just a cliche of what culture thinks when they hear the word “Christian,” these books have characters that feel the tension of the holy vs. the ordinary. Faith has shaped their lives, whether they wanted it to or not. There are no tidy endings. Today I want to talk about some of those books that handled faith so well and realistically. I’ll start with my favorite.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson 

Gilead is written in the form of a letter by the Reverend John Ames. Ames is nearing the end of his life and has chosen to write to his young son, telling him about his past and family. This book talks about slavery, death, loss, and parenthood in ways that are profound and moving. Reverend Ames offers his son wisdom about God and life that I find deeply meaningful. Robinson (a person of faith herself) depicts Ames’s faith in a way that feels so very real.  Whether you’re a believer or not, I think this book is a must-read. It’s simply gorgeous and one I cherish.

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

This book is set on the fourteenth birthday of John Grimes. He lives in Harlem with his family and desperately yearns for the love of his father, Gabriel, a preacher. John feels pulled in two different directions: one toward God, and one toward the world. He’s also trying to figure out what it means to be black in a mostly white world. The tension John feels will be relatable to any believer, no matter your faith tradition. His longings and questions are universal and palpable thanks to Baldwin’s talent as a writer. This is the first book I read by him, and I knew immediately that I’d found a new favorite author. Baldwin is supremely gifted and his work here shines. 

The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir

Essie is a teen girl who’s pregnant. Her father is a pastor who preaches a fire and brimstone faith. To complicate matters even more, her family stars in a hit reality show that definitely didn’t script a pregnancy. Essie’s mother and the producers of the show scramble to figure out what to do. They decide to fabricate a love story between Essie and a local boy Essie chooses. As the novel progresses, we learn some secrets about Essie’s family and learn her new love interest has a secret of his own. This novel reveals how much damage people can do when they only care about what their faith looks like to an audience. Essie’s story got a lot darker than I thought it would, so this book isn’t for the faint of heart, but it does a good job of revealing the darker side of celebrity and religion.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett 

This novel is another one that involves a pregnancy. This time it’s 17-year-old Nadia who’s pregnant. The father is Luke, the pastor’s son. Nadia is grieving the suicide of her mother and Luke isn’t ready to be a dad. Bennett tells the story of what choices they make and how those choices haunt them and their families for years to come. The title refers to the church mothers, who help narrate the story. Bennett excels at showing how deeply entwined people can become in their church and how sometimes boundaries are erased due to a sense of belonging to a higher, heavenly family. 

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro

Maggie is a loving wife, mother, and poet. She meets a fellow poet named James at a conference and they enter into a friendship that slowly morphs into something else. Maggie is a religious person who struggles with the moral choices in front of her. Quatro writes absolutely gorgeous prose that expertly captures the yearning and guilt Maggie feels. I read this book in one sitting because I was so captivated by not just Maggie’s story, but the way Quatro wrote it. While this book deals with the temptation of infidelity, any believer will be able to relate to Maggie as she’s drawn to something she knows will only end badly.

Other than Christian faith, the one thing that connects each of these novels is a sense of authenticity. One of the problems I often have with Christian art is that it seems superficial, as if God can’t handle hearing our doubts, longings, and questions. These books present a view of faith that is genuine and messy, and I appreciate that frankness.

What similar books should I read next? What are some of your favorite books about faith? 

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