"The Brothers Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoevsky
I can only compare this book to the Bible in its power to demand self reflection. Dostoevsky brilliancy is unmatched by anything I have read. His books have a disturbing way of making me probe every belief I've clung to. Sometimes in this book I wanted to reject God and religion completely. Other times I wanted to throw it on the ground. I find myself drawn in some ways to the most vile of characters, but in so doing I am forced to expand my circle of understanding and sympathy just that much more. I wish in one fell swoop my heart would soften but it needs constant reminding.
I'm amazed by the life of Dostoevsky. He was by all accounts dysfunctional on almost all levels. And yet his novels clearly show me God can use any person as His instrument. God bestows His gifts on His children in all times and places regardless of any earning. History seems to pound this lesson into me, over and over again, be it Mozart or Joseph Smith.
Dostoevsky raises so many questions. He answers none of them. Maybe that's why his novels force me to think beyond my comfort zone and leave me so hungry.
"The God Who Weeps" by Fiona and Terryl Givens
If freely admit I have a crush on this man's brain. For three years I have followed his work, read his articles and books, and listened to podcast interviews. Mormon history is fraught with so many troubling things. Joseph Smith is one of the most complex historical figures in 19th century America. God and religion themselves can be messy and difficult to make philosophical sense of. At times, I figuratively have to jump ship. It's always been this way for me. I have this strange dichotomy of faith and doubt. Whether I was 14 and reading "Doctrines of Salvation"deeply disturbed by the complete dismissal of Scientific reasoning or 19 sitting in a dark corner of the Special Collections library in college surrounded by 20 dusty books on polygamy (I don't think they were flying off the shelves much at BYU). Terryl's work has helped me wade through what can seem at times just too murky. He describes true faith as impossible without equal compulsions to believe or disbelieve. Faith is first and foremost a choice.
"The God Who Weeps" was just published and coauthored with his wife. It is a theological treatise on the "Mormon" God they believe Joseph Smith introduced us to. I am on board.
The Givens' describe a God who is perfect because of his vulnerability, not power. Life is not about creating an account of good deeds or ordinances, instead it is about learning to expose ourselves and our hearts as God does. Becoming Godlike is not about becoming powerful but about becoming vulnerable. Weeping.
There is a beautiful chapter on the pre-existence which tackles head on the theodicy (or the problem of an omnipotent God and the existence of pain, evil...etc). For me, it provided the most intriguing and honest answer. It wasn't anything I have ever learned being a mormon all my life, but it was brilliantly clear to me in the scriptures and doctrine once elucidated.
I love the Romantics. Givens is a professor of Romantic literature. He draws literary and historical parallels from myriad personalities and faith traditions, which enhance the understanding of God Joseph introduced us to.
A few tough issues or scriptural incidences were glossed over or omitted. However it is not a long read, nor does it claim to be exhaustive.
A fascinating corollary to reading this book was the insight it brought me about some of the brutality of Christianity through the ages. The girls and I just waded through some of the most disturbing times in Europe including the Crusades and Holy Wars. I have a small inkling on how they used the God they understood as justification for their atrocities. That God I dismiss. I don't know how much liberty we do or do not have with God to create or understand Him in a way that brings us the most peace. It may be offensive, or pompous. I'm not sure. But for someone like me, if I can't understand my religion and my personal relationship with God with a bit of flux it may give way completely.
There was also a time in my life when I could "shelve" things for later. I must be going through a mid-life crisis of some sort, but that won't work right now. I don't know all the reasons. I have a brain which never puts my keys or phone in the same place, writes down a recipe, or remembers to fill the car up with gas. A brain which forgets to temper its enthusiasm and passion in conversation (leading sometimes to unintended offenses). But, this same brain is giddy trying to solve a math problem or dive into a new ocean of research.
I unreservedly recommend this book, especially to all those searching to find a God they truly want to adore and worship with their reason and their heart. For me it is on the right course.
Other Books I've Recently Read Independently or With my Children:
"The Witch of Blackbird Pond" by Elizabeth George Speare This is an insightful introduction to early American history and Puritan society. It gently helped my girls understand the dangerous prejudices of religious fanaticism rampant during the 17th century, and kept them eager with just enough romantic drama.
"Johnny Tremain" by Esther Forbes I felt I had the inside scoop on the American Revolution in this novel. The history was excellent and didn't feel artificial or overly romanticized. As a historian writing a children's book, Forbes brought well earned historical insight right along side an emotionally intriguing plot.
"Walk the Worlds Rim" by Betty Baker This book provided an interesting perspective on the Conquistadors and the exploration of the Southern United States and Mexico. It is something I have little knowledge and I enjoyed experiencing it through the eyes of an adolescent Native American, in his own coming of age journey.
"The Candymakers" by Wendy Mass If you are in the mood for a little mystery, this is a clever, well written, plot driven book. Neither Ellery nor I could put it down. Much to Callista's chagrin, the two of us independently snuck it off and read it outside of read-a-loud. "Mommm! That is so unfair!"
"Carry On, Mr. Bowditch" Jean Lee Latham I am so grateful Latham chose to immortalize this man's life. He was fascinating and brilliant. Against odds, he contributed quietly but profoundly to society. This book provides an excellent example of perseverance and positive ambition.
"Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand (Not appropriate for children) I simply couldn't get on board with the unbridled capitalism and humanism of this book. I recommend it because of the complex and thorough argument Rand presents for the virtue of such a society. Unrestrained capitalism becomes the utopia inside a dystopia of government regulation and dependency. However, Rands utopia for me, left much to be desired.
"Angel Prayer" by John Johnson I was given this book at book exchange. Reading the inside cover, it wasn't one I would probably have chosen off a shelf. However, I was pleasantly surprised. The plot was interesting enough to keep me turning the pages with equal doses of mystery, crime, romance, and self-discovery. I think at this particular moment this book spoke to me because of an overriding theme of develop a beautiful heart. A beautiful heart being a vulnerable one. The protagonists life is presented contemporaneously and in flash back. We see he's had opportunities to become vulnerable yet missed them. It takes tragedy for him to understand he must weep and hurt to become the kind of person he sees in others but cannot see in himself. Too often I miss the small opportunities in my life to open my heart and weep more. When the circumstance is so acute or expansive, the birth of child, the health of a loved one, the rejection of a friend... it can't help but be transformative. I have these. I need these. But I think if I look a little closer I have these opportunities everyday. Why not try to a little better everyday? Count me in.