One must always be careful of books,” said Tessa, “and what is inside them, for words have the power to change us.
― Cassandra Clare,
My mother taught me to read before I started kindergarten. She set up a classroom in our garage, complete with a blackboard and flash cards. By the time I reached first grade, I had already read a number of the classics, including Jane Eyre and Moby Dick. My teacher was not impressed. She tried to force me to read books geared towards my age group despite my protestations that I could read the big kids’ books. My mother’s solution was to continue to take me to the public library, where I was allowed to check out any book that struck my fancy. In addition to the classics, I gravitated towards books about archaeology, paleontology, psychic phenomena and the occult.
Books quickly became my refuge from a difficult relationship with my mother and extreme social awkwardness. They provided a barrier between me and other people while simultaneously opening limitless doors to fantastic worlds and ideas.
Books played — and continue to play — an important role in forming my religious and spiritual beliefs. Although God and religion weren’t something that we talked about in our home, my father took me to the Presbyterian church where he was a deacon. I attended Sunday school before the main service, but didn’t see how the Bible stories they told were relevant to my life. I didn’t gain much clarity when I read the King James version of the Bible from cover to cover a few years later.
My parents send me to a Southern Baptist school in my early teens so I wouldn’t be “bussed” to a school in a black neighborhood. I was thrust into the world of Fundamental Christianity, where Jesus would save those who professed to believe in Him while everyone else was damned to hell fire and brimstone. On one hand, I “bought” the message; I was terrified not to. On the other, I had already been exposed to numerous different religions and spiritual concepts — not to mention the occult, which was verboten to “born again” Christians — through books.
During my Fundamentalist Christianity phase, I read read a couple of modern translations of the Bible, including Good News for Modern Man. These were widely criticized by some Christians for their use of the vernacular but, for me, getting rid of the “thees” and “thous” made the Bible and its message accessible and relevant.
I also read lots of books about missionaries while continuing to check out tomes on the occult. I knew that my preacher, who was the school principle, and my classmates would never understand, so I didn’t divulge my interest in the paranormal to them. But even at that tender age I knew that religion and spirituality weren’t as black and white as they believed.
The list below includes a small sampling of the myriad books that had an impact on my spiritual path. I’ve tried my best to list the ones that made the most impact, but it is in no way comprehensive.
Did books play a major role in forming your personal “theology”? If so, which ones? Please share with my readers and me in the Comments section!
The Bible — Judeo/Christian
The Cross and the Switchblade by David R. Wilkerson — The story of an “urban missionary,” this book is about and geared towards teens
The Seven Story Mountain by Thomas Merton — An account of Merton’s journey to becoming a Trappist monk, his spiritual struggles and reflections
Alone Of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary by Marina Warner — A scholarly work analyzing the connections between pagan goddess worship and the role that the Catholic church created for the Virgin Mary
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith — AA’s guidebook to working the 12 steps in order to recover from alcoholism…one day at a time
The Zen of Recovery by Mel Ash — Draws parallels between Zen Buddhism and 12-step recovery
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley — Arthurian legend told through the eyes of the female characters, including Morgaine (aka Morgan le Fay), a priestess struggling to preserve Celtic paganism during the rise of Christianity
Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham — A gentle, supportive introduction to Wicca geared towards people who practice alone by choice or through necessity