7 Books About Faith and Doubt

Jessie van Eerden, author of "Call It Horses," recommends stories, essays, and poetry about grappling with spirituality

Photo by Hassan Saleh on Unsplash

When writing and revising my novel Call It Horses, I spent time in the narrator Frankie’s two spiritual homelands—the desert and the bog. I tromped in the desert scrub and camped in the Appalachian bog, the deep sandstone reds and the verdant greens, respectively, providing a physical correlative for Frankie’s restless spirit. 

This epistolary novel, in which Frankie Donne and her aunt Mave undertake a road trip in 1990 from the small town of Caudell, West Virginia to Abiquiú, New Mexico, attempts to connect the often-estranged body and spirit, not only the human body, but also the body of the wounded world. In writing the account of their westward flight, Frankie tells a story of spiritual liminality and yearning which butts up against religious tradition. Writing the novel raised the question for me: what makes spiritually-oriented literature effective and alive? Not preachy, not reductive, not sentimental, but alive?

I recently read Desert Notes, an early Barry Lopez classic, having heard he died this past Christmas. “You must come with no intentions of discovery,” he writes in the intro. “You must overhear things, as though you’d come into a small and desolate town and paused by an open window.” This imperative struck me as a description of successful spiritual writing: it does not come in through the front door with agenda in hand. At its most resonant, such literature picks up on the hints, shadows, and murmurs of ineffable reality as manifested in our everyday lives and bodies. 

I have drawn books around me, like a dense cloud of witnesses, that bear witness to the union of body and spirit, of mystery and the mundane. Here is a small collection of them.

All the Living by C.E. Morgan

C.E. Morgan’s debut novel All the Living thrums with a slow electric current. The main characters, Aloma and her lover Orren, are people hardened by hard places and hard work. Aloma is orphaned, raised by aunt and uncle; she learns piano at a Kentucky settlement school and falls for Orren who has lost his family to a car accident and is worn down by trying to get the family tobacco farm through a drought alone. She joins him in the project, and theirs is a love between two solitudes, a love formed from loss:

“Aloma had learned of loss only by hearing that it had once happened to her, but Orren had lived that heavy change in the undying instant when the steel rumpled like hard cloth… And now Orren was like a man who had not heard the thing was finished, begun but not yet ended, no final word yet from that empty road… She spied a tree that had begun to turn early in defeat. Her eyes were wide to the miscarriage of the summer, the ruth and pity of it. She suddenly desired the betterment of everything, for herself and Orren and every single thing that had ever died, or would.”

Aloma finds solace in playing piano at the local church, and in the young pastor there—that context is her source of softness and a chance to test beliefs and try on another self while in Orren’s stark house, their sexual energy and burnt silence offer her fire but also closedness. The theology in this novel is felt in blood and bone and in the rural Kentucky landscape that presses Aloma thin. “She couldn’t trust the world to make her happy for more than a minute at a time, and generally less than that, but her life had to be borne.”

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

The passionate characters in Deesha Philyaw’s fierce new story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, are decision-makers; they’re decisively scrubbing off a Christian theological grime that has needed attention for some time. The men and women in these nine stories seem to say, collectively, “Finally, I am living and breathing and loving myself out of the corners in which a moralistic script has kept me. I’m writing a new script.”

There’s a lot of reckoning with scripture in these stories; scraps float around, making accusations about same-sex relationships as an abomination, about desire as something to tamp down. The reckoning is especially layered and forceful in the story “Jael,” in which 14-year-old Jael—named, if inadvertently, for the biblical character who deceives a general and drives a tent peg into his forehead to, reputedly, enact the judgment of God—crushes on the pastor’s wife and discerns her own form of justice for an older man who preys on young girls. But spiritual tradition is not only an oppressive weight here.

Philyaw’s narratives sometimes revise conventional interpretation to nudge toward a version of liberation inherent in a not-so-airtight story of God: “‘Do you think God wants you, or anybody, to go untouched for decades and decades?… maybe you should question the people who taught you this version of God. Because it’s not doing you any favors.’” But religious heritage is equal parts familial and cultural heritage, and for these characters deeply rooted in the Black community, raucous claims on freedom still hold space, in these stories, for the grief inherent in any departure from the fabric of tradition.

In “Snowfall,” a woman chooses her female partner over reconciliation with an intolerant Southern home and mother, and there is room here for the beautiful litany of things missed by two Southern women living in the frigid Midwest:

“We miss their bare brown arms reaching to hang clothes on the line with wooden pins. We miss their sun tea brewed all day in big jars on the picnic table in the backyard, then later loaded with sugar and sipped over plates of their fried chicken in the early evening. We miss lying next to them at night in their four-poster beds with too-soft mattresses covered by ironed sheets and three-generation-old blankets.”

The decisions of these characters are clear, often joyful, even when they hurt.

Things That Are by Amy Leach

Amy Leach’s essays in Things That Are focus on the body of the world, creatures very “strange and themselves”: jellyfish, beavers, donkeys, ostriches, moons. This is a slantwise book of praise as well as a book of science writing, a book of fables, tales, spiritual inquiries, even jokes! Leach is all wonder and tumble and tuft, as effervescent in language play as in the way she sees and depicts the animal kingdom. About the caterpillar and people’s impatience for its metamorphosis, she writes: “This is understandable of course: when that which is like a plodding lozenge turns into that which is like an angel, everything that belongs to the lozenge’s time seems mere preliminary.” But is it? People cannot “infest the caterpillar with their anxious urges to ‘Become!’” That tiny caterpillar hanging from a leaf over a creek does not think, “‘Alack!…I will never, now, wrap myself in silk and wake up with powdery, iridescent blue-and-green wings’…Rather, it thinks, ‘I’m swinging, I’m swinging, I’m swinging.’”

In rendering this inner landscape of creatures, Leach turns us toward our own glowing innerness. These essays shine with the holy but do not make use of conventional holy words such as God because “the hoopoe and the bat do not say this word. Neither do the eagles or the vultures or the black vultures.” But spirit does strum through this book, in each wingbeat and scurry, each movement of the moon, each piling-up of surprising descriptors and similes:

“The Sun is so loud, like a million bombs all the time, that fine-spun sounds cannot be heard, like birds wading or figs tumbling or the muttering of mathematicians. On the Sun all private qualities disappear into the main loud yellowness.”

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Of Marilynne Robinson’s four novels set in the world of Gilead, Iowa, Lila is my favorite for its enfleshing of scripture, its midrashic embodiment reminiscent of her treatment of the story of Noah’s wife and the deluge narrative in her 1980 novel Housekeeping. In Lila, a lesser-known passage—from Ezekiel 16—is the central text and is the text in which Lila sees herself. Israel is compared to an infant cast out and abandoned. God says to this infant in the sixth verse: “And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’”

Lila sees her own lonely youth and sees in Doll—the vagrant that took her in for a life of togetherness, homelessness, and poverty—the prophetic power of someone who has said to her: Live. But Doll’s godlessness lies outside of salvation in the theology of Lila’s new husband, the minister John Ames, and so she sets out to reconcile theology with lived experience.

Though steeped in Calvinist thought, Robinson manages to create a liminal character in Lila, exploring a spirituality deeply inscribed into the Christian tradition while remaining outside of it. An outsider’s perspective can apply pressure to theology and ask more of it than an insider knows how to, exposing its strangeness, elasticity, possibility. And Lila’s spiritual yearning beautifully infuses the physical and the mundane:

“She liked to do her wash. Sometimes fish rose for the bubbles. The smell of the soap was a little sharp, like the smell of the river. In that water you could rinse things clean… Her shirts and her dress looked to her like creatures that never wanted to be born, the way they wilted into themselves, sinking under the water… But when she hung them over a line and let the water run out, and the sun and the wind dry them, they began to seem like things that could live.”

WWJD and Other Poems by Savannah Sipple

Savannah Sipple’s debut collection, WWJD and Other Poems, wrestles with an Evangelical culture known for its focus on a “personal savior” and making choices based on asking “what would Jesus do?” But Sipple’s Jesus is more intimate chum than lord, more likely to accompany you to Wal-Mart or sign you up for a dating app than chastise you. This is a book full of sexual hunger, a coming-out narrative that reckons not only with religion but also with the complicated layers of place: Sipple’s rural Appalachian homeland. “I never wanted to stay I never wanted to/ leave I never wanted to come back to gravel dust… I hate/ the mountains I love.”

My favorite sequence is the last third of the book in which Jesus serves as a vehicle for exploring the nature of desire itself and all the ways it is muted or thwarted—or sometimes celebrated—along the difficult road that leads to self-acceptance. When “Jesus rides shotgun”: “We go balls to the wall,/ windows down,/ aviator sunglasses always on./ …I used to be afraid. Sometimes/ I still am. Maybe./ Don’t hit the brakes, Jesus says./ Turn the wheel. That’s how you know/ the way you want to go.” Sipple’s poems are heartrending but also hilarious, and her mix of sincerity and humor creates a push-pull with faith that goes deeper than easy mockery.

Places I’ve Taken My Body by Molly McCully Brown

In Places I’ve Taken My Body, the first essay collection by poet Molly McCully Brown, the disabled body entangles itself with faith and doubt. These essays intimately render the experience of living in a body with cerebral palsy and compromised mobility—what that means for sexuality, travel, artistic achievement, belief, and the furnace of anger (as well as an inexplicable tenderness) that a human being feels toward her own limitations.

In writing the body’s brokenness, Brown helps her reader defamiliarize the fact of living in a body; in “Muscle Memory,” she describes her dissolved memories of once standing and walking without pain as “just some strange, exaggerated version of what it means to age: huge sections of our lives lost to the way memory buckles and muddies and fades, the versions of ourselves we couldn’t find our way back toward if we tried.”

These essays are honest about loss but also, very unsentimentally, about accepting, even cherishing, life in a body that suffers. In “Bent Body, Lamb,” an essay about Brown’s conversion to Catholicism, she tests out in her mouth: “I don’t have to hate my body.” I most love how Brown writes about her former selves, as if these essays were really a letter to them. In “What We Are,” an essay about teaching creative writing to inner-city kids in Texas and coming to grips with her anger, the narrator addresses her child self:

“Hey, stubborn little blond-haired girl, we won. We are alive. And now the work is to be gentler with ourselves and with the world. I want such a sweet life for you. I want the fierceness of attention, of the light coming over the hill, of your own hand bringing a cup to your mouth. Of love, which will abide so much longer than the fire.”

A Sense of the Whole by Siamak Vossoughi

The stories in A Sense of the Whole, by Siamak Vossoughi, explore the inward bloom of life in characters I desire to know in the world as they treat small things with great compassion, thinking and feeling their way through non-scripted, non-ironic interactions. The collection is written in a language that helps us stay soft and not harden.

The narrator in the story “So Long” says, “I wanted to write like people still had stories. Not just things they could say, but things they really wanted to say.” Indeed these characters, Iranians and Americans and many who are both, discern and articulate love in small moments: children learn to play games without guns, immigrants tap into a largeness in watching the World Cup, a man learns a new language because “language had everything—people and what they’d said and what they’d only ever said to themselves, and even somehow, something unsayable, too.”

I’m reminded of the fiction of Noy Holland by these stories’ unapologetic interiority and fable-like quality; Vossoughi’s stories are brief and often focus keenly on a singular issue that is densely layered, like a formerly imprisoned Iranian forgetting his email password, trying to remember his password which is the name of a man who died in that prison; or an Iranian American boy grappling with his huge feelings when his teacher is teaching his American classmates about Iran which, until then, had been his “home thing,” a secret world. Vossoughi writes the emotions and large souls of children especially well. And, with great subtlety, his stories push us readers toward a more just and whole world. When the first Black realtor comes to work at a real estate office, the white racism is exposed as the thing it is—false living: “It is not living because when I put a wall between myself and another person, I put a wall between my heart and me.” The spiritual radiance of this book comes not from interaction with spiritual tradition but from the belief in the miraculous in each person and that person’s connectedness to the whole human community.

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