The holidays bring light to darker days, but often a feeling of too muchness as well. The presents, the parties, the feasting — all can inspire the nagging sense that we’re somehow missing the point.
Some will reflect on the importance of family and friends; others ponder questions of faith. The season can fall particularly hard on the uncertain, and fill lapsed believers with a longing to return.
For you strugglers, an early sugar plum: This week’s books prove you are not alone.
Emmanuel Carrère, author of several category-defying works, takes on this bright-line question in his latest volume, “The Kingdom.” The subject is his own 1990 conversion to Catholicism as a young husband and father, and his later falling away. During his devotional period, Carrere tracked his experience in some 20 notebooks. “The Kingdom” begins with his return to these writings.
Carrère chooses the Gospel writer Luke as his avatar in this blend of memoir, fiction, and history. The result is a spiritual quest book unlike any I have ever read. Like Dante, Carrère relies on a number of guides. Foremost is his godmother, Jacqueline, a Catholic mystic whose intelligence he reveres. The 19th century biblical scholar Ernest Renan proves indispensable, as does Carrère’s Buddhist-inclined friend Hervé Clerc. The author seeks guidance from his analyst; his agent; even the I Ching. But the great constant is Luke.
Assisted by the Gospel writer, Carrère breathes new life into the story of Paul, whose sudden enlightenment becomes Christianity’s core conversion case. In letters that would provide essential scaffolding for the new religion, Paul exhorts his followers to hold fast to his teachings about Christ’s resurrection. Indeed, they must not believe him if he ever preaches anything else. Seizing on this hint of self-doubt, Carrère decides Paul feared the very thing he himself had once dreaded: 15 years after putting away his notebooks, Carrère has become a skeptic.
Yet the author’s journey, one senses, is not over. Even from his agnostic roost, he remains fervently engaged with the idea of belief, unable to dismiss the love he felt emanating from the now-deceased Jacqueline. Deftly transforming the texts attributed to Luke into a self-portrait, Carrère becomes a fine guide for readers seeking a fresh encounter with the Gospels.
Seemingly content to grapple no more is Susan Jacoby, a Catholic school pupil-turned-atheist, and one of our ablest writers on religion. In “Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion” Jacoby meticulously demonstrates that conversion is not always (or even mostly) a matter of illumination from within. Worldly experience, including social instability, can have a lot to do with it.
Jacoby’s family tree is laden with relatives who switched religions because of social or economic pressures. Among them is her Jewish father, who adopted his wife’s Catholicism. As historical phenomena, forced conversions are the forebear of these milder coerced forms. Yet, as Jacoby points out, citing groups such as ISIS, the strong-armed variety has scarcely disappeared.
Jacoby begins with Augustine of Hippo, the second great Christian conversion story. Unlike Paul’s, Augustine’s turn toward Christianity, around 386 A.D., was a slow-cooked affair. Jacoby regards it as the struggle of an intellectual attempting to reconcile reason with absolute truth. Once Augustine finally crosses over, however, he never returns.
An appealing new translation of his classic “Confessions” by Sarah Ruden has just arrived in a spiffy Modern Library Edition. The pear on the cover is so luscious that “Confessions” might at first be mistaken for a cookbook. The image alludes, of course, to what is probably the most famous fruit heist in Western history. In several agonized pages, Augustine recounts a youthful incident in which he and his friends shook down a pear tree. They stole the fruit not because they were hungry but “for slinging away to swine, if you can believe it.”
Departing from previous translators, Ruden renders an Augustine who calls God “Master.” The effect is simultaneously distancing and intimate — also, as Ruden argues in her lively preface, solidly of Augustine’s time.
Far more recently, the writer Barbara Ehrenreich vaulted straight past questions of theology to ponder direct experiences of the numinous. A passionate social critic, Ehrenreich was raised an atheist and taught to revere science. Like Jacoby’s, her religion, if any, might be called rational inquiry. At age 17, however, Ehrenreich was shaken by a mystical experience. Suspecting physiological causes, she suppressed the encounter but saved her journals detailing the event. Years later, in “Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything,” she set out to understand what happened. Readers who follow her tough-minded inquiry will gain no ultimate assurance of anything. But Ehrenreich has respectfully propped a door open, leaving plenty of room for wonder.M.J. Andersen is an author and journalist who writes frequently on the arts.