This year I read to feel.
By early January, I was emotionally numb. The combined weight of the past few years caught up with me, and it was clear a new president and new vaccines wouldn’t be enough to repair everything broken. Then Jan. 6 happened. I wanted to feel anger. Instead, I felt … nothing.
“Above all else, guard your heart,” warns Proverbs, “for everything you do flows from it” (4:23). But can any of us say we’ve made it through the past few years with our hearts in good repair?
Yet whenever I’d crack open a book, something stirred; stories have a way of seeping in where tweets, memes, and news alerts fail. So I read to re-learn what my heart had forgotten: Melissa Florer-Bixler coached me out of Midwestern nice and Yolanda Pierce had me missing my own grandmothers. Danté Stewart dared me to “believe in the better.” Kristin Valdez Quade’s characters made me wince with self-recognition. Patricia Lockwood freaked me out about the state of our digital lives.
And I shed actual tears when I finished Miriam Toews’ new novel, Fight Night. In it, Elmira — a woman who’s known real tragedy and yet refuses to surrender her joy — offers a compelling pep talk for all of us who’ve felt paralyzed by despair. When someone steals your “life force,” Elmira tells her granddaughter, “we fight to reclaim it … we fight and we fight and we fight … we fight to love … we fight to love ourselves … we fight for access to our feelings … for access to our fires … we fight for access to God.”
Below are 12 books that helped us keep our hearts soft this year — worthy companions in our fight to feel the sting of pain, anger, and justice denied, as well as the joy of beauty, truth, and belovedness.
1. Matrix, by Lauren Groff
Women’s bodies and women’s power take up space in this novel tracing the story of Marie de France, an ambitious medieval nun on a quest for greatness. Though Marie’s power — like all power — is complicated, “[at] a time when we are all too familiar with the deep roots of patriarchal religion, I found it profoundly satisfying to follow this story of a 12th-century woman shifting the world,” writes reviewer Caroline McTeer.
2. Shoutin’ in the Fire, by Danté Stewart
This book is a love letter to Black womanist theologians and writers. It’s also a deeply personal essay on race, faith, and liberation in post-Trump United States. Or as Stewart told Sojourners’ assistant opinion editor Josiah Daniels: “I wanted [ Shoutin’ in the Fire] to be a creative book, a wonderful work of literature, but also — as James Baldwin did in ‘Letter from a Region in My Mind’ — I also wanted to do theological imagining.”
3. The Prophets, by Robert Jones Jr.
Black, queer love is treated with tenderness in Jones’ debut novel about two young men enslaved in the Deep South. “Despite opposing personalities, Isaiah and Samuel fit together,” writes reviewer Elinam Agbo. “Where Isaiah is soft and accommodating, Samuel is hard and unyielding.” But the couple faces trouble when their enslaver allows another man on the plantation to use Christianity to pacify any thoughts of rebellion among those held captive.
4. A More Perfect Union, by Adam Russell Taylor
If you’ve heard the phrase “beloved community” but aren’t sure what it means — much less how it relates to our polarized churches and politics — Sojourners president Rev. Adam Russell Taylor has a book for you. As Taylor told associate culture editor Jenna Barnett, while words like “social justice” (or “critical race theory”) have been “overly watered-down or politicized and misunderstood,” the concept of beloved community “has so much power and potential to help unite us across many divides, in part, because it hasn’t been co-opted yet.”
5. The Five Wounds, by Kristin Valdez Quade
All the characters in this novel are magnificently broken, earnest people, who want to be good and fail: an alcoholic father trying to be transformed by penitential devotion, a grandmother who conceals her tumor to spare her family the grief, a pregnant teenage daughter determined to be a good mother. Quade’s writing is gorgeous, sharp, and deeply formed by her own New Mexican and Catholic heritage.
6. In My Grandmother’s House, Yolanda Pierce
This book is what Pierce describes as “everyday womanist theology.” Through personal stories, scriptures, and the lived experience of Black women, especially her own grandmother, Vivian, Pierce wrestles with the tensions in our faith communities, including the Black church. Or as reviewer Rebecca Riley puts it: “How do we practice a faith that both loves what is good in the church and refuses to bow down to, or ignore, the very real, oppressive, and harmful structures and mentalities that persist in the church?”
7. Fight Night, by Miriam Toews
In her bestselling 2018 novel, Women Talking, Toews imagines secret conversations among Mennonite women trying to escape a patriarchal and abusive religious community, a story reviewer Kathryn Post describes as “infused with theological discussions and surprisingly dark humor.” In her newest novel, Toews again uses humor to depict women’s will to survive, but this time with a little less darkness. We fall in love with spunky Swiv and her grandmother, Elmira, whose upbringing in a controlling Canadian Mennonite community didn’t squelch her exuberant approach to life.
8. Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and Identity, by Robert Chao Romero
Church history — including the history of Christian social justice movements — often sidelines the lives, theologies, and prophetic witness of Latin American Christians. Starting with the brutal era of 16th-century colonization, Chao Romero offers an accessible account of Latino/a faith up to the present, including Latino/a theologians doing justice work today. “For those of us of Latinx background or descent, it offers an affirmation that Latinx church history is church history,” writes reviewer Karen González.
9. No One Is Talking About This, by Patricia Lockwood
In her 2017 memoir, Priestdaddy, Lockwood described growing up with her eccentric father: a former Lutheran pastor who converted to Catholicism and got papal permission to become a married Catholic priest (yep, that’s a thing). In her new semi-biographical novel, Lockwood plunges readers into the Extremely Online world of a Twitter-famous protagonist grappling with her sister’s complicated pregnancy. Gentle readers, be warned: Like the internet itself, the narrator’s newsfeed is at times lewd, disturbing, or just plain weird. But whenever it’s tempting to declare the protagonist uniquely deranged, Lockwood cleverly claps back at us all and the uneasy digital lives we’ve built.
10. How To Have an Enemy, by Melissa Florer-Bixler
In a 2019 Sojourners cover story, Florer-Bixler pointed out that if we want to follow Jesus’ command to love our enemies, we first have to be clear that we have enemies. In her new book, Florer-Bixler expands on this theme, by urging the church “to have a shared anger that gives voice to the marginalized and calls the powerful to account through liturgy and through action,” writes reviewer Myles Werntz.
11. The Defiant Middle, by Kaya Oakes
This is a meditation on the radical possibilities of “Christian womanhood” for anyone who gags at the phrase “Christian womanhood.” Drawing on the wisdom of women mystics, Oakes explores how women deemed “too old, too young, too barren, too butch/femme/other, too crazy, too angry, too alone” have side-stepped patriarchal expectations from both church and society to define lives of meaning and purpose on their own terms.
12. Borders and Belonging, by Pádraig Ó Tuama and Glenn Jordan
The biblical Book of Ruth is often told as a quaint tale of familial loyalty, but Ó Tuama and Jordan — an Irish poet and an Irish theologian, respectively — see a deeper story. With their guidance, the book becomes what reviewer Julie McGonegal describes as a challenge “to practice radical hospitality, encounter the ‘other’ with compassion, dismantle our stereotypes, rewrite our laws, reject aggression and toxic masculinity, and protect the vulnerable minorities in our midst.”
All books featured on this list were independently selected by Sojourners’ editors. We have partnered with Bookshop.org and when you order books through the links on sojo.net, Sojourners earns a small commission and Bookshop.org sends a matching commission to independent bookstores.