Usually, I don’t read the forewords to books. Written most often by bigger-name authors, I see them as more endorsement than substance. I’m glad I broke my rule with Pádraig Ó Tuama’s foreword for Touch the Earth, Drew Jackson’s poetry book commentating on the gospel of Luke.
“What is gospel? It’s hard to know exactly,” he writes. “Was it a brand-new form of literature invented two thousand years ago?”
The gospel genre is at times manifesto, other times sermon, occasionally a genealogy, a healthy smattering of parable. So, does that make it nonfiction or fiction — an early form of magical realism? Perhaps it depends on your theology.
Tuama continues: “What we do know is that [gospel is] a genre less concerned with chronology than it is with community: how to act in the face of an empire; how to notice small moments of life; how to be interrupted; how to assert dignity in the face of demeaning treatment; how to challenge rules for a greater good; how to create common cause; how to get through.”
Sojourners’ top books of 2023 span many genres — poetry, memoir, speculative fiction, murder mystery, and more — but they all maintain gospel concerns. Each book, whether subtly or overtly, shows readers how to build community in the face of both real and existential danger.
Touch the Earth: Poems on The Way, by Drew Jackson
Jackson first used poetry to comment on the gospel of Luke in his book God Speaks Through Wombs. Touch the Earth continues the collection (starting with Luke 9), pairing Bible verses with Jackson’s free verse to illuminate the liberating power of Jesus’ ministry. In Luke, Jesus feeds 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish, and still has enough leftovers to fill 12 baskets. “You won’t want to miss / the blessing of these leftovers,” writes Jackson in a poem likening Jesus’ miracle feast to a modern-day cookout. Be it baskets or Tupperware, “The best hosts always provide / take home containers.”
Sober Spirituality: The Joy of a Mindful Relationship with Alcohol, by Erin Jean Warde
Warde, an Episcopal priest, spiritual director, and sobriety coach, believes Christianity has a pretty toxic relationship with alcohol. While progressive churches pride themselves on inclusivity and radical welcome, “The common refrain of ‘all are welcome’ must ring true when a person changes their relationship with alcohol,” Warde writes. With compelling and vulnerable writing, Warde details the terror she felt while quitting alcohol and the “abundant life” she found with sobriety.
The Country of the Blind, by Andrew Leland
“The experience of blindness encompasses both tragedy and beauty, the apocalyptic and the commonplace, terror and calm,” writes Leland in his debut memoir, Country of the Blind. As he takes readers on both a personal and historical journey through the culture of blindness, his prose is beautiful and informative. It’s an essential read for people of faith trying to mitigate the “displays of casual ableism [that] are far too common in houses of worship,” writes Olivia Bardo in her review.
Monstrilio, by Gerardo Sámano Córdova
Córdova’s novel opens in the immediate aftermath of the death of Santiago, the young son of Magos. Magos, wild with grief, longs for resurrection — and goes about in a morbid way: She saves a piece of her dead son’s lung, then shields it and feeds it until it starts to grow a tail, eventually becoming Monstrilio. It sounds gross and is gross, but as reviewer Elinam Agbo writes, it’s also “[a]n opportunity to open our hearts and recognize our own griefs, however grotesque and unseemly they might be.”
We Survived the End of the World: Lessons from Native America on Apocalypse and Hope, by Steven Charleston
“If you wanted to find an experiential example of an apocalypse, you would be hard pressed to find one more total than what North America’s Indigenous civilization confronted,” writes Charleston, an elder of the Choctaw Nation and a retired Episcopal bishop of Alaska. Mining the wisdom of four Indigenous prophets, Charleston examines how Indigenous communities achieved “the miracle of their own survival” and what that wisdom can offer the apocalypses we face today.
Pregnant While Black: Advancing Justice for Maternal Health in America, by Monique Rainford
Rainford has been an OB-GYN for more than 20 years, so she’s seen firsthand how the U.S. health care system is failing Black pregnant people. And in Pregnant While Black, she “looks beyond the boundaries of pregnancy and labor to consider how a toxic brew of misogynoir shapes Black women’s navigation of infertility, miscarriages, preterm and multiple births, mental health, and stillbirths,” writes reviewer Melanie Springer Mock. The current health care reality is grim, but Rainford, a solutions-oriented doctor and writer, has hope for more equitable and effective medical practices in the U.S.
The God of Monkey Science: People of Faith in a Modern Scientific World, by Janet Kellogg Ray
As the COVID-19 pandemic reached a “boiling point” in the U.S., Ray, a professor of biology and an evangelical Christian, found herself asking: “Why was the evangelical precinct of Christianity the most resistant to masks, vaccines, and even the particulars of the science of the virus and the pandemic itself?” Weaving history, science, theology, and memoir, Ray helps bridge the divide between science and religion, showing that the two are not adversaries or competitors, they’re just “answering different questions.”
I Have Some Questions for You, by Rebecca Makkai
Technically, I Have Some Questions for You is a murder mystery. In this page-turner, a podcaster returns to her alma mater to teach a class but ends up, with some help from her students, investigating the decades-old murder of her boarding school roommate. But as Caroline McTeer explains, Makkai’s novel is also an investigation of the role racism plays in our legal system and, “[p]erhaps more than anything ... a reflection on the horror, pervasiveness, and many faces of misogyny.”
The Place We Make, by Sarah L. Sanderson
In 1851, Oregon City officials exiled Jacob Vanderpool, the only Black resident living in town, from the state of Oregon for the crime of being Black. “From its inception, this town was not just meant to be quintessentially Christian and American,” Sanderson writes of Oregon City, where she lives, “It was also designed, legislated, and enforced to be a White utopia.” In The Place We Make, Sanderson, a white Christian, ties her own story to Vanderpool’s. By doing so, writes David Leong, she pushes readers to ask, “What more could we learn about ourselves and our neighborhoods if only we looked a little closer and more honestly at our past?”
The Hero and the Whore: Reclaiming Healing and Liberation through Stories of Sexual Exploitation in the Bible, by Camille Hernandez
The Hero and the Whore reimagines biblical womanhood. “For too long, stories of women in the Bible have been interpreted in religious cultures rooted in racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia,” writes reviewer Deirdre Jonese Austin. “As a result, many Christians have stripped these characters of their agency and voice, demonized them, and sometimes ignored them altogether.” By presenting the stories of women in the Bible through a lens of sexual exploitation, Hernandez, a trauma-informed educator and minister, has authored a provocative and liberating text.
All books featured on this list were independently selected by Sojourners’ editors. Sojourners has partnered with Bookshop.org; 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.