24 June 2011

What faith-related short fiction can you recommend ?

After I wrote the post about the reading habits of TYWKIWDBI visitors, in which the average respondent reported reading 50 books a year, I received a number of interesting emails.  Among them was a request from a longtime friend who now attends Trinity Church in Boston.
Among the many things I do at Trinity Church is co-facilitate a reading group that we call Short Fiction on Faith. I advertise it as "the English class you always dreamed of...great literature, great discussion, no papers or tests." Short stories only, and we choose those with content that raise issues of faith and can stimulate discussion of those issues in our own lives.

The stories do not have to be overtly religious, certainly not necessarily Christian - we have read from just about any faith tradition I can think of. We have read stories from classics to contemporary, all the way from Chaucer (The Wife of Bath's Tale from Canterbury Tales) to current fiction from the New Yorker. I like to do a mix of classic and contemporary.

We have been going for 8 or 9 years, and have made our way through a bunch of anthologies and collections. For the past two years or so we have been selecting the stories individually... We have read quite a few Flannery O'Connor stories, and one of my favorite discoveries is "The Great Good Place" by Henry James.
In recent years the group has read selections by Alice Adams, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sholom Aleichem, Shalom Auslander, James Baldwin, Honore De Balzac, Raymond Carver, Geoffrey Chaucer, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Pearl Crayton, Alice Elliott Dark, Tim Gautreaux, Andre Gide, Graham Greene, Jim Grimsley, Heinrich Heine, Paul Horgan, Henry James, John L'Heureux, Yi Yun Li, N. Scott Momaday, H. L. Mencken, Flannery O'Connor , Reynolds Price, Philip Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Leo Tolstoy, John Updike, David Foster Wallace, Edith Wharton, Tobias Wolfe, and Dwight Yates.

The group is currently on summer break, and the coordinators are requesting suggestions for further reading.  My own reading tends to favor nonfiction topics (evident in my recommended books category of this blog), so I may be able to offer them some science fiction stories that would be relevant, but for other short fiction, I'll turn to TYWKIWDBI visitors.

If you have recommendations for the Trinity Church reading group, please leave a message in the Comments with the author's name, the title of the work, and preferably with a sentence or two summarizing why the piece might interest them.

Thanks in advance for your suggestions.


  1. One of my favorite short stories I've ever read is "Killings" by Andre Dubus. It's focus isn't really on faith so much as the morality of vengeance, but it's still somewhat relevant perhaps.

  2. Another fantastic short story is "Auggie Wren's Christmas Story" by Paul Aster. This one might be even further away from being strictly about faith, but I think a Christian reading group would find it stimulating. The author has read it on NPR, archived here:


  3. "A Canticle for Leibowitz" by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

    As a childhood Catholic living in the Great Salt Lake locale where the story starts, I was especially charmed by the book's setting. In an era where we still have dark age thinking in rejection of science and the Elightenment, this post-apocalyptic science fiction tale has much currency.

    >Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile." — Kurt Vonnegut

  4. Forgive the horn tooting, but you may enjoy my short story "Angel," from Interior Design (Scribner 1996); it's about a boy who begins to imagine that his guardian angel might not be so benign. This story was influenced by my own Catholic upbringing as well as living for years in an African culture that deelpy believes in spirits.

    Keith Lee Morris has a wonderful story, "The Culvert," which may or may not be about the afterlife; it's in his latest collection, Call It What You Want (Tin House Books, 2010)

  5. I really like "Hell is the Absence of God" by Ted Chiang.

    It's a world where it is manifestly obvious that God exists, so mere belief is not sufficient for salvation. It won the Hugo and the Nebula awards and is described in a little more detail on Wikipedia.

  6. Hmmm... The stricture requiring short stories seems to tie my hands a bit.

    Think Like a Dinosaur by James Patrick Kelly (of course you will want the short story, not the Outer Limits Episode based upon the story) Deals with a teleportation device that makes an exact duplicate of an individual on the far side and then destroys the original.

    The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin certainly has a strong moral aspect to it as it deals with a stowaway on a space ship that has insufficient fuel to decelerate the extra passenger. As an added bonus it is available online for free.

    I will now break the short story rule and recommend Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan. In the distant future people can back-up their brains to tiny computers implanted at the base of their skull at birth. When they die their memory, personality, and every experience they ever had is loaded into a new body.

  7. The Cross and the Switchblade is a great story, although based on real life events.

    Wyndham's The Chrysalids raises moral issues very similar to those of Christianity.

    Both are very short books.

    Also memorable is Robert Bolt's A Man for all Seasons, a short play about Thomas More.

  8. What about The 9 billion names of god by Arthur C. Clarke. Though I'm not sure if it's considered faith-related.

  9. How about Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman.

    Each tale is maybe 2 pages or so. All forty make a pretty slim book, but a smaller number could be read. It's an amazing book, and faith related in a way, though not, perhaps, in the way one would think.

  10. I also considered the "9 Billion Names of God", an excellent story on a faith of some sort. I'm not sure how much deep discussion would result, but it could be a conversation starter.

    An even better science-fiction story related to faith would be Ray Bradbury's "The Fire Balloons" (from the collection 'The Illustrated Man') This story has TREMENDOUS potential to stir deep discussion. A review is here: http://www.helium.com/items/1544303-short-story-review-the-fire-balloons-by-ray-bradbury (though it may give a bit away)

  11. Some Sci-Fi stories come to mind: "The Star" and "The Nine Billion Names of God", by Arthur C. Clarke; "The Last Question", by Isaac Asimov, and "The Man", by Ray Bradbury.

  12. Another vote for "The 9,000,000,000 Names of God" by Clarke. "The Cold Equations" is the ultimate ethical dilemma. "A Rose For Ecclesiastes" by Zelazny deals with religious matters only in passing, but every one ought to read it anyway.

  13. Neil Gaiman's 'The Price' is the most vivid illustration of sacrifice that I've ever encountered. It's very short (2400 words) and available online here: http://www.bitchwick.com/amacker/bean/price.html

    If you enjoy the fantastic, Orson Scott Card has written a variety of short fiction. He's Mormon, religious and/or moral themes show up frequently in his work. He can also be very, very gruesome, watch out.

  14. One that can definitely start a lot of conversation is "The Bet", by Anton Chekhov. From Wikipedia:

    The Bet is an 1889 short story by Anton Chekhov about a banker and a young lawyer who make a bet with each other based on capital punishment and whether the death penalty is better or worse than life in prison. An ironic twist responds to this exploration of the value of a human life with an unexpected result. The terms of the wager state that if the lawyer can live in solitary confinement for 15 years, the banker will give him 2 million dollars

  15. "Le Jongleur de Notre Dame" by Anatole France. I'd always known it as "Our Lady's Juggler" until I Googled it just now. Anyway, even atheists like me get choked up on this short story. :)

    Also props to The Cold Equations and Think Like a Dinosaur.

  16. There is a collection of science fiction with religious themes edited by Poul Anderson called "And the Gods Laughed." It's got a lot of really good golden age science fiction.

    "Since before the Age of Space itself, the men and women of Planet Earth have yearned Outward, knowing on the deepest level that the Race's future lay not in the soft comfort of the planetary womb, but in the cold and empty spaces between the Stars, with the unknown rewards and certain dangers of a future all unbounded. Always these brave ones have seen themselves as the carriers of the lamp of civilized humanity unto alien savages sitting in darkness. But what if reality is different - what if, on the arrival of humans bearing the gift of millennia of culture and all our aspirations, THE GODS LAUGHED."

  17. Anything by Neal Stephenson, Philip K. Dick, A.E. Van VOTE,

    Sherman Alexie !!!

  18. just finished a short novel by Larry Niven. "Inferno" sort of a modern day retelling of Dante...clearly science fiction, which may be of interest.

  19. Even though Bush Cartel minions will be tracking the trends of this comment for eons to come, it must be said!

    DINEH BADAHANI (Dine' Stories) By Winifred Fields Walters; Illustrated by Wilson S. Etcitty, 1967. Printed by the Navajo Tribal Printing Department; Window Rock, Arizona.

    (Vote for Pauline WhiteSinger for President!!!)

  20. I don't have any particular favorites, but I really enjoyed the stories in "The Pagan Anthology of Short Fiction" from Llewellyn Publications.

  21. "The Other Wise Man" by Henry van Dyke.

  22. Well a story i really love is 'Sredni Vashtar' By H.H.Munro who wrote it under the pen name 'Saki'. It is story about the God like faith of a boy put in his simple brown ferret. If not a conversation starter, it is surely a story which needs to be read. I remember it to be a part of our English textbooks here in India and it was perfectly etched in my mind and recently now, i found it on some site and was overjoyed to have got a chance to read it again.
    I have been reading your blog from such a long time and I am almost overwhelmed by the knowledge collected here, there is so much to read. And now i have officially become a follower through Google Reader. Well, keep up the good work.

  23. "The Screwtape Letters"

  24. One thing I would add that sits on the border between fiction and nonfiction would be the eleventh tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh:

    "Utnapishtim tells an ancient story of how the the gods decide to send a great flood. The god Ea, however, warns him to build a boat and save himself. Precise dimensions are given, and it is sealed with pitch and bitumen. Utnapishtim's family go aboard, along with his craftsmen and 'all the animals of the field'. Next, a violent storm arises that causes the terrified gods to retreat to the heavens. Ishtar laments the wholesale destruction of humanity and the other gods weep beside her. The storm lasts six days and seven nights, after which 'all the human beings [have] turned to clay'. Utnapishtim, looking out, also weeps in response to the overwhelming destruction. The boat lodges on a mountain and, after seven more days, he releases a dove, a swallow, and a raven. When the latter fails to return, he opens the ark and releases its inhabitants."

    Discussion would focus on how this came to be written in the 7th century B.C.

  25. Last week I remembered a potentially relevant story, but didn't have it in my library because I originally heard it read on NPR. This week I found it in the library.

    The story is entitled "This Blessed House." It tells the story of a young Hindu couple - Sanjeev and Twinkle - who move into a house formerly occupied by Catholics. They keep discovering various icons, crosses, and statues of saints and have disagreements as to whether such items make the house "blessed" or whether they are incompatible with their own beliefs.

    The story does not have a dramatic ending (in fact it seems a bit anticlimactic), but it could be the focus for a faith-based discussion. The group might try inverting the situation and considering their own responses if they moved into a house with Hindu statuettes - would they keep a statue of Krishna on their mantlepiece?

    The story is included in a collection of short stories entitled "Interpreter of Maladies" by Jhumpa Lahiri. Of note, the book won for her the Pulitzer Prize in 2000.

    Also of potential relevance to the Trinity Church group is that Jhumpa Lahiri attended Boston University, and many of her stories are set in Boston, Cambridge and New England.


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