Thirty-some years ago, I was the program director at a conference center. Calvin Miller was the week’s speaker and one day we were sharing lunch with Calvin and his wife Barbara. Calvin was one of those larger than life characters, a preacher, poet, painter and more. He could possibly sing and dance, too, I don’t remember. For a short time after we met, I was on his Christmas card list, meaning that I received a card with a hand-painted picture — hand-painted by him!
Calvin was going on about some popular movie he had recently watched (this was around the dawn of the VCR era — ask your parents if you don’t know what a VCR is) and how the actual story of the movie, if you knew how to watch it, was all about Jesus. At some point he took a breath. Barbara gently moved her hand in front of Calvin’s, maybe a sign to let him know it was her turn.
“You have to understand,” she said. “Calvin can find Jesus in any movie. I think it’s his excuse to watch every movie.” After shared laughter, Calvin returned to being the center of attention and finishing his movie story.
In my own way I find almost any book has a sense of the breath of God. I think all life stories are guided by some sense of trying to find and connect with or move away from God. Novels and biographies can range from subtle to overkill, but it’s always there. I can be captured by the finest literature or by some trendy, simplistic, sappy story, whether fact (the author’s version) or fiction (again, the author’s version). When I finish a book — a nearly perfect one, one which has burned itself into my soul — I take a deep breath and delay the start of the next. To begin another too soon seems to be trampling holy ground.
To talk about books and how they have changed my life borders on impossible. In one way almost every book I have encountered has left its mark, for good or ill. I struggle to make a list of my favorites, top ten or whatever. That type of list seems like more of a moving target, shifting with the mood or the moment. Ah, but the question of the day is which books (or which type of books) do I carry everyday and everywhere? Which ones speak to my soul, through whispers or shouts, as the moment dictates?
If I were to begin a rough list of significant authors and possibly my favorite book by them, here are some that would be in that realm:
Frederick Buechner, Godric (but how can I pick one?)
Henri Nouwen, Wounded Healer
Scott Cairns, The End of Suffering
Madeleine L’Engle, Many Waters
Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow and all that followed
Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies (of course)
Lauren Winner, Girl Meets God
Richard Rohr, Quest for the Grail
Sara Miles, Take This Bread
Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
Walter Wangerin, As For Me and My House
Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor
Calvin Miller, Philippian Fragment
John White, Daring to Draw Near
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace
Phyllis Tickle, TheGreat Emergence
The words of these authors have carried me over the years or they’ve been recent find, thereby being more quickly remembered. Some of their works have transcended time to haunt me with holiness at each new step. Others have been the cup of water for a dry moment and might feel disconnected if I attempted to bring them into my life today.
I have devoured almost everything written (or at least published) by Garrison Keillor. It’s cliché, but I laugh until I cry. His fanciful stories are so close to real, yet so impossible I can’t wait to see what’s next. His characters seem to be stuck, shallow, arrogant, confused and without substantive goals or direction — just like real people — and yet they are heroic, alive and beautiful.
Frank Schaeffer’s thinly fictional trilogy of the life of a European missionary kid is hilarious. His more recent Crazy for God and the following books are fascinating. He opened doors on evangelical Christianity that few have dared to crack or even knew existed. He angered many and probably confused more. But I am thankful for his beginning many conversations that were long overdue.
I love books about history, specifically American history, including the cruel, bloody greed of westward expansion and the tragic family feud we call the Civil War. I want to understand who we were and what we were thinking and doing during my childhood as lived out in the crucible of the Civil Rights Movement.
Now I come to the time of true confession. I am going on my annual solo camping trip next week and I have my books selected. I think I have eight to choose from and will probably read three or four. Of the eight, four (or maybe five) are baseball books. I love baseball books. I really love books about baseball history. I’ve read books about other sports, but they lack something, kind of like the functionality of a football stadium or basketball arena compared to the mystical beauty of a ballpark. For me, a beautiful ballpark is like a cathedral. Somehow the structure enhances the experience, making the moment more.
In baseball I see the American story of the shift from an agricultural landscape to a machine-driven economy — the movement of boys from the farm to the city. Civil rights are central to the story and the Negro Leagues story central to understanding the whole. And when it comes to pure simple religion or subtle spirituality, baseball is overflowing with imagery and examples. I will read historical overviews of certain eras, teams or players. I read fiction with baseball as the setting. I read biographies and players’ memoirs. It may sound utterly ridiculous to many, but baseball books feed my soul.
I started keeping a list of books I read over twenty years ago. A quick glance at my list reveals that about a quarter of the books I read are somehow about or connected to baseball. While the following books are not my favorite baseball books (again, I’m not sure I can articulate which are my favorites), they all breathe life into the reader — at least they did for me:
Summer of ‘49 and October ‘64 by David Halberstam are can’t-miss.
Wait ‘til Next Year by Doris Kearns Goodwin brings together family, baseball and growing up in America post World War II.
A Great and Glorious Game by A. Bartlett Giamatti completes the cycle by graciously revealing how baseball is more than a game — much more.