Religion was a force to be reckoned with in 2015, influencing global politics in addition to popular culture. It was an important talking point in the early months of campaigning for the 2016 presidential election, as well as a key factor in reactions to the Supreme Court's decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
Moments like Pope Francis' visit to the United States in September represented the high points of faith over the last year, while ongoing violence in the Middle East and the West by Islamic extremists continued to display religious beliefs in their ugliest form.
For nearly every major religious event of the last 12 months, there is a book to complement it. These works informed discussions of religion and affected how people across the country engaged with faith.
Here are 10 books that inspired and invigorated religious dialogue in 2015:
"Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence," by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Religious violence has surged in recent years, as groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, as well as individuals like the San Bernardino shooters, terrorized communities in the name of their faith. Rabbi Sacks, a New York University professor and former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, wrote "Not in God's Name" in response to these atrocities, exploring how compassion-focused religions are misinterpreted by killers. He urged faith communities to work together to end violent acts.
As he told Deseret News editor and publisher Paul Edwards in October, "Religious leaders have a duty to construct the politics of hope. I see faith as the great antidote to fear."
"The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope," by Austen Ivereigh
Pope Francis has led the Catholic Church for less than three years, and yet dozens of books have already been published on his popularity and potential legacy.
"The Great Reformer" explores the pope's path to the Vatican. Ivereigh, a longtime journalist and practicing Catholic, takes readers all the way back to Pope Francis' childhood in Argentina, investigating the forces that produced one of the most beloved religious figures in recent history.
As a spirituality researcher and mother of three, Lisa Miller was well-positioned to create a book that is both academic and personal. "The Spiritual Child" asserts the value of a relationship with a higher power and curiosity about life's biggest questions, supplementing arguments with scientific and anecdotal evidence.
Miller wants parents to be as intentional about their kids' spiritual formation as they are about physical and mental health, even as society, as a whole, becomes less religious.
"We have a real problem right now because we don't have spiritual values in the public square, and it's to the detriment of our kids. We deprive kids of their strongest footing in life," she said in a May interview with Deseret News National.
"One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History," by Peter Manseau
In "One Nation, Under Gods," Manseau tries to clear up confusion about America's religious history, arguing that this country has always been strikingly diverse. He argues that calling the U.S. a "Christian nation" fails to appreciate the work of early settlers of other faiths, surprising readers and sparking lively debates in the process.
Manseau's exploration of early Muslim settlers is particularly relevant, given recent calls from polarizing figures like GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump to keep Muslim immigrants out of America. "Islam is part of our common history," Manseau wrote in a column for The New York Times in February. "For generations, its adherents have straddled a nation that jolts from promises of religious freedom to events that give the lie to those promises."
Contemporary conversations about religious practice are peppered with statistics, as commentators discuss shifts in the number of Americans who attend church weekly, pray daily or reject faith all together. In "Inventing American Religion," Wuthnow questions the veracity of all this data, challenging researchers to be more open about their surveys' shortcomings, as Deseret News National reported in August.
Although Wuthnow's high expectations for religion research are likely unattainable, his work led researchers from organizations like Pew Research Center to acknowledge the limitations of survey research. Coverage of Wuthnow's book reaffirmed the importance of supplementing research with people's experiences to discover what shapes American faith.
"Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel," by Russell Moore
The evangelical Christian community is America's largest religious group, comprising more than 25 percent of the population, according to Pew Research Center. And yet its influence on culture has weakened, leading some members to question whether the religion will adjust its conservative stance on issues like homosexuality.
Arriving in the wake of events like the Supreme Court's decision to legalize same-sex marriage, which most evangelicals oppose, "Onward" is a rallying cry for Christians who worry their moral influence is no longer felt. Moore, who is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, reminds evangelicals that refusing to engage with their fellow Americans is the wrong way to proceed.
"Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children," by Christel Manning
Nearly a quarter of Americans (23 percent) are religious "nones," according to Pew Research Center. They might believe in God or pray regularly, but they don't affiliate with any particular religion, and they feel comfortable with an individualized approach to faith, at least until they become parents.
In "Losing Our Religion," Christel Manning describes what happens when "nones" turn into moms and dads. Parenthood often brings people back to church because they worry about depriving their kids of the same social and psychological benefits their childhood faith community brought to them, argues Manning, a professor of religious studies at Sacred Heart University. Her book is a valuable resource for parents, religion researchers and faith leaders.
The environment and the risks of climate change were key talking points in 2015. Just this month, hundreds of world leaders gathered in Paris to debate how best to combat environmental degradation.
Although the relationship between religion and environmental issues often is not intuitive, a small but growing group of believers has helped drive "creation care" conversations. Pope Francis has aided faith-based environmental initiatives by speaking throughout the year on the importance of addressing climate change. In June, he published an encyclical on the environment, which served as a call-to-action for Catholics around the world.
"Inherit the Holy Mountain" traces the historic roots of faith-based environmental activism, highlighting the role believers played in early land conservation efforts and the creation of America's national parks system. As author Mark Stoll told Deseret News National in June, faith helps people see climate change as a moral concern.
"Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community," by Leah Gunning Francis
Michael Brown's August 2014 death by police gunfire sparked protests across the country, and its impact continues to be felt in discussions of the relationship between law enforcement and the African-American community. "Ferguson and Faith" explores how these protests are addressed within religious groups, which often have difficulty navigating racial tensions.
According to a recent survey from Public Religion Research Institute, more than 70 percent of white evangelical Protestants, white mainline Protestants and white Catholics believe events like Ferguson are isolated incidents rather than part of a broader pattern of police violence, compared to 13 percent of black Protestants.
"The Road to Character," by David BrooksComment on this story
In the pursuit of fame and fortune, many people fail to get in touch with their soul, according to Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times. He urges his readers to care about character formation and criticizes modern culture's failure "to attend to the soft, still voices that come from the depths."
"The Road to Character" uses spiritual wisdom, virtue research and the lives of moral heroes to illustrate how live is meant to be lived. It's an instruction manual for constructing a more meaningful existence.
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