Here’s to hoping there’s a beach in your future, or some other cosy spot to kick up your feet and soak in a good book. Below, you’ll find staff picks for this summer, taken from the recently released Humor Issue.

On Our Bookshelf

Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved) by Kate Bowler

After having her first child and landing her dream teaching gig, Kate Bowler found out, at the age of 35, that she had stage IV colon cancer. Since then, she has had to live life in 3 month increments between treatments and scans, in the presence of words like “noncurative” and “palliative,” “keeping vigil,” she says, “in the place of almost death.” This is a strange place for Bowler to occupy, after spending years studying churches that espouse the “prosperity gospel.” What follows in this book is a sincere, down-to-earth (and profoundly funny) grappling with the real promises of the Christian faith, promises that live even in the places we spend our entire lives explaining/praying away.

Your God Is Too Glorious by Chad Bird

This one is for the failed pastor in your life. Or the failed Christian. Or the failed Christian pastor. Or for you. Bird’s self-effacing approach to the Gospel is as alarming as it is necessary, boldly reminding us that we have been getting it wrong all along, before reassuring us that this is basically all our Glorious God ever expected of human beings. Five stars.

I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This by Nadja Spiegelman

At one point, Nadja’s father Art Spiegelman, author of the groundbreaking graphic novel Maus, comments, “Having a writer in the family is like having a murderer in the family.” Fortunately, Nadja more than rises to the occasion, laying the family story bare through memory, both true and fabricated, in this compelling and disturbing and oddly funny memoir.

The Necessary Distinction: A Continuing Conversation on Law and Gospel

A welcomed look into the relevance, significance, endurance, and application of the Distinction between Law and Gospel. Readers of Mockingbird will be familiar with many of the authors in this collection, as the insights of Drs. Mark Mattes and Steven Paulson—both contributors here—have shaped much of our thinking along these lines. The Necessary Distinction is a wonderful resource for anyone looking to see the varied ways this distinction can be appropriated across differing church bodies, or for anyone who wants to see how it’s used across a wide array of topics—from liturgy and pastoral care to theology, exegesis, and ethics.

iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood by Jean Twenge

Following her groundbreaking work on millennials, psychology professor Twenge takes an in-depth look at the “iGen”—those born after 1995. Most overtly, she is interested in the often-damaging effects of growing up in the age of smartphones. She cites prolonged adolescence, increased anxiety and mental health issues, and poorer in-person social skills, to name a few. Yet as many alarms as the book sounds, it is also bathed in compassion. A must-read for parents of all ages, or anyone working with younger people.

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs

Anglicanism’s reigning polymath (and 2018 NYC Conference speaker!) delivers a delightful and mercifully short primer on the art of thinking—an all too necessary project in the age of hot takes and alternative facts. What sounds like an inescapably cerebral read is anything but, as Jacobs peppers the manuscript with colorful illustrations and humility aplenty, cutting through many of the mental shortcuts that allow us to turn neighbors into others, yet without overcomplicating things. Favorite new fallacy has to be the phenomenon called: “in-other-wordsing.”

God & Soul Care: The Therapeutic Resources of the Christian Faith by Eric L. Johnson

The most authoritative new work on Christian psychotherapy since Frank Lake’s Clinical Theology, Johnson has captured not just the therapeutic significance in Christian theology, but also the importance of psychology and social science in enlightening Christian diagnoses of the human condition. Written with Christian mental health professionals in mind, including pastors and ministers, Johnson explains that one of the Christian message’s central aims is “soul healing,” or psycho-therapy. What follows is a crash course in pastoral theology from Augustine to Luther to Jonathan Edwards, alongside mainstream social psychology, developing in the end a comprehensive framework for Christian psychotherapy.

Monsters: Addiction, Hope, Ex-Girlfriends, and Other Dangerous Things by Daniel van Voorhis

This unabashedly honest and open memoir lays out the life of its author in remarkably honest detail. van Voorhis invites the reader to visit the most painful and humbling moments of his past filled with girls, alcohol, and a complex relationship with religion. Not a how-to guide for getting your life back on track—there’s no “this is how I did it, and it’ll work for you too!”—the book itself is the medium van Voorhis uses to come to terms with his life. Throughout, the book recognizes the brokenness of human nature and the realization of the forgiveness of sins.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson

This collection of stories, which was finished just before Johnson’s death in 2017, comprises the author’s final published words, and also some of his funniest. With one eye on death, and one eye on whatever comes after that, Johnson writes powerfully about old age in a way that crackles with life and hope. One story, “The Starlight on Idaho” details the life of an addict who goes ass-backwards into a spiritual conversion, ultimately signing off as “Your brother in Christ.” Another story, which captures the absurdity of death while simultaneously putting in perspective the fleeting nature of life, is called, “Triumph Over the Grave.”

Feel Free by Zadie Smith

A collection of essays from one of the most perceptive yet humble voices out there. With a genuine heart, a balanced head, and a gentle hand, Smith offers up incisive commentary on everything from pop culture to government policy to traditional philosophy. Whether she’s defending the importance of public libraries, or sympathizing with John Gray’s appraisal of science and religion, or comparing Justin Bieber to Martin Buber (“I know, I know,” she writes), Zadie Smith can be counted on to refresh and shed light on our inner lives.

PZ’s Pick: Johnson Over Jordan by J.B. Priestley

Priestley was a famous English novelist and playwright, and although his most famous work is entitled An Inspector Calls, my present favorite is this very religious three-act play, Johnson Over Jordan. It was first performed in 1939, and although there is a slight “Bardo” feel to sections of it, the conclusion is extremely optimistic, and transcends completely the “karma” concept. To me, the play depicts some of the closing visions of the Revelation of St. John.

Johnson is a nice, middle-class Englishman who dies in his sleep around age 55. He awakes to find himself dead, and remorseful, and “unfinished.” The first act of the play is a little Our Town-ish, with an interplay between Johnson’s alive family—arranging and attending their father’s funeral—and Johnson who is dead (to them) on the other side of the Jordan. The second act takes Johnson to a place of dread and vulgarity, where he must, as we say now, “confront his demons.” But he does, and they’re not so great.

Act Three concludes at the “Inn at the End of the World,” where this man has direct encounters with the Love that overshadowed him, and actually followed him, all the days of his life. Here, there is a remarkable coup de théâtre involving the lighting, that must be one of the most moving illuminations of 20th century theater.

(For the record, Benjamin Britten became interested in the play when it was performed in 1939, and composed incidental music for it. The music is fantastic! I mean, breathtaking. You’ll want to stream the ending suite for the rest of your earthly life.) 

Books that Hit the Funny Bone (and the Heart)

Recovery by Russell Brand

Only sort of counts since the comedian’s project here could not be more serious, but as books about addiction (and other spiritual maladies) go, this one is as funny as it is wise — which is very. Recommended for sufferers and seekers of all stripes, not just those with “overt” dependencies. Almost impossible to read without adopting the author’s inimitable cadence and accent.

Unmapped: The (Mostly) True Story of How Two Women Lost at Sea Found Their Way Home by Charlotte Getz and Stephanie Phillips

This rip-roaring patchwork of mostly true stories finds two of Mockingbird’s most profound contributors lost at sea. In the wake of two major life upheavals, Charlotte and Stephanie reflect on family, identity, and spirituality amid chaotic, and often heart-wrenching, circumstances. At once hilarious, poignant, and down-to-earth, this book, which is available April 2018, is a must-read for anyone who has ever felt spiritually adrift.

Only a Joke Can Save Us by Todd McGowan

What makes something funny? And why is it that reflecting on humor usually diminishes the experience of humor? These are just a couple of the questions that McGowan takes up, theorizing that the experience of the comic is rooted in an unexpected interplay between lack and excess. He goes so far as call the incarnation of God in human form and his subsequent death on the cross the most comic event in history. That is, Christ’s ridiculousness comes from him being transcendence made lacking in the flesh. McGowan thinks Christians would do well to “spend much more time laughing at Christ if they want to avoid blasphemy.”

Alan Partrdige: Nomad by Alan Partridge

The second literary venture from Norwich’s least-beloved, TV-turned-radio (fictional) personality, and it exceeds the high bar of ridiculousness set by the first. In fact, if short-fused, mammothly deluded English provincialism tickles your funny bone, the audio version will have you driving off the road. Coogan is a genius.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson

Still the gold standard for the funny memoir, this 2012 book chronicles Lawson’s small-town Texas upbringing as the anxiety-plagued daughter of a taxidermist in all of its weird and honest glory. She somehow manages to hit humorous and oddly familiar notes for what it feels like to never really fit in anywhere.

The Dyer’s Hand by W.H. Auden

While the collection is fantastic in its own right, it belongs on this list for three essays in particular, “Balaam and His Ass,” “The Globe,” and “Notes on the Comic,” which distill the esteemed poet’s never-been-bettered observations about comedy and its changing mechanics over time, genre and religious context. To wit: “The man who takes seriously the command of Christ to take up his cross and follow Him must, if he is serious, see himself as a comic figure, for he is not the Christ only an ordinary man, yet he believes that the command, ‘Be ye perfect,’ is seriously addressed to himself… To take himself seriously would mean that he thought of himself, not as an ordinary man, but as Christ.”

Sick in the Head by Judd Apatow

Few artists have managed to convey life’s hilarious absurdity as consistently and sympathetically as Judd Apatow. So, perhaps it’s no surprise that such searing comedy arises from a genuinely spiritual place. In the introduction Apatow admits, “My parents were not particularly spiritual people…so they couldn’t help much in the existential angst department… This left a bit of a void in my life, and I looked to comedy—and the insights of comedians—to fill it.” This collection of interviews (with the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman, Lena Dunham, and many others) explores the amusing complexities of human fragility, pop culture, and everyday life.

The Man Who Met God in a Bar by Robert Farrar Capon

Robert’s wife, Valerie, has told us countless times that this was the book Robert had the most fun writing. And it certainly seems that way. Joy and good humor issue from every line in this outrageous re-imagining of the gospel story, which takes place in 1990s Cleveland. Capon weaves together a colorful cast of strangely familiar characters including Marvin, a washed-up traveling salesman; Barbara, a beautiful astrology-practicing yogi; and Jerry, the charismatic leader of a motley spiritual revival, who promises—over a round of Scotch—to redeem the world.

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

A humorous and yet surprisingly touching reflection that ventures well beyond his wild and crazy public persona, Martin’s 2007 memoir focuses on his bout of obscurity during the ’70s and beyond. He doesn’t steer away from the personal, recounting his struggle with anxiety attacks, the chronic loneliness of life on the road (and later, with fame), as well as his tumultuous relationship with his father. Gold.

Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg

The conceit is exactly what you think: the cofounder of The Toast boils down the highlights of the Western literary canon—from Gilgamesh to King Lear to Cormac McCarthy (with Sweet Valley High thrown in for good measure)—into text message threads. There’s hardly a non-hilarious line in the whole thing.

PZ’s Pick for Sublime American Humorist: Damon Runyon

Damon Runyon (l880-1946) was by day a sports writer and by night a humorist who wrote short stories. He was most famous for his stories concerning low-lifes in Times Square and at the race track, from among which several famous movies were made, most popularly Guys and Dolls (1955) and Pocketful of Miracles (1961). But don’t forget The Lemon-Drop Kid (1951) with Bob Hope, which is, in point of fact, a Christmas movie.

I love Damon Runyon. His stories are extremely funny, with careful attention to vernacular grammar and vocabulary. They are also extremely compassionate! In fact, there are times when you seriously can’t decide whether to laugh or cry.

Runyon’s relation to God and the church was not ambivalent. He believed in God and was often known to slip into the back of churches, though, like so many artists of this type, he was not a “regular” and would have taken measures not to be type-cast or labeled. But it’s the compassion of Runyon’s stories, and the outlandish “scrapes” his characters get into, that’s the thing.

All of Damon Runyon’s stories are easily available to read. Maybe to get rolling, watch the Joseph L. Mankiewicz movie of Guys and Dolls. It’s a little “stagey,” but hang on: near the end comes one of Hollywood’s high-water-mark religious moments, when Stubby Kaye performs the number, “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” It’s both funny and serious, self-mocking and God-fearing, pure Damon Runyon, just in musical form.