"A provocative and delightful tour through the varieties of
religious experience. It will be of use to anyone who is interested in exploring the ways
in which the human imagination contends with the spirit-charged riches of ordinary
life." Kathleen Norris, author of The Cloister Walk and Dakota
"A book of revelation, far better than many sermons or sentimental literalism, it makes
the Word flesh; that is, it opens us to the terrible mysteries stitched through our
lives that constitute our essential religious experience." Eugene Kennedy, author of
Tomorrows Catholics, Yesterdays Church and Authority
God: Stories offers insight and pleasure not only to the faithful but also
to spiritual seekers and to those who simply love fine stories. Gathered
by an esteemed editor of the Atlantic Monthly, these twenty-five dazzling
short stories by eminent writers of widely varying persuasion, including
Tobias Wolff, Louise Erdrich, Philip Roth, James Joyce, Flannery OConnor,
and John Updike, deal with the question of faithboth its presence
and its absence.
The stories range from the comic to the passionate, from the skeptical to
the mystical. Bernard Malamud contemplates God as mischief-maker, while
John Herseys minister identifies himself with the God of righteous
anger in order to understand his own shortcomings. Some stories make
their way into the perplexities of belief, some explore the hazy perimeter
of unconditional love and forgiveness, and others examine the paradoxes
of discipleship. Stories by Bobby Ann Mason and Eudora Welty explore
the function of church membership as organizing value in a chaotic world.
Each of these stories engages issues of deep and universal appeal. God:
Stories brings the exploration of spirit to life and puts lofty questions
within our reach.
We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for
reading groups and provide a deeper understanding of God: Stories for
1. In what ways do the stories by Brendan Gill and William Hoffman reveal
the apparent risks and benefits of prayer? Why do we pray and how do
we decide whether our prayers have been answered?
2. Consider the aberrant behavior of ministers in the stories by Louise
Erdrich and John Hersey, the more ambiguous behavior of ministers and
priests in stories by Mary Ward Brown, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Alice Munro.
Do periodic disappointments with our own priests, ministers, or rabbis
reflect a fundamental shortcoming of religious institutions, human frailties,
or both? What do these stories tell us about what we can or should expect
from those who direct our lives in church or synagogue?
3. Flannery OConnor, John Gardner, James Joyce, and others write
about characters whose religious commitments, while formed by church
experience, are dramatized outside the church itself. What do we discover
in these stories about the tenacity, the misappropriation, or the elasticity
of spiritual understanding? In what ways are our daily lives fed by
spiritual images? What are some of these images and how do they sustain
4. What religious experiences are revealed in the stories by
Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Eudora Welty, and Elizabeth Spencer? Which
seem most comparable to your own experience and which seem most foreign?
5. In Peggy Paynes story a minister speaks directly to God. Bernard
Malamuds main character encounters a messenger from the afterlife.
What do you make of these expressions of the ineffable? How realistic
is each? In what ways are they different?
6. Several stories portray priests or ministers in the grip of spiritual
misgivings, doubts about their calling, or concerns about their responsibilities.
How are these problems solved in the stories by Richard
Bausch, William Trevor, J. F. Powers, and Tobias Wolff? Where, to use
Flannery OConnors phrase, is the moment of grace
in each of these stories? Do the characters problems correspond
to your own tussles with faith? If so, in what ways?
7. John Updike, Andre Dubus, and Joe Ashby Porter all write about characters
struggling to define their own degree and form of sacred attachment,
some with more apparent success than others. What is it that Updikes
Brad Schaeffer never quite understands about his wifes vision
of spirituality? Where do you think Updikes sympathies lie? How
credible is Dubuss character, Luke Ripley, in his brief for forgiveness,
after protecting his daughter from criminal prosecution? How does Joe
Ashby Porters Patrick Clusel integrate Anne Van Franks story
into his own life? How does this change his life?
8. James Baldwin and Eileen Pollack write about the intersection of religious
myth with the puzzling realities of everyday decision-making. In what
ways might you feel ambivalent about the intransigent Rabbi Heckler
or the reformist transformations of Rabbi Bloomgarten in Eileen Pollacks
story? Which path does Pollack seem to favor and why? Why does it seem
ironic that Florence, in James Baldwins story, uses her own mothers
Biblicism as a way of escaping a life of hopelessness? How did the Bible
serve her mother in trying times? How do you reconcile these sharply
divergent uses of scripture? Which of the two stories seems more relevant
to your own spiritual experience and why?
9. Which story most closely corresponds to your own spiritual leanings
or convictions and why?
C. Michael Curtis, senior editor of the Atlantic Monthly,
has edited four anthologies: American Stories: Fiction from the Atlantic Monthly,
volumes I and II, Contemporary New England Stories, and Contemporary
West Coast Short Stories. He lives in Massachusetts.