Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison comes under the category of “Books to Be Read on an Annual Basis”—like Augustine’s Confessions, King Lear, or anything by Flannery O’Connor. In general, we read too many books and return to too few.
In August 1994, I was an introspective, brainy 16-year-old, fresh from a summer in Israel with a busload of other 16-year-olds. On my last morning in Jerusalem, I had watched the sun rise: cool breezes over ancient golden stones. I heard church bells ring and the Muslim call to prayer, whispering my own Hebrew dreams into fuzzy pink air. As a Jewish teen who went (reluctantly) to Israel for the Roman ruins but stayed for the prayers, when we chanted under desert stars I was suspended somewhere in between Reform Jewish teenagerhood and a future as a religious studies professor—plus my always evolving, complex relationship with Jewish adulthood.
This was when I first encountered Rodger Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India.
One of the reasons I was drawn to Jimmy Carter, first as an emerging national politician in the mid-1970s and then as a biographical subject decades later, was the similarity of our backgrounds. Both of us were reared in evangelical households, he in rural southwest Georgia and I in Nebraska, Minnesota, Michigan, and Iowa. We are both the oldest in our families: Carter had three younger siblings, and I have four younger brothers. We had “born-again” experiences at an early age, Carter at age 11 and me initially at, well, three years old—but that is another story.
Not long after graduating from college, I found myself editing Christian History magazine, a richly illustrated quarterly where most of the contributing writers were academics but most of the readers were not. Honestly, I had more in common with our readers than with our authors. On my way to a B.A. in English literature, I had taken one class in Christian thought, one in Western civ, and zero in church history. I also had basically no exposure to Christian traditions other than evangelical Protestantism.