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The Book Review: Yaa Gyasi, Alan Lightman

A cancer diagnosis is a shocking blow to anyone. But you can imagine that someone like Timothy Keller, a Presbyterian minister who has spoken to people about mortality for years, would be well prepared to deal with this kind of news. Keller has sat by people’s beds as they died and he wrote a book entitled In case of death. Perhaps most importantly, he believes in God and life after death. And yet, when Keller was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, he was shocked. No matter what you believe, you must face an end to this life and all the unknowns of death.

The differences between someone like Keller and someone who doesn’t share his faith can be profound. But upon closer inspection, simplistic understandings of each tend to fall apart. Even those who would not consider themselves religious are likely inclined towards magical thinking. When we encounter something mysterious, physicist Alan Lightman argued, we all reach for explanations — but some prominent scientific theories are unverifiable. Each of us professes beliefs that cannot be proven and lets them guide our worldview.

Empirical research—often seen as the exclusive domain of the rational—can also be fueled by ardent belief. Take the character Gifty in Yaa Gyasi’s story When My Mother Came to Stay: Though she has distanced herself from Pentecostalism, the lingering presence of a sacred mystery propels her research career forward. And in real life, people sometimes use scientific methods to study otherworldly phenomena – like the community, including some respected doctors who study the neuroscience of near-death experiences to prove that life after death exists.

Most of us recognize the complexity of our own beliefs and know that they don’t fit neatly into boxes. But it can be tempting to speculate about what others believe to be true. In From a Window, poet Christian Wiman suggests that skeptics who try to debate faith away miss the point: you can embrace rationality and still celebrate what feels sacred. In fact, faith and reason are not separate at all. And when we notice the intersection between the divine and the secular—or toss those labels aside altogether—we better appreciate how nuanced, unpredictable, and messy human beliefs can be.

Every Friday in the book review we thread together Atlantic Stories about books that have similar ideas. Do you know other book lovers who might enjoy this guide? Forward this email to them.

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what we read

White wings against a gray cloudy background

Trent Parke/Magnum

Growing my faith in the face of death

“One of the first things I learned was that religious belief does not automatically bring comfort in times of crisis. A belief in God and life after death does not spontaneously become comforting and existentially strengthening.”


A white bed in front of a large silhouette of a face filled in brown with teal circles against a teal background

Oliver Munday / The Atlantic

When my mother came to stay

“Even though I had done this a million times, I was still amazed to see a brain… I had to try to understand it and extrapolate it to those of us who made up the species homo sapiens, the most complex animal, the only animal that thought it had transcended its kingdom, as one of my high school biology teachers used to say. This belief, this transcendence, was recorded in this organ itself. Infinite, unfathomable, soulful, maybe even magical. I had traded my childhood Pentecostalism for this new religion, this new quest, knowing I would never know it fully.”

📚 Transcendent Kingdomby Yaa Gyasi

A person lying in a hospital bed with a glowing sphere in front of them

Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Getty

The Science of Near-Death Experiences

“All of this makes NDEs perhaps the only spiritual experience that we can really study properly and scientifically. It makes them a vehicle for exploring the ancient human belief that we are more than just flesh. And it makes them a lens through which to look at the workings of consciousness—one of the great mysteries of human existence, even for the most determined materialist.”

📚 The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigationedited by Bruce Greyson, Debbie James and Janice Holden

A bright orange x-ray of two hands surrounding a bright sphere

Balarama Heller

Where science and wonder meet

“The inconvenient truth of these two explanations of the fine-tuning problem—intelligent design on the one hand and the existence of a multiverse on the other—is that neither can be proved. Both must be viewed as a matter of faith by their respective supporters.”

📚 Miracles and the order of natureby Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park

A window to a tree against a black background with gold swirling highlights emerging from it

Mike Lowe

Out of a window

“And though a man’s mind / might endow even a tree with some abundance / of life that a man seems to witness / that life is not the life of men. / And that’s where joy came in.”

📚 Any Riven thingby Christian Wiman
📚 My Bright Abyss: A Modern Believer’s Meditationby Christian Wiman

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Faith Hill. The book she reads next is Nothing to be afraid ofby Julian Barnes.

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Jessica MacLeish

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