Most titles slated for publication in 2021 were written before the Covid-19 pandemic, the divisive presidential election, and the traumas that brought more urgency than ever to racial and social justice issues in 2020. Yet their authors address faith, family, and society in ways that are relevant in any year. They can even point toward joy.

It’s not a superficial “ephemeral, cliché-ridden kind of joy,” says David Bratt, executive editor for Eerdmans, for which he acquired Angela Gorrell’s The Gravity of Joy: A Story of Being Lost and Found (Mar.). Gorrell was studying Christian ideas of joy for the Yale Center for Faith and Culture when confronted by the sudden deaths of three close family members from suicide, addiction, and a previously undetected medical condition. “She found that authentic, lasting joy has ‘a mysterious capacity to be felt alongside of sorrow and even—sometimes most especially—in the midst of suffering,’ ” Bratt notes. “This hard-won form of joy will be the only joy that can really get us to look to the future with hope, even as we mourn those whom and that which we have lost in 2020.”

Author and podcaster Leeana Tankersley packs joy and sorrow in Hope Anyway: Welcoming Possibility in Ourselves, God, and Each Other (Revell, Aug.). She had proposed a book on the devastating shock of her 2019 divorce, but amid all the pain and chaos of 2020, she told Andrea Doering, senior acquisitions editor for Revell, that she wanted to redirect the book’s focus to “the defiant hope that is the truth of love and its essential place in our lives,” Doering recalls. “I told her, ‘Go for it!’ The pivots in our life are the personal ones, ones everyone has, when they need to know to grab hope. It is an eternal need.”

Finding one’s spiritual legs

Prolific author and biblical scholar N.T. Wright joins coauthor Simon Gathercole to explore a critical question in the minds of many Christians in What Did the Cross Accomplish? (WJK, Feb.). Robert Ratcliff, WJK editor-in-chief, says that in it, Wright examines the meaning of atonement. “In the cross, God defeats the powers of hurt and harm that have long held sway over a broken humanity, bringing about our reconciliation to God and to one another,” Ratcliff adds. “Wright thinks this message has rarely been more timely than in the fractured moment in which we find ourselves.”

The deep political fissures in society, possibly exacerbated by relentless news media coverage, are reshaping our sensibilities, says author Jeffrey Bilbro in Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News (IVP, May). Bilbro, editor of the Front Porch Republic website and a professor at an evangelical college, calls for reorienting one’s perspective away from the breaking news scroll on TV and rooting oneself in the religious cycles found in Scripture and in seasons of nature.

New York Post opinion editor Sohrab Ahmari prompts readers to confront feelings of isolation and alienation in The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos (Convergent, May). He draws from the writings of great spiritual thinkers to address 12 questions—including those as fundamental as, “Is God reasonable?” and, “What is freedom for?”—according to the publisher.

Confronting ongoing challenges

The past year has resulted in deeper conversations about the church, race, and society, and in 2021 authors are offering bold stances on each topic. Historian Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania and frequent public commentator on religion and politics, takes aim at Christians “cloaked in a vision of Christian patriarchy and nationhood” with White Evangelical Racism (Univ. of North Carolina, Mar.). Senior editor Elaine Maisner says the book is about “American politics and how it’s linked—and has been linked every step of the way in American history—to fake religious morality and real racism” that will ultimately kill the evangelical movement.

Christians Against Christianity: How Right-Wing Evangelicals Are Destroying Our Nation and Our Faith (Beacon, July), by biblical scholar Obery Hendricks, offers a mixture of “deep love and fiery critique” of the faith that has lost its roots in love and justice, says associate editorial director Amy Caldwell. In the book, she notes, Hendricks takes “a careful look at how the actions and interpretations of the right-wing evangelical world betray the spirit of the Gospels.”

Historian Beth Allison Barr, associate dean of the Graduate School at Baylor University, blasts the movement to confine secondary status to women in church and family life in The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Brazos, Apr.). Acquisitions editor Katelyn Beaty hopes the book will “help women and men alike approach the topic of gender in the church with more humility and grace.”

Bestselling author John Cornwell looks at Pope Francis’s efforts to “revolutionize Catholic Christianity” in Church, Interrupted (Chronicle Prism, Mar.). According to Chronicle’s managing director Mark Tauber, the book highlights Francis’s labors torevive the profound hope that its billions of adherents desperately need, and possibly save the Church itself.”

Longing for encouragement

No matter how contentious the times may be, the hunger for simple spiritual encouragement is always present. Below are some upcoming titles that offer supportive insights, with descriptions provided by the publishers: There is no shortage of memoirs or biographies of influential religious voices on the 2021 horizon. We can learn from the past, says Philip Yancey, the author of more than 25 books with a combined 16 million copies sold, according to Penguin. His new memoir, Where the Light Fell (Convergent, Oct.), shares his turbulent upbringing in the fundamentalist South.

99 Names of God (Orbis, Apr.), by Benedictine writer Brother David Steindl-Rast, is a meditation on the multitude of names for the divine in the Islamic tradition, designed to speak to people of any religious belief who find a universal connection in God.

Don’t Drop the Mic: The Power of Your Words Can Change the World (Faithwords, Apr.), by megachurch pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes, makes a case for how bold and effective communication can be part of one’s faith practice.

Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About It, by Brian D. McLaren (St. Martin’s, Jan.), proposes “a model of faith development in which questions and doubt are not the enemy of faith, but rather a portal to a more mature and fruitful kind of faith.”

The Lost Pillars of Enoch: When Science and Religion Were One (Inner Traditions, Jan.), by British scholar Tobias Churton, examines the origination of sacred knowledge “at the dawn of human civilization,” when “there existed a unified scientific and spiritual understanding of the universe.”

Saturdays with Billy: My Friendship with Billy Graham by Don Wilton (Zondervan Gift, Mar.). Amid lavish illustrations, Wilton, who was Graham’s longtime pastor, shares stories from 15 years of praying and talking with the late evangelist.

Still Life: The Myths and Magic of Mindful Living (Harper Wave, Aug.), by meditation teacher and Runner’s World yoga expert Rebecca Pacheco, aims to demystify mindfulness techniques and encourage readers to grapple with the mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the contemplative practice.

Looking to the past

In Thomas Merton: An Introduction to His Life, Teachings, and Practices (St. Martin’s Essentials, May), author and scholar Jon Sweeney shows how the Trappist monk’s teachings and books, such as The Seven Story Mountain, still resonate. Merton addressed “the very issues we are grappling with in our world today—racial, economic, and social injustice; misuse of power; fear of other cultures and religions,” says Joel Fotinos, v-p and editorial director for St. Martins Essentials.

Religious freedom, now a battle cry in contemporary politics, came to the forefront more than a century ago, writes Spencer McBride in Joseph Smith for President: The Prophet, the Assassins, and the Fight for American Religious Freedom (Oxford Univ., May). McBride, associate managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, highlights the life of the controversial founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who was assassinated when he ran for president in 1844. Key to Smith’s campaign was his call for religious freedom through constitutional reform, a significant moment in the evolution of the U.S. political system, according to the publisher.

The Making of C.S. Lewis: From Atheist to Apologist (1918–1945) (Crossway, June) by Harry Lee Poe, professor of faith and culture at Union University, traces Lewis’s transformation from young atheist at Oxford to avowed Christian apologist. This is the second volume in a biographical trilogy by Poe covering the author’s life.

Before his death in 2019, Ram Dass, author of the 1971 spiritual bestseller Be Here Now and a pioneer in contemporary spirituality, collaborated with writer and photographer Rameshwar Das on an autobiography, Being Ram Dass (Sounds True, Jan.). According to the publisher, it chronicles Dass’s cultural and spiritual transformations.

Plough adds a new title to its Spiritual Guides series with Thunder in the Soul: To Be Known by God (Mar.) featuring the wisdom of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, compiled by Illinois Wesleyan University religion professor Robert Erlewine. Heschel, famous for his civil rights and antiwar activism, urged the rediscovery of “wonder and awe, our connection to the cosmos and our place in it,” says Plough editor Sam Hine. “Heschel’s wisdom is really the ancient wisdom of the Hebrew prophets, who describe a God who is not remote but passionately concerned about justice and human affairs.”

Wisdom is bringing out The Extraordinary Life of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama: An Illuminated Journey (June), by the Dalai Lama, with Rima Fujita.

United States of Grace: A Memoir of Homelessness, Addiction, Incarceration, and Hope (Broadleaf, May) by Lenny Duncan, whose first book was Dear Church, is a “love story to America” from a man on the margins, says Broadleaf acquisitions editor Lisa Kloskin. Duncan’s story of his life as a once incarcerated queer Black man “makes the bold claim that God is present with us in the most difficult of circumstances, bringing life out of death,” Kloskin notes.

Click here for 2021 titles on creativity and spirituality.