But first: You may recall that in my final Faith section column for The Kansas City Star last Saturday, Nov. 15, I criticized the media's coverage of religion in this presidential election. Now the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellent in Journalism has released a study that does much the same thing. Have a look. I think the study makes some good points.
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OK, all you book readers (I hope there still are a few of you left), I have a list of newly published faith-related books for you this weekend, just in time for you to snap up a few of them for your holiday giving list or for yourself because you expect no one to give you anything this year.
Let me say again: It's impossible to keep up with the enormous number of books with religious themes coming from publishers these days. What I'm giving you is just a sample -- the ones that happened to cross my desk and that I thought might interest some of you. By including them in this list I am not suggesting I agree with everything the authors say.
* How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now, by James L. Kugel. The author, who taught Hebrew at Harvard for 20 years until 2003, focuses here on the Hebrew Scriptures, and brings to bear his long and insightful career in studying biblical texts. This is a paperback edition of a volume first published last year, and should belong to every serious biblical scholar, lay or professional. Also by Kugel from the same publisher: The Great Poems of the Bible: A Reader's Companion with New Translations. Here Kugel overcomes his notion that "the whole idea of biblical 'poetry' is a bit off" and chooses a small collection of poetic texts to unpack.
* The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia -- and How It Died, by Philip Jenkins. The Penn State professor who wrote the insightful book The Next Christendom offers here a fascinating history of the ways Christianity blossomed and sometimes perished in the part of the world in which it began. Anyone who wants to understand this faith today will need to know this history. Particularly helpful is Jenkins' section on how to explain what he calls "the ruin of Christianity in a particular region. . ."
* Christianity: The Illustrated History, general editor Hans J. Hillerbrand. This is quite a lavishly illustrated coffee table book not meant to sit around unread. It is not a work of deep and fresh scholarship but, rather, a recounting of the basics of the faith. As such, it misses some nuances but is a good introduction for newcomers and a good reminder for long-time adherents.
* Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing, by Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice. The authors are founding codirectors of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School, and offer here a clear, theologically based understanding of what reconciliation means and how it differs from either conflict resolution or personal salvation. Reconciliation has become a growing movement in Christianity. In fact, I wrote about one of the leaders in this movement in October in this post. It's not a new concept. (In fact, it was the central theme in the Confession of 1967, which is part of the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church USA.) But it is getting a fresh new look through the work of such people as Katongole and Rice. This and the next book here are part of the "Resources for Reconciliation" series from IVP Books.
* Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness, by Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier. Hauerwas is an eminent scholar and author from Duke Divinity School, who has teamed here with the founder of L'Arche (if you don't know about L'Arche, click on the link I've given you here). Several years ago I heard someone talk about a "disabled God." It was a way of emphasizing the Christian idea that God came to humanity in weakness and saves humanity through the weakness of Jesus on the cross. That's some of the idea behind this book, which suggests that the very brokenness of Christians is the center out of which they can do ministry to a wounded world.
* What's So Great About Christianity? by Dinesh D'Souza. This is a paperback version of a book that came out late last year. It's another voice of Christian apologetics in the ongoing debate with the New Atheists. But it takes science seriously and is long enough and detailed enough to offer more than quick, pat answers.
* Pope John Paul II: An Intimate Life, by Caroline Pigozzi.The author spent a number of years covering the pope for Paris Match magazine, and offers here an insider's view of this remarkable man's life. Especially interesting are some of the details of his almost-endless travels around the world.
* Catholics in the Public Square, by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, and Brothers and Sisters in Christ: A Catholic Teaching on the Issue of Immigration, by Bishop Nicolas DeMarzio. Each of these volumes is part of "The Shepherd's Voice Series," which offers teachings by Catholic bishops and cardinals. They're done in Q&A format.
* The Contested Public Square: The Crisis of Christianity and Politics, by Greg Forster. Do you remember the New Testament story in which Jesus is given a coin bearing an image of Caesar and asked whether people should pay taxes? Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's, he replies. This might be thought of as the beginning of church-state relations. But the author of this book argues that understanding today's church-state relations requires a grasp of a lot more than that story. Rather, it requires that we know how Plato and Aristotle, Aquinas and Locke, Augustine and Socrates and others helped to shape Christian thinking today about how religion and politics intersect. This is the foundational book to read before you leap into today's church-state arguments.
* The Third Basic Instinct: How Religion Doesn't Get You, by Alex S. Key. This is sort of a first cousin to the many books by the so-called New Atheists. Key argues that belief systems are important but that people who cling to historic faiths are in tension with the basic human instinct that propels us to understand our world in a rational way.
* Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton, edited by Morgan C. Atkinson. This is a companion volume to an upcoming (it will air Dec. 14) PBS documentary about Merton, the monk, poet, author and critic. Long-time Merton fans will be enlightened by the many voices speaking about him here while newcomers to this fascinating man will have a chance to be drawn into his engaging, if complex, thinking.
* Church as a Safe Place: A Handbook, by Peter R. Holmes and Susan B. Williams. The authors have counseled many people who have felt abused in and by the church, and they offer wise advice about how to create congregations where abuse doesn't happen. And they're not talking just about sexual abuse, but also verbal, emotional, physical and spiritual abuse.
* Breaking the Silence: The Church Responds to Domestic Violence, by Anne O. Weatherholt. The author is an Episcopal priest who offers here some practical advice about what constitutes domestic violence, how to recognize it and how to combat it. Clergy who do counseling would especially benefit from this one, particularly for the list of resources at the end.
* Prayers & Rituals at a Time of Illness & Dying: The Practices of Five World Religions, by Pat Fosarelli. Every hospital, hospice and nursing home should have a copy of this for use by the chaplains in the increasingly diverse religious environment in the United States. It covers Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism.
* What God Can Do for Your Now: For Seekers Who Want to Believe, by Robert N. Levine. This prominent rabbi presents a realistic view of God instead of the view offered by dreamers or by people who reject the divine. I especially liked his idea that atheists and fundamentalists "should be soulmates. They share a lot more than either would care to admit, as both present a remarkably similar portrait of who God is and how God operates in the world."
* Sins & Sorrow, by Jerry Rawicki. My mention here of this book requires a bit of explanation. As I was working on an upcoming book about Jews in Poland who survived the Holocaust with non-Jewish help (see the Holocaust book project link on the right side of this page), one of the survivors we made contact with was Jerry Rawicki, who lives in Florida. However, we did not get to Florida to interview him. But when I sent a notice of publication approval for the book to various people, Jerry responded with a suggestion that I might want to read his novel. Well, I have (all 600-plus pages of it), and although it took me a bit to get into the story, once I did I found it really engaging. What I especially liked about it is that one of the main characters is a Polish Holocaust survivor (as is Jerry, of course), and that character's descriptions of what he went through are quite remarkable and revealing. There are lots of twists and turns in this book, but the fiction serves as a good vehicle for educating people about one aspect of the Holocaust and about modern antisemitism.
* Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance, by Edgar M. Bronfman (and Beth Zasloff). Bronfman, the noted philanthropist and businessman, issues a call here for Jews to dedicate themselves to learning and leadership so they may, indeed, be a light to the nations and help to repair the world.
* Einstein's Rabbi: A Tale of Science and the Soul, by Michael M. Cohen. The author, a rabbi himself, has created a fictional account of conversations with a character identified as Einstein's rabbi, and in the process has opened up a fresh exploration not just of Albert Einstein's astonishing mind but also many of the questions of religion and science that Einstein's work inevitably raises. It's an imaginative, lovely small book, and, although it's fiction, every quote from Einstein is something he really said or wrote.
* Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, by Peter Manseau. This is a wide-ranging novel (I generally don't write here much about fiction, but this is two in a row) about an old Yiddish poet and the young man who meets him and becomes entwined in his life. The author is founder of the Webzine, KillingTheBuddha.com. Have a look at that site. Manseau is a compelling writer.
* Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, by Candace Chellew-Hodge. Nearly everyone knows that traditional Christianity has condemned homosexuality. Many of us would argue this has happened for bogus reasons related to a misreading of scripture. But clearly many gays and lesbians have felt themselves to be the target of hate and disgust. The author, a pastor in the United Church of Christ (one of the few denominations that will ordain gays and lesbians as clergy), offers ideas here that will help gay and lesbian Christians remain faithful and to stand their ground against this destructive prejudice.
* Faith & Doubt, by John Ortberg. People who understand the nature of faith know that it is impossible, in the end, to make a faith commitment unless you get to that point by walking through the valley of doubt -- and by regularly returning to that valley. The author, a pastor, understands that, too, and describes this odd but symbiotic relationship between faith and doubt in ways that are easy to understand. This would make a good book for study groups in churches.
* Linking Arms, Linking Lives: How Urban-Suburban Partnerships Can Transform Communities, by Ronald J. Sider and others. Sider is one of the most articulate and thoughtful leaders of what he would call evangelical Christians. Here he and three other Christian leaders suggest ways to enhance urban ministry by forming workable partnerships with suburban congregations. The books represents a collection of lots of years of experience.
* The Treasury of American Prayer, by James P. Moore Jr. The author has included prayers written by Americans from a variety of faith perspectives and for many occasions and situations, including some prayers as hymns. And it's no small sample but nearly 350 pages worth of praying.
* The Purpose of Christmas, by Rick Warren. This famous pastor has written a warm little book that will mostly, I'm guessing, appeal to people already committed to Christianity. It's not a deep book of apologetics nor a nuanced theological discussion of the incarnation. Rather, it's a way of reorienting Christians to what Christmas, at its core, means.
* The Mission Minded Family, by Ann Dunagan. This book is for Christians who seek to move from self-focus to focus on ways they can help achieve God's goals in the world. Our culture emphasizes self-fulfillment so consistently that often people forget they should be working on God's purposes, the author argues.
* The Wisdom of His Compassion: Meditations on the Words and Actions of Jesus, by Joseph F. Girzone. One fascinating thing about the gospel accounts of Jesus life and ministry is that there are almost endless layers that can be unpacked, even all these centuries later. The author, who wrote the Joshua series, looks here at common sayings of -- and stories about -- Jesus and offers fresh insight into their possible meaning for adherents today. Note: This book's publication date isn't until February.
* God Stories: Inspiring Encounters with the Divine, by Jennifer Skiff. This former CNN correspondent decided to ask people all over the world for their experiences of God's presence in their lives. The result is a book full of short (sometimes less than a page) stories from people who describe what happened to them when they felt the hand of God. Skeptics will find much to dismiss. Believers will find much to affirm. The merely curious will find much to ponder.
* Postcards from Heaven: Messages of Love from the Other Side, by Dan Gordon. This small book describes what many people would dismiss as coincidences, but what the author, a screenwriter, insists are indications that something eternal is communicating with the finite. I especially liked the story of how he buried his brother and how another person who knew nothing about those circumstances described them to him later. Like the previously mentioned book here, skeptics will find much to dismiss. But that's no surprise.
* Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment, by Deepak Chopra. This promoter of Eastern religious thought has written a novel that speculates on the many years of Jesus life that the gospel accounts leave out. Christians will note quickly that this is not a story in harmony with tradition and orthodoxy, though they may find some interesting insights about Jesus.
* It's Your Call!: 7 Sure Ways to Fulfill Your Life's Purpose, by Lawrence Powell. This pastor offers methods and motivations for overcoming your past and moving into a promising future with confidence. This is help for Christians who feel stuck and can't see much of an eternal destiny.
* Riding into Your Mythic Life: Transformational Adventures with the Horse, by Patricia Broersma. The author is a certified therapeutic riding instructor who suggests that people can learn much about their own inner selves from horses. The work she has done with children who have disabilities is especially interesting.
* Once An Arafat Man: The True Story of How a PLO Sniper Found a New Life, by Tass Saada with Dean Merrill. Tass Saada grew up hating Jews, he writes, but in March 1993, in the home of a friend in North Kansas City, Mo., he left Islam and embraced Christianity. This tells how all of that happened and what its lessons are for others.
* They Must Be Stopped: Why We Must Defeat Radical Islam and How We can Do It, by Brigitte Gabriel. Although nearly everyone agrees that radicals who misuse Islam to justify their violence and destructive ideology must be stopped before they kill again, it's important not to throw labels around that fail to draw clear distinctions between the fanatics and those Muslims who oppose them. I found this book to be shrill and not especially careful in the way it drew those distinctions. For instance, it seems to condemn the Islam of the Prophet Muhammad and to suggest that today's radicals are merely trying to live out what he taught. Many Muslims would disagree with that interpretation and call it simplistic and wrong. Still, if we're going to understand the range of feelings about the people who would follow the world's Osama bin Ladens, we have to read these kinds of presentations.
* Searching for a Better God, by Wade Bradshaw. This Christian pastor and former veterinarian has noticed that lots of people think God is not measuring up. That is, God's sense of morality, to them, is lacking. God seems to them at times to care little or nothing for humanity and its precarious condition. So people are in search of a more acceptable deity. Bradshaw here tries to explain why the problem isn't God but, rather, us and our failure to grasp anything close to the magnitude of God's mercy and love.
* Pure Gold: Embracing God's Grace, by Pam Davis. This one is for Christians who may not grasp the idea of God's grace, which, in fact, is no easy concept and can never fully be understood. The author mines the scriptures in search of nuggets of gold that reveal grace.
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AND: Although my next book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, won't be out until next year, I invite you to give my first book, A Gift of Meaning, as a holiday gift this year. It contains a collection of columns that I think stand the test of time. To order the book directly from the University of Missouri Press, click here. Missouri Press has the book on sale this fall, but the sales price is not reflected on the page to which I've linked you. So to make sure you get that lower price, you might want to call the order department at 800-828-1894. To order from Amazon, click here.
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NOTE: It may be difficult for me to read and publish your comments here today through Monday. I hope to get to them but my Internet access will be quite limited. So if it takes awhile, it's not that I don't like what you said -- well, unless that's the case, too. Thanks. Bill.