The books about matters of faith just keep rolling off the presses. There is no way for any single human being to keep up with this onslaught, but I'm going to point you to a few new offerings this weekend.
I remind you that when I write a blog book column (my previous one was Nov. 22-23 last fall), I'm not agreeing with everything each of these authors writes. In some cases, I may vehemently disagree but think you should know of the existence of the book and of the arguments being made.
I also remind you that for every book I mention here, there may well be several dozen more covering similar subject matter that I haven't mentioned and don't have time to get to.
With all that in mind, let's see what's new:
* God in the White House: A History, by Randall Balmer. The author, who teaches religious history at Barnard College, begins with the faith views of John F. Kennedy and ends with those of George W. Bush. Which should give all of us a good foundation to understand how this field may change under Barack Obama. Balmer is fair and insightful. He's that rare combination of a scholar who can write readable prose. Plus, there are some good primary documents in the appendix.
* Opening the Qur'an Introducing Islam's Holy Book, by Water H. Wagner. Anyone -- especially non-Muslims -- who wants to gain a thorough and even nuanced understanding of the Qur'an would do well to start with this helpful new book. It is thorough, appreciative and full of the kinds of detailed facts that are necessary to grasping the significance of the world's second largest religion (Christianity is first). At more than 500 pages, this is not a book for summer beach reading. But the author, who teaches history and biblical studies at Moravian College and Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, helps non-Muslims (but also Muslims) grasp the influence of the Qur'an.
* Red, White, and Muslim: My Story of Belief, by Asma Gull Hasan. A previous version of this book had the title, Why I Am a Muslim. This version will be published Feb. 17. The author, a journalist and a lawyer, grew up in Colorado, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants. She offers here another much-needed voice from Islam, one that is clear, rational and profoundly American. I might suggest this book as good companion to an earlier one by another female Muslim American journalist, Asra Nomani, Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam.
* An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, by Barbara Brown Taylor. The author, an Episcopal priest, seems to be simply incapable of writing a bad book or a bad anything. Oh, I'm sure she has some terrible sermons somewhere that she hopes never see the light of day again. But Taylor is a great gift to the Christian church. And this volume, which focuses on spiritual practices, simply adds to her growing reputation. She may not identify herself readily as in harmony with Celtic spirituality, but what else but that is this? ". . .there is no spiritual treaure to be foundapart from the bodily expeirences of human life on earth. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physicial activities with the most exquisiteattention I can give them."
* Questions of Truth: Fifty-one Responses to Questions about God, Science, and Belief, by John Polkinghorne and Nicolas Beale. Anyone familiar with the insightful science-religion writing of Polkinghorne always looks forward to whatever he's got coming next. In this volume, Polkinghorne and his colleage Beale provide their own Christian answers to some of the most-asked questions about faith, from "Is atheism a form of faith?" to "What does it mean to be created 'in the image of God'?" to the old standard, "Where does evil come from?". By the way, did you know, as they write here, that "the sky is not blue on every planet"?
* The Great Awakening: Seven Ways to Change the World, by Jim Wallis. The author, the now-famous "progressive" evangelical writer, editor and speaker, has helped to shape the public discourse about faith and politics in our time. He's now convinced that we have entered a new era in which the so-called "Religious Right" (which means different things to different people) has lost its power, to say nothing of its way. Wallis says President Obama's election signals the end of "an age of narrow and divisive religion." Like most prophets, he tends to put into past tense things he hopes will happen as though they've already happened. But Wallis issues here a consistent call to action to care for souls who need caring. And, in the end, that's all of us.
* Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness, by Matthew S. Stanford. This is an effort to understand mental illness from an evangelical Christian perspective. It has some useful insights but seems quite easily to slip into explanations for such illness that involve demonic possession and similar causes. However, the message about loving people with mental illnesses is good and wholesome.
* The God I Don't Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith, by Christopher J. H. Wright. The author, an understudy of the famous Christian leader John R.W. Stott, has written a book that quite frankly acknowledges the difficulty of understanding God's motives and means. Wright's attempts at explanations are drawn from pretty traditional Christian theology, though the real value in the book is not the answers but, rather, a willingness to wrestle with the questions with an acknowledgement that satisfying answers are not always at hand.
* Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic, by Francis J. Beckwith. This rather well-known evangelical Protestant -- he was president of the Evangelical Theological Society -- describes here his decision to return to Catholicism after 30 years as a Protestant. The engaging thing about the book is that he makes clear that his story and decision will not -- and need not be -- everyone's story and decision.
* The Entity: Five Centuries of Secret Vatican Espionage, by Eric Frattini. This fascinating account, previously published in Spain and France, now is out in English. And it's likely to rattle some of the Catholic faithful. It's the account of the Holy Alliance -- called The Entity since the 1930. The Entity is the Vatican's spy service, created in 1566 by Pope Pius V. In Frattini's introduction, he writes, "Kings have been killed, diplomats poisoned, and one or another among feuding factions supported, all as a norm of papal diplomacy. Blind eyes have been turned to catastrophes and holocausts. Terrorists have been financed, as have been South American dictators, while war criminals have been protected, Mafia money laundered, financial markets manipulated, bank failures provoked, and arms sold to combatants even as their wars have been condemned." And in the final chapter, he describes the decision by Pope Benedict XVI to continue The Entity, suggesting that the newest head of it, "whoever that may be, can expect that the German papacy of Benedict XVI will not be very different from the Polish years of John Paul II. . .He can expect. . .years of enormous activity for the espionage services of the Vatican state."
* Now two together: The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence, by Shimon Gibson, and Jesus, The Final Days: What Really Happened, by Craig A. Evans and N.T. Wright. The publication date for the first book here is not until March, though it can be preordered. It is written by an archaeologist and draws on his work in Jersusalem to offer new insights into the location of Jesus' crucifixion and Jesus' tomb. It's quite a compelling read for any Christian who likes to imagine the historical scenes depicted in the gospels. The second book is drawn from lectures by Craig Evans and Tom Wright, two noted Christian authors who have maintained orthodox (lower-case "o") theology. This volume is just over 100 pages and offers a compact, helpful and updated view of Jesus' trial, crucifixion, burial and resurrection.
* Marpeck: A Life of Dissent and Conformity, by Walter Klaassen and William Klassen. The early years of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation were often chaotic and full of turmoil and much dissent. It's hard to think of a group of whom that is more true than the Anabaptists, from whom the Mennonites and Amish trace their roots. This engaging book shines an important light on that period by focusing on an often-overlooked Anabaptist thinker of the period, Pilgram Marpeck, from Rattenberg, in what is now Austria. As the authors point out, Marpeck "was one of the first to advocate the separation of church and state. He offered articulate explanations of the theology of adult baptism (which is what Anabaptists believed in) and Christian commitment to nonviolence." Anyone interested in good Christian history will benefit from this book.
* Why Faith Matters, by David J. Wolpe. No, this is not a book about why you should read my blog. Rather, it's a lovely book by a prominent rabbi who has reasonable and well-considered things to say about the importance of faith. Wolpe is a fine story teller, and his stories matter. In the end, this is an argument from the heart against what he calls "the narrow certainties that lead to viciousness and violence" as well as "the smugness that often characterizes arguments against faith." In the conversation with the so-called New Atheists, this is a strong word of wisdom.
*Love God, Heal Earth, by the Rev. Canon Sally G. Bingham. In recent years, people of all faiths -- and none -- have committed themselves to the work of environmentalism, saving the earth for (and from) ourselves. It's been quite a remarkable movement toward common ground. In a sense, this book provides the theological rationale and marching orders for this movement. Bingham has gathered together nearly two dozen voices from several religious traditions. The result is not a single voice but many distinctive voices singing from the same page.
* The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. Campbell, who died in 1987, first published this book in 1949, and it became something of a classic. It helps all of us understand the "myths" by which we live -- no, the the falsehoods but the overarching stories, the narratives that help us grasp what the human condition is all about. As you may know, Bill Moyers some years ago featured Campbell in a series of interviews that sought to unpack what our religious and other myths have to say about us. In a time of much religious conflict, this book deserves a new audience.
* Hope Endures: Leaving Mother Teresa, Losing Faith, and Searching for Meaning, by Colette Livermore. There aren't many anti-Mother Teresa books in the world, and I'm not sure I'd count this one among them, though it does raise some criticisms of the way Mother Teresa's order was operated. Rather, this is more of a story about a crisis of faith that led a Catholic young woman to go from being part of Mother Teresa's order of nuns to being an agnostic (though she calls herself both an agnostic and a non-believer, which I believe are contradictory). Livermore, who today is a physician in Australia, is quite a good writer. But the story she tells makes me wish she had been much more mature and worldly when she committed herself to work with Mother Teresa when she was just 18. I think she'd have worked her way through her doubts and troubles the way Mother T herself did.
* Conflict & Reconciliation: The Contribution of Religions, by John W. Bowker, editor. In an era when religion gets blamed for many of the conflicts in the world, this important book offers some critical thinking -- meaning some sanity -- about the causes of those conflicts but, more to the point, the ways in which religion can and does contrbute to the solutions to those battles. Writers look at various religious traditions (including Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity) in some detail to give an account of what each brings to the peace table. Would-be peacemakers of any faith or of none would do well to digest what's in this book.
* 365 Prescriptions for the Soul, by Dr. Bernie S. Siegel. This well-known physician and author has produced a volume of daily meditations designed to heal you with inspiration, hope and love. The idea is simple enough and easily could slip into daily sameness. Siegel avoids monotony, however, by drawing on a wide range of sources for the quotes that prompt his musings.
* Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, by Brad Warner. This is an engaging and personable argument for Buddhist practices even in the midst of personal crises of the kind Warner experienced in 2007, ranging from divorce to family death to job loss. It's an odd little book in that it's not what you might expect from a Zen teachers, but it's a fun read.
* Now two more together: Rumi: In the Arms of the Beloved, tranlsations by Jonathan Star. And The Hermetica: The Lost Wisdom of the Pharoahs, by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. Both of these small volumes are part of the Tarcher Cornerstone Series from Tarcher/Penguin, which seeks to publish spiritual and philosophical classics. The first book contains some of the 13th century Persian poet's most famous works. (Jalaluddin Rumi, by the way, is the best-selling poet in America even today.) The second book is a new translation of a late-Egyptian classic from which Western artists and writers have drawn inspiration.
* How to Believe in God: Whether You Believe in Religion or Not, by Clark Strand. This is another book that has a March publication date, but can be preordered now. This Buddhist teacher and former Buddhist monk has struggled mightily to make sense of the countless (many of them off-putting) images of God. Finally he has returned to the Bible to try to make some sense of how God is depicted there and whether it's possible to believe in such a God. The result is a book that offers neither traditional Buddhism nor traditional Christianity but, rather, some useful questions for seekers on any path.
* The Secret History of Dreaming, by Robert Moss. Did you ever wonder where the tune to the Beatles' great hit "Yesterday," came from? The author of this intriguing book reports that Paul McCartney dreamed it. The Bible, of course, is full of dreams, including those of Jesus' earthly father Joseph, who heeded what he had dreamed and fled with his family to Egypt to avoid losing his baby boy to Herod's blood thirst. And this volume reports on lots of other people and their dreams -- and how all of that changed history.
* The Unseen War: Winning the Fight for Life, by David K. Kortje. One of the oldest metaphors for understanding life and the troubles it brings is a military one. We are in a battle. We must fight. The struggle is against an enemy we sometimes cannot even name, much less see. The author, a physician and director and founder of Knight Vision Ministries, uses that motif to describe his understanding of the Christian life. There is plenty of Satan talk here, plenty of war language, plenty of admonishments to recognize that we're on a battlefield, whether we want to admit it or not. I've never found that kind of methaphor especially helpful to me, though I recognize it works for some people. If you're one, this book, written by a man from Benton, Kan., (that's northeast of Wichita) may be helpful to you on your spiritual journey.
* Atheists Can Get to 'Heaven', by W. Michael King. Yes, the author had a near-death experience. Yes, he felt himself surrounded by white light. Yes, he came back to write about it. And his conclusion? ". . .one's eternal essence of life being does not depend on deities, religion or faith. Nor must consciousness end upon the death of the body, as die-hard atheists would assert." Perhaps some day all of us we'll know if he's right.
* Soul Currency: Investing Your Inner Wealth for Fulfillment & Abundance, by Ernest D. Chu. This would be classified as a self-help book with spiritual underpinnings. The author is a pastor at the Center for Spiritual Living in Fort Lauderdale, which is part of the United Church or Religious Science. In the book he proposes that you take careful spiritual inventory and use what he calls your soul assets to achieve success and happiness.
* Desire and Deceit: The Real Cost of the New Sexual Tolerance, by R. Albert Mohler Jr. The author is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a prominent voice among Christians who identify themselves as theologically conservative. So it's no surprise that he devotes several chapters here to providing a theological justification for condemning homosexuality. There is much to be said about the damage done to individuals and society when sexuality is less an expression of commitment than a means of satisfying base desires, but that message can get lost when so much attention is given to maintaining prejudice against gays and lesbians for reasons that I believe cannot, in the end, be biblically justified. But even if you don't agree with Mohler, he represents a widely held (though I believe dwindling) position and it's important to understand his thinking.
* Finally, three novels (I don't read much fiction, religious or otherwise) but these seemed interesting enough to mention and to give you links to check them out further: Eve: A Novel of the First Woman, by Elissa Elliott. This begins with Cain murdering his brother as told through Eve's fascinating voice. Angel of Wrath, by Bill Myers. This has cops and satanic practices and all kinds of strange goings-on. Mark's Story, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Yes, the authors of the "Left Behind" series are back with a fictitious account of the end of Jesus' life. Just so you know: I thought the theology behind the "Left Behind" series was misguided. But if you're a big LaHaye-Jenkins fan, here you go.
* * *
TELLING THE POPE WHAT TO DO
A couple of times here in the last week or so (check the archives) I've written about Pope Benedict XVI rehabilitating a Holocaust-denying bishop. I thought you'd be interested in the views of two rabbis, who suggest the pope should reconfirm the welcome stand Vatican II took to repudiate the church's historic anti-Judaism. For a relatively thorough accounting of that history, see the link to my essay on that subject under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page. AND: For an analysis of this whole controversy from John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter, click here.
* * *
P.S.: If you enjoyed "The Note" on the Hallmark Channel in 2007, you will want to see its sequel, "Taking a Chance on Love," on the same channel at 8 p.m. (CST) Saturday.