Newspapers may be in trouble but clearly the printed word is not -- at least judging by the number of books that continue to be produced.
That's especially true in the religion field. My, oh, my.
I can't possibly read or point you to every book in this area but I want to give you some information about some newly published books. By including a book in this list, I'm not endosing everything the writer says. In some cases I may have serious disagreements with the authors but want you to be aware of the book's existence.
(A few of these books aren't yet officially in print but can be preordered now.)
I'll begin with a Holocaust-related book, partly because my own new Holocaust-related book will be out this summer. For details, click here.
* Flight from the Reich: Refugee Jews, 1933-1946, by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt. This volume won't be officially published until next month, but you can order it now. And if you have any interest in a more complete view of the Holocaust, you should order it. It's a well-documented, quite engaging read that tells the often heartbreaking stories of Jews who did their best to escape Hitler's Germany and extended Third Reich. What makes this book so compelling is that the authors have done what Saul Friedlander did in his prize-winning two-volume history, Nazi Germany and the Jews: They rely not just on impersonal government documents but also on personal letters, diary entries and other sources that describe how Germany's efforts to wipe out European Jewry affected specific individuals. The book also includes photos, many of which I've never seen before.
* 20th Century Jewish Religious Thought, edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr. This is a marvelous collection of more than 1,100 pages covering nearly every imaginable subject in 140 separate essays. It's the kind of volume you'd expect from the Jewish Publication Society. And this is not just for scholars. It's for anyone who wants to get in tune with modern shape of Judaism and Jewish thinking. This is an important collection. I especially found helpful an essay called "Anti-Judaism and Anti-Semitism," by Hyam Maccoby.
* Saving Creation: Nature and Faith in the Life of Holmes Rolston III, by Christopher J. Preston. Holmes Rolston, an environmental pioneer among people of faith, won the Templeton Prize a few years ago. It recognizes people who help to connect science and religion, which Rolston surely has. Indeed, as much as almost any other current scholar, Rolston has found persuasive ways to help us see the connections between faith and science. In this book, the author, who teaches philosophy at the University of Montana, helps us understand the evolution of Rolston's thinking -- and, ultimately, of our own.
* My Hope for Peace, by Jehan Sadat. The widow of Anwar Sadat, assassinated president of Egypt, has become a voice for peace in the Middle East. In this book, she offers her unique perspective from having watched her husband make formal peace between Egypt and Israel and then having watched as extremists in Egypt murdered him. No one will agree with all Jehan Sadat says here but she does an intriguing analysis of Islam and its radical fringe and she proposes some possibilities for ways forward in the Middle East -- beginning with an attitude that peace is possible and not just a pipe dream. She writes that peace is not only essential but also imperative.
* Breakthrough: The Return of Hope to the Middle East, by Tom Doyle. This book takes a rather dramatically different approach to the subject than Jehan Sadat's book. The author is a Christian minister who directs a church-planting ministry and who wants to convert Muslims and Jews to Christianity. And the book contains some stories of such conversions. Some of his comments seem odd, however, such as his observation that "Muslims in the Middle East, and throughout the rest of the Muslim world, are eager to hear about Jesus." This might leave readers with the impression that Jesus plays no role in Islam, whereas in fact he is regarded as one of the religion's most important prophets, though Muslims -- unlike Christians -- do not consider him divine. But it's worth knowing how Christians who share Doyle's approach to theology think about the Middle East.
* Radical Forgiveness, by Antoinette Bosco. Who better to write about forgiveness than a woman whose son (and his wife) were murdered? Toni Bosco describes this awful crime in a previous book, Choosing Mercy. This new volume expands on her understanding of the need for forgiveness because, as she writes, "My life has forced me to confront the work of evil in our lives and in our world. . ." The author is a Catholic journalist who has found ways to move beyond a need for revenge and hate. She is a clear, strong writer with a compelling Christian message.
* SUM: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, by David Eagleman. What a kicky little book, full of whim and insight. The author a neuroscientist, imagines the various possible details of life after death and comes up with some real hoots, all the while suggesting in subtle ways that we would do well to take life -- and death -- more seriously than we often do. In a little more than 100 pages, Eagleman implants in our craniums dozens of strangely attractive (and a few repulsive) ideas that will stay in your brain for a long time.
*Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective, by Bruce T. Murray. Anyone searching for a clear, well-documented primer on religious freedom in this country, with special attention to current case law, can find it here. Murray, a journalist, writes with clarity and, though the book is only a bit over 200 pages, draws on enough original documents to create a compelling and helpful book. A series of useful sidebars within the chapters helps to flesh out the nuances of this subject, of which there are plenty. This hardback book is not cheap. It lists for $80. But it's practically a must for any comprehensive public library that wants to be taken seriously.
* Calvin: A Brief Guide to his Life and Thought, by Willem van 't Spijker. Because this year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, the famous Protestant reformer, you will find many new books exploring what he has meant to Christianity. This small (197 pages) volume is an excellent place to start for people who are curious about him. The author, a theology professor in the Netherlands, does a good job of combining information about Calvin's fascinating life with information about his theology. A few hours of reading will give readers the context of Calvin's life along with a good bit of Calvin himself.
* Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single World of the Bible, by David Plotz. You're never going to have so much fun reading the Hebrew Scriptures. The author, editor of Slate.com, retells the Bible's stories but with a wonderfully whimsical eye. This is not irreverence. Rather, this is profound reverence for a profoundly human story about God, who is nothing if not mysterious. A flavor from his recounting of the book of I Samuel: "It's no wonder priests, ministers, and rabbis have spent so mch time, during the last two millennia, discouraging regular folks from reading the Bible on their own. The Good Book makes most of its clerics look like sleazeballs. The first high priest was Aaron, the Fredo Corleone of the Sinai." Like that. Wonderful stuff.
* Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality, by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. The author is the religion correspondent for National Public Radio, and she uses her journalistic background and skills to find a series of fascinating stories about the way people experience God and the role our own body chemistry and makeup plays in that. She leaves a good deal of room for mystery and is not at all ready to chalk up spiritual experiences solely to physical or material explanations. Rather, she seeks to be open to hear the often-extraordinary experiences of others. The book officially won't be published for several more weeks but can be pre-ordered now.
* Reasoning Together: A Conversation on Homosexuality, by Ted Grimsrud and Mark Thiessen Nation. Amids all the heat from this topic, these two Mennonite scholars offer some much-needed light. One argues for the church to take an inclusive approach to welcoming gays and lesbians into all aspects of Chrsitian church life. The other argues for a welcoming approach coupled with restrictions on the roles gays and lesbians should be allowd to play. Each provides carefully thought-through reasons for their differing positions. But readers may find most helpful, however, is that both authors seem to have taken seriously this proposal from Grimsrud: "Perhaps our biggest challenge is to make the effort to understand one another before launching into our critique." Good advice.
* A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green, by Thomas Cahill. The author of How the Irish Saved Civilization (and several other books) takes a devastating look at capital punishment here by recounting the disturbing and profoundly sad case of a young man executed by the state of Texas in 2004 after years on Death Row there. The death penalty is a radically immoral means of attempting to do justice and must be ended. It's hard to imagine how anyone reading this moving account could think otherwise.
* Four Ordinary Women: A Glorious Friendship of Circumstance, by Pat Antonopoulos, Patti Dickinson, Shawna Samuel and Jo Ann Stanley. Some months ago I was asked to read through the manuscript for this book, and as I did I found that it drew me in. It's not strictly a book about faith or religion or ethics. But it is about relationship and understanding our humanity at its deepest level. And, in the end, that's a big part of what faith is about, too. These four Kansas City area women share their experiences, their hopes and their fears with one another, and are uplifted in the process. For the Seven Locks Press publishing house site, click here.
* The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, by Levi H. Dowling. First published about 100 years ago, this made-up account of how Jesus spent his time between ags 12 and 30 (unaccounted for in the gospels) has been reissued as a Tarcher Cornerstone Edition. It is being published in connection with an upcoming film, "The Secret," based on it. Yes, well, it's sort of intriguing to find Jesus taking a boat to Greece and teaching the philosophers a thing or two and Jesus coming to Egypt to spend time with people who once taught his mother. All fun fiction. But I'm not sure where all this gets us in the end. Maybe the movie will answer that. Or not.
* Interfaith Dialogue at the Grass Roots, edited by Rebecca Kratz Mays. I've been waiting for a book like this for years. It's a collection of essays by people who really understand what interreligious conversation is supposed to be and who know how to make it happen. It's the perfect study guide for any group beginning to explore ways to be in conversation with people of other faiths -- exactly the kind of serious talk we need today in our increasingly pluralistic society. Chapters include helpful questions for reflection and suggestions for action. I'd love to see churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other communities of faith latch onto this book and begin to explore commonalities and differences in useful ways.
* Across the Threshold, Into the Questions: Discovering Jesus, Finding Self, by Caren Goldman and Ted Voorhees, with a foreword by Amy-Jill Levine, who will speak in the Kansas City area the weekend of April 24 (after which I'll lead a follow-up discussion). In a sense, this is a lovely follow-up to the previously mentioned book here. The authors are husband and wife. She is Jewish, he's an Episcopal priest. Their goal is to help all of us -- of whatever faith -- think anew about someone impossible to ignore in this or almost any culture, Jesus. Their reflections are deeply personal and quite engaging, and they move readers into their own reflections about how to understand this Nazarene Jew who changed the world.
* The Spanking Room: A Child's Eye View of the Jehovah's Witnesses, by William Coburn. This is an insider's painful story of the physical abuse he experienced at the hands of his mother after she joined the Watchtower Society. It's a sorrowful tale of misshapen religion and reminds me of a book I wrote about here recently by a woman who grew up in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
* The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University, by Kevin Roose. The author is a Brown University student who takes a semester off to attend Liberty University in Lynchberg, Va., the school the late Jerry Falwell ran. His goal is to get inside and understand people who call themselves theologically conservative. Roose has a nice sense of humor and writes well. He's also generally respectful, not given to slamming people who are different from him. He provides something of a model for how to get inside the head and heart of others.
* In the Footsteps of Paul: Experience the Journey that Changed the World, by Ken Duncan. The Apostle Paul's missionary journeys helped to create the Christian church -- in its Pauline essence -- we know today. This beautiful book of photos takes us on those journeys and shows us what one can see today. Ken Duncan has a remarkable eye.
* Daily Dose of Knowledge: Bible, from West Side Publishing. I thought this would be just another little devotional book to get you through the Bible one day at a time for a year. Instead, it's a helpful book of informative entries that help readers grasp what this amazing book (collection of books, really) is all about. It's done by several theologians. Here and there the book anachronistically refers to the early followers of Jesus as "Christians," though there was no Christianity yet and the use of that term in the New Testament is largely derogatory as a way of referring to a sect of Judaism that thought Jesus was the Messiah. And it uses the term "conversion" with respect to the Apostle Paul, as if he converted from Judaism to Christianity. But there is much to learn in this small book, especially for Christians who feel themselves biblically illiterate.
* Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge, by Dallas Willard. This popular Christian writer argues here that what the faith teaches should not be relegated to the category of personal opinion or something less than actual knowledge. Rather, it should be thought of as a vital and insightful collection of truths that can stand -- and has stood -- up to scrutiny. If religious doctrines are just blind beliefs or a kind of emotional response to our own needs, he argues, they don't deserve much respect. But they are much more than that, he says.
* Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen, by Lesley Hazleton. What do you know about Jezebel? Probably that she was a hussy, an evil woman. Why, that's what the word means in our culture. But what of the original Jezebel, the one included in the books of I and II Kings in the Hebrew Scriptures? Well, the author, a journalist, has done some important homework about the woman and concludes that she was far from the raging sexpot of reputation. She was not perfectly innocent, Hazleton concludes, but she was a strong and fascinating woman, as this imaginative look at her makes clear.
* 10 Things I Hate About Christianity: Working Through the Frustrations of Faith, by Jason T. Berggren. A former pastor, Berggren runs through his list of things about the faith that drive him crazy, including other Christians. And he describes how he has come to embrace them. It's an honest view about the often-difficult realities of a life of faith.
* Joyful Wisdom: Embracing Change and Finding Freedom, by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. This Tibetan Buddhist master offers here a new -- and quite personal -- look at life's anxieties and how Buddhism offers a way of dealing with them. Buddhism postulates that suffering is what throws us off in life but that it can be overcome. This book offers a modern restatement about how that might be possible.
* Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less, by Marc Lesser. You may wonder how anyone with this last name could write any other book, but the truth is Lesser is a Zen teacher with some good, practical advice about simplifying our lives to make them more joyful -- and even useful. Particularly useful is his advice about what to do with and how to think about fear.
* Clutter Busting: Letting Go of What's Holding You Back, by Brooks Palmer. Well, look, this really isn't a book about religion at all. Rather, it's about something religion tries to teach us -- often without success: Focus on what's really important and quit making our material possessions our God. It fits nicely with the previously mentioned book about doing with less.
* Holy Adventure, by Bruce G. Epperly. In a sense, this is a Christian self-help book, but its motif is to see all of life as a thrilling adventure to be entered into in partnership with God. It's full of prayers and challenges and reflections on how to conceive of life that way. It's structured to lead you through 41 days of thinking and acting with help from this pastor-author.
* Angry Conversations with God: A Snarky but Authentic Spiritual Memoir, by Susan E. Isaacs. Any book by a self-confessed "Lutheran slut" can't be all bad. And this one is fun. And full of pain. And engaging. And full of all the impertinent questions all of us ask God -- or want to. In some ways, Isaacs takes on the role of a modern-day Job, except that she knows that -- unlike Job -- she is not an completely righteous person. Still, she wants to drag God into the picture and get some answers, damn it.
* Thin Blue Smoke, By Doug Worgul. Doug is a former Kansas City Star colleague whose novel was one of the rare ones chosen by the Macmillan New Writers group for publication. It's set at an imaginary barbecue joint near The Star in downtown Kansas City and is, finally, a story of redemption, including for an Episcopal priest. I had the privilege of reading some of the early drafts of this as Doug blogged it some years ago. This final form is a wonderful read. And if you're from Kansas City, you'll have extra reason to pick it up. For one thing, you may learn something about barbecue, for Doug is a serious authority on that subject.
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DEFAMATION OF RELIGION?
The Human Rights Council of the United Nations has approved a proposal to protect religions from criticism. It's mostly backed by countries with predominantly Muslim populations and, well, it's a bad idea. So is ridiculing someone else's religion. But legislating this can put a serious chill on free speech. For a statement about this from the American Jewish Congress, click here. For an (unnecessarily critical) editorial about it in the Washington Times, click here. For a news story about this with a bit more historical perspective, click here. For the Web site of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which pushed for the U.N. action, click here.