Welcome to a new Monitor feature, reviews of the best-selling books on religion. This page, which will appear quarterly, offers readers a one-stop opportunity to sample popular works that reflect the resurgent interest in things religious and spiritual. Such books, numbering in the thousands, are a recent publishing phenomenon. Unlike our best-selling fiction and nonfiction pages, this list does not include ratings of the books.
1. CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL, Health Communications, $12
Best swallowed in small doses, this collection of sometimes moving stories by Jack Canfield and Mark Hansen illustrates how human optimism, goodness, and love can make bad situations better, and occasionally even heal them. These anecdotal tales will give those hopeful about the human race a sense of vindication and may even make the hearts of a few skeptics melt. This book is well-meaning and well-executed. Most readers will be lifted by some of its content, and some by most of it. Others will consider that it attributes too much power to positive thinking and will look in vain for a theology behind these carefully crafted stories. By Tony Lobl.
2. 2ND HELPING OF CHICKEN SOUP...Health Communications, $12
Those who savored the ingredients that made up the first serving of "Chicken Soup for the Soul," will be glad to know this collection, edited by Jack Canfield and Mark Hansen, is true to its title. It is a second helping of the same kind of storytelling that lauds goodness instead of selfishness and a positive, loving outlook even in the face of adversity. Others, who enjoyed the first collection but felt ready to move on and explore deeper questions, will find this isn't that next course on the "soul" menu. Some stories contain details of medical conditions and treatments. By Tony Lobl.
3. ILLUMINATA, by Marianne Williamson, Riverhead Books, $12.
A popular speaker on metaphysics and spirituality, Marianne Williamson has devoted her third book to prayer: praying daily about physical healing, relationships, work and creativity, and the world. More than just pages of pleas for God to change things, her prayers give insight into how things may have gone wrong in the first place. And many of her most heartfelt prayers spark deep hope while pointing out, often quite profoundly, some of the possibilities for healing and regeneration. This book will assist readers looking to explore a broad aggregation of prayers along with thoughts about what prayer can do. By Mark Swinney.
4. JOSHUA, by Joseph F. Girzone, Collier, $9
Are the churches ready for a lecture from the Saviour? This book gives one. The setting is Auburn, a modern-day Everyman-village, where a reclusive carpenter lives. He denigrates traditional religious hierarchies and encourages the individual to look heavenward on his own for God. In simple and sturdy prose, the author, a retired Roman Catholic priest, gives an account of the ideal life. The Saviour ought to get a better deal, a better hearing on earth today. The central theme is a variation on the golden rule, saying: "Treat that stranger the way you would be treated, or you might miss the adventure of a lifetime. Doing this is saying 'Hello!' to your true self." By Mari Murray.
5. A BOOK OF ANGELS, by Sophy Burnham, Ballantine, $6.99
What are angels? What do they look like? Are they here to help? to guide? to punish? Using personal accounts, art, literature, and folklore of many cultures and religious denominations, the author examines but never quite answers these questions. With a tone of New Age acceptance, she contrasts her ideas of these illusive beings with demons, ghosts, images, and dreams. Whether they appear as guardian angels, dark angels, or angels of death, these mysterious beings, according to Burnham, remain servants of God, glorifying Him, caring for His creation, always just beyond any comphrensive or definitive understanding. By Laurie Peach.
6. CARE OF THE SOUL, by Thomas Moore, HarperPerennial, $12
Thomas Moore is a psychotherapist with a background in musicology and philosophy who lived as a Roman Catholic monk for 12 years. This background provides insight when reading his unusual hybrid of Jungian theory, classical mythology, and Catholicism. The result is a book on religion where any notion of God is reduced to a footnote. A soul is "not a thing, but a quality or dimension of experiencing life and ourselves," he writes. Moore embraces the idea of predestination; believes in acknowledging the power of violence and evil; and espouses the notion of "polytheistic morality" - a nonjudgmental way of looking at things, where nothing is good or bad. By Yvonne Zipp.
7. MEETING JESUS AGAIN FOR THE FIRST TIME, by M. Borg, Harper $11
Borg fearlessly questions doctrinal concepts about Jesus that have been entrenched within the Christian churches for centuries. He stresses that Jesus' mission was to teach how to have a right relationship with a parental God and gain freedom from the captivity of human limitation. Although his premise is not totally new, his search leads the reader to a contemporary, approachable Jesus. The author chooses not to focus on Jesus' place in prophecy but rather attempts to make Jesus a more earthly prophet or "spiritual man," possibly a follower of John the Baptist. By Guinevere Harwood-Shaw.
8. WHY DO CATHOLICS DO THAT? by Kevin Johnson, Ballantine, $12
Easy to follow apologetics, or "defense of the faith," by an art scholar, historian, religious columnist, and layman Roman Catholic. Using examples of art as affirmations of the tradition of the early Christian church, Johnson presents a framework of apostolic tradition for Roman Catholicism as the interpreter of the four gospels through the centuries and a belief in the living presence of the Holy Spirit. He posits that Christianity is not solely a "religion of the book." He constantly reestablishes his touchstone that it is also tradition, with the Catholic Church the moral teacher for all ages. Not meant to be a catechism, he offers explanations of Catholic tenets. By Jim Bencivenga.
9. HISTORY OF GOD, by Karen Armstrong, Ballantine, $14
While stretches of this book may seem to depict the intertwined histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, "A History of God" isn't really about religion, but about the progress of the idea of monotheism. The concept of God, who He is and what He does, has taken dramatic twists and turns from Abraham to Auschwitz. "A History of God" carries its scholarly mantle lightly - it's readable even for those who may not agree with all the author's observations about man and his God. The clear and thorough discussions of Islamic thought are particularly welcome. However, the author sometimes presents opinion as fact. By Judy Huenneke.
10. MERE CHRISTIANITY, by C. S. Lewis, Macmillan, $3.95
Originally "informal" radio broadcasts during WWII, "Mere Christianity," is a classic of Christian apolgetics by one of this century's most renowned Anglo-Catholic writers. While bearing no denominational weight, it is widely recognized for its eloquent, analytic, utterly sincere, yet lyrical defense of the evangelizing force of Christianity in individual lives. Lewis convinces that the "still small voice" of God comes as a Christian presence and that no matter how subjective one may think his or her individual consciousness or experience is, at the center of each individual's being is an all-loving divine other. A book to be read throughout a lifetime. By Jim Bencivenga.
1. A SIMPLE PATH, by Mother Theresa, Ballantine, $20
This short work on Mother Theresa's worldwide missionary practice delineates the premise and promise of the demanding life philosophy she calls "a simple path." The book begins slowly, but becomes engrossing when it speaks in the voices of those serving in the mission's homes, especially the lay volunteers whose lives are changed by their experiences. Especially valuable is the idea that every act of kindness done with love is in its own way profound. While explicitly Roman Catholic, it encourages those of all faiths to open a prayerful dialogue with God and offers practical ways "to love one another as God loves each of us." By Terri Theiss.
2. LIVING BUDDHA, LIVING CHRIST, by Thich Nhat Hanh, Riverhead, $20
The author, a Buddhist monk from Vietnam, explores parallels he finds between Buddhism and Christianity. The main point of comparison is the Buddhist practice of "mindfulness" and the Christian experience of the "Holy Spirit." Although some of his conclusions might displease followers of either tradition, the book is an enlightening view of one seeker's efforts to understand and appreciate Christianity. The concluding statement captures the spirit of his message: "True understanding comes from true practice. Understanding and love are values that transcend all dogma." The book also provides insight into a Buddhist monk's approach to life. Glossary included. By Clare Turner.
3. GUIDE MY FEET, by Marian Wright Edelman, Beacon Press, $17.95
Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, turns from writing an intended policy manual to prayer. Asserting that the intractable problems facing children today can be addressed spiritually, she shares her inspiration on child-raising, teen years, family life, and social issues. Prayers reach where human policy cannot and "leave no child behind." She intersperses secular meditations on policy interests among the prayers; but a knowable Supreme Being remains her focus and suggests where all concerned for children should look first for solutions. The book is a wake-up call, asserting that one person's caring makes a difference to a child. By Nina Maynard.
4. THE OATH, by Frank Peretti, Word Publishing, 550 pp., $23.99
At first glance, this book appears to be a modern murder mystery. Read just a few of its 550 pages, however, and it's apparent the book is actually a simple but unconvincing allegory of good and evil. In Hyde Park, a mining town where a series of grotesque murders takes place, the townspeople fiercely protect their darkest secret: that deep in the woods lurks a man-eating dragon. Only Levi Cobb, the town mechanic who is "full of superstition," is willing to help an outsider investigate the cause of his brother's brutal death. Levi teaches the man that the dragon is sin, and without personal redemption, he says, it will devour everyone in its sight. By Suzanne L. MacLachlan.
5. PRAYER, by Robert H. Schuller, Nelson, $19.99
In his 30th book, the Rev. Schuller journeys through "seven levels of effective prayer" with first person stories drawn from a lifetime of praying. It's "Possibility Thinking" all the way - from the remote Iowa farm of his childhood to the Crystal Cathedral and international telecasts, from orthodox Calvinism to a positive Christianity more superabundant than Norman Vincent Peale ever preached. However remote from ordinary experience most of Dr. Schuller's dazzling success story may feel, the reader knows he means it when he writes, "I really want to help people who are hurting...." His heart is big, and his case for living by prayer is convincing. By Linda Giedl.
6. LEFT BEHIND, by Tim LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins, Tyndale, $17.99
The subtitle of this engrossing fictional rendering of the days following the Biblically promised rapture, "A Novel of the Earth's Last Days," is a misnomer. It is more the story of nonbelievers' individual moves to faith in the shadow of a rising antichrist and coming world chaos. Read only as fiction, it is a fast-paced and provocative story. Read critically, it espouses a religious fundamentalist viewpoint about which readers will have to make their own judgments. Overall, the book deserves credit for demanding a personal and unhypocritical practice of faith and giving readers a great deal of Biblical prophesy to ponder. By Terri Theiss.
7. THE JESUS I NEVER KNEW, by Philip Yancey, Zondervan, $18.99
Putting aside traditional and popular images of Jesus, award-winning writer Yancey takes us along as he reads the Gospel account for himself. This is no casual journey for someone who believes "what I think about him and how I respond will determine my destiny for all eternity." Since the author is editor at large for the leading Evangelical magazine in America, "Christianity Today," we can assume that the religious thinking of an important group of Christians is illuminated here. Topics covered include birth, teaching, miracles, death, resurrection, and ascension. Evangelicals are fortunate to have such an informed and thoughtful spokesman. By David Nartonis.
8. ANGELSPEAKE, by Mark and Griswold, Simon & Schuster, $12.95
The key to getting angels to help individuals, according to Barbara Mark and Trudy Griswold, is to ask them; the goal of "Angelspeake" is to show how to do the asking. The authors are sisters. They teach courses on developing this skill. They ask readers not to change their existing beliefs about God, for whom they say angels are messengers. "Thoughts and teachings dictated by angels" are italicized in red for clarity. The hopeful, helpful overall tone is intended to be constructive. The book's messages are offered sincerely. But readers are likely to find it hard to take the angels very seriously - at least as they are presented here. By Stephen Graham.
9. LESSONS IN LIVING, by Susan L. Taylor, Anchor Books, $19.95
Susan Taylor is the editor in chief of Essence magazine. Her book is a journey of self-discovery about how God is part of her everyday life. For those searching for spirituality, she gives examples of testimonies by people who relied on their faith in God for healing. She shares her own experiences as well. To those looking for guidance on how to live spiritually, she recommends taking time out each day to renew oneself - time for spiritual regeneration. God is her center, the power that governs and directs her life, the source from which she draws her strength. This book seeks to help those wanting advice in their search for God. By Barbara Smith.
10. MEETINGS WITH MARY, by Janice T. Connell, Ballantine, $19.50.
Connell chronicles the claims of Virgin Mary sightings across the centuries: from Elisha, the prophet, seeing Mary and Jesus in a "dazzling cloud of illumination," to US fighter pilot Scott O'Grady saying he saw something that may have been the Virgin Mary while evading Serb capture in Bosnia. Mary is portrayed as the entirely pure human best able to petition God on behalf of suffering humans. She appears unexpectedly and without explanation to give encouragement to humans in their native languages. Most Virgin Mary appearances in the book have been investigated and certified by the Roman Catholic Church. By Abraham T. McLaughlin.