The Monitor's quarterly review of the best-selling books on religion 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, continue to be a recent publishing phenomenon. Unlike our best-selling fiction and nonfiction pages, this list does not include ratings of the books.
1. HOW GOOD DO WE HAVE TO BE?, by H.S. Kushner, Little, Brown, $21.95
Kushner's basic premise is that God doesn't expect people to be perfect and loves them in spite of their imperfection. Instead of feeling guilty and blaming others for whatever is wrong in our lives, we should be more godlike by forgiving our friends, our parents, and our children for their imperfections. Kushner focuses on child/parent relationships using many examples of the forgiveness theory of social interaction. He says things several times in several different ways, and though not repretitive, he is basically saying the same thing. Therefore the answer to the question posed in the title of this book is: Very forgiving. By Janet C. Moller.
2. HIS HOLINESS, by Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi, Word, $27.50
This biography of Pope John Paul II outlines the role of the Polish pontiff working with the United States to bring about the fall of communism in Poland. Fifteen meetings with the late CIA director William J. Casey were held at the Vatican in the mid-eighties in efforts to demonstrate the United States' resolve in effecting this great political change. These meetings, Bernstein and Politi contend, forged a "holy alliance" that would provide the pope with information from the CIA relevant to Poland and matters pertaining to the Vatican. Bernstein and Politi effectively articulate the role of religion and the influence of John Paul II on significant changes on the world stage. By Leigh Montgomery.
3. GENESIS: A LIVING CONVERSATION, by Bill D. Moyers, Doubleday, $29.95
The book jacket lists Bill Moyers as the author. Actually, the book consists of transcriptions of the conversations that were used in the television series hosted on PBS by Moyers. Moyers skillfully draws out insights from his distinguished panel. The conversations are intriguing and engaging. Readers may find themselves arguing with the participants, or nodding in agreement. Though the discussions are certainly a glorious intellectual feast, it is possible to lose the essentially religious message of Genesis in a fascinating (or is it bewildering?) analysis of the Scripture's levels of meaning (some levels of which its authors surely never intended). By Judy Huenneke.
4. I WAS WRONG, by Jim Bakker, Nelson, $24
Short title. Looong book. This confessional by former televangelist Jim Bakker ostensibly discusses how his fall from grace led him to a real relationship with God that is wholly different from the false one he promulgated for years on television. Unfortunately, a promising effort is mired in detail that obscures the issues. Less hyperbolic personal narrative and more consideration of matters like the pressure of a public ministry, the balance between big business and big religion, and the effects of intense media exposure would have made for a more important work. By Terri Theiss.
5. IN THE GRIP OF GRACE, by Max Lucado, Word, $19.99
The Rev. Lucado, minister at Oak Hills Church of Christ in San Antonio, Texas, is the author of 17 books and a daily lecturer on a radio program, in addition to being a devoted husband and parent. His latest book is a series of his sermons on the solace and direction that emerges from an unconditional faith in an omnipresent God. Lucado presents comprehensive contemporary examples of the application of traditional morality and Biblical principles, focusing primarily on Paul's Letter to the Romans. The book is designed to be read in small doses, a chapter at a time, with time set aside for contemplative thought. By Leigh Montgomery.
6. GOD'S INSPIRATIONAL PROMISE BOOK, by Max Lucado, Word, $12.99
So "You've turned your back on the noise and sought his voice," postulates Max Lucado in his book of informal Bible lessons (from New Century Edition). The book is handily parsed into 10 sections: Inspirational Promises to Give Insight, About God, About Christian Living, Of Guidance, About Personal Relationships, Of Wisdom, About Jesus, When You Have Special Needs, Of Assurance, About The Christian Life. Although the author equates God with mystery, and says that we can't make a science out of worship, the lessons within these gilt-edged pages nevertheless resound with the facts that God is, and that His is a practical presence. By Mari Murray.
7. TRIBULATION FORCE, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, Zondervan, $27.99
This second book (sequel to "Left Behind" - see paperback review No. 5) continues the lives of struggling individuals in the newly formed Tribulation Force, those recent converts who were "left behind," in the previous book. Again members of the Force are rallying against the new One-World order headed by the smooth talking Nicolai Carpathia, who is actually the Anti-Christ. This second book is well paced but could have been faster if some of the repetitious prophecy and theology had been edited out. Most likely the next book will ride alongside the Red Horseman of the Apocalypse. By Janet C. Moller
8. THE CLOISTER WALK, by Kathleen Norris, Riverhead Books, $23.95
A Benedictine monastery makes a most unlikely residence for a married Protestant woman whose faith was nearly "nonexistent" for two decades. But for poet Kathleen Norris, two extended stays at a Minnesota abbey offer a profound opportunity to "walk" with monks, spending days in continual reading, praying, and singing. Shut off from the world of clocks, work, and sexuality, she gains a deeper understanding of their lives and her own. She discovers that discipline that appears restrictive can produce freedom and finds herself transformed by a willingness "to wait attentively in stillness." By Marilyn Gardner.
9. 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 hopefully, 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 serious - at least as they are presented here. By Stephen Graham.
10. THE GENESIS OF ETHICS, by Burton Visotzky, Crown Publishers, $20
Even though Visotzky takes the "soap opera" approach to Genesis (giving personal glimpses into the incredibly vast and exciting possibilities of the Bible), his work has an easy openness. There is plenty of room for alternative, even opposing, views. "The Genesis of Ethics" takes its cue from the midrash tradition (ancient rabbinical commentaries on the Scriptures) of Judaism, which uses discussion as the steppingstone to new insights. Visotzky does not analyze the entire book of Genesis, but covers selected chapters that center on the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Clearly none of the three presents a model for ethical behavior - showing that there is hope for mankind. By Judy Huenneke.
1. THE OATH, by Frank Peretti, Word Publishing, $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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. THE BEGINNING OF THE END, By John Hagee, Thomas Nelson, $10.99
Part of a a growing wave of "end of the world" books, this one by television evangelist John Hagee links today's headlines with what he views as "God's accelerating prophetic timetable for the world, Israel, and you." Opening with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin on Nov. 4, 1995, and using Bible history and prophecy, Dr. Hagee carefully constructs an outline for the future as he sees it. While well-written, at times the book becomes a bit uneven as it moves back and forth from the Bible to predicted outcomes for Jews, Israel, and the world. Its popularity is clearly connected to growing interest in Christian prophecy. By W. Michael Born.
5. LEFT BEHIND, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, Tyndale, $12.99
"Left Behind" provides an interesting alternative to science fiction. The theory put forth by the authors is that the rapture as told in the book of Revelation has occurred, Jesus Christ has come for those who have let him into their lives and taken each to his or her glory in heaven. Call it Bible or Christian-fiction. The date is the not too distant future. Amazing events take place in Israel: peace and prosperity. The plot and characters are satisfying, and the tone is more fiction than preaching. As the book ends, the reader hopes struggling individuals will succeed in their new mission, to rejoin loved ones taken into heaven. Based on the ending, there will likely be a sequel. By Janet C. Moller.
6. TALKING ABOUT GENESIS, by Bill D. Moyers, Harper San Francisco, $13
This group (and individual) study aid of the first book of the Bible is no carbon copy of "Genesis: A Living Conversation," the PBS series that inspired it. Brief essays, most no longer than two pages, are interspersed with short collections of quotations. These quotations cover diverse ground, from the Talmud and the Pauline epistles to Mae West. Also included are directions for group activities and discussion topics. These are mildly helpful at best and sophomoric at worst. The essays, however, are inspired: Most are by clergymen and religious scholars, and they are exceptionally focused, fresh, and powerful. By Judy Huenneke.
7. JOSHUA, by Joseph Girzone, Scribner, $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.
8. 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.
9. GOD: A BIOGRAPHY, by Jack Miles, Vintage, $15
The premise of this Pulitizer-Prize winning biography is unassuming, yet startling: The God of the Bible can be better understood if subjected to literary analysis. Western thought, for believers and nonbelievers alike, cannot escape the Bible's narrative version of God. As its protagonist, God is a character with a complex and dynamic interior life. God - Yahweh and Jehovah - possesses two "strikingly different personalities," one independent of mankind and metaphysical; the other, existentially involved in the affairs of humanity and anthropomorphic. Miles takes painstaking care not to intentionally sleight any denominational beliefs. By Jim Bencivenga.
10. A 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.