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. 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.
2. THREE GOSPELS, by Reynolds Price, Scribners, $23
Few more compelling narratives exist than the four Gospels of the New Testament. They force us to confront the life of Christ Jesus, a life that changed the course of Western civilization. It's not surprising that new translations are not superfluous at all, but needed, and welcomed. Reynolds Price, better known as an author than as a Bible scholar, has translated the Gospels of Mark and John, the two usually considered closest to first-hand sources. And he has compiled one of his own: "An Honest Account of a Memorable Life." His aim is a translation as close to the original Greek as possible. It is breathlessly readable and thoroughly convincing. By Judy Huenneke
3. EYEWITNESS TO JESUS, by d'Ancona & Thiede, Doubleday, $23.95
This slim volume deals with one of the great mysteries of Bible scholarship: Where did the Gospels come from? The focus of "Eyewitness" is astonishingly small: three tiny papyrus fragments of the Gospel of Matthew, housed in a display case in the library of Magdalen College, Oxford. Are Thiede and D'Ancona correct in their thesis that the four Gospels were written while the Apostles and those who had witnessed healing and heard Jesus preached lived? Further research and analysis will tell. But a new era in Bible study may be opening as Christianity enters its second millennium. "Eyewitness" helps readers understand and appreciate this exciting prospect. By Judy Huenneke.
4. THE AWAKENING HEART, by Betty J. Eadie, Pocket Books, $20
This personal narrative is the sequel to the author's previous bestseller, "Embraced by the Light," in which she detailed her near-death experience some 20 years ago. In this work, Eadie discusses her continuing spiritual quest and the reasons for which she wrote her first book as well as why she continues her extensive speaking engagements. Her energetic message of total reliance on God and unconditional love for others is powerful and sincere. One cannot read this work without examining his or her own thoughts and actions in relation to death. The first-person writing gets a bit cloying, though, and some of the vignettes are oversentimental. By Terri Theiss.
5. A SIMPLE PATH, by Mother Teresa, Ballantine, $20
This short work by Mother Teresa on her 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.
6. PRAYER IS GOOD MEDICINE, by Larry Dossey, HarperSanFrancisco, $20
Building upon his previous bestseller "Healing Words," linking prayer and health, medical doctor Larry Dossey offers a practical "how to" approach on praying for one's physical health. He documents that prayer results in healing for individuals. Dossey views prayer as an addition to, not a replacement for, traditional medical treatment. His book taps a deep spiritual hunger for material redemption in the face of suffering. It extols dominion over the human condition and offers scientifically measurable evidence of prayer's effectiveness in curing trauma and illness. Despite its century-long record of healing through prayer, Christian Science is not mentioned. By Jim Bencivenga,
7. BOOK OF GOD, by Walter Wangerin, Zondervan, $27.99
Have you ever read between the lines of the Bible, and pictured the gritty details of those ordinary lives in the midst of which the extraordinary occurred? Walter Wangerin has. The result is a well-written, dramatized version of the Scriptures capable of endearing the book of books to those who would generally prefer to read epic fiction. If it won't find a permanent place alongside concordances and commentaries of serious Bible students, still, even they may find the author's imaginative tapestry of well-researched period detail and direct scriptural quotations a compelling and thought-provoking - if incomplete - rendering of the Scriptures. By Tony Lobl.
8. 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.
9. LIFE ON THE EDGE, by Dr. James Dobson, Word Publishing, $19.99
This conservative Christian family therapist talks plainly to 16-to 26-year-olds in their "critical decade" about today's real-life issues and hazards - romance and marriage, careers and parenting, money and power, sexually transmitted diseases, the "politically correct" dynamic on today's secular campuses, the argument for abstinence over "safe sex" and against a genetic basis for homosexuality. Dobson's perspective is conventionally evangelical and medical, but by staying Bible-based and (mostly) avoiding theological positions, his book will appeal beyond the conservative community. He has lots to say to people on the edge of adulthood, if they're willing to hear it. By Linda Giedl
10. 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
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. 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.
3. A 3RD HELPING OF CHICKEN SOUP... Health Communications, $12.95
Another product rolls off the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" conveyor, its introduction already promising more to follow. The question is, has this concoction become factory-canned? Clearly its many endorsers don't think so. Certain of the ingredients - tales of love growing from adversity, hearts repenting at their own uncovered hardness, and optimism salvaged despite tragedy - are wholesome. There are some genuinely nourishing stories here. Some contents, though, will be harder to swallow by those yearning to learn that sickness and adversity can be overcome by a loving God, rather than needing to be heroically endured as character-building lessons. By Tony Lobl.
4. 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.
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. 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.
7. 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.
8. I'M SO GLAD YOU TOLD ME..., by Barbara Johnson, Word, $15
The latest bestseller by Barbara Johnson is a lightweight that relies on recycled platitudes and letters from readers of her previous books rather than on any new insights. Johnson, who lost two of her sons, founded Spatula Ministries "to help peel parents off the ceiling" after they receive bad news about their children. Some readers may find her converstational style cloying, rather than uplifting. Guilt -and how to deal with it - is the most prevalent concern in this book. Her advice is almost always couched in cute terms and is often too sweet to be wholesome. Some readers may find the fundamentalist tone difficult. By Yvonne Zipp.
9. DRUMS OF CHANGE, by Janette Oke, Bethany, $8.99
With a style as clear and simple as a window pane, Janette Oke tells the story of Running Fawn, a young Blackfoot Indian in Canada in the late 1800s. Running Fawn still favors her Indian ways and the sense of the amplitude of her Sun God who exists in the wind and all living things. But like so many young Indians of her time, she is whisked away to a missionary boarding school. She is renamed Martha. Misery is her condition. That Running Fawn will convert to Christianity is no secret to readers of Oke's nearly three-dozen other books. Yet the well-told story is sweet and honest and filled with the quiet drama of human challenge and a Christian outcome. By David Holmstrom.
10. DANCE OF A FALLEN MONK, by George Fowler, Anchor, $14
This is a thoughtful, controversial look at the life of the author - a nationally syndicated columnist on religion - and his struggles with his own spirituality. Fowler's philosophy resembles that of Roman Catholic theologian Matthew Fox ("humanity exists not in a state of sin, but one of divine grace"), but is also uniquely individual. For Fowler, Christian churches miss the true message of Christ Jesus by clinging to the literalness of Bible stories. The intent is not to offend. Fowler uses his own experiences as both a Catholic monk and as a Methodist minister to show that religion is the starting point for a real relationship with God. Rare bad language and talk about drinking and sex. By Tom Regan
*Rankings from Publishers Weekly, August 1996