NEWS FEATURE: Holiday book guide on religion and spirituality

c. 1998 Religion News Service UNDATED _ Every year, American publishers release around 50,000 titles to an often dazed book-buying public. With the arrival of the colder months, many bibliophiles snap up larger than usual numbers of volumes _ some intended for personal pleasure on windy, wintry evenings, and others bought as gifts. Here, for […]

c. 1998 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ Every year, American publishers release around 50,000 titles to an often dazed book-buying public.

With the arrival of the colder months, many bibliophiles snap up larger than usual numbers of volumes _ some intended for personal pleasure on windy, wintry evenings, and others bought as gifts. Here, for those who aren’t sure what to buy, is a guide to 17 of the most interesting new and recent titles.

Coffee table cornucopia

For many, nothing says gift-giving like a big, hefty, luxuriously illustrated book. And one of the most intriguing of the lot is Jane Daggett Dillenberger’s eye-opening The Religious Art of Andy Warhol ($39.95, Continuum). Before his death in 1987, Warhol cultivated an image as a club-hopping dandy. But according to Dillenberger, who teaches and writes about religious art, the artist best known for his pop masterpieces of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s soup cans was a closet Christian who regularly attended Mass and created an impressive _ if little-known _ body of provocative religious art. The book provides a fascinating look at a previously undiscovered aspect of one of the century’s most important cultural figures.

Japan’s Zen Masters aren’t so ambiguous about their spiritual lives, and The Art of Twentieth-Century Zen ($65, Shambhala) demonstrates that their gentle, evocative work with brushes, ink and water is considered part of the search for the Dharma. Focusing on 14 major Roshi (or revered teachers), the book collects dozens of moving works, most never before seen by Western eyes.

Eye-dazzling, mind-boggling images fill The End Is Near! Visions of Apocalypse, Millennium and Utopia ($34.95 paper, $55 cloth, Dilettante Press), a book featuring the work of Rev. Howard Finster and other visionary folk artists. Many of these”outsider”works, which are housed in Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum, were inspired by vivid divine visions, which the rough-hewn artists portray with rugged, rustic beauty.

Jerusalem: Stone and Spirit ($60, Rizolli) is a sumptuous trove of art, maps, archaeological artifacts, legend and lore about the city that is held dear by members of the world’s three major monotheistic religions. Beginning with the reign of King David 3,000 years ago, and continuing through the creation of the nation of Israel, this book captures the city’s rich heritage with style and stunning color.

Tales from the River Brahmaputra ($65, Shambhala) is a loving photo essay of the long, winding river that travels through Tibet, India and Bangladesh and plays a prominent role in the lives of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. Gorgeous photos show the beauty of the river and surrounding lands, as well as people at play and prayer.

DK Publishing has revolutionized the book world with its visually compelling titles. Two of the newest are its Illustrated Dictionary of Mythology ($24.95), which covers heroes, heroines, gods and goddesses from around the globe, and The Complete Bible Handbook: An Illustrated Companion ($39.95), which provides an attractive, accessible introduction to a complex, often confusing book.

Christmas for the young (and young at heart)

Some of the Christian publishing world’s heaviest hitters have created a handful of holiday books designed to help readers of all ages connect with the Christmas story.

Multimillion-selling pastor/author Max Lucado’s Jacob’s Gift ($14.99, Tommy Nelson) tells the touching tale of a fictional carpenter who constructs the feeding trough that becomes a crib for the baby Jesus.

Words by award-winning writer Walter Wangerin and lavish illustrations make Mary’s First Christmas ($19.99, Zondervan) a stand-out volume for younger readers.

And Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the run-away best-selling Left Behind series, takes a fresh approach to a classic tale in ‘Twas the Night Before ($19.95, Viking/Penguin), a book for those who may be older but aren’t too old to dream.

Sacred places

Mary the mother of Jesus is honored at more than 50 major American sites, and Marian Shrines of the United States: A Pilgrim’s Travel Guide ($13.95, Ligouri) gives travelers helpful background information about the sites and tells them how to get there.

Jenifer Miller’s Healing Centers & Retreats: Healthy Getaways for Every Body and Budget ($16.95, John Muir) covers more than 200 centers in the United States and Canada. There’s everything from Canyon Ranch in Tucson, which is staffed by an army of doctors and dieticians and costs $3,640 for a seven-day package, to more reasonable centers which mix health with a dizzying variety of spiritual traditions. Indexed by location and therapy type (shamanism, qigong, ayurveda, and Seventh-day Adventism), this guide is designed to help people find the place that’s right for them.

The Sacred Earth: Writers on Nature & Spirit ($12.95, New World Library) treats the natural world as a cathedral. Featuring contributions from Wendell Berry, Terry Tempest Williams, Matthew Fox, Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard, Bill McKibben, Gary Snyder and more than 50 others, this collection is an inspiring antidote to cabin fever.

And suggestions for transforming one’s house into a haven fill In A Spiritual Style: The Home as Sanctuary (Thames and Hudson, $27.50), a book which uses glamorous photos and interpretive text to demonstrate that selected art, objects and decorative touches (“meditative light, exalted imagery, soothing color, or reflective finishes”) can not only make your place look good, but make you feel good in it.

Spiritual quests

Elvis could make die-hard Baptists swoon when he warbled”His Hand in Mine”or other gospel chestnuts. But according to Elvis’ Search for God ($24.95, Greenleaf Publications), the king’s quest was a more eclectic, New-Agey affair. Written by Jess Stearn (Edgar Cayce: The Sleeping Prophet) with input from Larry Geller, Elvis’ former hairdresser and friend, this book mixes the biographical with the metaphysical.

Has it really been 20 years since Jim Jones led hundreds of his followers to their deaths in the jungles of Guyana? Yes, and Deborah Layton’s moving memoir, Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple ($23.95, Anchor) illuminates the dark side of humanity’s powerful religious impulses.

Frederick Woodruff’s Secrets of a Telephone Psychic ($9.95, Beyond Words) illustrates the wacky things that happen when spiritual hunger meets capitalism via telephonic technology. The author, a metaphysical lecturer, took notes on some of the 3,287 calls he fielded while working at a psychic phone line. He describes most of what he heard as”the voices of America’s dashed hopes, dilapidated dreams, debilitated romances, and derailed schemes.”

Classics old and new

In a day when most books don’t outlive their meager first printings, Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain is a bonafide publishing miracle. In the first 12 months after it was published in 1948, the late Trappist monk’s autobiographical account of his life and spiritual rebirth sold 600,000 copies. And since then, it’s sold millions more and been translated into more than 20 languages. Now, Harcourt Brace has issued an attractive 50th anniversary edition ($35), complete with a new introduction and a nice gold ribbon marker.

Meanwhile, The Best Spiritual Writing 1998 ($15, HarperSanFrancisco) is an eclectic, ecumenical collection of 38 essays and poems by authors like Anne Lamott, Rick Fields, Andre Dubus and Madeleine L’Engle originally published in 23 publications like Yoga Journal, Christianity Today, The Atlantic Monthly, and the Buddhist magazine Tricycle. For those who don’t know which book to buy, this one is a good guided tour through the contemporary religious landscape.