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HOLIDAY FEATURE: The good books

c. 1999 Religion News Service UNDATED _”Some books are to be tasted,”wrote Francis Bacon, the English philosopher and statesman,”others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Every year at this time, millions of books are bought, wrapped and given as gifts. During 1999, the publishing industry has been busy producing new […]

c. 1999 Religion News Service

UNDATED _”Some books are to be tasted,”wrote Francis Bacon, the English philosopher and statesman,”others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Every year at this time, millions of books are bought, wrapped and given as gifts. During 1999, the publishing industry has been busy producing new volumes for adults and children of varying degrees of faith.

For many, nothing says gift-giving like big, bulky coffee-table books that look great even if never opened, but two new gift books contain many rewards for those who venture to digest their contents.”Sister Wendy’s 1000 Masterpieces”(DK, $40) is a weighty and wonderful collection of 1,000 full-color works by 500 artists from the past nine centuries, including German abstract artist Josef Albers and Spaniard Francisco de Zurbaran.”Great art offers more than pleasure,”writes the art-loving nun who hosted her own series on PBS.”It offers the pain of spiritual growth, drawing us into areas of ourselves that we may not wish to encounter.” Wendy’s insightful comments are theologically informed but never partisan. She describes British painter Francis Bacon _ best known for his disturbing portraits featuring screaming popes, and not to be confused with the above-mentioned Bacon _ as”an artist obsessed by the horror of existence and the terrible vulnerability of being.”This is a big, bold, beautiful book.”Billy Graham: God’s Ambassador”(Time-Life, $39.95) is a thorough and enthusiastic photojournalistic survey of the man who calls himself”an ordinary preacher,”but who has probably done more than any other figure to influence religion in America during the past half century.

Lovingly compiled by Russ Busby, a staff photographer for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association since 1956, this collection shows the evangelist preaching to the masses, praying with presidents, promoting civil rights in America’s south and South Africa, and weeping over the plight of the poorest of the world’s poor.

Two new Christmas books can help both children and grown-ups better appreciate the holidays.”A Child’s Christmas at St. Nicholas Circle”(Tommy Nelson, $17.99) features an inspirational tale lavishly decorated with nearly 20 paintings by the mega-popular Thomas Kinkade.”The Spirit of Christmas: Celebrating a Spirit-Filled Holiday Season”(Thomas Nelson, $14.99) is a compilation of messages from John Hagee, Tommy Barnett, James Robison and other charismatic and Pentecostal leaders.”Parables”($19.95, Shadow Mountain/Deseret Books) isn’t about Christmas,but still might make an attractive gift. Featuring illustrations by award-winning science fiction artist James C. Christensen and text by Brigham Young University professor Robert L. Millet, the book provides”visual interpretations”of 12 of Jesus’ best-known parables.

Two new anthologies provide readers with a wealth of riches.”Spiritual seeking within or without one’s religious heritage has become a hallmark of our age,”writes Kathleen Norris in her introduction to”The Best Spiritual Writing 1999″(HarperSanFrancisco, paperback, $16).

Like last year’s inaugural edition, the 1999 compilation features contributions from a diverse list of contributors and periodicals, all of which can help seekers find their way.

Included is a Pico Ayer’s piece on travel, Robert Cording’s poem-tribute to singer Sam Cook, essays by Annie Dillard, Ron Hansen, Wendell Berry, Mary Gordon, Andres Dubus III and Larry Woiwode and poems by Seamus Heaney and Luci Shaw.”Memoirs of the Spirit”(Eerdmans, $26) culls autobiographical gems from the past three centuries of America’s religious history. Historian and author Edwin S. Gaustad has selected 26 compelling first-person accounts from Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Native American, Eastern and other traditions.

Included are essays by Thomas Merton, Alan Watts, Maya Angelou, Jonathan Edwards, Jimmy Carter, William F. Buckley, Black Elk, Paramahansa Yogananda,Dorothy Day and Billy Graham.

Seekers will also enjoy browsing through the”Illustrated Dictionary of Religions”(DK, $24.95), which covers the world’s beliefs and rituals in 121 colorful pages. Scholars will be frustrated with how the book sacrifices detail for illustrations (the Mormon faith is covered in fewer than 100 words, for example), but others will enjoy the book’s brevity and breadth.

The best tool for keeping track of the varied holidays and celebrations honored by the world’s religiously diverse believers is the annual”Multifaith Calendar,”which tells when major faith holidays are observed and explains what they all mean ($14.45, including shipping, from Conexus Press, 616/682-9022, http://www.conexuspress.com).

After so much reading, you may want to relax with a video. If want to know more about a film’s values and virtues before you view, check out”Our Sunday Visitor’s Family Guide to Movies and Videos”($29.95, OSV), edited by Henry Herx, who has been watching movies for the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Office for Film and Broadcasting since 1989.

The book covers more than 8,000 movies in nearly 900 pages, and also features the Vatican’s list of best films (“Babette’s Feast”made the cut;”The Last Temptation of Christ”didn’t).

If you can’t find anything of interest on this list, perhaps you’re the intended audience for one of the year’s most unusual books,”In the Spirit: Conversations with the Spirit of Jerry Garcia”($24, Harmony). Author Wendy Weir, whose brother Bob played guitar with Garcia in the Grateful Dead rock band, claims she channeled Garcia’s”Oversoul”_ which was amazingly verbose.

IR END RABEY