These books offer a generosity of spirit, communion and wisdom. In a sense they are like the basic tenets of most religions -- they embody the Golden Rule. And they give us something to contemplate as we approach an often difficult, yet joyful and transcendent time of year.
-- By Sally Quinn, co-host of washingtonpost.com's religion blog, On Faith
THE WORLD'S RELIGIONS
By Huston Smith | HarperOne. 399 pp. Paperback, $16.95
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Huston Smith's classic. To read it once again is to be amazed at how prescient he was and how clearly he thought about faith. The book addresses Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity and what he calls the primal religions of aborigines and indigenous peoples. "Every religion," Huston says, "mixes universal principles with local peculiarities. The former, when lifted out and made clear, speak to what is generically human in us all. The latter, rich compounds of rites and legends, are not easy for outsiders to comprehend. It is one of the illusions of rationalism that the universal principles of religion are more important than the rites and rituals that feed them." This book opens you up to other people's faiths. "If we lay aside our preconceptions about these religions," he says, "the veil that separates us from them can turn to gauze."
THE FIRST CHRISTMAS What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Birth
By Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan | HarperOne. 258 pp. $22.95
Borg and Crossan, leading scholars of the historical Jesus, explore the nativity in much the way they tackled the crucifixion and resurrection in their previous book, The Last Week. They begin by discussing the "very different" versions of Jesus's birth in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, not to point out contradictions, "as debunkers of the stories often do," but to get readers to focus on the details and understand what they meant in the 1st century. "We are not concerned with the factuality of the birth stories," they say. "We see the nativity stories as neither fact nor fable, but as parables and overtures." The Enlightenment, they argue, led many to think that "truth and factuality are the same." They quote Huston Smith as calling the obsession with factual veracity "fact fundamentalism." "Believe whatever you want about whether the stories are factual," they write. "Now, let's talk about what these stories mean."
THE SCANDALOUS GOSPEL OF JESUS What's So Good About the Good News
By Peter J. Gomes | HarperOne. 264 pp. $24.95
This book is by the American Baptist minister of Memorial Church at Harvard. His message is, don't ask "What would Jesus do?" Ask, "What would Jesus have me do?" Gomes is in the forefront of a resurgent movement that emphasizes Christianity's call to help society's least advantaged members. He is not as interested in sin and salvation as he is in rethinking Jesus's message, and he delights in the notion of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. He contends that Jesus was a revolutionary, a radical and a socialist -- that Jesus "would not have been unsympathetic to the famous social slogan of the nineteenth century, 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.' " And that, he says, makes many economically comfortable Christians feel guilty. It's what makes Jesus's teaching so dangerous, not only in his time "but right here and now."
THE LITTLE BOOK OF ATHEIST SPIRITUALITY
By Andre Comte-Sponville | Viking. 212 pp. $19.95 (available 12/27)
This is a wonderful, short book that suggests that atheists, too, can lead spiritual lives. Comte-Sponville, a French philosopher, begins by asking, "Can we do without religion?" and answers: "Obviously, it all depends on what is meant by we." He tells of being raised a Christian, believing in God until he was 18. "Then I lost it," he says. "And it felt like a liberation -- everything suddenly seemed simpler, lighter, stronger and more open. . . . I'm convinced that my life has been better -- more lucid, freer and more intense -- since I became an atheist." He admits, however, that this does not apply to everyone. The return of religiosity, he remarks, "is one of the most salient features of our times," but he doesn't seem terribly concerned about it. "Religion and irreligion are destined to live together for a long time to come," he says. "More power to [believers] if it helps them live." In the end, he concludes that "love, not hope, is what helps us live. Truth, not faith, is what sets us free."