Reading books on New Age religious themes can be like watching a religious shopping channel: The pictures change, but the message is the same -- seek me, admire me, want me, buy me. No one product is alone true, and none asks you to abandon all others. Do you like it, is it comfortable or flattering? Can you buy more in the future? Can you express your individuality with it? Enhance self-discovery? Promote inner healing and personal growth? On this channel, only your credit limit determines your buying power.

Mother Mary

Andrew Harvey's Sun at Midnight: A Memoir of the Dark Night (Putnam, $25.95) is overwrought soap opera. Harvey, a perpetual seeker, is the celebrity author of some 30 books on spiritual topics, including Jesus. Once, he was chief apostle and publicist for a female guru and self-described avatar named Mother Meera (ne{acute}e Kamala Reddy). When she thwarted his homosexual courtship and marriage, his devotion disintegrated. Eventually, he left Meera's cult, and felt her dark rage. His fellow-adepts shunned and vilified him. He maintains they even used telepathic means to attempt murder: His lover and another spiritual adviser narrowly escaped death by cancer and a falling object, respectively.

Harvey found another, more powerful mother as advocate -- when the Blessed Virgin Mary came to his aid, she outperformed the powers of darkness. She favored him with special blessings: Rosewater oozed from statues and holy cards, and a supernatural radiance often adorned his bedroom. Sex was just divine. In one steamy moment, Mary spoke to him: "You dreamed of Eryk before you met him. He is my priest of Love sent to you in My Temple of Love. Adore him, cherish him, honor him. I made you for each other so your worship of me in each other could heal you both into birth. Be faithful now through everything to this extreme Grace." Ever the obedient son of Mary, Harvey stuck by Eryk and emerged triumphant.

In Harvey's exhausting, neo-Manichaean cosmic battle with the vengeful Mother Meera, Mary lent him constant aid -- as did "excellent lawyers on both sides of the Atlantic." His epic of threatened love, excruciating suffering and constant, trembling delight focuses all the forces of the cosmos upon himself and his divinely given spouse. However, Harvey now advocates a new Reformation: a guru-less spirituality, in which every seeker can find his or her own direct spiritual path to enlightenment and happiness. Harvey is, however, still "available for readings, lectures, workshops and retreats."

Lift Your Voices

Sophy Burnham's The Path of Prayer: Reflections on Prayer and True Stories of How It Affects Our Lives (Viking Compass, $24.95) does not dwell on the Dark Side of the Force. For Burnham, all paths to prayer are one lighted path, and a great untapped resource for individual comfort and happiness. In this book, prayer is a solitary affair. Are there harmonious voices in mosque or temple? Did Rumi or John of the Cross pray with others, in a building? Here, in Burnham's mind, they are uprooted and orchestrated to sing one song alone -- hers.

Nineteenth-century Theosophists would recognize Burnham's confidence in the healing powers of the individual mind, and her erotic response to divine attention outdoes that mystic of celestial union, Emmanuel Swedenborg. "Oh, gratitude is a powerful instrument," she writes, "and so is the power of praise, reminding us all the time by a lucky phone call or a serendipitous event that Spirit is madly in love with us, dropping little love notes all the time." The cautious seeker will want to know which spirit is on the line, and purchase caller ID.

The Apple of His Eye

Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Religious Life, by Lauren F. Winner (Algonquin, $23.95), is another author's tour of her personal depths and of her triumphant struggle, though Winner shops only in the Jewish and Christian aisles. A clever writer with an ear for uptown argot, Winner describes her conflicted longings in the new breezy style. An evangelical Episcopalian, she still misses the orthodox Judaism that she embraced as an adolescent. Zig-zagging between synagogue and church, she keeps a diary that cleverly links their religious calendars with her many reactions to each form of worship.

Still a graduate student at Columbia University, she wrote her memoir at the ripe age of 25, and her self-regard bests her short perspective. Readers share her memories of being a whiz kid in Talmud and a crackerjack student of Christianity. No New Age phantasmagoria appear. Winner recognizes to her discomfort that Judaism and Christianity are two separate paths. Yet like the first two seekers, she devotes so much attention to self-presentation that she has little time to describe these religions she knows well.

Instead, she assumes we share her fascination with her every daily reaction: to parents, boyfriends, synagogue, church, food, current events -- but most of all, her reactions to herself and her tastes. "Sometimes I feel God has taken a paring knife to me. I know the way an apple feels." Would an apple skinned by God still be examining its skin? "I watch the Christian teenagers I know and I am awed at the way God fires up our faith when we are teens . . . [but] I am not sure that I have the passion to fall in love with a religion again. How to fall in love is not, now, what I need to learn. What I need to learn, maybe what God needs me to learn, is the long grind after you've landed."

Holy Man

Neither Donald Spoto nor the subject of his Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi (Viking, $24.95) openly expresses private religious moods. Instead, Spoto's own opinions and tastes emerge as Francis's. Like Spoto's Jesus (the subject of an earlier biography), Francis is a rebel against corrupt religious institutions, misunderstood by the church that marketed him. But Spoto's insights restore him to relevance.

This Francis prefigures New Age religion; he is the hip, crazy guy whose dramatic gesture is inimitable but admirable all the same. In short, he is a celebrity, famous for being famous, like many subjects of Spoto's previous biographies: Marlene Dietrich, Alfred Hitchcock, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Tennessee Williams, Lawrence Olivier, Lotte Lenya, Preston Sturges, Elizabeth Taylor, Stanley Kramer, Marlon Brando and, above all, the beloved Saint Diana, Princess of Wales. Though Spoto raises the embarrassing question of why another book on Francis is needed, he's not serious -- Francis, like Jesus, sells books.

This book looks a little more serious than the first three, but it is not. Like a biography on the history channel, it alternates scenes of Francis's life with commentary. Really, though, it gives us a fictitious Francis, sloppy history and a talking head. Intones Spoto: "Throughout history it has never been easy to distinguish the socially acceptable, sane person from the eccentric, marginal saint. Among the latter, there are indeed certifiable neurotics to be found, often precisely because they have marginalized themselves by adhering to transcendent values that do not conform to the standards or expectations of a world driven only by what is tangible and by comfort or pleasure. Because they have fallen in love with ultimacy, saints are people of extreme behavior." This passage may have been misplaced from another book -- say, a celebrity biography. Minus the sainthood.

The Changing Church

Jay P. Dolan's In Search of an American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension (Oxford Univ., $28) stands well apart from the previous four. Its author's judgments are clear, but it is old-fashioned, positivist history. No personal experience appears, although Dolan alludes to the pungent personalities of certain past bishops. A summary of his career-long study of the history of the Catholic Church in the United States, it takes the opportunity to advocate a more democratic and pluralistic church.

Dolan shows how the early American church allowed for lay people to participate in church governance. He outlines the increasing centralization of the 19th century, when the challenges of an enormous immigrant population and the imperatives of the Vatican brought about a strong hierarchy. Now, however, new patterns of immigration and a more educated laity have made the Church more diverse and pluralistic. The new liturgy, feminism and the presence of Hispanic and African Catholics accentuate this multiculturalism. At the same time, the current grave scandal and confusion -- just coming to light as the book went to press -- provide another opportunity to realize that "the history of American Catholicism is the study of change."

Oddly, Dolan concentrates so much on the history of Church officialdom that he does not take note of the presence among Catholics of New Age seekers. Rome has, though. *

Robin Darling Young is associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America. This year she is a visiting associate professor at the University of Notre Dame.