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09.18.10

7 Books for the Spiritually Starved

Looking for help in thinking about faith and religion? Spencer Bailey sifts through a biography of Muhammad, a new look at the Ten Commandments, and other must-reads.

Is America stuck in a spiritual funk? Sure, the Florida Pastor Terry Jones said his church will “not today, not ever” burn a Koran, as he initially planned to do, but the fractious debate over Park51, the planned Islamic community center about two blocks from the World Trade Center site, has escalated into a national crisis. Which is to say, the U.S.—as always—remains in search of age-old answers to difficult questions. Answers that Elizabeth Gilbert’s cultish Eat Pray Love, with its bankruptcy-inducing ideals, cannot provide. Answers that several recently published books about religion and spirituality—and a few set for release this fall—attempt, or at least hope, to get at.

Muhammad: A Story of the Last Prophet by Deepak Chopra

Muhammad, Deepak Chopra’s semi-fictionalized biography of the founder of Islam, is an intricate, deeply considered depiction of the Prophet’s life. At a time when Muhammad is largely misunderstood outside (and sometimes inside) of the Muslim world, the novel gives a vivid voice to his story. “Islam has been branded with barbarity in a unique way, in part because, in its zeal to maintain the Prophet’s world as well as his word, the customs of antiquity have been preserved into modern times,” writes Chopra in the introduction. “I portray Mecca as it really was, which means in all its hardness and brutality.” Through various narrators—a slave, a merchant, a Jewish writer, a nurse, the Prophet’s wife and children, and others—Chopra reveals that holiness in the seventh century was, just as it is today, all at once complicated, frightening, and thrilling. Muhammad, most of all, tells the inspirational—and epic!—story of how the Prophet, by turning inward, transformed the world forever.

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Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream by David Platt

In Radical, Alabama megachurch Pastor David Platt suggests something is seriously wrong with the Christian faith in America today. Christians have, as he puts it, “embraced values and ideas that are not only unbiblical but that actually contradict the gospel we claim to believe.” Most of all, Platt argues, American churchgoers skewer the biblical Jesus, rendering him as a “nice, middle-class, American” everyman ideal. “We may not actually be worshiping the Jesus of the Bible,” he writes. “Instead we might actually be worshiping ourselves.” Full of spiritual pronouncements readers of any religion can appreciate (“there are infinitely more important things in your life than football and a 401(k)”), Radical caters mostly to Christians, as a fervent manual to the faithful. If you’re stuck in the American dream of “self-advancement, self-esteem, and self-sufficiency,” as Platt describes it, then the book could be a good fit for you, too.

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God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter by Stephen Prothero

God is Not One is 2010’s must-read for anyone religiously illiterate. (Perhaps not surprisingly, the author Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University, also wrote the 2007 bestseller Religious Literacy.) Here Prothero outlines clichéd American stereotypes (“Buddhism conjures up the Dali Lama and his Nobel Peace Prize, but Islam conjures up Osama bin Laden and his assault rifle”), then puts these ignorant, usually misguided beliefs to rest. More than an educational guide, Prothero’s book is a lively retrospective of today’s major religions: Islam (“the path of submission”); Christianity (“so elastic that it seems a stretch to use this term to cover the beliefs and behaviors of Pentecostals in Brazil, Mormons in Utah, Roman Catholics in Italy, and the Orthodox in Moscow”); Confucianism (“a philosophy, ethic, or way of life”); Hinduism (“an over-the-top religion of big ideas, bright colors, soulful mantras, spicy foods, complex rituals, and wild stories”); Buddhism (“more about experience than doctrine”); Yoruba religion (“a system of communication and exchange between human beings and the divine”); Judaism (“unusually cacophonous”); Daoism (“a tradition of sacred mountains and pilgrimages and festivals and wine and incense and hymns and sexual practices and alternative medicine and martial arts and meandering conversations”)—and, for good measure, atheism (“a postreligious utopia”). Don’t know much about the world’s faiths? Get a copy now.

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The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Text Can Renew Modern Life by David Hazony

Taking off from where A.J. Jacobs’ comical The Year of Living Biblically left off, Israeli rabbi and scholar David Hazony’s The Ten Commandments suggests—in philosophical, not theoretical, terms—how we can apply this ancient literary text to the contemporary world. “Against the storm of rapidly shifting cultural winds, and the debilitating sense of impermanence that characterizes human life today,” writes Hazony, “the Ten Commandments stand as a beacon of principle for each and every one of us.” Hazony’s book provides a worthy argument for why the Ten Commandments should be looked at closely today. They’re not just religious teachings, he argues; rather, they’re “a set of extremely concise statements about the best way to build a good, upright society.” In this, the book is a success, showing how, say, the Fourth Commandment (“the biblical affirmation of the self”) can be, however farfetched in modern terms, surprisingly relevant. Hazony’s redemptive—and optimistic—book provides a religious roadmap for all of us, God-seeking or not, as we “struggle to make room for our own inner balance, our mental and spiritual health, our deepened selves.”

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The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the 
Lord’s Prayer by John Dominic Crossan

“The Lord’s Prayer is Christianity’s greatest prayer,” writes John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus at DePaul University and a leading Jesus scholar, in the prologue to The Greatest Prayer. “It is also Christianity’s strangest prayer.” By this, Crossan means that the Lord’s Prayer is complicated, complex, and hard-to-pin-down. Which is exactly what his book attempts to do: pin it down. Though Crossan doesn’t necessarily stress what makes the Lord’s Prayer relevant today—nor, he would likely argue, should he need to—he does take what he sees as “a revolutionary manifesto and a hymn of radical hope” and probes it, line-by-line, with the fine-toothed comb of a literary scholar closely reading a poem. For Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Evangelicals, Pentecostals—any Christians, really— is a must-read, a guidebook for how and why the only prayer Jesus ever taught endures. Recommended for the biblically literate.

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Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God by John Piper

Are you a victim of, as John Piper writes in the introduction to Think, “evangelical pragmatism, Pentecostal shortcuts, pietistic anti-intellectualism, pluralistic conviction aversion, academic gamesmanship, therapeutic Bible evasion, journalistic bite-sizing, musical mesmerizing, YouTube craving, and postmodern Jell-O juggling”? If so, this book may be for you. In Think, Piper—an evangelical Calvinist Christian pastor—makes his case for why “comprehending (imperfectly and partially, but truly)” the Bible is critical for the mind. Taking from the studies of the 18th-century theologian Jonathan Edwards (“among the greatest thinkers that America has ever produced, if not the greatest”), as well as two specific passages of scripture—2 Timothy 2:7 and Proverbs 2:1-6—Piper lays on the gospel thick and heavy. Sometimes, Piper’s pontificating results in profound truths; other times, he misses the mark. Not for the Christian faint of heart.

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The Next Christians: How a New Generation Is Restoring the Faith by Gabe Lyons

In The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons, a born-and-bred Christian, pulls material from a lifetime of experience in faith—as well as what he learned while researching his first book, UnChristian—and strives to expand upon “ The End of Christian America,” a 2009 magazine article by former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham. “The culture, it seems, has reached its threshold for this short-sheeted religion,” writes Lyons. “More and more, God seekers are abandoning traditional Christian institutions in search of something else.” Among those questing for non-traditional spiritual experiences, Lyons argues, is an emerging wave of Christian do-gooders, who “want to see the word Christian mean something good, intelligent, authentic, true, and beautiful.” Occasionally enlightening— the book’s anecdote about Shane Claiborne, a dreadlocked countercultural Christian, suggests a larger movement—much of The Next Christians is based on heavy-handed, over-the-top opinions. Even Lyons himself admits to being “inclined to pound the drum” of Christianity. Which is exactly why the book’s message, while impassioned and good-hearted, falls flat.

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Spencer Bailey works for The Daily Beast and has written for Bloomberg Businessweek, Esquire.com, VanityFair.com, and elsewhere.