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Soon after I made my annual pilgrimage to Spike’s Lake in Northern Minnesota where both air and water are way cool and the wood stove glows warm, I heard from an NCR staffer who wrote: “Hope all is well in the land of 10,000 lakes. Drove through the state once and I only counted six personally, but I guess I’ll trust ’em on the rest.” As well he might!

Lakeside by one of the 10,000, I read, splash, write, splash and so on. And once more jump in the lake as my annual gift to faithful readers who often want to and even do cry out, after reading some review or other, “Oh, go jump in the lake!”

And so I have. And I will again.

In Women, Religion and Social Change in Brazil’s Popular Church (University of Notre Dame Press, 226 pages, $26, hardbound), Carol Ann Drogus reports that the Brazilian church’s role in mobilizing the poor and constructing a potentially more inclusive democratic society has been more widely debated than that of any other national church with the possible exception of Nicaragua. The São Paulo, Brazil, diocese is a leader of the liberationist church.

Drogus’ central question is how gender affects the ways in which the methods of liberation theology are received and acted upon. This analysis will help in understanding the powerful potential and profound limitations inherent in a religious attempt at social and political change.

The Burdensome Joy of Preaching (Abingdon, 102 pages, $14.95, paperback) is a reflection after more than 40 years of preaching by James Earl Massey, dean emeritus and distinguished professor at large at Anderson University School of Theology in Anderson, Ind. His memories and references alone make this small book a pleasant read for preachers.

Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium, by Donald E. Miller (University of California Press, 253 pages, $27.50 hardbound), grew out of a grant the author received to study rapidly growing, non-mainline churches.

Miller sees a revolution transforming American Protestantism. While many of the mainline churches are losing membership, overall church attendance is not declining. He sees a new style of Christianity being born in the United States, responding to fundamental cultural changes that began in the 1960s. He calls the new congregations “new paradigm churches,” and sees them as democratizing access to the sacred by radicalizing Protestant principles of the priesthood of all believers.

The Holy Spirit: Unbounded Gift of Joy, by Dominican Sr. Mary Ann Fatula (Liturgical Press, 188 pages, $16.95 paperback), ponders the insights of saints, mystics and theologians of East and West, especially the Fathers of the Church, in consideration of the varied facets “of the Spirit’s alluring personality” under the theme of the Holy Spirit as the giver of joy.

The author is a professor of theology at Ohio Dominican College in Columbus. Her well-documented study is sure to be welcome in classrooms, study groups and libraries, as well as in the hands of individuals who would better understand the Spirit’s gift.

The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith (HarperSanFrancisco, 182 pages, $12 paperback) is by Marcus J. Borg, a fellow of the Jesus Seminar who reports that this book comes out of his own journey of living within the Christian tradition and seeking to make sense of it in a way that is faithful both to biblical and post-biblical traditions. He writes as a nonspecialist who seeks to give an accessible exposition of some general insights about how concepts and images of God affect not only notions of the sacred but understandings of religious life itself.

Borg writes for Christians, those on the margin of the church or those who live in the culture shaped by Christianity (which would seem to include all Americans). Those who seek an improved relationship with God or wish better to hear the gospel’s invitation may find this book helpful.

Author Peter G. Filene asserts that his In the Arms of Others: A Cultural History of the Right-to-Die in America (Ivan R. Dee [1332 N. Halsted St., Chicago 60622], 282 pages, $27.50 hardbound) is not a self-help book about living wills or patient rights, nor is it a therapeutic book about facing death. He looks to confront fundamental questions, work out tentative answers, define untamable ambiguities. He invites readers to clarify their own ideas and emotions.

For understanding, Filene looks to medicine, law, religion, bioethics, politics and mass media. He asserts that claiming a right to die “seems to provide a remedy.” Those Christians who would not agree with his conclusion will probably not be well-served by his book.

Lectio Divina: An Ancient Prayer That Is Ever New, by Mario Masini (Alba House, 103 pages, $5.95 paperback), translated by Paulist Fr. Edmund C. Lane, presents the meaning and steps involved in the practice of reading, listening to and interpreting the biblical text. Masini offers a fine introduction to an important task.

Theology: Expanding the Borders, the Annual Publication of the College Theology Society, Volume 43, is edited by Maria Pilar Aquino and Roberto S. Goizueta (Twenty-Third Publications, 333 pages, $14.95 paperback). In it, 16 members of the College Theological Society consider territorial or national borders and also epistemological, ethnic, racial, gender, disciplinary, ecclesial and religious borders.

Contributors include Sr. Anne E. Patrick, Fr. Virgilio Elizondo, Fr. Dennis M. Doyle and a promising young scholar from Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill., Jennifer Reed-Bouley, whose paper compares the principles and norms of Catholic social teaching with United Farm Workers’ policy from 1967 to 1974 with regard to the treatment of undocumented workers.

A Different Touch: A Study of Vows in Religious Life, by Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Judith A. Merkle (Liturgical Press, 294 pages, $24.95 paperback), was written with the conviction that changes in secular and democratic culture demand rearticulation of the future and meaning of vowed religious life. Merkle reflects on religious life through cultural criticism, social sciences, history and theology. She sees four critical choices to be made: discernment between cultural religion and gospel living, hope or nostalgia, the decision to overcome moral hazards to rediscover community, and the adoption of a realistic vision of evolution to the future.

She looks to the Spirit acting against odds, graced human freedom overcoming entropy and the spark of new energy. Certainly worth careful consideration.

The Book of Margery Kempe, translated and with an introduction by John Skinner (Image Books, Doubleday, 343 pages, $16.95 paperback), is quite a find. Margery Kempe was a 14th century English mystic, a contemporary of Julian of Norwich. She was, however, not an anchoress vowed to celibacy, but a married woman who gave birth to 14 children, who briefly ran a large brewery and, turning to religion, made pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Rome and Santiago di Compostela in Spain.

Her book is the first known autobiography in English. It was discovered in 1934, and is the account of Margery’s spiritual awakening and conversion. Skinner judges that “Margery will never be St. Kempe, but the conundrum of her patience in suffering her own simple foolishness is a wonder to behold and an example to us all.” Amen to that.

In Shall We Look For Another? A Feminist Rereading of the Matthean Jesus (Orbis, 178 pages, $18 paperback), Australian Sr. Elaine M. Wainwright asserts that women need another way of reading foundational stories so that they yield life-giving and not death-dealing meaning, another representation of divinity beyond male symbolization. She seeks to offer one possible map for reading and hearing the gospel story within contemporary communities, as well as some significant pointers to ways of rereading.

Her feminist reading of the gospel brings new questions to the text that make it possible to explore a hidden wisdom or deeper lode. She looks to the underside of the narrative, perspectives that female characters and others seen as nonpersons provide when the focus shifts from male hero to other images, symbols and metaphors.

Wainwright’s is an intelligent approach, and her care ought to facilitate another close and careful look at the Good News.

Enormous Prayers: A Journey into the Priesthood, by Thomas Kunkel (Westview Press, a Division of HarperCollins, 202 pages, $25 hardbound), is a sympathetic look at 28 different American priests. The author finds them “special precisely because they are ordinary people who have made this extraordinary commitment.” The book’s real value, it seems to me, is in the assertion that while issues change from one generation to the next, and controversies come and go, faith remains constant.

Those who still consider Job the patron saint of patience ought to hurry out to find The Book of Job, Translation, Introduction, and Notes by Raymond P. Scheindlin (W.W. Norton and Co., 237 pages, $23.95 hardbound).

Scheindlin, a professor of medieval Hebrew literature at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, translates every word of the book, even those sometimes omitted as spurious or unintelligible, and has rearranged as little as possible. His hope is to produce a poem in English that reflects the poetic values specific to biblical Hebrew and the original Book of Job.

The 49-page introduction would be a good introduction to one method of biblical study for those so inclined, as well as a fine way to begin rereading Job as an angry and defiant fellow who puzzles over the mysteries of human existence.

Because Benedictine Fr. Thomas Peter Wahl was one of my seminary professors in a land and time long ago, I should perhaps not comment on his The Lord’s Song in a Foreign Land: The Psalms as Prayer (Liturgical Press, 214 pages, $16.95 paperback). But I enjoyed it too much to pass it by, so acknowledge instead my possible bias. I found the book a fine aid to prayer as well as a remarkably readable piece of scholarship. His asides and explanations in the footnotes are particularly delightful.

Those who would better understand that body of texts largely composed in the Iron Age but still at the core of prayer will find Wahl an apt, scholarly and even humorous guide.

Fugitive Faith, interviews by Benjamin Webb (Orbis, Ecology and Justice Series, 216 pages, $16 paperback), is a collection of conversations on spiritual, environmental, and community renewal. In the foreword, Bill McKibben reflects on an annual blessing of animals and offers the opinion that “We don’t do it because animals need our blessing; they wear so much more naturally than us the blessing of their creator.” Perhaps the notion of wearing more naturally the blessing of the creator is the inspiration behind both the writing and the reading of this book.

The editor, an Episcopal priest in Cedar Falls, Iowa, divides his interviews into four parts: examining the spoiled condition of our physical and moral environments, practical links between religious and environmental sensibilities, restoring and re-storying, and the resurgence of spiritual, environmental and community renewal.

Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, by Kathleen Norris (Riverhead Books, 384 pages, $24.95 hardbound), is a lovely book for the faithful as well as those considering conversion to faith-filled life. Norris is not a theologian but is one to whom faith once seemed dead but who made a long struggle to sort out a genuine Christian vocabulary (from Antichrist to New Jerusalem). I particularly liked her pastor’s suggestion that the Antichrist is each of us “whenever we hear the gospel and do not do it.”

I consider the book a fine graduation present and so employed my copy.

Fr. William C. Graham is associate professor of religious studies and director of the Caldwell Pastoral Ministry Institute at Caldwell College in New Jersey. He is a priest of the Duluth, Minn., diocese.

National Catholic Reporter, September 18, 1998