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Did you hear about the young priest who asked his Sunday school class, “What’s gray, furry, gathers nuts and runs up and down trees?”

The puzzled class sat in silence until one little boy said, “Well, I know the answer should be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!”

Jim Wallis, who includes this tale in his Faith Works: Lessons from the Life of an Activist Preacher (Random House, 371 pages, $23.95 hardbound), offers reminders that there is not always an easy religious answer to every problem. He has been an interesting and important contributor to the national scene as an activist and as the editor of Sojourners magazine, and his book will be a beacon for those who believe, as he does, that we are on the verge of a new movement for economic justice, led in large part by communities of faith.

In Religion and the Common Good: Catholic Contributions to Building Community in a Liberal Society (Rowman and Littlefield, 201 pages, $63 hardbound, $23.95 paperback), Brian Stiltner argues that there can be a fit between liberal and religious accounts of what makes for a good society, even though that fit has come under attack in the modern era. He sees most liberal politics as officially neutral toward religion and notes that many critics consider liberal political philosophy to be hostile to religious belief or practice.

Stiltner focuses on the philosophy of liberalism and the correctives offered by a Catholic philosophy of the common good, discussing how religion might help in understanding and pursuing the common good in a liberal society. His work might be considered as a continuation of the discussion begun in Stephen Carter’s 1993 book The Culture of Disbelief.

Public Voices: Catholics in the American Context, edited by Steven M. Avella and Elizabeth McKeown (one of nine volumes in the American Catholic Identities: A Documentary History series; Christopher J. Kauffman, general editor; Orbis, 375 pages, $30 paperback), is a rich and valuable source of letters and other documents relating to the political and social history of Catholics from colonial times to the present.

Another interesting volume in the same American Catholic Identities series is The Frontier and Catholic Identities (Orbis, 221 pages, $50 hardbound), edited by Anne M. Butler, Jesuit Fr. Michael E. Engh and Xaverian Br. Thomas W. Spalding, which shows how Catholic clergy, religious and laity were involved in American frontiers from Kentucky to Hawaii and Alaska. What an interesting and important series this is!

Catholicism Today: A Survey of Catholic Belief and Practice, third edition (Paulist Press, 243 pages, $10.95 paperback), by Marianist Fr. Matthew F. Kohmescher, is a helpful text for college classes, parish discussion groups and persons preparing to join the church. Discussion questions and suggested readings make the book even more valuable.

Fr. Andrew Greeley has long been famous for his exploration of the Catholic imagination in his fiction, seeing grace wondrously revealed in creation. In The Catholic Imagination (University of California Press, 231 pages, $22 hardbound), he considers what is unique in the Catholic worldview and culture (including sacrament, salvation, community and festival), and asks if values influence people’s lives. Greeley’s is a valuable and informed perspective on the role of religion in daily life. I’ve sent my copy of the page proofs off to a professor in American and Catholic studies who’ll be glad, I’m sure, to have a read.

I’d like to build a college course around this text and have suggested it to colleagues who teach about religion and the arts.

Women and Faith: Catholic Religious Life in Italy from Late Antiquity to the Present, edited by Lucetta Scaraffia and Gabriella Zarri (Harvard University Press, 378 pages, $59.95 hardbound), is a collection of essays exploring the rewards, ambiguities and contradictions experienced by women in their spirituality and in their relationship to the church. This book will be of particular interest to those interested in the history of women and the history of religion. At issue is whether religion has principally oppressed women or provided access to culture, public life and power. The essays reflect and consider the conflict and tension.

The Biblical Jubilee and the Struggle for Life (Orbis, 170 pages, $17 paperback) is by Ross Kinsler and Gloria Kinsler, co-workers in mission for the Presbyterian church who have lived and worked among the peoples of Central America for the last 25 years. They know how difficult it is for relatively affluent Christians of the North, including themselves, to comprehend and practice the principles set forth in the Sabbath Year and Jubilee mandates of the Hebrew scriptures. They believe that these mandates speak to the primary predicaments of modern times. The mandates might provide fundamental guidelines for the current concerns.

Boredom and the Religious Imagination (University Press of Virginia, 199 pages, $13.95 paperback), according to author Michael L. Raposa, is the reflections of a philosopher in midlife who, having confronted the demon of noontide, thinks out loud about the encounter.

Boredom or spiritual sluggishness manifests itself as dullness in prayer and boredom with the rituals of devotion. Raposa sees a certain resemblance to the Dark Night of the Soul, a terrifying but necessary stage in the mystic’s spiritual journey. Boredom, he asserts, can serve as midwife for the birth of religious knowledge, though frequently it is perceived as a dangerous condition to be eschewed but endured, never desired or cultivated.

Among the original charisms of the Order of Preachers is the defense and promotion of orthodoxy. Thus Dominican Fr. Aidan Nichols, prior of the Blackfriars community in Cambridge, is faithful to his roots in writing Christendom Awake: On Reenergizing the Church in Culture (William B. Eerdmans, 255 pages, $28 paperback), a defense of orthodox faith.

Nichols suggests that recovering the church’s traditional mission will reenergize its witness in areas including philosophy, ethics, aesthetics, economics, gender relations and politics. Amply documented, provocative and interesting.

Marital Spirituality: The Search for the Hidden Ground of Love (Paulist, 198 pages, $14.95 paperback) is by Patrick J. McDonald and Claudette M. McDonald, licensed independent social workers married to each other for 25 years.

This book is an invitation to couples to pray with the scriptures (lectio divina), ancient wisdom, stories, anecdotes, personal experiences and interpersonal process. This may be a practical ticket for those seeking an exercise in hopefulness on behalf of their relationship.

Do Not Lose Hope: Healing the Wounded Heart of Women Who Have Had Abortions, by Fr. William F. Maestri (Alba House, 82 pages, $5.95 paperback), is a series of eight brief reflections on the experiences of women who have had abortions. Maestri sensitively follows the pastoral lead of John Paul II’s encyclical The Gospel of Life in addressing a “special word to women who have had abortions.” This book is certain to be helpful to those who use it.

Like His Brothers and Sisters: Ordaining Community Leaders (Crossroad, 208 pages, $17.95 paperback; first published in 1998 in the Philippines by Claretian Publications) is by Bishop Fritz Lobinger who, born in Germany, has worked as a missionary in South Africa since 1956. He holds a doctorate in missiology and has served as bishop of Aliwal, South Africa, since 1986.

Lobinger asks if the church can introduce a second kind of priest, one who is not celibate and who lives in a way similar to the rest of the community. He restricts his consideration to viri probati, proven men, leaders of communities who otherwise would have no priests. He does not want to do away with celibacy, nor does he address the topic of women in ordained ministry.

I’ve never noticed a typographical error in the Contents of a Crossroad book before, but spelling bishop as bshop on page viii did not inspire confidence that an editor had labored long over the text.

Linda Corona, a full-time public librarian, is an active parishioner of St. Philomena’s Parish in Livingston, N.J., where she is a member of the team that prepares adults to join the church and teaches sixth grade in the religious education program. She is also a graduate student in pastoral ministry at Caldwell College. She looked at The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, by Ronald Rolheiser (Doubleday, 257 pages, $21.95 hardbound). According to Rolheiser, the essential aspects, or “nonnegotiable,” in the search are community worship, the call to social action, the central belief in the Incarnation, and a grateful heart.

Rolheiser emphasizes that spirituality is, in a way, a sense of balance and, Corona concluded that Rolheiser is successful in promoting that balance and in bringing to life the authentic meaning of the Incarnation. Corona found herself reading parts more than once, finding the book an inviting, prayerful resource for anyone sincerely interested in developing an authentic spiritual life.

Fr. William C. Graham, a priest of the Duluth, Minn., diocese, has accepted an invitation to be guest professor of religious studies at Lewis University, a Christian Brothers university in suburban Chicago for the 2000-01 academic year. He receives e-mail at NCRBkshelf@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 25, 2000