LITERARY SPIRIT \ Religion in the media

"All God's Creatures" by Debra K. Farrington (Paraclete Press, 208 pages, 14.95) Should we pray for our pets? Does an animal's death merit a funeral? Yes, says Debra K. Farrington. Having written seven books on Christian spirituality, here she turns to the bonds between humans and animals as an avenue of spiritual growth. (She doesn't like the terms "pet" or "owner," by the way, because we don't own our pets "any more than we own our children.") If God created all, she writes, "I'm just as likely to encounter God's presence in a cat, dog, or other animal as a human being." She quotes St. Basil, who called animals "our brothers," and St. Bonaventure, who wrote, "For every creature is by its nature a kind of effigy and likeness of the eternal Wisdom." The book is filled with animal-inspired wisdom from the Bible ("Ask the animals, and they will teach you." Job 12:7) and elsewhere. Many pages are devoted to rituals: a liturgy to welcome an animal into the family, short prayers to bless a pregnant animal, a service to mark the death of a beloved companion. Weaving in her personal stories, she invites readers to experience the deep mystery of communion with nonhumans. Caring for animals is a privilege, she writes, and "if we are open and receptive to the animals who live with us, we will find ourselves being ministered to, and taught by them as well."
"I'm Proud of You -- My Friendship With Fred Rogers" Tim Madigan (Gotham, 208 pages, 20) There is great joy and inspiration in this small, personal book, crafted by Fort Worth Star-Telegram writer Tim Madigan. Madigan chronicles his own emotional, spiritual awakening in parallel with his emotional, spiritual friendship with the late Fred Rogers. Reading about Mr. Rogers is even more comforting than watching his gentle television program. Madigan reveals a man "on the order of spiritual icons like Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, and the Dalai Lama." Madigan's friend didn't conserve his love or affection. He lavished it from the beginning of their enviable relationship. The kindness and sincerity in Mr. Rogers' words, as recalled and transcribed by Madigan, are breathtaking. As Madigan climbs out of depression and later struggles with a family member's illness, Mr. Rogers serves as a guide and mentor, "a human embodiment of heaven." The book is more than a tribute to Mr. Rogers. It also offers a glimpse into an everyday man's spiritual life -- the people, prayers, Scriptures, theological writings and sacred moments that cultivate a person's relationship with the divine.
"Christianity for the Rest of Us" by Diana Butler Bass HarperSanFrancisco, 336 pages, 23.95) It's generally accepted that American mainline Protestantism is in trouble; its churches are in decline, eclipsed by evangelical megachurches. Church and religion expert Diana Butler Bass doesn't deny that, and yet she wondered whether "other" kinds of Christians still existed. This book is the result of Bass' three-year study of "centrist and progressive" churches across the country. A self-proclaimed "other" kind of Christian, (not the kind, as she writes, "based on personal salvation and moral certainty"), Bass clearly had an agenda to find like-minded churchgoers, and she did. She discovered that many churches are flourishing, and doing so without mimicking the conservative megachurch model. She visited gatherings of various Episcopal, United Methodist, Disciples of Christ, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ and Lutheran churches.
"Strange Heaven" by Jon M. Sweeney (Paraclete Press, 233 pages, 23.95) "We know almost nothing about her for certain," the author begins. Mary left behind no handwritten documents, no letters, no diaries. And yet there is a rich tradition surrounding the Virgin Mary. The author surveys that tradition, looking at the role of Mary in the lives of churches, theologians, saints, artists, mythologists and lay devotees. The book weaves thoughtful reflection on biblical accounts with popular legends and myths. There's one medieval story of the knight who wins tournament glory through his heroic devotion to Mary, and another of a distraught mother who steals a statue of the baby Jesus from a church, promising the nearby Mary statue to return the baby only when her own son, a war prisoner, is freed. (Legend says the ploy worked.) The title comes from John Donne, who wrote of Mary, "whose wombe was a strange heav'n, for there God cloath'd himselfe, and grew." And that, the author concludes, is the central message of Mary's life. She is the chief symbol of God's humanity, "and her strange heaven is what is possible in all of us." The author's carefully researched yet reverential portrait leaves readers awed by the varied and mystical legacy of Mary throughout Christian history.
McClatchy Newspapers

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