003: Here Are 4 Great Holiday Gifts …

“I yearned to serve one day as a paintbrush in the hand of God, to express beauty and goodness in the world.”
The words of photographer-activist Martin Gray in the Preface to “Sacred Earth.”

 Here are 4 great holiday gifts that we know will be sure-fire spiritual hits.
And, we know that your first question is: Whose holidays?
Our answer: Our holidays.
In the next few years, we plan to expand ReadTheSpirit into an enticing, hospitable haven for reflection on our own faiths as well as the many traditions of the vast spiritual family that we share around the world. We’re not trying to convert anyone -– except to promote great cultural curiosity and great respect.
Of course, we know that the vast majority of Americans are Christian and the great bulk of holiday purchases each year are sparked by that tradition. But, Hanukkah is coming as well –- and at least one of our recommendations today, “Sacred Earth,” is a perfect gift for readers from every cultural background.
Plus, quite frankly, even if you’re Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu, you’re likely to be curious about the greatest African-American performers of our era presenting the timeless poetry of the Psalms (in the new “Bible Experience” edition that we talk about below). And, just as Christians are curious about the Quran these days, Muslims already have deep respect for Jesus as a major Prophet and there’s likely to be some honest interfaith curiosity about what Bible scholars are saying these days concerning the Bible’s accounts of Jesus’ birth.
Later this year, we’d love to see Muslim-Christian discussion groups spring up to discuss the two faiths’ perspectives on the birth of Jesus. Muslims have a marvelous birth narrative from the Quran that’s distinct from the gospel versions. Members of each faith could meet one night, simply to hear alternative versions read aloud by talented readers. They might meet again to discuss what the differences in the texts may suggest. They might meet a third time to discuss a theme that’s central to both Muslim and Christian narratives: God’s compassionate concern for the ordinary lives of men and women.
If you’re aware of such a group anywhere in the U.S., please email me and I’ll be happy to share locations and meeting times with our broad readership. Or, if you prefer a more privately organized discussion group, then please tell us afterward what you discussed –- and we’ll share your conclusions with our readers.

We hope that by this third ReadTheSpirit story, today, we’re getting to know each other a little bit. If you’re still scratching your head about our project, think of us as your ideal inspirational bookstore and all-around spiritual haven — available to you wherever you’re able to get online.
Think of us as a more personal, narrowly focused center similar to the world-famous City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, which at the noble age of 54 is a cultural force far larger than its venerable storefront. City Lights, co-founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, promotes writers, publishes books and engages in peaceful activism. Or, closer to our physical home base in Michigan, there’s the similarly eclectic oasis known as Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor.

What’s different about our virtual shop is that I’m here waiting for you, among our virtual shelves, ready to help with a kind word, a fresh insight or a new tip on great reading throughout the week at your schedule. Visit us at 2 a.m. if that’s the ideal spiritual hour in your life. We’ll be right here, among the shelves, glad to see you once again!
Over time, we plan to expand our shelving and our recommended books until our collection of titles is lined side to side and top to bottom with spiritual gems -– a shop whose inventory will be unlike anything you could find near your home. And publishing our favorite emerging writers? Well, you’re going to see us unfold an uniquely designed publishing arm, as well, in coming months!

But, hey, let’s move from our dreams to a little practical shopping, shall we?

First, click on the title of “Sacred Earth: Places of Peace and Power.” On the next page that pops up, you can read our more extensive review of Martin Gray’s new book and buy a copy today from our Amazon-related shop.
The phrase “coffee-table book” arises each autumn to describe big, colorful hardbacks that people give as gifts and that, before January 31 rolls around, already are collecting dust in someone’s living room.
This book is big and colorful, too, but it’s different. Gray is our kind of media pilgrim, a photographer passionately driven to capture images of hundreds of sacred sites around the world. He wants people to understand the universal, peaceful yearning for such havens. He also wants us to help preserve them, since many are endangered by poor maintenance or encroaching development.
But this book isn’t a strident political argument. It’s a collection of terrific photographs and short articles about the sites. If you give it to a friend -– or buy a copy for yourself –- this book shouldn’t gather dust. Simply flip open the book once a day to a different site, peer at the photos, read the text –- and reflect. There’s at least a good month of meditations between this book’s covers –- perhaps far more than that. (We should even warn you that this is a dangerous book, because you’ll be tempted to go see some of these fascinating sites yourself!)

Second, after an excruciatingly long wait by those of us who are fans of the New Testament version of “The Bible Experience,” Zondervan is releasing what it calls “The Complete Bible” (even though Zondervan is speaking mainly to a Protestant audience and actually is not including the extra books familiar to Catholic readers, we’re sorry to report).
Nevertheless, this is a cultural milestone. Virtually every leading African-American performer, including Samuel L. Jackson, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett and Afre Woodard, lent voices to this dramatic reading of the Bible. Denzel Washington and his wife signed up to read the great ode to love known as “Song of Solomon.” Who can resist that?
Countless audio Bibles have come and gone, but I’ve listened to the “Bible Expeience: New Testament” several times myself. Then, recently, my wife, Amy, suggested that we play the whole thing on the stereo in our living room -– and I went through it all a fourth time with her. This is an audio version that will endure for years.
Click on the title above, jump to our bookstore shelves and pre-order your copy today. Then, it will land on your doorstep early enough that you’ll be tempted to sneak into the package and listen to it yourself before you give it away.
Hmmm –- or avoid that moral dilemma entirely –- and order 2 copies now.

Third, Harper Bibles recently released a great practical addition to the groaning shelves of Bibles: a reasonably priced, yet artfully designed, NRSV Bible that’s comfortable to unfold on your lap and comes with big, bright printing that’s -– pssssst! –- actually Large Type. But Harper wants to avoid any anxiety among people who don’t like to admit their age by discreetly calling this new edition the “XL.”
To that, I say: I’m proud to be a person in my 50s and don’t mind admitting that my poor aging eyes really enjoy relaxing with a typeface that’s comfortable to read at the end of a long day.

Even though these are modestly priced Bibles, there’s a ribbon bookmark bound into each copy and an index to hundreds of popular terms at the back of the book.
We’re giving you two links and two choices: Click Here to find out more about the Protestant edition and, if you like it, to buy one via our shop. Or, Click Here if you prefer the Catholic version of the Bible with its additional array of Old Testament books organized in the traditional Catholic style.
Harper offers Protestants a tan binding. Catholics get green.
Is that some kind of salute to the Irish? We’re not sure and Harper isn’t saying. But they’re both lovely Bibles.

Finally, this isn’t much of a risky prediction, because the successful track record of “The Last Week” pretty much proves the point: Fairly soon, “The First Christmas” is guaranteed to spark a coast-to-coast buzz in congregations.
Bible scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, once the target of a lot of evangelical darts, are back with another short but substantial book that’s guaranteed to be the subject of countless small-group discussions as Christmas approaches.
“The Last Week” examined the gospel accounts of Jesus’ final days. Now, the two scholars examine what they call the great and powerful “Overture” of the gospels –- the narratives of Jesus’ birth.
What’s fascinating about Americans’ attitudes toward these scholars is that a couple of decades ago, their works actually were burned by a least a handful of disgruntled fundamentalists. These over-the-top critics were offended at anyone taking such a fresh approach to the gospels. But, in recent years, a younger generation of evangelists has embraced Borg’s work in particular.
I’ve read “The First Christmas” in an early manuscript and this new book follows the pattern of “The Last Week.” The scholars want readers to take a new look at these stories that we normally receive without much contemplation each year, sprinkled with holiday stardust. There’s a great deal more to these stories than that, they argue.
Thousands of readers will agree. So, grab your copy now and do your own homework. If you’re part of a group that plans to discuss the book –- email us and tell us about your plans!

    We want to know how you use these books and DVDs we are recommending. We welcome your thoughts and ideas. We’re not going anywhere. This is Our Spiritual Bookstore, remember? We’re here for you.

WEDNESDAY: “004: A Conversation with Tony Campolo …”
THURSDAY: “005: The Spiritual Lives of Animals …”
FRIDAY: “006: A Major New Voice Is Rising in Islam …”

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