This should have been very interesting

carrietomompicAs several readers have written to let us know, this USA Today mini-package seemed like a great idea. I mean, GetReligion readers ought to want to dig into a feature that runs under the headline: "A window into the faith of religion reporters." The problem, of course, is that these mini features -- for the most part -- tell us very little information in a small amount of space. And the information we get is basic a set of mini-blurbs about four interesting books by four very interesting people. What we don't get is much in the way of specifics about their faiths.

Then again, maybe that is the point. This is like a mini-lab on the whole "spirituality" vs. "organized religion" thing.

Here's what you get, starting with the mini-mini-feature on writer Peter Manseau and his new book, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. This one was especially interesting to me because, a week ago, I was praying over the bodies (the bodies of some saints do not really decay, for reasons that mystify people) and bones in the famous caves of the Monastery of Pechersk Lavra in Kiev, Ukraine.

Peter Manseau has made -- from teeth and whiskers, fingers and ribs — a globe-traveling tale of the one thing all humanity shares: the body. In Rag and Bone, he takes a world tour of relics. St. John the Baptist's finger. Mohammed's whisker. St. Francis Xavier's toe. Even Buddha's teeth are "politically active" as "tools of piety and power" in Myanmar. ...

The Washington, D.C.-based author, who also edits Search: The Magazine of Science, Religion and Culture, originally wanted to be an archaeologist, "digging around for the material of who we are. I became a writer about religion because it was a way to be digging around the stories we tell. Religious stories tell who we are as well," he says.

Manseau's first book, Vows, was a memoir of his early life "in a parallel universe" as the child of a Catholic priest and a nun who married but refused to renounce their vocations or to be officially laicized.

Wait a minute, there. Click pause. Don't you want to know more about that final paragraph?

Here are some tiny clips from the other mini-features, each raising more questions than they answer:

* There's Barbara Bradley Hagerty and Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality.

The religion reporter for National Public Radio is nearly naked in her new book. Spiritually naked, that is. Barbara Bradley Hagerty's scientific exploration of spirituality research weaves in her faith history: a devout Christian Scientist who shifts to evangelical Christianity, then develops a gnawing desire to answer the question "Will science get the last word on God?" ...

Fingerprints is also funny. Bradley Hagerty describes being trapped in a tent for an all-night peyote ceremony where she's observing, not indulging. A two-week meditation experiment just makes her cranky, "a poster child for meditative failure."

* Then there's Cathleen Falsani and her Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace. Here is the thesis statement for the whole operation, it seems.

What doesn't show up in the book is theology or doctrine. It is filled with art, music and movie references. "It takes art to talk about grace. It's always more eloquent," says Falsani, whose favorite T-shirt says, "Jesus is my mix tape."

* And finally, a clip about the much discussed William Lobdell and his Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America -- and Found Unexpected Peace.

Journalist William Lobdell had the classic Christian story -- sinner saved by grace -- until his born-again fervor led him to become a suburban religion columnist and eventually a religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

He gives the ending away in the title: Losing My Religion. At first, he delights in upbeat stories of people living lives of faith. "Believers see God's work everywhere, and the God things I saw all around me cried out to be covered," he writes. But the snake in the garden appears early. Someone gives him files on a priest who sexually abused minors.

One final comment: This is the sort of guide to big subjects in a small amount of space that works much better online than in print. URLs make all the difference, don't they?

Photo: Unitarian stained glass.

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