Books to give at Christmas 4 of 4

A Mended and Broken Heart: The Life and Love of Francis of Assisi
By Wendy Murray
NY: Basic Books, 2008

Like the search for "the historical Jesus," the author of this work set out to find the historical Francis. From the data obtained in her research, she has given us a believable profile of this beloved saint, and it doesn't look like a garden statue.

Murray's portraits of Francis and Clare, his soul mate (yes, that's the appropriate word) are much more believable than many prettified versions we've heretofore been offered. She takes us into aspects of their lives omitted by hagiographers probably fearful that the holiness of their subjects might seem diminished. One example: Francis was a conflicted man, dueling constantly with his desire to marry and have a family.

Because the church seems never to have known how to integrate hetero-human love with saintliness, Clare's very significant role in the life of Francis has, for all practical purposes, been written out of the script. But, Murray found that no story of Francis is complete without Clare. The two loved each other; and even though their lifelong relationship was not a sexual one, it can hardly be described as purely platonic.

Francis and Clare step out of this book as partners and as persons exhibiting the full range of human emotions -- with real blood flowing through their veins.

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Martyr of the Amazon: The Life of Sister Dorothy Stang
By Roseanne Murphy, S.N.D. de N.
New York: Orbis Books, 2007

Although it is foremost the life story of Dorothy Stang, a missionary nun from Ohio who labored in Brazil from 1966 until her bloody assassination in 2005, this work surprises with its multi-dimensional relevancies. It exposes the government supported multi-national corporations complicit in destroying the Amazon forest; highlights the violence rendering the farmers powerless, and therefore impoverished; and presents in bold relief the selfless, dedicated work of women religious among the poor and powerless.

Details present the lives of Dorothy and her companions as nothing short of a whirlwind. They engaged in political activism, hands-on caring for the entire gamut of human needs, teaching, catechizing, establishing base communities, empowering the indigenous. It was mostly on-site learning for the Sisters, but they grew proficient toward all the demands in their multi-tasking —no pious nun stereotype piety here.

In more than mere wishful hypothesis, Dorothy Stang's work and bloody execution mirror that of the Jesus of the Gospels -- including a resurrection. For, in planning her funeral, the people announced: "We are not going to bury Dorothy; we are going to plant her." They shouted, "Dorothy vive!"

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Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture
By Vincent J. Miller
NY: Continuum, 2005

Not a harangue against materialism or the frenzy of Christmas shopping, this is rather a serious study of our entrenched consumer culture, originating in the western world and now spreading globally. It is a narrative of social, cultural, and economic changes that created and energized consumerism to reach its contemporary tipping point. With no exemption for religion, the author focuses on two dynamics that are at once both causes and effects of today's over-consumption: alienation and commodification.

Alienation began with the migration of families from rural to urban areas as they sought work in factories. Eventual overproduction of factory-made goods necessitated increased buying. That, not surprisingly, led to seductive advertising that baptizes manufactured goods with "meaning" and bestows upon them "misdirected values."

A population uprooted from its original socio-cultural-religious context, and hungry for such imagined meanings and values, provides a ready-made market for goods to fill the void. Shoppers (termed "seekers") browse even in world religions for "commodities" to compensate for the missing ingredients.

Having given readers the history and consequences of this cultural phenomenon, the author proposes at least one effort to combat it. Theologians, he says, should get out of their intellectual lofts and down to street level where the "shoppers" are.

This is not a textbook on economics; it is the story -- with concrete images and examples -- of how consumer culture now moves on its own momentum.

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Find more Book Club selections here: Books to give at Christmas

[Regina Schulte has a master's degree in theology from the University of Notre Dame and a doctorate in theology from Marquette University. Now retired from her academic (college and seminary) career, she continues her educational endeavors by writing and a variety of other endeavors. Regina's book reviews appear regularly in Corpus Reports.]

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