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Finding and keeping faith, in 10 new religious titles

Books can save your life. Or so said Ashley Smith, who talked a fugitive in Atlanta into surrendering earlier this month by reading to him from a book of Christian inspiration. With that added incentive, Easter is an apt time to survey recent or soon-to-be-published religion titles. These books seek variously to inspire, to give voice to long-silenced women, to upend conventional wisdom about Jesus, to plumb history for lessons about tolerance, and, sometimes, just to make us laugh.

''The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, From the Civil Rights Movement to Today," by Charles Marsh (Basic , $26). Martin Luther King Jr. didn't want to be a hero. He planned a comfortable and comforting life until history hijacked him into spearheading the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. This counterintuitive portrait anchors University of Virginia scholar Marsh's argument that the civil rights movement was fundamentally a religious, not political, campaign to realize what King called the ''beloved community" of Christian compassion and justice. Marsh cites contemporary Christians following King's path of rejecting material pursuits to lead lives that seek to summon the beloved community.

''Taking Faith Seriously," edited by Mary Jo Bane, Brent Coffin, and Richard Higgins (Harvard University, $29.95). Too many don't take faith seriously -- not just simplistic secularists but quite a few on bended knee as well, say the editors, two Harvard professors and an editor-writer. Faith-based initiative types overestimate religious organizations' ability to cure social ills, they argue, while compulsive secularists misconstrue religion's public role and its ability to make us a more tolerant, moral nation.

''Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith," by Anne Lamott (Riverhead, $24.95). Columnist and author Anne Lamott wants you to know: She dearly loves her teenage son. So chalk it up to the alchemy of his adolescence and her menopause when she struggles to recall whether ''I had actually threatened to have the pets put to sleep or whether I had only insinuated that I would no longer intercede to keep them alive when, because of his neglect, they began starving to death." ''Plan B" is a humorous brief for religious faith that's open-minded in the face of life's adversities. And Lamott has plenty, from teenager issues to the Bush administration.

''The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David," by Thomas L. Thompson (Basic, $35). A splash of nitroglycerin on the historical Jesus debate, ''The Messiah Myth" explosively argues that there wasn't a Jesus at all. Rather, he was a composite, drawn from Egyptian and Babylonian mythology and notions of kingship and divinity. This puts Jesus in the literary lineage of King David, who Thompson also depicts as a hybrid of Near East cultures' ''metaphors." The good news is that Thompson teaches at the University of Copenhagen, so he's a vetted scholar. The bad news is that he teaches at the University of Copenhagen; at least one critic found passages of the book reading like an academic journal.

''Leading the Passover Journey: The Seder's Meaning Revealed, the Haggadah's Story Retold," by Rabbi Nathan Laufer (Jewish Lights, $24.99). Highlighting a Passover book on Easter Sunday could have been an exercise in tardiness, given the two holidays' frequent overlap. This year, however, Passover is still a month off. So if you're planning the ritual seder meal and trying to choose a haggadah (the script of blessings, songs, and the Exodus story that Jews follow during the seder), this book reviews the traditions and words of the holiday, from preparations to eating the meal, to discern meanings that average participants might have missed.

''God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America," by Naomi Schaefer Riley (St. Martin's, $24.95). If ''religious higher education" sounds oxymoronic to blue-state ears, this book seeks bridges between skeptics and believers. Enrollments at denomination-affiliated schools are burgeoning, journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley writes, and their graduates are bringing the pious into the professions. Covering schools from Brigham Young to Notre Dame to Bob Jones, Riley introduces us to students and professors wrestling not just with our day's great moral debates, such as gay rights, but also with how to fit in to secular America while keeping the faith.

''Daughters of the Desert: Stories of Remarkable Women From Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Traditions," by Claire Rudolph Murphy, Meghan Nuttall Sayres, Mary Cronk Farrell, Sarah Conover, and Betsy Wharton (Skylight Paths, $19.95). This may be religion's closest analogue to anonymous sources: Women who contributed songs, stories, and rituals to the world's three great faiths, while getting little or no credit. A diverse group of authors tries to correct this historical oversight with 18 stories of women, culled from the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and the Koran, whose lives significantly touched at least one of these religions and, in some cases, all three.

''Lighting the Way," by the Dalai Lama (Snow Lion, paperback, $14.95; translated, from the Tibetan, by Thupten Jinpa). Buddhism 101, as taught by the Tibetan master and Nobel Peace laureate. Intended for Western students, the Dalai Lama's lessons begin with the Four Noble Truths (life has suffering, desire causes suffering, we can eliminate desire, and there are eight principles for doing that). He moves on to mind training -- fostering positive mental states to replace negative ones -- and replacing self-concern with compassion on the path to enlightenment.

''A Vanished World: Medieval Spain's Golden Age of Enlightenment," by Chris Lowney (Free Press, $26). From the conflict between Arabs and Jews to some Christian American preachers' denunciations of Islam, can anybody imagine a time when religious believers lived together in prosperous peace? In fact, such a theological Camelot existed in Spain from the eighth to 15th centuries, says Jesuit turned businessman Lowney. Freed from the time-consuming chore of hating each other, Spaniards busied themselves innovating in business, agriculture, and the arts. We could take a lesson, Lowney says, from the time when, to paraphrase, there was such a spot, for one brief shining moment.

''Living Islam Out Loud: American Muslim Women Speak," edited by Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur (Beacon, paperback, $14). Between misogynistic Middle East regimes and images of male terrorists, Islam hasn't exactly advertised itself as a religion for Western women. This book attempts to show a more diverse face. It features female authors under 40, including former Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Nomani, and Sarah El-Tantawi, who has jousted over Muslim topics with the talking heads on ''Hardball" and ''Politically Incorrect." The contributors cover issues from sex and spirituality to traditional women's garb.

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