The Bible: A Biography
By Karen Armstrong
Atlantic, 302 pp., $21.95
The Case for the Real Jesus: A Journalist Investigates Current Attacks on the Identity of Christ
By Lee Strobel
Zondervan, 311 pp., $21.99
Thumpin' It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today's Presidential Politics
By Jacques Berlinerblau
Westminster, 190 pp., paperback, $16.95
We're preparing to celebrate one of our most sacred days, a ritual in which believers throng together to honor the coming of a new leader embodying our noblest aspirations.
I refer, of course, to the Iowa caucuses.
The quadrennial starting gun to the presidential election is Jan. 3, plunking the caucuses squarely amid the 12 Days of Christmas, which begin on Dec. 25 and end at the Epiphany. It's an apt coincidence (even if the chosen ones in this rite - one proffered Republican messiah and one Democratic - will be chosen by Iowa voters rather than the Almighty). Politics and religion are hardly strangers to each other; the leading candidates in both parties sometimes drape their speeches in biblical language.
"It is a peculiarity of the Good Book that it elicits in its readers the strong conviction that it unequivocally supports their strongest convictions," Georgetown political scientist Jacques Berlinerblau observes in "Thumpin' It," which is a rundown of current candidates' faith-laced utterances and a Valium for secularists panicked about an impending theocracy.
Be forewarned that the chapters on the 2008 contenders could hit their expiration date before Valentine's Day, by when there will have been about 40 primaries or caucuses and both parties may have settled on their standard-bearers for the fall. Less perishable insights include Berlinerblau's sangfroid about Bible-thumping pols, a welcome antidote to the army of alarmist authors who've been predicting the establishment of the United States of Pat Robertson any day now.
Christians, Berlinerblau also says, including evangelicals, historically have been unable to agree on the proper interpretation and political implications of scripture. Differing takes on the Bible are also a theme in Karen Armstrong's "The Bible: A Biography." Her expertise falls on the church side of the church-state equation - she is a former nun and has written several bestsellers on religion - and her new book dispels any notion of religion as a rigidly fixed reading of sacred texts. Spanning millennia, from the scripture's origins in oral stories to the conflicting beliefs, ancient and modern, over its message, her book will discomfort fundamentalists who believe that the Bible means what it says and says what it means.
"The modern habit of quoting proof-texts to legitimize policies and rulings is out of key with interpretive tradition," writes Armstrong. "The fundamentalist emphasis on the literal reflects the modern ethos but is a breach with tradition, which usually preferred some kind of figurative or innovative interpretation. There is, for example, no single doctrine of creation in the Bible, and the first chapter of Genesis was rarely read as a factual description of the origins of the cosmos."
Furthermore, archeology deflates the idea of the Exodus saga as literal history. Armstrong notes that there's no evidence that the Israelites, in fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham, conquered and displaced the inhabitants of Canaan, an event that would have left signs of destruction and population change. Meanwhile, Armstrong documents how actual events in history - the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Rome in the year 70, modern scientific discoveries - constantly rework the biblical interpretations of Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.
Parts of "The Case for the Real Jesus" may also trouble fundamentalists, and that's meant as a compliment. Lee Strobel, a former Chicago Tribune editor who traded in atheism for Christianity, has written several books defending the evangelical approach to faith and God. His newest book means to rebut "historical" Jesus research that has questioned devotional views of Christianity's messiah. Yet the thoughtful evangelical scholars Strobel interviews occasionally scold simple-minded believers as much as nonbelieving skeptics. "The fact that we've been dumbing down the church for so long is just a crime," grouses Daniel B. Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary. He rebukes his fellow evangelicals for insisting that the Bible should be off-limits to scholarly study and their insistence that every quote was uttered, literally.
As for "The Case" itself, it hinges on familiar arguments. How, for example, can a rational person believe in the Resurrection? Author-scholar Michael Licona points to the numerous eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen the risen Lord, the fact that so many people were willing to die for that belief, and the stunning improbability of some converts, notably Saint Paul, who had persecuted Christians, and Jesus's relative James, who had considered his kinsman a false prophet before his crucifixion.
A nonbeliever will reply that it's easier to dismiss this evidence than to believe a man could defy death, which bolsters an observation by one of Strobel's interviewees. Whether you're spending this Christmas celebrating the savior of the world or just another human philosopher - albeit one more brilliant than the would-be saviors campaigning in Iowa - depends on your assumption going in: Do we live in a universe that's knowable solely by science and senses, or might there be something more? These three books should satisfy readers of both takes on your Christmas list.
Rich Barlow, who writes the Globe's "Spiritual Life" column, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.