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On Religion

Setting the table for a feast of spirituality

By Rich Barlow
Globe Correspondent / December 20, 2009

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As our nation’s black-hole holiday - so gravitationally potent that it sucks all in - Christmas naturally offends some non-Christians and nonreligious. It even bugs some believers, worried about the chasm between the holiday’s beginnings in a lowly manger and today’s shopping binges at Nieman Marcus.

In this season, however, no law requires materialistic overindulgence or observance of traditions that seem alien. Is it not possible to appreciate this time of year as one that encourages general reflection on spirituality and our common humanity? Remember the answer given by Scrooge’s nephew when the miser asked why he celebrated such a frivolous feast. Nephew didn’t offer theology; he said simply that the holidays are the one time “when men and women . . . think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.’’ Nothing oppressively sectarian in that.

In the spirit of this big-tent approach, here are some religion books, not all of them Christian, that will appeal to vastly different sensibilities.

David Hillel Gelernter, a Yale computer science professor, has known both success and sorrow - he was maimed by the Unabomber in a 1993 attack - and his book, “Judaism’’ is a love letter to his faith, with all the power and failings of true love.

This man who readers might expect to be an uber-geek shocks with the lyricism of his prose in laying out orthodoxy’s take on sexuality, evil, and other Big Questions. (Gelernter exercises his literary muscles as a contributor to The Weekly Standard.) His enthusiasm is moving: “Judaism is right because it is a living thing built of lapped lives, a 3,000-year-old tree with its roots thrust deep into sacred time and its branches still growing and in bloom. But it never asks that you submerge your identity in the common cause. . . . Judaism is your family seated at table asking you please to join them, not stand at the door; not walk away.’’

But love also blinds one to the beloved’s shortcomings, and Gelernter accepts aspects of orthodoxy on grounds that won’t convince skeptics. Take his defense of the prohibition against female and gay rabbis. His fundamentalist explanation - that it’s against Jewish law - will fall flat with those who reject fundamentalism for its indifference to the historical, human context in which scripture was written; his stretch of an analogy - mediocre athletes, musicians, and scientists must accept the limits of their ability - is illogical. Leadership limits based on gender or sexual preference aren’t based on any lack of talent in the person being excluded.

Mark Allan Powell’s Introducing the New Testament’’ is a textbook primarily for college or seminary students. But it’s a lay reader-friendly primer on the history and theology of Christian scripture. A professor at Ohio’s Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Powell is especially good at summarizing Palestine’s history and cultural influences in the centuries before Jesus and during his life.

Yet the book is stronger on theology than history. To take a seasonal example, Powell notes how Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels introduced the virgin birth to the Nativity story. “Can we imagine Christmas without shepherds or a baby in a manger?’’ he asks. He doesn’t ponder that the first two New Testament writers - St. Paul and Mark - say nothing about the topic. It is widely believed that that’s because no such doctrine existed among the earliest Christians. That view is, in fact, so common that even the Vatican, whose theology does include the virgin birth, has allowed Catholic scholars to speculate about its possible nonhistoric elements.

What of readers who couldn’t care less about religion? For those who prefer ladling gravy, there is “Sacred Feasts.’’

This cookbook, by a Benedictine monk in New York, offers recipes for days that even most Christian cooks don’t mark. (Ever had Annunciation Day Salad?) But Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette will get “amens’’ from many secularists when he explains why he disdains ornate meals on Dec. 25: “I have a problem with such an approach to Christmas because it deviates from the original Christmas message: the reality of Christ’s humble birth in a Bethlehem cave . . . . [W]e’re keenly conscious of not departing too far from our basic monastic simplicity and from the thought that many poor people around the world lack even the most basic Christmas repast.’’

It’s a fine sentiment but doesn’t necessarily translate into culinary success. His spinach crepes, the anchor of his Christmas day meal, are delicious. But I made chestnut soup, a January dish that seemed apt for Christmas time, and found it, well, monastic. Its water base can’t compare to the richer-tasting alternative recipe I found online made with broth, cream, and Madeira. Meanwhile, we can all respect the impulse behind this cookbook: Celebrating our common humanity, whether we’re religious or not. We all gotta eat.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlow81@gmail.com.

JUDAISM: A Way of Being
By David Hillel Gelernter
Yale University, 248 pp., $26

INTRODUCING THE NEW TESTAMENT: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey
By Mark Allan Powell
Baker Academic, 560 pp., $44.99

SACRED FEASTS: From a Monastery Kitchen By Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette
Liguori, 208 pp., $29.99

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