Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to KnowStephen Prothero. Harper San Francisco, $24.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-06-084670-1

Prothero (American Jesus), chair of the religion department at Boston University, begins this valuable primer by noting that religious illiteracy is rampant in the United States, where most Americans, even Christians, cannot name even one of the four Gospels. Such ignorance is perilous because religion "is the most volatile constituent of culture" and, unfortunately, often "one of the greatest forces for evil" in the world, he writes. Prothero does more than diagnose the problem; he traces its surprising historic roots ("in one of the great ironies of…history, it was the nation's most fervent people of faith who steered Americans down the road to religious illiteracy") and prescribes concrete solutions that address religious education while preserving First Amendment boundaries about religion in the public square. Prothero also offers a dictionary of religious literacy and a quiz for readers to test their knowledge. This book is a must-read not only for educators, clergy and government officials, but for all adults in a culture where, as Prothero puts it, "faith without understanding is the standard" and "religious ignorance is bliss." (Mar.)

Teresa of Ávila: The Book of My LifeTranslated by Mirabai Starr. Shambhala/New Seeds, $24.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-59030-365-8

Starr, an adjunct professor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of New Mexico, is already known to fans of Saint Teresa of Ávila as the translator of the 16th-century nun's work The Interior Castle. Now Starr tackles Teresa's better-known autobiography, which has not seen a new English translation in four decades. Starr is the first woman, and one of the only non-Catholics, to translate the memoir. These vantage points give her a fresh perspective on the mystic, whose writings can be verbose and shrouded in overspiritualized language. (Thankfully, Starr has also cut almost all of the saint's self-annihilating statements about being a "wretched worm.") Crisp, contemporary language puts Teresa's famous passion for God in stark relief. Carmelite hermit and author Tessa Bielecki provides a brief but engaging foreword, while Starr pens a helpful introduction, highlighting Teresa's life and placing her work in historical context. (Feb.)

The Genius of John Paul II: The Great Pope's Moral WisdomRichard A. Spinello. Sheed & Ward, $22.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-58051-206-0

Though beloved for his warmth and charismatic personality, Pope John Paul II was often portrayed in popular media as rigid and narrow-minded when it came to his pronouncements on moral issues. Spinello, director of ethics programs for the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, fiercely challenges that characterization in this overview of the late pope's moral teachings. Spinello explains that John Paul's views are founded on the Bible and the "living tradition" of the Catholic faith, including the early church fathers as well as the more recent writings of the Second Vatican Council. They are also shaped by philosophy, particularly the work of Thomas Aquinas. Spinello goes on to outline those views, often contrasting them with those of dissenting Catholic voices. Readers who want more than the sound-byte version of John Paul's moral positions and are willing to dig deeper into the underpinnings of the late pope's thinking will find Spinello's work both thoughtful and thorough. (Feb.)

Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of ReligionBarbara J. King. Doubleday, $24.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-385-51104-9

In this sure-to-be-controversial treatment of the origins of religion, King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, posits that "an earthly need for belongingness led to the human religious imagination and thus to the other-worldly realm of relating with God, gods, and spirits." For evidence, King draws upon cutting-edge research in primatology to demonstrate that once animals are capable of emotional attachments and cognitive empathy, they are ready for—and even appear to require—certain intangibles like a belief in something greater than themselves. While many theologically minded readers are likely to caricature King's arguments as a cool scientific dismissal of religion, her interpretation is actually far more nuanced and subtle than that. It's true that the book requires some enormous argumentative leaps; it's a long stretch from demonstrating that contemporary primates have emotional attachments to claiming that they are then capable of creating religions, as King maintains human beings once did. But even readers who close the book unconvinced will be impressed by King's fresh insights and her lucid writing, which is a jargon-free, story-filled model for all academics who wish to write for a general audience. (Jan. 16)

On Religion: The Revelation of God as the Sublimation of ReligionKarl Barth, trans. from the German by Garrett Green. Continuum, $18.95 paper (196p) ISBN 978-0-5670-3109-9

What a difference a word makes. While the first English editions of Karl Barth's magnum opus, Church Dogmatics, rendered the 17th chapter "The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion," Green, an emeritus professor of religion at Connecticut College, presents that chapter here in book form as the "sublimation" of religion. Barth, he says, did not reject religion outright, as has sometimes been supposed, but merely subordinated it to revelation. ("Not a few theologically educated English speakers hold the utterly erroneous belief that Karl Barth does not think that Christianity is a religion at all!" he grumbles.) In this edition, Green corrects errors and restores phrases and italicized emphases that were omitted when the Dogmatics was translated from German to English. He provides a translator's note and an extensive introduction to Barth's life and work. While the audience for such a specialized work is limited, those scholars who may have once dismissed Barth would do well to pay the book some attention. (Jan.)

MatthewStanley Hauerwas. Brazos, $29.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-58743-095-4

This book is the third in a planned 40-volume commentary series by Brazos Press, which is attempting to revive the early church's tradition of having theologians, rather than professional biblical scholars, interpret scripture. What's nice to see is that the individual commentators have been allowed to retain their own voices in this series; Hauerwas is as delightfully irascible and hard-hitting as ever, suggesting, for example, that the parable of the sower "helps us to read the situation of the church in America as Jesus' judgment on that church." Believing that "Matthew's gospel is…an ongoing exercise to help us see the world through Christ," Hauerwas attends to the Gospel chapter by chapter, teasing out theological themes while resisting the temptation to create a systematic Christology. He draws on theologians like Barth, Augustine, Origen and especially Bonhoeffer, whom he quotes and paraphrases often, as well as New Testament scholars and eclectic writers like Wendell Berry. Insightful and provocative, Hauerwas adds a valuable theological perspective to the Gospel of Matthew. (Jan.)

Jesus of HollywoodAdele Reinhartz. Oxford, $29.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-19-514696-7

While many books have explored the translation of biblical scenes and characters to film, most of those have been by film critics; Reinhartz has something new to offer as a New Testament scholar. Here she analyzes the depictions of Jesus from the earliest silent films all the way through Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (which, she says, portrays Jesus more as a "hunk of raw meat" than a man). She includes weighty, reverent biopics (by Franco Zeffirelli and Roberto Rossellini) and more iconoclastic and controversial treatments (Jesus of Montreal and The Last Temptation of Christ), with appreciative nods in the direction of satirical spoofs like Monty Python's Life of Brian. This is a fascinating topic, and the book is full of perceptive observations, but the organization is workmanlike, with Reinhartz introducing a subject, explaining how that topic is treated in the Gospels, and then calling forth examples of how that topic is addressed from film to film. This makes the book an excellent reference for those readers who want information about one or two themes at a time, but frustratingly repetitive for those reading the book straight through. (Jan.)

Mandate to Difference: An Invitation to the Contemporary ChurchWalter Brueggemann. Westminster John Knox, $19.95 paper (216p) ISBN 978-0-664-23121-7

Renowned Old Testament scholar Brueggemann offers some profound insights in this collection of essays, roughly tied together by themes of social justice in the Bible and in the contemporary church. The best moments are his specific exegetical observations about the politics, economics, religious practices and community customs of various societies in the Hebrew Bible. Brueggemann produces a persuasive report card on the deficiencies of King Solomon as opposed to King Josiah, measuring their effectiveness by the yardstick of social justice. He examines three magnificent biblical poems of worship and also explores the fourth commandment as a radical "alternative to the quota system of the empire." Despite these flashes of brilliance, the book does not cohere well as a collection. The eleven essays, which Brueggemann delivered orally in various venues throughout 2005, are only loosely connected to one another, though most of the individual pieces are well researched and thought provoking. (Jan.)