Now that we baby boomers are making the clubhouse turn, our thoughts are on to what's beyond the 18th green. For many, that means a renewed interest in religion, faith and the Bible -- and that interest is showing up on the best-seller lists.
Jonathan Englert's "The Collar: A Year of Striving and Faith Inside a Catholic Seminary" (Houghton Mifflin, $25.95, 320 pages), for instance, has been featured on the "Today Show," and its appeal is obvious. Who wouldn't be interested in the faith that brings together Dean, an ex-Marine from Texas with hyperactivity disorder who drives a BMW; Ron, a blind musician and social activist; and Jim, a divorced, former state agricultural agent and avid hunter from Wyoming?
In 2002-03, they lived with 40 other men at Sacred Heart Seminary outside Milwaukee. Midway through their life's journeys, they all felt called to be priests, and Sacred Heart is one of only two U.S. Catholic seminaries that accepts "second-career" men as candidates. "The Collar" works up a surprising amount of suspense as it takes us behind the scenes of the seminary and immerses us in the lives of these men. Who will make it to ordination, who won't, and why?
Dean is disappointed that the Sacred Heart isn't as Spartan as the Marines. Here the disciplines are spiritual, not physical, and Dean gets off to a bad start. He disdainfully refuses to join in on the first night when the men sing, to the tune of The Mickey Mouse Club theme, "What's the name of the place/ We call the seminary?/ S-A-C-R-E-D H-E-A-R-T." He also fails to take his meds regularly and is constantly late to class. Tardiness is a major issue for a man who might leave a church full of restless parishioners wondering if their priest is going to show up.
Ron, we find out, is secretly making long late-night calls to a single mother with a 12-year-old son. Don, another student, is troubled by the church's stance against birth control. Not one of the new men knows Latin.
The conservative students banter, sometimes pointedly, with Ron, the lone liberal, who is dubious of priestly celibacy and other church doctrines. The conservatives are openly suspicious of the faith of their professors, who work diligently to awaken Ron's political soul to Christian spirituality and to open the conservatives' minds to forgiveness, charity and the complexities of contemporary Biblical scholarship.
After a somewhat stiffly written opening, during which Englert introduces the men and sketches out the history of Sacred Heart, "The Collar" pulls readers deeply into the complex lives of men struggling to transform themselves, or let themselves be transformed, into priests. It's as compelling as a good novel.
If Bart Ehrman were teaching at Sacred Heart rather than UNC-Chapel Hill, he would be one of the professors that the priests-in-training suspected of corrupting their faith. In the bumptiously titled "Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene" (Oxford, $27, 352 pages), Ehrman summarizes mainstream historical understanding of three important figures in the early church. If you've read Ehrman's previous books -- including "Lost Scripture" and "Lost Christianities" and his current best-seller "Misquoting Jesus," -- there's no compelling reason to buy this one except to fill in some gaps.
But if you haven't, "Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene" is well worth getting. Ehrman lucidly explains troubling passages in the New Testament, and retells and dissects terrific stories from the apocryphal gospels. In the non-canonical "The Acts of Peter," the apostle sends a talking dog to fetch the magician Simon Magus. He also resurrects a dried tuna. Suspecting trickery, the onlookers don't trust the miracle of the reconstituted fish until they feed it bits of bread and watch it eat them. Ehrman also explains how Mary Magdalene, despite the lack of evidence in the gospels, got dubbed a prostitute. The book offers a enlightening and balanced survey of the history and myths behind these three crucial figures in early Christianity.
But Ehrman makes you work for the knowledge. The book feels rushed. Points are made and then made again. Ehrman uses the word "illiterate" seven times to describe Peter, before raising "the serious, and debated, issue of whether Peter himself would have been able to write." Annoying puns are repeated until they are truly irritating. Ehrman says, intriguingly, that Jesus' calling Peter "the Rock" is akin to nicknaming him Rocky. He then titles the sections about Peter "The Rocky Start," "The Rocky Aftermath" and "The Rocky Beginning" -- in that order.
Still, Ehrman's book is always thought-provoking. Ehrman points out, for instance, that the "current craze" for family values has no authority from Jesus, who in Luke's Gospel says the opposite. No one can be his follower, Jesus says, unless he "hates his father and mother" and commits himself to the family of believers.
Historian Garry Wills quotes the same passage in his magisterial and passionate "What Jesus Meant" (Viking, $24.95, 144 pages), but he goes even further. He dismisses WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) wristbands as asking a nonsense question. "To read the gospels in the spirit in which they were written, it is not enough to ask what Jesus did or said. We must ask what Jesus meant by his strange deeds and words."
Analyzing two episodes from Jesus' life, Wills asks: "Would we praise a twelve-year-old who slips away from his parents in a big city and lets them leave town without telling them he is staying behind?" Would we say, "Make not my Father's house a traders' mart," and lay into the ushers with a whip for passing the collection plates in church? We are meant to act not like God, but humbly.
Wills makes it clear that he is not writing about the historical Jesus. For him, "the only Jesus we have is the Jesus of faith," and Jesus is a spiritual leader, not a political one. Wills asks, provocatively, "What politician could be elected on the following platform?" And he quotes Jesus' commands about loving your enemies, turning the struck cheek and offering the other to be struck, and judging not so you will not be judged. When someone comes to steal your cloak, give it to him. Lend and do not expect any return. Love your enemies. For Wills these are Jesus' politics, and anyone who tries to turn him into a contemporary Democrat or Republican is a "usurper" of the true message.
Jesus is a "radical egalitarian," and Wills lovingly quotes twice his own translation from Paul's letter to the Galatians:
"Baptized into Messiah/ you are clothed in Messiah,/ so that there is no more/ Jew or Greek,/ slave or free,/ man or woman,/ but all are one, are the same/ in Jesus Messiah."
According to Ehrman, Galatians is one of six Pauline letters (out of the 13 in the New Testament) that "almost all scholars" agree was actually written by Paul. And in these lines, the apostle lays out as demanding a life as Dean, the ex-Marine, could ever hope for, though its demands are spiritual -- a different kind of basic training.
(Andrew Hudgins is a poet who teaches at The Ohio State University.)