The Complete Idiot's Guide to Catholicism and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Judaism are among some 300 orange-jacketed titles from Alpha Books, a division of Indianapolis-based Macmillan General Reference.
Type in "Catholicism" or "Judaism" on amazon.com and one or the other guide might pop up as the online distributor's sales leader. The Catholicism guide, published in 2000, was on top this week.
Though undeniably popular and fun reads, how well do they stack up against other works?
Slanted, says the Rev. Daniel Munn, pastor of St. Ignatius of Antioch Catholic Church, Melkite rite.
Slanted, says Rabbi Jordan Parr of Congregation Children of Israel.
And here's why, according to the rabbi and the priest
The book on Catholicism "has a lot of wonderful information in it in a way that I would not recommend for a diabetic - it is so cutesy and sweet," said the Rev. Munn.
While facts are cleverly arranged, statements such as "Vatican II changed Catholic values" are not true, he said. The book gives "the liberal American slant on what they would like Catholicism to be."
Authors Bob O'Gorman and Mary Faulkner mention the first woman who became a parish administrator but were silent about Pius XII, who was praised by Judaism "for 40 years as the sole, lone voice opposed to Nazism," probably because the authors agree with those who currently attack him, he said.
The book is a "take" on Catholicism, yet what is worthwhile is also available in such books as the Catholic Almanac from Our Sunday Visitor Press in Indianapolis. It is "much better and less-slantedly presented. If (people) really want to know about the Catholic Church, they should read the Catechism," he said.
But the Rev. Munn leveled his most severe criticism at the implication that the Catholic Church is just another institution, one among many, "rather than a mystery that contains institutions," he said. "The church is a supernatural reality, not a congregation of like-minded people."
Rabbi Parr said Orthodox Rabbi Benjamin Blech's guide, published in 1999, covered Jewish community life, ethics, holidays and rituals in a concise and entertaining way. "Its only problem is one of perspective. Unfortunately, this is a big problem."
If a seeker wants to know only about Orthodox Judaism, the guide is a good source, but "Judaism is not a monolithic religion," said Rabbi Parr, who is from the Reform stream.
The author's bias slips out when he states "that Reform Judaism does not revere the Torah" or that only Orthodox Judaism will survive in the United States because Orthodox and Hasidic families have higher birthrates, Rabbi Parr said.
According to the Augusta rabbi, the author holds that "conservative Judaism is only `conservative' in respect to Reform" - Orthodoxy regards both movements, Conservative and Reform, as too liberal.
Rabbi Parr said he found that Judaism for Dummies, by David Blatner and Reform Rabbi Ted Falcon equaled the first book in its handling of Jewish holidays and history, but a chapter on "Jewish Buddhists and other Paradoxes of the New Age" was a curiosity.
Why would the authors spend time on teachers who, though Jews by birth, taught other spiritualities? They should have skipped the New Age and moved directly to Jewish spirituality, Rabbi Parr said.
Judaism for Dummies was the top seller on amazon.com Wednesday.
Both the Idiot's Guide and the Dummies book omitted issues of personal status, intermarriage and divorce, "matters of grave concern to Jews of all streams," Rabbi Parr said. "Neither book adequately addresses these questions, in part due to limitations of space and, more important, due to the understandable biases of the authors."
If Rabbi Blech seemed to favor Orthodoxy, the Dummies book seemed to be anti-Orthodox, according to Rabbi Parr.
But either book is only a start - a night or two of reading is not enough, he said. "If you want to learn about Judaism, visit a temple or synagogue, meet with a rabbi, and read the serious works that he or she will provide you. The doors are opening in Judaism for this type of exploration," he said, and he encourages people "to walk through them."
For more information, visit the Alpha Books' Web site at www.idiotsguide.com.
Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336.