Shoppers seeking ideal Christmas gifts for religiously inquisitive friends can hum "fa-la-la-la-la" about two beautiful seasonal books and one oddly intriguing item:
-"Incarnation" (Fortress Press, $15) by Oxford University theologian Alister McGrath interprets the meaning of Christ's birth. McGrath has important things to say and does so without fancy theological verbiage, favoring prose that's as clear and crisp as a December evening.
-"Johann Sebastian Bach: His Life in Pictures and Documents" (Fortress Press, $25) by German biographer Hans Conrad Fischer is a lavishly illustrated, readable account of the life of history's greatest Christian composer - and arguably its greatest composer, period.
-"Everything You Always Wanted to Know About God (But Were Afraid To Ask)" (WaterBrook Press, $14.99 paperback) is something else. Eric Metaxas, a New York City writer of humor, children's books and media scripts, zips through the issues in a quirky question-and-answer romp.
The two offerings from Fortress, a Lutheran publisher, fulfill both the heart and mind. One adds delights for the eye (color reproductions of seven paintings illuminate McGrath's points), while the other adds delights for the ear (Fischer's biography comes with a CD providing 17 examples of Bach's music).
McGrath, a one-time Marxist atheist turned orthodox Christian, is writing a series of brief books on "the truth and the Christian imagination." The first was the award-winning "Creation," and "Incarnation" is the second. Topics yet to come: redemption, resurrection, heaven, God.
For McGrath, the Christmas message of God becoming man through the humble Bethlehem birth is a theme that knits together everything else that's important for Christianity.
He writes: "The nativity, as seen by the eye of faith, is about God choosing, out of love and compassion, to enter the dark, distant and lonely place that we call human history. Rather than summon us to meet him in the heavenly places, God chose to encounter us where we are."
The Bach book, a reissue of the 2000 German edition, depicts a man who ever sought to glorify God through his musical art and turned out some 200 cantatas, 480 keyboard pieces, chamber works, concertos, passions, Masses and oratorios - including the great Christmas Oratorio, which premiered in Leipzig in 1734. In all, about 500 of his sacred compositions survive, compared with some 300 secular works.
The bulk alone is astonishing; the unfailing superb quality is simply unbelievable.
Bach's inexplicable genius aside, Fischer provides a fine sense of what life was like for a workmanlike musician in the employ of monarchs and then as a hard-pressed church musician and schoolteacher in the employ of the Leipzig city council. (Separation of church and state was unknown back then.)
Bach's hiring at Leipzig is an inspirational story for people who feel under-appreciated.
The prolific Georg Philipp Telemann was the favorite and accepted the job but then decided to remain in Hamburg. The city then offered the post to Christoph Graupner, who was more famous than Bach (he eventually wrote about 1,600 works). But then Graupner withdrew and Bach was hired as the politicians' third choice.
"Since we cannot get the best, we have to make do with a mediocrity," the mayor famously grumbled.
Metaxas, writing from a resolutely conservative Christian outlook, provides a breezy take for people with religious questions - and that includes most of us.
You know the book is unusual when it gets blurbs from TV personality Dick Cavett ("stylish and entertaining"), pollster George Gallup Jr. ("timely and useful") and Watergate felon turned evangelist Charles Colson ("quick, witty, engaging").
The jokes can be corny. Question: "What happens when you die?" Answer: "Well, it depends, but typically the lawn goes unmowed for a while and the newspapers really pile up." Question: "Where is hell, exactly?" He suggests New Jersey as an answer, then says "just kidding."
But underneath the cute stuff, Episcopalian Metaxas turns out to have something to convey on many of humanity's classic spiritual puzzlements.
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Fortress Press: http://www.augsburgfortress.org
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