The year past was an unusual one in religious publishing because some fine books stemmed from Islam and Judaism while Christians bore the blame for the very worst ones.
Hallelujahs for the top four of 2004:
1. “The Quran” (Oxford University Press) by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem of the University of London, which fills the huge need for a scholarly yet readable translation. (Its only competitor is 2002′s stiffer “An Interpretation of the Quran” by Majid Fakhry.)
2. “On the Reliability of the Old Testament” (Eerdmans) by K.A. Kitchen of the University of Liverpool. He provides bold conservative responses to Jewish and Christian scholars who’ve whittled away at Scripture’s historical credibility.
3. “The Five Books of Moses” (Norton) by Robert Alter of the University of California, Berkeley. Without extremes, his new English translation of the Pentateuch conveys Hebrew’s distinctiveness. The elaborate footnotes stress literature over religious tradition.
4. “Life After Death” (Doubleday) by Alan Segal of New York’s Barnard College. It explores the history of Judaism, Islam and Christianity on this central belief (with analysis that invites some Christian dissent).
• The Southern Baptist Convention’s “Holman Christian Standard Bible” translation. The ultimate assessment of this work’s worth will require years.
• “The Twilight of Atheism” (Doubleday) by Alister McGrath of Oxford University. Quirkily fascinating. He sees plummeting credibility for atheism, which he formerly embraced.
• “Who Are We?” (Simon & Schuster) by Samuel Huntington of Harvard University. He celebrates multiethnicity but contends that America’s cultural glue remains the founders’ “Anglo-Protestant” outlook.
• “A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush” (W Publishing) by David Aikman, former senior correspondent for Time magazine. Well-informed, and remains timely for obvious reasons. Aikman scored only months before with the more important “Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power” (Regnery).
• “A Stone of Hope ” (University of North Carolina), another late 2003 book of significance. Historian David Chappell tells how the faith of Southern Christians, black and white, made America’s civil rights revolution possible.
The year’s most embarrassing books all emanated from Christian auspices:
• “Sanctity and Male Desire” by lay Catholic Donald Boisvert, published by the United Church of Christ book house, leered with “homoerotic longing” at the body of Jesus Christ and various saints.
• “Same-Sex Marriage?” by Presbyterian Marvin Ellison, also from the United Church’s press, was a lamentably superficial liberal argument on the year’s hottest topic. Notable mostly because Ellison mused about accepting threesomes and abolishing marriage altogether.
• “Why Bush Must Go” by Episcopal Church Bishop Bennett Sims, an apocalyptic left-wing ideologist attacking “apocalyptic right-wing ideology.” Sims spread rumors that the Bush administration’s “calculated” neglect produced the Sept. 11 attacks.
• “The American Prophecies” by evangelical Zionist Michael Evans preached an unsavory biblical scenario in which Sept. 11 was God’s retribution upon America for supporting Islamic terrorism against Israel while forging an “unholy covenant” with “barbaric” Arabs.
• “The Shadow of the Apocalypse” by TV evangelist Paul Crouch combined belief that the End Times will occur “any moment” with silly “Bible code” games.
• “Good As New” by British lefty John Henson was a paraphrase of the New Testament that deleted books the writer disdained.
• “The Word on the Street,” by British evangelical Rob Lacey, similarly reprocessed chunks of the Old and New Testaments. At the start of the Ten Commandments, Lacey’s Lord announced, “No other god’s worth squat.”