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SUNDAY BRUNCH | BOOKSHELF

Spiritual Journeys

January 25, 1998|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Who Speaks for God?" (Delta, 215 pages, $11.95) proposes a new agenda: spiritual politics.

Author Jim Wallis, a nationally known social activist and the editor of Sojourner magazine, contends that too many national leaders are bending biblical teachings to fit political platforms. Wallis sees an alternative: neither liberal nor conservative, left nor right, but morally central decision making.

Wallis suggests that we look away from the familiar extremes of "us versus them" to a system based on compassion, community and civility.

Compassion, he says, could lead to new solutions for social problems now stuck in a stalemate.

"Neither maintaining poverty nor abandoning the poor is a moral option," he maintains.

Community consciousness could help rebuild families, neighborhoods and ultimately the economy. And civility could eliminate the viciousness of politics-as-usual.

"Could we not recognize both the sanctity of life and the equality of women?" writes Wallis, taking a community-minded approach to justice. "Couldn't we support the rebuilding of two-parent families while we stop scapegoating homosexuals as if they were responsible for the breakdown of our families?"

He does not answer all the questions he raises, but he does reply to the one in the title of his book: "God speaks for God. And it is the voiceless and powerless for whom the voice of God has always been authentically raised."

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In "All Saints" (Crossroads, 576 pages, $39.95), Robert Ellsberg gives a year's worth of daily readings on prophets, saints and witnesses throughout history. These interfaith reflections highlight the lives of such spiritual models as Mohandas K. Gandhi, India's premiere pacifist, and Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a modern Jewish teacher and writer, as well as such figures from earlier times as Francis of Assisi and his protege, Saint Clare.

By calling attention to contemporary leaders of the moral life, Ellsberg suggests that sainthood is not limited to the remote past and does not depend on the official recognition of the designated saint makers.

Fannie Lou Hamer is a case in point. In the 1960s, this daughter of a Mississippi sharecropper helped lead the movement to desegregate the South. It cost her jail time and beatings that caused permanent physical damage.

"In the nonviolent freedom struggle of the 1960s," Ellsberg writes, "ordinary people--men, women and children--became saints and prophets."

Some of the more surprising names included in the book are of Renaissance artists, writers and scientists whose visions of heaven, hell and creation shocked their contemporaries.

Dante Alighieri died in exile after he wrote his poetic masterpiece, "The Divine Comedy." In it, he criticized the papal officials of the day as well as the corrupt Florentine politicians. It cost him his home.

Galileo Galilei, the 16th century Italian scientist, was condemned as a heretic by the Catholic church for proving that the Earth revolves around the sun. It wasn't until 1992 that the church acknowledged that he'd been right and exonerated him.

Ellsberg chose all his subjects because they satisfy his own requirement for holiness, based on a simple rule: Each one lived a life of "saintliness demanded by the present moment."

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Next week: Rochelle O'Gorman Flynn on audio books.

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