- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 3, 2005

The Rising: Before They Were Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins (Tyndale House, $25.99, 380 pages), the first of three prequels to the fabulously successful 12-book “Left Behind” series about the Second Coming, tells of the conception, birth and childhood of the anti-Christ who is born in Cluj, Romania. The offspring of two male sperm donors and a lonely college professor, Marilena Titi Carpathia, the child, Nicolae, shows monstrous tendencies even as an infant. By the time the book ends, he’s been well trained in the occult, has killed his parents and has formally pledged his soul to Satan.

It certainly is a readable tale and the authors have improved on their clunky style to introduce more subtlety and writing craft than was evident in their previous books. The events leading up to Marilena’s damnation turn out to be a good psychological study of a woman who knows she’s on the road to destruction but does too little to extricate herself until too late. The use of the vicar as a stand-in for Lucifer is a nice touch.

Speaking of the devil, he gets a cameo role at the end of the book, one of the rare times in the series where he makes a personal appearance. The tale of the childhood of Nicolae Carpathia is interwoven with a recounting of the early years of Rayford Steele, an airline pilot who is a lead character in the rest of series. If you wondered if the authors could maintain their storytelling magic through the prequels before the series, this book shows they could and did.

Yes, this is Thomas Kinkade, the top-selling artist of all those idyllic paintings of homey English cottages washed with brilliant-hued flowers, primose paths and inspiring sunsets overlooking sun-flecked seas splashing against inspiring lighthouses blazing with divine light, well, you get the idea. And now the artist has written a book, The Art of Creative Living: Making Every Day a Radiant Masterpiece (Warner Faith, $19.99, 247 pages) telling how he stays creative. Even if you hate the optimistic tenor of his paintings, the book isn’t bad. Everyone can be creative, he says; it’s just a matter of rearranging your time and space to figure out how.

I can’t say the book gives many tips on how to find time especially if there’s childraising in the equation. What’s helpful are Mr. Kinkade’s insights on how God has helped him paint and draw. It’s not that God sends down directions on what and how to draw, he says, but He does give hints, open doors and create situations.

Also intriguing is his explanation of how a mathematical ratio of 1.6180 known as the “golden number” expresses itself through the design of a painting. This ratio was divinely designed, Mr. Kinkade believes, to express balance and harmony and the artist employs it as an underlying structure in each of his paintings. Which is why each Kinkade painting appears to have an inner harmony, even though the casual onlooker may not know the mathematical principle underlying it.

The painter sees a universal mathematical proportion underlying the fabric of creation, which, if true, means that all those intelligent design folks are right: God is not only the master creator and artist, but also master mathematician. Thus, individuals looking at a Kinkade painting are supposed to get a sense of order in the universe and a Someone beyond themselves.

What a shame this book was rushed into print too soon after John Paul II died, The Chicago Tribune’s John Paul II: The Epic Life of a Pilgrim Pope (Triumph, $41.95, 160 pages). Had the publisher waited just a little longer to add a last chapter on the funeral rites, this compendium of the pontiff’s 84 years would have been complete. As it is, this volume of lush photos with an accompanying CD of papal video, archival coverage, a timeline of John Paul’s life, lists of papal facts, etc., will easily take an entire afternoon to get through. Most interesting is the TV footage of John Paul II’s first speech as in 1978 where he asked the crowd in St. Peter’s Square to correct his Italian. Also precious is his rendition of “Pater Noster” at Holy Name Cathedral during his 1979 visit to Chicago.

The book/CD is partly a documentary, buttressed by video clips of commentary from Chicago Tribune editors and correspondents, and partly a library of facts and statistics on the pope’s accomplishments. The book’s photos are more the unusual, edgier angles of the pope’s reign. The CD is partitioned into several parts, the best ones being sections on the pope’s prayer life, his role on freeing Poland from communism and the effects of his 100 trips abroad to 129 countries.

The worst is one on the “The Pope and America: The Points of Contention.” There, we are told of the pope’s “unbending positions” and “hard stance on many traditional church teachings that would alienate many Catholics.” Not hard to guess what the Trib’s take on the church’s theology was. We see pop singer Sinead O’Connor’s decision to publicly tear apart a photo of the pope in 2000 posted as a signfiicant event. Video clips of magazine editor Margaret Steinfels criticizing the pope are coupled with clips by Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls defending him.

It’s too bad the book and the CD do not work in concert better. What’s needed somewhere in the book is a complete listing of all that’s available on the accompanying CD. The existing package is two separate products that occasionally intersect. And there’s only one photo of life after John Paul II’s death; a double-truck page of his body lying in state.

Good nonfiction on Eastern Orthodoxy is exciting to find, so I had hopes for Christopher Merrill’s Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain (Random House, $24.95, 279 pages). But a reader must slog through this account of a burned-out journalist and poet who repairs to Greece’s Mount Athos to recover from a troubled marriage and his years as a war correspondent in the Balkans.

Mr. Merrill is a pilgrim who wanders about this Greek peninsula that only admits male visitors to visit its sequestered Orthodox monasteries. We follow him about as he walks through rugged terrain, up and down mountains, on and off ferries, and as he learns the basics of repentance and spiritual direction.

Indeed, the first part of the book is called “penitence,” which is what the writer said was in order for his life. But that chapter drags on and on, due to the reporter’s insistence on chronicling everything, including his daily menus. The pace picks up at page 150, by which point the author has moved into “purification,” the best part of this narrative. We read flashes of keen discernment; life, he admits, “is a series of missed hints.” One suffers from writer’s block, he adds, when one doesn’t tell the truth.

So he is more than honest about the rude treatment he gets at many of the monasteries, most of whose monks are portrayed as surly, unhospitable personalities. Non-Orthodox guests are not allowed certain lodgings, food and other courtesies and are treated so shabbily to cause the reader to ask why anyone would want to visit this place. It’s hardly an invitation to become Orthodox and, by the end of the book, the author has yet to convert to that religion.

He’s a liberal Episcopalian who, after spending weeks on Mount Athos, affirms the ordination of women and homosexuals to the priesthood. Any Orthodox reader might put the book down right there. Yet at the end, in a final chapter on “prayer,” the author assures us he is spiritually transformed and his marriage is on the mend. “I have but the dimmest understanding of what this knowledge will mean in my life,” he says of his findings. To the Orthodox, the final proof of enlightenment will come only if the author converts. That will be another book.

Julia Duin is The Washington Times’ chief religion writer.

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