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One pithy, the other thoughtful: two books take looks at the Divine

This spring, a spate of books examines the ways in which human beings -- flawed, creaky, distractable as we are -- approach God, and how we fall away from the divine, too, and back into our smaller selves. These books are, by and large, good; best of all, they are delightfully different.

First comes "The God Factor," a short, snappy read from Cathleen Falsani, religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. Falsani decided to collect interviews with celebrities, politicians and artists on the topics of God, faith and religion, and how these themes have factored into (hence the title) their lives and careers.

She talked to Bono, for example, when she found herself sitting next to him on a tour bus. It turned out the Irish rocker had much to say about Christian faith -- which he both embraces and struggles with -- and its place in the modern world. The mystery at the heart of Christianity hits Bono right in the gut, he confessed.

"The idea that there's a force of love and logic behind the universe is overwhelming to start with, if you believe it," Bono tells Falsani. "But the idea that the same love and logic would choose to describe itself as a baby born in . . . straw and poverty is genius. And it brings me to my knees, literally. To me, as a poet, I'm just in awe of that."

Falsani also traveled to Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion in order to interview the pajama-clad tycoon. "I'm a pretty moral guy," Hefner attested.

And Anne Rice, a devout Catholic, explained to Falsani her reasons for writing a book about the young Jesus Christ. "The challenge for me is to take the Jesus of the Gospels," said Rice, "and make him as believable as I made vampires and witches to people."

Other subjects in the book include Annie Lennox, Barack Obama, Billy Corgan and Sherman Alexie.

Falsani's interviews take the form of reported featurettes -- interesting but short and glancing, for the most part, more like newspaper articles than essays or in-depth studies of the people she profiles. It's fascinating to peek into this most private area of high-profile people's lives, in a day and age where we know more about celebrities' shoe sizes and sexual peccadillos than we do about their thoughts on the incarnation.

Less pithy but more thoughtful, in some ways, is Jesuit priest James Martin's "My Life With the Saints."

Martin relates how he came late to a love for the saints -- can anything be more credulity straining, or more necessary, in the 21st century, than the idea of a saint? -- unlike many Catholics, who grew up on them. Discovering Therese of Lisieux as a seminarian, Thomas Merton when he was discerning his vocation, Joan of Arc on a trip to France -- these encounters with the great figures of the church changed Martin, and he explains how in prose that brims with joy and tenderness.

For those who've heard of these saints, a thoughtful read that will prompt meditations on one's own intersections with these great figures. For those who haven't, a book that just might provoke a spiritual journey to new places.

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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>The God Factor

by Cathleen Falsani

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 304 pages, $24

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>My Life With the Saints

by James Martin

Loyola Press, 424 pages, $23

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