For many Americans, a renewed interest in prayer, faith and spirituality followed the tragic events of Sept. 11. Bible sales soared and copies of the Koran flew off shelves as the distraught turned to religion for hope and understanding. But people have always looked to spirituality in the search for encouragement, and this season is no different, as great scholars and thinkers continue to question our beliefs and celebrate the hope of faith. Whether you're searching for a book to help answer your own questions or looking for an appropriate holiday gift, several new religious books offer inspiration and insight.

Where did we come from and where are we going? Almost every religion offers a different answer to these age-old questions. In The Quest for Paradise: Visions of Heaven and Eternity in the World's Myths and Religions, authors John Ashton and Tom Whyte take readers on a journey that explores heaven and the afterlife from perspectives around the world. Drawing on the ancient cultures of Greece, Rome and Egypt, as well as the belief systems of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, this book examines the similarities and differences between beliefs in the afterlife. From the Celtic and Greek Paradise to the Garden of Delights, you'll discover the historical roots of both myths and religions. Profiles of Mechtild of Magdeburg, Alexander the Great, Buraq and Shangri-La are intriguing. While this book is both fascinating and easy to read, its strength lies in its layout and design. Lined with spectacular photos, drawings and artwork, the pages come alive for readers of all ages. Whether you're a history or religion buff or just want a better understanding of what others believe, The Quest for Paradise is a great find.

The artwork in Thomas Merton's Dialogues with Silence is equally thought-provoking and sure to engage your heart and mind. Merton, a Trappist monk who resided at the Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, focused his heart on God but kept his eyes open to the political and social storms of the modern world. Though he died in 1968, his books, journals and letters have been an enduring inspiration to spiritual seekers of every faith.

In Dialogues with Silence we get a glimpse of Merton as an artist. The collection of prayers is illustrated with previously unseen drawings that reveal his desire to know God in spite of his own humanity and shortcomings. The primitive but powerful black-and-white artwork includes hand-drawn pictures of monks, Christ, churches and women. Full of petitions, confessions and observations, the writing outlines one man's attempt to know God. Whether you're a long-time Merton fan or need an introduction, Dialogues with Silence is a great unveiling. Although he is a fictional character, Father Tim Kavanagh is a well-known religious figure to many readers. The local rector in Jan Karon's best-selling Mitford series, Father Tim is dedicated not only to knowing God but making Him known to his small flock. He uses countless quotes and stories to share his wisdom and heart with everyone in the close-knit town.

Patches of Godlight: Father Tim's Favorite Quotes is the journal of the Episcopal priest's search for material to guide his spiritual journey and that of his congregation. It contains sayings, tidbits and passages from philosophers, humorists and poets, including C. S. Lewis and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Instead of using regular typesetting, this volume appears hand-written complete with loose notes, doodles and even coffee stains. The selections will make you laugh, think and pray. Full of hope and encouragement, this is a great gift book.

Those searching for a more serious read won't want to miss Jack Miles' Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God (audio). The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of God: A Biography is back with a new work and focus. The book explores Jesus as a literary character and challenges readers to examine the New Testament as a work of art rather than a work of religion.

This examination of the life of Christ one that began before the creation of the world and stretches to the end of existence is unique. Thoughtful, inquisitive and daring, Miles raises questions and highlights passages with a fresh vigor that challenges the ho-hum of accepted belief. Whether your interest in Christ is historical, scholarly or literary, you won't be disappointed.

Margaret Feinberg wrote Enjoying God: Experiencing Intimacy with the Heavenly Father (Relevant Books) with S.J. Hill.

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