Does the thought of Christmas shopping get you down? Put yourself at the top of the list and pick up a copy of Rick Warren's The Purpose of Christmas. Warren, the founder of the mega Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose - Driven Life, is all for celebrating the holiday. In fact, he's been having a birthday party for Jesus on Christmas Eve since before he was three; five decades later, it's a family tradition. But he sees the purpose of Christmas lost in the frenzy surrounding this holiday. Warren aims his book at both new believers and those who have just gotten distracted by life: "Because of today's pace of life, we quickly forget all the good things God does for us, and we move on to the next challenge." The short chapters are ideal for reading in those unanticipated free moments, and the book is prettily illustrated. The closing section is about peace and reconciliation, giving readers a helpful boost into the New Year.

Pictures worth 1,000 words

Those longing to visit the Holy Land have two new books to pore over this holiday. Reflections of God's Holy Land is by Christian writer Eva Marie Everson and Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, a tour educator specializing in Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land. The women traveled together, although Vamosh, being Jewish, could not enter some sites. Each section covers an area of Israel and, in addition to the narrative, usually written by Everson, includes Scriptures, rabbinic quotations from various sources and wonderful photographs. It's an excellent armchair book, filled with history, beauty and Everson's joy at finally fulfilling her goal of seeing Israel.

In the Footsteps of Abraham: The Holy Land in Hand - Painted Photographs covers much of the same ground, quite literally, but it's an altogether different kind of book. The photographs, of Christians, Jews and Muslims and their homes and villages, were commissioned in the 1920s by Ari Speelman, a devout Dutch Christian. All of them have been hand - colored, which sometimes involved painting with a single human hair. There are excellent short essays providing information about the photographs, Speelman and the collection, and brief introductions of each image, but otherwise the story is told entirely by the photographs. And they are grand, full of rich detail and without the spooky aspects that often mar hand - painted photographs.

Monasteries and Monastic Orders: 2000 Years of Christian Art and Culture, a coffee - table book only in the sense that it is far too heavy to hold, is absolutely dazzling. The photographs, by Achim Bednorz, are extensive and accompanied by all manner of other helpful and fascinating illustrations, including maps, building layouts, interiors and images of various kinds of art. Kristina Kruger provides extensive text on the history of monasteries, their influence on the development of Europe and the different orders. This is not a book for everyone, given both the subject and the price, but it could provide the right person with a wonderful reading experience during the coming winter (and do wonders for his or her biceps).

Meeting your maker

God Stories: Inspiring Encounters with the Divine lives up to its title. I found many of these stories, collected by former CNN reporter and producer Jennifer Skiff, encouraging. Skiff, who has her own God story, transcribes the reports she has collected from a website she developed for the purpose; there's no editorializing. Divided into sections like "Listening to the Voice," "Accepting the Warning" and "Coming Back from the Other Side," the stories can seem similar, but can also be surprising and, in one notable case, humorous. It's a good devotional book: short testimonies by all kinds of people with one thing in common.

Return of the prodigal

The authors of two current spiritual memoirs, Anne Rice and Joe Eszterhas, don't have much in common beyond returning to the Roman Catholic Church after years away from it. In Called Out of Darkness, Rice recounts her long struggles with her religion - though in this reviewer's opinion, she never totally left it. Rice bought a former church to live in and surrounded herself with Catholic memorabilia (even her most famous novels, the Vampire Chronicles, seem tied to religion). Though her reasons for going back don't seem as persuasive as her reasons for leaving, this is a fascinating book in its own, very weird way, and Rice fans should enjoy it.

Joe Eszterhas, best known for his screenplays for Basic Instinct and Showgirls, had a serious cancer scare. Afterward, he moved with his wife and four young sons back to their native Ohio and became active in their local parish, only to see the priest they loved and respected caught up in a sexual abuse scandal. But they stay, and Crossbearer tells of Eszterhas' daily struggles to be a good Christian and a good Catholic and still make a living, not such an easy thing, especially in his line of work. He's heroic in an everyday kind of way and his memoir is a celebration of how positive change is possible for those with faith.

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