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Matters of faith

New views shine light on the words of an apostle, on understanding the Bible, and on the origins of religion

Religious Literacy
By Stephen Prothero
Harper SanFrancisco
, 296 pp., $24.95

What Paul Meant
By Garry Wills
, 193 pp., $24.95

Evolving God
By Barbara J. King
Doubleday, 262 pp., $24.95

This morning's Easter worshipers, packing pews and crowding hillsides at sunrise to sing "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today," owe much to an ancient writer whose talent for sequels would shame Sylvester Stallone. Beginning with his Letter to the Thessalonians and in six follow-ups to various Christian communities, Paul of Tarsus firmly fixed the Resurrection as the core of Christian belief. "If Christ has not been raised," he wrote in 1 Corinthians, "then empty is our preaching; empty, too, your faith."

As literature, Paul's seven biblical letters aren't exactly scintillating reading. They're devoid of epic stories like the Gospels' Nativity and Passion. As history, however, Paul's work is fascinating. Penned decades before Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were recorded, his letters are the earliest documents we have about Jesus -- the only ones written by a contemporary of the man Christians consider the savior of the world. And what has Paul gotten for his trouble? Many moderns hear in his words the rants of a hater. "Paul's letters have become the place to go, over the centuries, for attacks on women, marriage, gays, and Jews," as Garry Wills puts it in "What Paul Meant."

One might expect Wills, a liberal Catholic, to join the Paul pile-on. But in this follow-up to last year's "What Jesus Meant, " Wills argues that this pivotal, peripatetic preacher has gotten a raw deal. As the only writer in or out of the Bible who was a contemporary of Jesus , Paul remains our best window on Jesus's teachings, something Wills tries to document by comparing Paul's rendition of the teachings with Gospel quotes of Jesus himself. As for charges that Paul injected bigotry into Jesus's message of love, Wills debunks interpretations finding misogyny and anti-Semitism in the Pauline letters. The latter charge Wills dismantles with surgical precision, noting that Paul was a devout Jew, a thoughtful reminder in this time of Passover.

None of these points is new. But Wills writes more gracefully and economically than scholarly authors in this gem of a book.

Making a counterintuitive argument like Wills's presupposes that the audience knows the conventional wisdom being rebutted. But if you believe Stephen Prothero's "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn't," most Americans' understanding of the Resurrection probably parallels that of the grade-schooler trying to explain Easter in the old joke about how Jesus rose from the crypt , didn't see his shadow, and so went back in for six weeks. Our knowledge of religion generally is no better, says Prothero, chairman of Boston University's religion department.

His modest proposal is for mandatory Bible study in high school and college. He wants the book studied for its literary power and historical influence, not necessarily as the word of God, and he also insists on requiring study of the world's other major religions. Smart atheists and liberals have long agreed: The American Humanist Association and People for the American Way have endorsed the type of education he proposes. And with good reason: Prothero cites Supreme Court decisions allowing neutral, nondevotional study in schools.

To critics who say making room for religion necessarily sacrifices time for other subjects, he offers the obvious retort: In a time when people are killing each other over religion, this subject is as crucial for an educated citizenry as the three R's. The most strenuous opponents of what he wants may be conservative Christians, according to Prothero, who complain that the Bible denuded of devotion is distortion, since it ignores the religious impulses that inspired the writers of the Scriptures. To which Prothero offers the retort of reformed evangelical Charles Colson. Colson reminds his fellow Christians that they can evangelize all they want outside the schools. Academic Bible study in school ensures that American students "know their own history," Colson says.

Prothero takes his case a step too far when he frets about religions leaching their theological distinctiveness to fit in with American culture. Sociologist Alan Wolfe says that conformist impulse drains away much of the harder-edged bigotry of some faiths. Anyway, it needn't follow that religious illiteracy is the price to be paid, at least if we heed the advice in this sensible, readable manifesto.

Barbara J. King is the Easter bunny in this batch of writers, as an agnostic. Taking off from her research on apes, and the compulsively social nature they share with us, she contends in "Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion" that humans' innate sense of belongingness -- "mattering to someone who matters to you" -- evolved with our advancing brains to encompass a "soulful need" to believe in God.

Statements like "humans evolved God gradually" will drive fundamentalists batty. But King takes pains to say she isn't claiming believers make up God; faith can't be confirmed or refuted by science. She has little patience for militant atheists. "That we humans cause suffering . . . is not evidence for God's absence," she writes; it's perfectly reasonable for religious people to believe that "God affords opportunities and experimentation, not a complete and perfected creation."

That that statement won't satisfy those who doubt a loving God's existence demonstrates the lengths to which King goes to respect religion. That the book quotes Bruce Springsteen and Emily Dickinson demonstrates that academics needn't write like incomprehensible geeks. Her openness makes her theories apt reading on Christians' holiest feast.

Rich Barlow writes the Globe's Spiritual Life column.