Take a trip down to the water cooler today and see how long it takes before you're discussing Harry Potter's exploits at Hogwarts. You'll have stumbled on a significant fact of publishing: kids' books aren't just for kids. Until now, however, religion publishing hasn't seen a book that explains religion so well for kids that it can also double as a primer for adults. Now Oxford University Press is churning out seventeen such books in its new "Religion in American Life" series. Nearly every title is written by a major name; Edwin Gaustad, often called the father of American church history, penned the inaugural volume, "Church and State in America," and Albert Raboteau, author of the classic "Slave Religion," followed with a wonderful book on African-American religions. Columbia University historians Richard and Claudia Bushman did an outstanding job with Mormonism. In forthcoming volumes, Randall Balmer will explore American Protestantism and Mark Noll will write on religion in the 20th century. And Shakerism historian Stephen Stein explains alternative-american religions in a volume due out next month.

What's really surprising about the series is not that the scholars are top-notch-one expects that from Oxford-but that they can actually write for the Gap generation. Sentences are short. The authors tell stories. They use the active voice. The books, which run about 150 pages apiece, are downright readable, with their texts enhanced by thought-provoking illustrations, photographs, and sidebars. The books reflect many of the changes that have swept American religion in the last three decades, transforming the way we study religion. Series editors Jon Butler and Harry Stout try valiantly to encompass America's increasing religious diversity, with volumes addressing immigration, Islam, Judaism, Native American religion, religions from India, and Eastern Orthodoxy.

The books focus, furthermore, on how religion has affected ordinary Americans, and vice versa. Nowhere is the attention to ordinary people more apparent than in Ann Braude's excellent "Women and American Religion." Braude's task may have been the most challenging of any in the series. How can one small book enfold more than three hundred years of women from all religious traditions? How can it avoid reductionist and essentialist statements about women's nature, when the only thing uniting the book's diverse female subjects is the fact that they're female? How would such a book even be organized?

Rather than offering a stodgy chronological approach, or herding her women subjects into their respective religious traditions, with obligatory chapters on "Muslim women" and "Catholic women," Braude coordinates her chapters around women's experiences. Her chapter "Mothers and Daughters Maintain the Home" shows Jewish women arranging holiday observance and lighting Shabbos candles, while Catholic women venerate the Blessed Mother. Braude gives a marvelously distilled interpretation of the Victorian cult of domesticity as enshrined in Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," but also explores how domesticity remains significant in contemporary women's religious experiences. Another chapter coalesces around religious women's activism, from the 19th-century missionary societies and temperance unions formed by Protestant women, to Catholic nuns' fervor for founding schools and hospitals to the Hadassah, a Zionist organization founded last century by Jewish women.

Braude's last chapter focuses on the tumultuous changes that have affected American women since the 1960s. She looks at Protestant and Jewish battles over women's ordination, the rise of Goddess spirituality, the much-touted "Reimagining" conferences of the 1990s, and the countervailing antifeminism that has fueled the growth of conservative religious movements. Braude's book, like the others in the series, is a whirlwind greatest-hits tour. The "Religion in American Life" volumes are not intended to be comprehensive; they are well-designed samplers of the rich diversity of America's religious history and life. While they'll be marvelous resources for their intended audience, adult readers will also relish these informative, accessible guidebooks from some of America's most knowledgeable religious historians.

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