The New Yorker magazine recently looked into the Harry Potter phenomenon, boiling down J.K. Rowling's latest, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," and the entire Potter series to one theme: power: "How does one acquire power? How can it be used well, and ill? Does ultimate power lie with the good? In other words," asked the reviewer, "is there a God?"

Young Potter, it turns out, shares his genes with a literary strain stretching back to Genesis: writing that tries to fathom why we're here, that looks Good and Evil squarely in the eye, that says we have a rightful stake in the transcendent and the immanent.

If Rowling is indeed after spiritual themes, it's no wonder she hides behind a bespectacled schoolboy wizard. Readers are suspicious of authors that wrestle with the spirit. And rightfully so. In wrong hands, "spiritual fiction" is a bit of an oxymoron, a faulty mating of form and the formless, of words and what lies beyond them. Good spiritual fiction, as a result, is in low supply: Talented writers know that they will have to pull off a miracle if their reputations are to emerge from the exercise intact. Few choose to risk it.

The recent faddishness of spirituality, however, has made the commercial rewards for even marginal spiritual fiction tantalizing. And as publishers learn to hawk spiritual novels like any other glitzy item in the marketplace, the genre has devolved into mawkishness.

Starhawk's "Walking to Mercury" is an object lesson in what can go wrong. The spirit, in fact, is oddly absent from this New Age excuse for a spiritual journey. Starhawk's characters are improbably omnipresent: high school LSD-users in the early 1960s, who become San Francisco dropouts in the mid-'60s, who turn into spiritual neophytes, who become pagan or Buddhist healers and political activists by the '70s and '80s. Starhawk's epic sweep through these lives gives us the feeling of reading a New Age Danielle Steele.

Her melange of history-as-coincidence is accompanied by a spiritual free-for-all: A pinch of this, a swallow of that, and--voila!--you meet God! Starhawk indulges a puerile yearning that in spiritual matters, soulful self-improvisation can supplant discipline and knowledge.

A rewarding novel of the spirit requires that the yearning be God-oriented, and a God-filled wit doesn't hurt. "Blameless in Abaddon"--the second volume in James Morrow's trilogy about a search for God and self--is successful on both scores. Morrow's hero, Martin Candle, cruises on a beat-up steamer through God's brain. (Yes, I know: a strange conceit. But it works.) On his travels, Candle comes across "ideas," not actualities: God's idea of the devil, of Jerusalem, of Job, of the moon at nighttime, of the very idea of nighttime. Treating ideas keeps things away from the concrete and closer to what's intuited.

Through six novels and one short-story collection, Morrow has enjoyed putting God in His place, even as he respects the Divinity. In "Blameless in Abandon," God's place is in the ocean, His lifeless body having dropped from the heavens in a literal take on the verdict that "God is dead."

But as much as Morrow lets God knows who's boss, he does so with a knowing, winking affection: God may no longer be in His Heaven, but we still somehow muddle through with him, grappling with the fates he assigns us. Asked, "Why does God allow evil," a Morrow character explains, "Because power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Morrow's wicked playfulness is shared by Stephen Mitchell. In Mitchell's fable "The Frog Prince," a princess sees a frog for what he can be, not for what he is, because "the rules of the soul consist of nothing but exceptions." Mitchell attended Amherst, Yale, and the University of Paris, and has translated everyone from Job to Lao Tzu to Rainer Maria Rilke. He has also immersed himself in Zen, whose precepts are braided throughout "The Frog Prince." Thus we learn that the true meaning of "once upon a time" resides in "the deeper places inside us, ... where princes and dragons, wizards and talking birds, impassable roads, impossible tasks and happy endings have always existed."

Mitchell's writing dives with enviable grace through spiritual and philosophical depths, where a lesser writer could easily get lost in a confusion of complex, enigmatic ideas. In "Meetings with the Archangel," his delightful yarn of a cynic's encounter with a real-live angel, Mitchell punctures pretensions and assumptions. A verbose Gabriel tells of angelic sex and kvetches about angels' attachment to heavenly bliss. The human way ("the way of the broken heart"), he says somewhat enviously, is the path to truth and compassion. Only by summoning the "courage to dive into the ocean of suffering ... into the realm where any disaster can happen" can we grow.

"The Red Tent"--the first novel by Anita Diamant, author of "The New Jewish Wedding"--is another rare success. Diamant's novel is a lengthy midrash--a traditional Jewish fictional device inspired by a biblical tale.

In this case, the tale is kindled by the revenge of Dinah's brothers after their sister is raped. It's not a happy tale, but in Diamant's hands, one that assumes levels of love, longing, destiny, and obligation absent from the Bible's skimpy account of the tragedy.

Diamant takes the Dinah story in directions contrary to the Bible's version: Dinah wasn't raped; she consented to lovemaking. Her brothers didn't so much avenge her honor as assuage their own pride. Her grandfather, Laban, was a liar, a cheat, a scoundrel. And in an extraordinary conclusion, Diamant turns a nurturing filial love and a frightening tribal ancestry into a curious, perhaps eventually destructive destiny.

Putting the ethereal into words demands a talent that may, indeed, be otherworldly. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try. The path may be difficult, but it should not be ignored. Doing so will only frustrate us. It'll also make the gods very, very angry.

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