Food for thought is easy to wrap and looks inviting under the tree. It's healthier than candy or fruitcake. Paperbacks make good stocking-stuffers. The choice of subjects is endless. Don't overlook religion.
Here are eight books as varied as you could wish, yet each explores religious values.
Let's start with one that's irreverent. Peter McWilliams' "Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in a Free Society" (Prelude, 815 pages, $22.95) could set off a stimulating conversation while the turkey and oyster stuffing wear off. The 1,500 quotations are from such wildly disparate commentators as Al Capone, Pope John Paul II, Lenny Bruce and the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
In or out of context, the quotes illustrate the author's thesis that what may be sinful should not necessarily be illegal. He is referring to so-called consensual crimes such as gambling, prostitution, pornography, obscenity, recreational and religious drug use, adultery, bigamy, polygamy, homosexuality, loitering, public drunkenness, jaywalking and failure to use seat belts or safety helmets.
More than 4 million Americans will be arrested for committing such crimes in the new year, with an estimated cost to the taxpayer of $50 billion, according to the author. He says: "We should be free to do with our person and property whatever we choose, as long as we don't physically harm the person or property of another."
The debate turns, of course, on whether the crimes truly have no victims other than the consenting adult perpetrators, and whether government has a duty to protect people from themselves.
The quotes, highlighted in boxes on almost every page, are provocative. They range from "When I sell liquor, it's bootlegging. When my patrons serve it on a silver tray on Lakeshore Drive, it's hospitality." (Capone) to "AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals; it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals" (Falwell).
Almost as likely to provoke and inform a lively religious discussion are two new offerings on feminist theology: "Living in the Lap of the Goddess: The Feminist Spirituality Movement in America" by Cynthia Eller (Crossroad, 276 pages, $24.95) and "Is It Okay To Call God 'Mother'? Considering the Feminine Face of God" by Paul R. Smith (Hendrickson, paperback, $11.95).
The latter, by a highly respected Southern Baptist preacher, has caused a stir in his conservative Protestant denomination, many of whose spokesmen, if not spokeswomen, see biblical truth and feminism as incompatible.
Beginning with a quotation from Genesis -- ". . . in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them . . . " -- Mr. Smith seeks to shoot down the reasons advanced by biblical literalists to oppose female images of God and inclusive language in worship. "Calling God 'Father' and never 'Mother' says something in our day that Jesus never intended," he writes.
Readers persuaded by Mr. Smith may not be won over by Ms. Eller, who gives a sympathetic account of a more radical feminist spirituality. But for men and women of whatever bent, she contributes to an understanding of the roots of a significant movement that began to flower in the 1960s.
"Believing as [spiritual feminists] do that it is patriarchal religion that makes it possible for the patriarchy to exist," she writes, "it is only sensible for them to feel that a nonpatriarchal society cannot come into existence without a nonpatriarchal religion to support it."
Available just in time for Christmas is a long-awaited annotated edition of the New Revised Standard Version of the Old and New Testaments, "The HarperCollins Study Bible" (Harper/San Francisco, 2,400 pages, $40). Its comprehensive commentaries are by a distinguished, international group of 60 scholars -- Jewish, Protestant and Roman Catholic -- headed by Wayne A. (( Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies at Yale.
The cross-referenced notes at the foot of each page are lucid and conveniently presented, and offer divergent opinions where appropriate, based on modern research.
For anyone interested in a deeper appreciation of the scriptures, two new translations would complement the HarperCollins Bible.
One is "At The Start: Genesis Made New" (Doubleday, 237 pages, $22), the starkly compelling, poetic result of nine years of work on Hebrew texts by an Oxford-educated Englishwoman living in Belgium, Mary Phil Korsak. In her version of the first book of the Old Testament, God did not create woman from Adam's rib, but from "the side" of "the groundling."
"The Message: The New Testament in Contemporary English" (NavPress, 544 pages, $20) is an interpretation by a longtime Maryland resident, the Rev. Eugene H. Peterson. Now a theology professor at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, he was the pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air for 29 years.
For a more traditional Christmas gift, consider an attractively illustrated anthology of mostly lesser-known prose and poetry of the season from many eras and cultures. Compiled and annotated by two Marylanders, the Rev. Pegram Johnson III, rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Accokeek, and Edna M. Troiano, head of the language and literature department at Charles County Community College in La Plata, it is "The Roads from Bethlehem: Christmas Literature from Writers Ancient and Modern" (Westminster/John Knox Press, 318 pages, $20).
To put in the stocking of either parent but freely shared with the children, there is a selection of popular newspaper columns by Bethesda resident Michael J. McManus, "Fifty Practical Ways to Take Our Kids Back from the World" (Tyndale House, paperback, 315 pages, $9). "Some of today's temptations did not even exist in the 1950s and 1960s," Mr. McManus writes. "It is not impossible, however, to be a good parent even in times like these."
The prescriptions from this forthright father of three grown sons are unabashedly old-fashioned. He cites a study suggesting that only 15 percent of mothers and 8 percent of fathers ever talk to their children about pre-marital sex. "Why so few?" he asks. "Surely every parent knows this is a tough issue for their teen-agers, and most parents would like to see their teen-agers abstain from premarital sex."