I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
By examining relics—the bits and pieces of long-dead saints at the heart of nearly all religious traditions—Peter Manseau delivers a book about life, and about faith and how it is sustained. The result of wide travel and the author’s own deep curiosity, filled with true tales of the living and dubious legends of the dead, Rag and Bone tells of a California seeker who ended up in a Jerusalem convent because of a nun’s disembodied hand; a French forensics expert who travels on the metro with the rib of a saint; two young brothers who collect tickets at a Syrian mosque, studying English beside a hair from the Prophet Muhammad’s beard; and many other stories, myths, and peculiar histories.
With these, and an array of other digits, limbs, and bones, Manseau provides a respectful, witty, informed, inquisitive, thoughtful, and fascinating look into the "primordial strangeness that is at the heart of belief," and the place where the abstractions of faith meet the realities of physical objects, of rags and bones.
I often find myself reading somewhat odd books because I have heard their authors interviewed on CBC radio. This is one of those books. Where else would I have heard about a book featuring the bits and pieces of long dead religious people? Truth be told, I was puzzled last year, when I heard that my city (Calgary) was to receive a visit in the form of the severed arm of St. Francis Xavier. I knew that such things were important in the Middle Ages (read Ellis Peters’ excellent mystery story, A Morbid Taste for Bones, as an illustration of this), but I was unaware that religious relics were still a thing in the 21st century.
In preparation for this odd visitation, the author of this book was interviewed by our public radio station. I don’t remember the details of that interview, but I was intrigued enough to put this book on my TBR list and I’m glad that I read it, even if just for the quirk factor.
Poor old Saint F-X, he wasn’t the most successful proselytizer of the Christian faith, but in death he managed to find more fame and sainthood (he is featured early in the book). It’s these stories of the people behind the relics that are interesting, as well as finding out that Buddhists and Muslims also have treasured relics. It seems to be a bizarre human tendency, perhaps starting when the Neanderthals buried their dead in the caves that they inhabited.
The author is a religion scholar, but this offering is not a scholarly tome. It is sometimes humerous and very informative, without being overwhelming. If you are looking for something a little different in your reading docket, you could definitely do worse than Rag and Bone.