Because he is serious but not heavy, Peter Manseau — journalist, novelist, memoirist, teacher, student — makes an amusing traveling companion in Rag and Bone, his tour of the bits and pieces of saints and saviors that we have been moved to worship.
To me, the subject cries out for satire or sarcasm. And Manseau himself makes no effort to resist those cries, with chapter titles such as "A Gentle Ribbing" and "One, Two, Three, Foreskin" and a title drawn, oddly, from Kipling.
But then he is in good company. Sneering at the buckets of alleged milk from the breast of the Virgin Mary that "no monastery or nunnery, however insignificant" could be without, John Calvin once remarked, "Had Mary been a cow all her life, she could not have produced such a quantity."
Manseau's pleasure is to roam the globe, dropping in at the basilica in Goa that houses the shriveled remains of St. Francis Xavier, or the shrine to the Buddha's tooth in Sri Lanka. But his point is that such relics, whether spurious or with provenance, are one of the ways in which humankind connects to something beyond itself.
"We are simultaneously people who need symbols to survive, and we are symbols ourselves," he writes. "Our bodies . . . have the capacity to tell stories we cannot imagine."
And Manseau is perhaps uniquely situated to be our guide and storyteller: The Buddhist son of a Catholic priest and a nun (see his book Vows), he is a doctoral candidate in religion at Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution, where he also teaches writing. He is the editor of Search: The Magazine of Science, Religion and Culture.
Part history, part hagiography, part travel book and part memoir, Rag and Bone is an elegantly crafted tribute to the ways in which life and death connect.
David L. Beck is a writer and editor in St. Petersburg.