"The Moral Compass: A Companion to 'The Book of Virtues,' " edited by William J. Bennett (Simon & Schuster, 824 pp.; $30, hardcover); "The Family Book of Christian Values," edited by Stuart and Jill Briscoe (Chariot, 512 pp.; $24.99, hardcover); "The Christian's Treasury," edited by Lissa Roche (Crossway, 556 pp.; $25, hardcover). Reviewed by Frederica Mathewes-Green, author of "Real Choices: Offering Practical, Life-affirming Alternatives to Abortion" (Questar).

Once upon a time, a mighty Book ventured forth into the world. It was a volume of moral instruction. Many such litter bookstore shelves: slim things with wide margins, whimsical covers, and lots of curly italics.

But this book disdained such frivolity. It was 800 pages long and weighed enough to brain a medium-sized dragon. It aimed at nothing less than displaying the very best stories and poems that could be found, spanning the world and the centuries. (Best? What a quaint notion.) These stories weren't only to be heartwarming or entertaining; they were to teach enduring moral principles. And to make its anachronistic claims unmistakable, this compendium was called "The Book of Virtues," a title redolent of the Victorian Age.

A book could be written about what happened next. William Bennett had tapped a deep, public longing for goodness. Parents, in particular, felt an urgent need to protect their children from a chaotic and immoral cultural milieu, and this book offered rock-solid, timeless wisdom. "The Book of Virtues" easily ascended to the top of Bestseller Mountain and enjoyed a fine long stay.

You do not have to be a wizard, or even a marketing maven, to know what comes next. "The Book" has a little brother. As "The Moral Compass" straps cleats onto its 800-page frame and sets out for the base of Bestseller Mountain, it is apparent there is a strong family resemblance. "The Moral Compass" gathers stories and poems from a wide field, though special attention was paid to materials read by American children at the turn of the century. Bennett writes in his introduction that he thinks it "in some ways a more interesting collection … more intriguing and more imaginative." Instead of being clustered by attribute ("Friendship," "Work," "Courage"), as in its predecessor, the entries are grouped into seven phases of life. The first chapter comprises stories of "Home and Hearth": family love from the Billy Goats Gruff to the persevering grandmother in Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path." Other chapters include "Standing Fast" (not many females here), "Easing the Path" (oh, there they are), and "Mothers and Fathers, Husbands and Wives."

Article continues below

The selections are so delightful and nourishing that the Grumpy Old Reviewer Who Lives Under the Hill can find little to gnaw at. Still, a quibble could be made over an omission in the basic theory of the Virtue books: Why bother? Why do good? The motivation and power to live moral lives must come from somewhere; most often from religious faith, most clearly from the God who created us and set our rudimentary consciences to seek him and his will. "The Book of Virtues" hammered hard on moral training, with "Faith" just one more useful tool.

"The Moral Compass" at least begins to recognize the need for an empowering spiritual reality. Its final chapter is titled "What We Live By," and Christian faith is well represented with Scriptures, saints, and stories from Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox sources. Yet the chapter seems a little diffuse and unfocused, placed as an afterthought. Perhaps by the time the third Virtue brother makes his appearance (for in these stories there are always three brothers), it will be possible to present faith in the God of Scripture as the framework that sets all moral truths in harmony. Such an assertion seems shockingly exclusive and intolerant today. But not long ago, so did the idea of virtue.

A mainstream-market book that flirts with a Christian world-view is not the same thing as a Christian-market book with a "Virtues" format. There are two of the latter on my desk, and their resemblance to the mighty Big Brother (and thus to each other) is uncanny: buff-colored covers with deep-maroon ink, and oval cameos of antique families happily reading big books. ("The Moral Compass," forsaking last year's fashion, appears in dark blue with a compass rose.)

"The Family Book of Christian Values," selected by Stuart and Jill Briscoe, rejects the term virtue in favor of values but otherwise follows the original Bennett format closely. How does a book of Christian values differentiate itself from its nonsectarian counterpart? The introduction explains that these stories do not merely call us to better behavior, which might lead to self-righteousness; they also confront us with our failure and lead us to repentance. Christian morality begins at a different starting point from the secular sort, and although many of the principles are the same, the distinction is crucial.

Article continues below

Lissa Roche has given her book a full title of Victorian length: "The Christian's Treasury of Stories & Songs, Prayers & Poems & Much More for Young & Old." She has clustered the entries by type: an opening section of "Meditations," ranging from a single line to several paragraphs; poems and songs; and stories for younger and for older readers. In her introduction, Roche contrasts her collection with secular anthologies of "anti-heroic, angst-ridden stories—laced with heavy doses of moral relativism, pessimism, fatalism, and pointless tragedy." The stories in this collection, she says, show man as a fallen creature touched by God's grace, "a doctrine of light, not darkness."

But too often modern Christian products—as opposed to those of earlier ages—react against the gloom by pushing so desperately for the light that they end up being lite. These books are best when they present essays that grapple with painful truths, such as Robertson McQuilken's story of caring for his wife as she succumbs to Alzheimer's disease, which appears in the Briscoe collection. Roche includes a few such challenging entries in her "Stories for Older Readers" section. Of course, in a book designed for children, there must be plenty of simple, cheerful fare, but a steady diet of it has the Grumpy Old Reviewer running for a counteracting dose of Flannery O'Connor.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.