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If it is improper to discuss religion or politics in polite social circles, be sure to avoid mentioning these four recent books by Virginia authors.

Two of them address the phenomenon of today's evangelical Christian subculture, one through a probing look at Christian rock music, the other by way of a goofy though informative guide to the evangelical right's biggest players. Two others look at the 14th Amendment, the Civil War and African-American education in ways certain to refresh any Southern reader.

"Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock" by Andrew Beaujon (DeCapo Press, $16.95)

Not many music critics are interested in Christian rock. This could be for any number of valid reasons, but suffice it to say the music has garnered a large audience during the last couple of decades while the media mostly continues to ignore it.

Andrew Beaujon, managing editor of Washington City Paper, and a former Style Weekly contributor, couldn't help exploring the phenomenon, though, because as he puts it, "Anything this uncool … was probably worth investigating." His first book reads like a loose compendium of first-person articles about key players and events in the Christian rock world, broken up with lengthy Q&A interviews.

Ever the dutiful reporter, Beaujon maintains a nonjudgmental stance while writing with dogged determination and sympathetic humor about the underlying impulses of a cult movement that ultimately seeks to join the mainstream (to convert more nonbelievers), while remaining clean of pop culture's biblically frowned-upon aspects — which is nearly everything.

The profiles become a bit stagnant; one quickly learns that Christian rockers share much in common, not least of which is the experience of having been insulated from interesting art by their parents. But Beaujon's enthusiasm and cleareyed prose help make this an entertaining read with colorful detail and illuminating history about the genre's growth from Jesus-freak hippies to corporate players.

Some of the best moments are when the author, a "noncommittal" atheist, abandons his journalistic objectivity, whether dipping into the movement's cultural underpinnings or confronting his own growing sense of its hypocrisies (like the funny behind-the-scenes chapter on the surreal Gospel Music Association awards show). Throughout, Beaujon is effective at catching intimate glimpses of the growing pains of Bible-inundated Christian youth.

The title refers to a corny style of T-shirt one sees everywhere at Christian rock festivals (the "Body Piercing Saved My Life" shirt features a cartoon image of Jesus' pierced hands). In this world, self-righteous teens identify closely with historic martyrs — as if high school were a den of lions. — Brent Baldwin

"The Sinner's Guide to the Evangelical Right" by Robert Lanham
New American Library, $12.95)

For a more blatantly comedic tour through conservative evangelical culture that is informative, laugh-out-loud funny and horrifying at times, check out this snide, leftie-geared guide to the major evangelical players.

With detailed illustrations by Jeff Bechtel, the book offers a comprehensive course on religious power brokers, from James Dobson to Joel Osteen ("the evangelical P. Diddy") and Rick Warren ("the evangelical Jimmy Buffett"), complete with fire-and-brimstone rankings. A rating of 1 is the least severe ("liberal, even likes gays"), and 8 is the most ("sociopath — thinks Jesus will return any day with a flamethrower").

Author of "The Hipster Handbook," Robert Lanham has a writing style that resembles the hyper-verbose, list-oriented ramblings of edgy modern publications such as McSweeney's, and the irony-stacked humor of TV programs such as "The Daily Show" or "Real Time With Bill Maher."

Each chapter is packed with quick-fact information about his subjects as well as tiny pop-up guides for the ADD-addled, featuring comments from five everyday evangelicals as well as fromRonnie James Dio, the elfin heavy-metal singer responsible for popularizing the satanic horns gesture (although his comments are fake, another stand-in for the author's barbed jesting).

Sandwiched between are scary factoids, such as "a majority of U.S. adults, 54 percent, do not think human beings developed from earlier species, up from 46 percent in 1994 (Harris Poll 2005)." There's a final quiz and glossary in back.

Lanham is preaching to the choir here and will likely appeal only to those who have already made up their mind, but his book does provide thought-provoking tidbits and funny but telling analyses of the current evangelical scene that might otherwise lead thinking individuals to outright despair if told straight.

If you're the sort of left-winger who condemns evangelicals but knows little about their leaders, megachurches or followers, don't miss this funny little guide. — B.B.

"Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America" by Garrett Epps (Henry Holt, $27.50)

Writing about the Constitution — in this case, the 14th Amendment and the story of its adoption following the Civil War — is an immense challenge for any writer, one that requires the combined skills of a lawyer, a storyteller and a political analyst. Fortunately, Garrett Epps, both a novelist and a scholar of the Constitution, is up to the task. And what a story this is.

To make the 1787 Constitution acceptable to the Southern states, the framers built in protections for slavery, in the form of the infamous "three-fifths compromise." There were those who thought this compromise doomed the union from the start. Epps (son of Style Weekly copy chief Rozanne Epps) argues that the first Constitution died at Fort Sumter and that the 14th Amendment is, practically speaking, the "second U.S. Constitution," one that is marred, like the first, "by compromise and expediency," but a miracle nonetheless.

Adopted by Congress in 1866 and ratified by the states two years later, the 14th Amendment applied the Bill of Rights to the states; it reduced the Southern states' power in Congress, gave the federal government power to enforce civil rights, nullified Southern claims regarding Civil War debt and established penalties for states that chose to disenfranchise black voters. It also contains the due process and equal protection clauses that have defined so much of modern Supreme Court history.

The story of how this came to be reads like first-rate fiction. And with a cast of vivid characters, it's a story that would challenge any novelist's imagination. As Epps writes, the "re-framers" of our "second Constitution" were practical men who found themselves in a revolutionary moment that was fleeting, as all such moments are.

The 14th Amendment may be, as Epps says, an "ungainly construct" and a "rough beast," but it also opened a wide doorway to the house of freedom and equality that was left closed by the original framers in 1787. This is a fine book that shows how improbable — miraculous — the House of Freedom as we know it really is. — David Bearinger

"The Black Military Academy on the James River: A True Story from 1895-2005"by Robert A. Walker Jr. (Robert Walker, $17.50)

Richmond resident Robert Walker Jr. pays homage to his alma mater, St. Emma Military Academy, the only military high school of its kind for African-Americans and Native Americans in the United States.

Located in rural Powhatan County, St. Emma and its sister school, St. Francis de Sales, were founded by millionaire heiresses Katharine Drexel and her sister Louise. With a rigorous academic program, these two schools educated some 20,000 students, including the director of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," Joseph Terry, musician Cozy Cole and former lieutenant governor of the Virgin Islands, Walter McElroy.

Although the school "flourished between the Civil War and the civil rights era," it was forced to close in the early 1970s as desegregation lowered enrollment.

Walker covers a tremendous amount of historical and personal territory in his tribute to this unique aspect of Virginia history. Although the narrative jumps around, Walker's passion is obvious and the autobiographical sections of the book never trump close attention to historical detail. Although self-published, this is a book that would behoove Virginians to read closely and claim proudly as their own. S

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