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New Books Look at Bad Saints and Lousy Kings

So bad they’re good—for edification, that is. That’s the muckraking story behind some luminaries in religious history, as told in two fall books. One deals with atrocious leadership by kings in the Bible; the other examines the shocking pasts of well-known saints.

Who better to train a practiced eye on waywardness than bestseller Barbara J. Essex? She’s been turning out irresistibly titled books for the Pilgrim Press like "Bad Girls of the Bible: Exploring Women of Questionable Virtue" (1999) and "Krazy Kinfolk: Exploring Dysfunctional Families of the Bible" (2005).

But what Essex has really been itching to tackle is how kings of the Bible rate as leaders—hence, October’s "Misbehavin’ Monarchs: Exploring Biblical Kings of Questionable Character." Though nobody was exemplary, King David, who committed adultery and murder, actually did some things right when it came to headship, she said. The worst was the prophet Samuel—who held transitional authority, though not the crown—and missed opportunities to support King Saul by fussing at him, judging him, and withholding inside information about God’s displeasure. As Essex puts it, “Information is power. Samuel had it, and Saul did not.”

Her most surprising finding? Wise King Solomon was actually “a mama’s boy” who made some foolish administrative decisions. (Look for his mother, Bathsheba, in a future "Bad Girls" sequel.) Essex said she hopes pastors and lay leaders will use "Misbehavin’ Monarchs" to reflect upon and improve their own leadership skills.

In "Saints Behaving Badly: the Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil- Worshippers Who Became Saints" (Doubleday, Sept.), Thomas J. Craughwell attempts to ease everyone’s minds by making this clear: Nobody’s perfect. Not even saints.

Craughwell, a Catholic and a wildly diverse writer whose 12 books have ranged from urban legends to prayer, says most books finesse a saint’s misdeeds with such expressions as “was once a great sinner.” He told RBL, “I read a phrase like that, and I think, ‘Gee, I wonder what he did.’ ”

Craughwell went digging for the dirt and found, for example, that 14th-century Camillus de Lellis, a patron saint of nurses known for progressive ideas about hospital hygiene, was a 6'4", "hulking ex-mercenary” and con man. The Most Loathsome Award belongs to 8th-century Olga of Ukraine. This princess avenged her husband’s assassination big time. “By the time she was done, she killed close to a thousand people,” Craughwell said. “She went along personally to supervise—she was very hands-on.” Later Olga was baptized in Constantinople, kicked the mass-murder habit and tried to spread Christianity back home.