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Friday, September 2, 2011

"Understanding World Religions" (Irving Hexham)

TITLE: Understanding World Religions: An Interdisciplinary Approach
AUTHOR: Irving Hexham
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

As an avid student of Ninian Smart, Hexham approaches the study of world religions from the perspective of an active comparative study, even though some of the studies may be controversial in nature. Unlike most books that mainly describe religions, the author here chooses to go beyond that. He opts to look at world religions firstly according to what practitioners understand, and secondly, to give his take on religions from a Christian standpoint.

In trying to understand what 'religion' means, one needs to understand the contexts that give religions their shape and meaning. Things like rituals, institutions, traditions, myths, doctrines, and 'sacral sentiments' all make up the contexts of what any particular religion means.

In studying religion, Hexham highlights five practical approaches, namely the historical, the philosophical, the logical, the sociological, and social anthropological. The value of the book lies in how he manages to link all of them together in an inter-disciplinary manner. This makes the book very holistic and covers a wide area of perspectives. He makes an important point in acknowledging that there is always bias in any study. Thus one needs not be embarrassed about one's stand, including his own. In other words, it is better to recognize one's bias upfront, in order to give readers a helpful stance to study and critique any work.

Hexham chooses to categorize the world's religions under three big headings: 'African traditions,' 'Yogic traditions,' and the monotheistic Abrahamic tradition. The first touches on the tribal religions, witchcraft, zulu etc. The second covers Eastern traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and 'Yogic-types.'

I find the stance of the author helpful. In openly acknowledging his perspective from a Christian point of view, he needs not fear being accused of being biased in any way. More often than not, he is truthful. I find Hexham's treatment fair. Christians will benefit from having Hexham as a guide to show them greater understanding of the world religions. Non-Christians can benefit too.

Though the book can be academic and heavy going, it should be a part of any students' study of comparative religion.


This book has been provided to me free of charge by NetGalley and Zondervan without any obligation of a positive review. All opinions expressed are freely mine.

1 comment:

  1. More information on World Religions can be found on my website:


    There you will also find some free books and articles in pdf format plus links to other publications that can be read online along with various other materials.

    Irving Hexham