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Thursday, December 4, 2014

"Handbook of Religion" (various authors)

TITLE: Handbook of Religion: A Christian Engagement with Traditions, Teachings, and Practices
EDITORS: Terry C. Muck, Harold A. Netland, and Gerald R. McDermott
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014, (832 pages).

Is it really possible for Christians to talk about other religions, and to bring in their theology into a book such as a "Handbook of Religion?" Well, the answer can also be asked in another way. Is it possible for anyone NOT to bring in their opinions, their philosophies, and their religious values into any book?  In other words, everybody brings in something into any discussion. There is no perfect book in which nobody gives zero opinion or neutral slant. Having said that, most of the contributors in this compendium are Christians, and they openly admit how they are approaching the topic of religion. Bringing together three editors, fifty-five contributors, the book contains a total of 134 articles and 239 study aids. All the three editors are evangelicals and professors of religion at graduate schools. As the the rest of the contributors, the editors had invited not only Christians but several from other faith traditions as well. The majority of the essays from parts 2-4 are primarily descriptive in nature. In places where Christian engagements are made, the editors explicitly say so.

The purpose of this book is to introduce the various religious traditions of today and to look at some major issues between these religions and Christianity. Meant primarily for Christians wanting to understand non-Christian religions and beliefs,  the editors hoped to address four needs:
  1. Need for Basic Information of other religions
  2. Need for Seeing the Big Picture of the Religious World Today
  3. Need for Understanding how Radically Differentiated the World of Religious Beliefs Had become
  4. Need for Understanding the Dynamics behind Identity and Religious belief

What is so special about this book is not the focus on the religions per se, but the awareness of how the cultural environments and the postmodern contexts are shaping religious thought. The editors highlight the three uniqueness of this handbook. First, it considers the three major religious thoughts together: 1) Traditional religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam); 2) Indigeneous Religions (India, China, Southeast Asia, North Asia, Europe, Middle East, Africa, Oceania, North America, Central and South America); 3) New Religious movements, the NRM (Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, Nation of Islam, Atheism, Baha'i, Unification Church, Marxism, Christian Identity, and others).  Second, they believe that all people have an innate religious inclination, even though they call their sense of belief by different names, simply because this is an integral part of the human experience. Third, it is boldly Christian in outlook but diligently respectful of the various religions under discussion. Boldly Christian because there is no fear about Christians living out their faith in love and respect for neighbour regardless of religious orientation. Diligently respectful because of the care for details and the sensitivity needed to avoid misrepresenting another faith.

Personally, it is vital that Christians when trying to teach about other religions be as accurate and as factual as possible. Those who are suspicious of this book merely because it is written from a Christian perspective need not fear. I provide three reasons. First, the book's primary audience is Christians wanting to learn more about other religions. By knowing the kinds of questions and contexts most Christians encounter, the three professors of religious studies, who are all believers will be able to explain it in a manner that they appreciate. Second, the authors are all experts in their religious disciplines. A number of them are faith practitioners of their expressed religion, like William Aiken of the Soka Gakkai religion, a variant of Buddhism;  Don Webb of the Temple of Set, a theistic satanic religion, or Christopher Vecsey when talking about matters pertaining to the North American Indians. Third, Christians practice the golden rule, to do to others what they want others to do to them. Moreover, Christians are under obligation to tell the truth and not bear false witnesses of others. It is not honouring God if they try to misrepresent others just to get some upper-hand. There is no need to fear the truth for the truth will set us free.

The book is divided into four parts. Part One is a necessary read because it points out the orientation and direction the book will be taking. Here, readers will learn that the focus is not on the individual religions but the contexts from which the religions exist today. The editors recognize that the premodern religious contexts are by and large undifferentiated. However, postmodern climate is radically differentiated. That is why modern religious study must incorporate an understanding of the political, economical, social, and cultural contexts. Religious thoughts exist within the influences of these contexts. This book aims toward accuracy, fairness, objectivity, and respect. Christians study comparative religions without forgetting that their final goal is to be a perfect follower of Jesus Christ. The chapter with the heaviest amount of Christian theologizing would be chapter 3, "A Christian Theology of Religions." Here, Harold Netland distinguishes Christianity from worldly pluralism and points out the key differences. Unlike pluralism, Christians do not believe all religions are more or less similar. For to say so would betray the very essence of the words of Jesus in John 14:6. Furthermore, pluralism tends to focus more on the similarities of religions and downplay the differences. Christianity will seek to deal with BOTH similarities and differences. Chapter 4 is particularly helpful for Christians wanting to begin meaningful dialogue with non-Christian communities.

Part Two ventures into the five major world religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam. The format for them are similar. There is a historical survey of the beliefs and practices of each religion followed by interactions of each religion with Christians or Christianity. This is unique as not many handbooks of religion will actively pursue an engaging discussion of how one religion is pitted against another. The theological exchanges are very interesting and illuminating. In fairness, the editors have included an "adherent essay" whereby a distinguished member of the respective religion can give their input and to speak on behalf of their religion. Current issues of each religion are also included.

Part Three touches on the indigenous religions in representative countries across continents. Ten geographical areas are described. India and China are large enough to be considered in their own right. Smaller countries are spread across Southeast Asia, North Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Other geographical areas include Africa, North America, Oceania, Meso and South America.

Part Four highlights several new religious movements. There are Christian derivatives like Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Jehovah;s Witnesses, Freemasonry, and Church of Christ, Scientist; World religion derivatives like Nation of Islam, Transcendental Meditation, Soka Gakkai; nature religions like Environmentalism and New Age; secular religions like Atheism; social religions like Christian Identity movement; and so on. 

In summary, this book is a superb overview of the various modern religious thoughts. I applaud the authors for their clarity and ability to put together so much information in one volume. Professors and students can benefit by using this book as a main text in their study of religions. Use the study aids and the "Christian contacts" spur vibrant interactions and interesting discussion. The goal is not agreement of all people. The goal must be understanding in the spirit of neighbourliness and Christian love. As a reference book, teachers, pastors, and preachers can learn quite a lot with regards to the different expressions of religion. At the same time, they can approach it from a Christian perspective that is informed and respectful.

Once again, I remind fellow Christians not to use this book as some kind of "ammunition" against others. That is not the purpose. Conversation is our responsibility. Conversion is God's responsibility. At all times, speak the truth in love. I am all praise for this wonderful work!

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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