Two miles from my house is a mosque, a beautiful piece of gold and white architecture that stands out boldly among the flat fields of Midwestern farms. For some individuals, I’m certain that this building represents something more nefarious. The atheist may see it as monument to human superstition or the conservative Republican Christian might see it as suspect and anti-American. I see it, the several big box Evangelical churches, and other small congregations that dot the Ohio landscape, as contemporary footprints in the long history of humans seeking the transcendent.
Since our earliest days, when we looked at the luminous band of the Milky Way and wondered if it was a gateway for the souls entering heaven, humans have wandered the paths of life’s big questions. Many expressions of that quest can be discovered in the minarets of the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, the clock tower of St. Rose in Perrysburg, and the telescope of the Brooks Observatory at the University of Toledo.
There is no escaping the reality that, no matter how we, as individuals, might understand the answers to these eternal questions, our neighbors may not share our conclusions. For those that are interested in understanding the perspectives of those we share this planet with, meet at the farmer’s market, or drink with at the local pub, the following three books on religion will help provide that insight.
1) World Religions in America, edited by Jacob Neusner (4th Edition)
Don’t let the “in America” fool you; this book is a great, general introduction to the world’s religions. Many books on religion are written by those who aren’t adherents to the beliefs they are discussing. This can work, but it is often good—especially if you want to get at why someone finds a particular religion convincing—to hear from those on the inside, either because that person is an adherent or because he or she is a specialist with a passion for the religion.
Chapters include backgrounds to the history, beliefs, and texts of each religion, questions for discussion, suggested topics for essays, sidebars on important ideas, controversies, and timelines. Chapters are short and it is a good book to keep on reference.
2) An Anthology of Living Religions, edited by Mary Pat Fisher & Lee W. Bailey (3rd Edition)
Fisher and Bailey have put together an anthology that covers a lot of territory in unearthing some primary text readings of living religions (both indigenous and world religions). As a collection of texts, the book begins with a selection of responses to religion, including names like Mircea Eliade, Karl Marx, Joseph Campbell, Abraham Heschel, Vijaya Ramaswamy, and Richard Dawkins.
Each chapter in the volume introduces themes in a religion, provides a sampling of primary readings for students, includes a glossary, historical timelines, discussion questions, review questions, and additional resources (some of which are online). Like any anthology, choices are driven by the editors and can never be exhaustive, but this book offers a chance to read and consider the voices of diverse religions within a short sitting. While this is a textbook, it also serves as a helpful reference for the home library.
3) Religious Studies: The Key Concepts by Carl Olson
After reading about religion and primary sources related to religion, it is also handy to have a text that examines key concepts in the world of religious studies. Studying religion can take many forms, from the empathetic, to the apologetic, to the comparative and critical. As a field, it has its own vocabulary, theories, and methods. Religious Studies: The Key Concepts is a helpful tool for understanding these, and it provides suggestions for further reading at the end of each entry. Terms included in the book are those that have cross-cultural significance and fit within a comparative approach.
Have any books you’d like to suggest? Let me know in the comments below.