Book Review: World Religions in America (4th Edition)

World Religions in AmericaWorld Religions in America (4th Edition)
by Jacob Neusner
Westminster John Knox, 2009
449 pages (paperback)


Not long ago, as I was designing a course on American cultures and religious traditions, I included the newest edition of World Religions in America as a primary text.  This text, edited by the well-known Jacob Neusner, is perfect for the classroom.  Unlike many world religions texts—in which one or two people write the entire book—each chapter comes from an author who holds some sort of commitment, academically and/or personally, to the tradition they represent.  Instead of getting a polemical perspective, this allows the reader to hear about a religion from someone with a vested interest in it.

I also used this text for my class on worldviews.  One of the class goals I have for my students is the art of listening to others, especially those adherents of other religious or worldview perspectives.  What I see too often are students who immediately jump into an apologetical mode.  They are too busy thinking of the next argument to make when in conversation with a person of another religion that they fail to listen.  If I can get them to be quiet long enough to hear the other person’s passion for their own beliefs, they generally come away from the experience with a fresh perspective and appreciation for their neighbor.

In order to make this happen, we listen to interviews with persons of differing religious and worldview perspectives (often we use podcasts like Speaking of Faith).  Assignments are intended to get the student to articulate the reasons the other person may hold to their belief system.  The end of the term includes an assignment I call the “Listening to Others Project,” and this is intended to take an entire semester of learning to listen and put it into action by interviewing someone of another religion or worldview, whether they be Muslim, Buddhist, or Atheist.

They are to ask a series of questions provided for them and record the response of the person they interview.  They then write a paper recording and explaining this person’s response, which should include their own reflection on the experience.  After this, they return the paper to the person they interviewed to get their input.  Hopefully they represented the person clearly and fairly, but if not, this is the time in which that person can help them avoid misrepresentations.  They then turn the paper in to me.  During this entire process they are not allowed to proselytize, argue, slip the interviewee literature, etc. They are simply there to listen and learn.

The “Listening to Others” assignment is my favorite.  The students have an opportunity in class to talk about how they feel about the experience.  This is where self-awareness either shows up or is entirely absent.  The majority of my students tell me that they were surprised by how difficult it was to listen patiently.  A few also seem to be surprised—and this one can be telling—by the intelligence and logic of the persons they interview.  Many come from the Christian bubble and do not have friends of another faith.  As a result, they may suspect that persons of other religions are either illogical, unaware of the what their faiths really teach, or perhaps angry with God.  It is striking to some that clear-headed and reasonable people can believe differently from the way they believe.

I tend to get another interesting response. The student may believe that they are a devout Christian, active in the church, socially responsible, etc.  However, there are a few interviews where the response is one of shame.  I have had students indicate that they felt shamed by the commitment the Muslim or Atheist had for his or her belief system.  In interviews with an Atheist, some students were surprised by the level of honesty and commitment to social justice they found.  I think they had the idea that an Atheist would believe that anything goes.  The idea of something like an Atheist charity, for example, is entirely puzzling to a few.

On occasion, however, I get the disappointing response that shows little to no self-awareness.  I might get the student that says that he or she learned that they are a really good listener after all, and that the other person is confused and just needs prayer.  Responses where the student seems to see nothing worth learning miss the point.   (I know you can’t win them all.)  We all come from our respective positions and, of course, if we remain there it is because we are largely convinced of that position, though laziness and arrogance can also be factors.  I get that and I understand why the student would remain largely in his or her religion—as I have myself.  Yet it would be nice if they had a real moment of self-discovery.  Instead, I sometimes find a student who appears to resist with the idea of holding up a mirror to the soul.

The result of the project, however, is largely positive.  As Christians we believe, as with other religions, in the Golden Rule, which includes loving our neighbors as ourselves.  We should do for our neighbor as we would want them to do for us.  If we want them to listen to us, give us the benefit of the doubt, feel our passion for our beliefs, and dialogue peacefully with us, we should do the same for them.  Unfortunately, there are still many cowboy Christians out there who shoot first and ask questions later.

There are many Christian perspectives on world religions.  Many ancient Christians concluded that perhaps God had given some light to the great philosophers. Today, much of the mainline and many evangelicals are open to religious dialogue.  Some evangelicals see religion as a response to the divine and that what happens eternally is ultimately up to God, though redemption itself is accomplished by Christ.  Others may argue for a strict exclusivity that does not allow for any of this.  In the middle one might find books like Gerald R. McDermott’s Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions: Jesus, Revelation, and Religious Traditions (IVP Academic, 2000), which encourages both listening and learning from the other person while remaining steadily committed to the Christian faith.  What the future holds for these kinds of discussions is unclear, but I know that for it to be positive and for the conversation to be possible, I must plant the seeds of it in my classroom.

What is true is that the discussion of how world religions should relate to one another, that is, a theology of world religions, is still an active discussion for Christians.  Neusner’s book is a helpful tool to get started.  The fourth edition of World Religions in America (2009) has timelines, sidebars on important information, suggestions for further reading, questions for generating discussion, and a glossary.  Expressions of diversity within a religion are sometimes given their own chapters (e.g. Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, African, and Latino Christianity).  There are also chapters on other, often under-represented religions, such as Neopaganism, Witchcraft, and Scientology.  Each chapter is introductory and written for the beginner.  At 449 pages, it is a volume well worth keeping in the library.

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