Books: World Religions

Spirit of the Rain Forest: A Yanomamo Shaman’s Story by Mark Ritchie

514xzVfZ3yL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_A true story told from the perspective of an imaginative Shaman named Jungleman, Spirit of the Rainforest, is lively, candid, and thought provoking. Jungleman narrates his story, the story of the Yanomamo people and their ascent from vicious spiritist tribal peoples, to a people with a transformed worldview. Along the way, the reader is confronted with Jungleman’s amazing stories and perceptive observations. This story is full of spirits, evil, good, and redemption; which may lead the reader on towards their own transformative experience.

The book starts out by introducing, through narrative accounts, the Yanomamo people and their culture. The Yanomamo are marked by tribal violence and hostile relations toward one another. Wars between villages, raping and pillaging, stealing children, and revenge killing is customary. The glue that holds the Yanomamo people and culture together is spiritism. Every village has a Shaman, some even have several Shaman.

The narrative captivates the reader when “nabas” or non-Yanomamos begin to visit and even live among the Yanomamo tribes. Some of these nabas are anthropologists that study and document the lives of the Yanomamo people, while others are missionaries that are hoping to help these people and share the Gospel.  The development of relationship and understanding between the missionaries and the Yanomamo is fascinating.

The Spirit of the Rainforest is shocking, challenging, and transforming. Be prepared to walk away with a different view on the realities of this world and the next. It is highly recommended to missionaries, theology students, and skeptics alike.

 

God is Not One by Stephen Prothero

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Stephen Prothero, professor and chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University, is an acclaimed religious writer and commentator. He holds an undergraduate degree from Yale, a Master’s Degree from Harvard, and a PhD from Harvard. Prothero has written numerous books on religion including the New York Times Bestseller Religious Literacy.

God is Not One is an introduction to what Prothero calls the “Eight Rival Religions that Run the World.” The main purpose of the book is not only to inform the reader about these eight religions, but to also show that these religions are fundamentally different from one another. Prothero puts it this way, “This book explores the different answers each of the great religions has offered to the different questions they have asked.” (p. 24) Each chapter is dedicated to a great religion, and the eight religions he chooses as the greatest, in order are: Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism, and Daoism. In addition to these eight religions, Prothero gives atheism its own chapter because of the importance it plays in religious dialogue. The goal of each chapter is framed by the main purpose of the book. Prothero introduces each religion with its significant beliefs and practices, gives the history of the religion at hand (usually to show how the religion has changed), portrays the heroes of that religion, and then describes how it is practiced in modern times. The thrust of each chapter is to unearth the main problem that each religion sees as the particular, defining issue of existence and then how that religion tries to deal with the problem.

Prothero’s God is Not One has several strengths. First, his critique of the common “all religions are ways to the same god” is I think, needed. He does well showing the fundamental differences between religions through defining the problems that each religion seeks to answer. By showing that the fundamental problem each religion seeks to answer is different, he shows that each religion is in fact, fundamentally different. This is a respectable and fascinating lens to view religions through. Additionally, he does a fair job of introducing the religions in a non-pejorative manner, which is important when dealing with several different religions. Ironically, I think the strongest part of this book is the chapter on atheism. Prothero, whose religious affiliation escapes possibly even himself, does an outstanding job of critiquing atheism, specifically the “New Atheists.” His section titled “Fundamentalism by Another Name” where he shows that these new atheists are analogous to the same Christian fundamentalists that they despise is pure gold.

There are also several weaknesses in this book.  For each religion, Prothero goes through a somewhat extensive historical overview. However, something of vital importance is completely missing from the historical overviews, historicity. I think it does matter if Jesus actually rose from the dead, or if Krishna actually spoke the Bhagavad Gita, or if the Quran is historically reliable. Prothero doesn’t bother with historicity. This of course undermines religions like Christianity and Islam that are based in history and puts it them on a level playing field with other religions.  Another critique comes from Prothero’s chapter on Christianity.  He views the problem that Christianity addresses to be sin and the solution to the problem to be salvation. Prothero isn’t entirely wrong, but I think he misses the point of Christianity. More accurately, the problem that Christianity addresses is separation (no relationship) from God, which was indeed caused by sin. The solution is that God came to us through His Son who defeated sin, and then sent His Spirit that unites us to Him. So the solution is not simply to defeat sin as an end in itself, but for the purpose of communion (relationship) with God. Lastly, though Prothero tries to interpret each religion through its own interpretive lens by using the main problem the religion addresses and how it fixes that problem, he ends up pushing all religions into the box of “becoming ourselves,” (p. 332) and “what it is to be fully live,” (p. 333), or as I see him saying, “what it means to be fully human.” It seems that while he doesn’t think that all religions are ways to the same god, he does think all religions are ways to human flourishing. In the end, Prothero’s overview is definitely helpful, but very anthropocentric. It accomplishes what I believe he wanted, more questions than answers.

No God But One: Allah or Jesus

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Nabeel Qureshi is a speaker, author, and Christian apologist.  He holds several varying degrees: an MD from Eastern Virginia Medical School, a Master’s degree from Biola in Christian Apologetics, a Master’s degree from Duke in religion, and a MPhil in Judaism and Christianity from Oxford (where he’s currently pursuing a doctorate in New Testament).  Qureshi grew up in a Muslim family and was passionate about Islam and serving Allah before he converted to Christianity in his early 20’s.

This book recounts the intellectual, philosophical, and theological questions that Qureshi struggled through when deciding if Islam or Christianity was true…Or as he puts it: Allah or Jesus?  The book’s format is set up around three big questions: (1) What are the differences between Islam and Christianity? (2) Can we know whether Islam or Christianity is true? (3) Is the truth worth dying for?  Question (1) is divided into five parts (chapters) with each part focusing on a specific question or issue that deals with the bigger question at hand.  These five chapters discuss the differences between Sharia/Gospel, Tahwid/Trinity, Muhammad/Jesus, Quran/Bible, and Jihad/Crusades.  Question (2) is likewise divided into five chapters.  These chapters focus in on the origins of each religion.  Topics include: Did Jesus die on the cross? Did Jesus rise from the dead? Did Jesus claim to be God? Is Muhammad a prophet of God? Is the Quran the Word of God?  What’s so fascinating is Qureshi’s familiarity with Muslim counterpoints to Christian apologetics.  He often lets the reader peer into his former Muslim mind and how he worked through Christian claims as a Muslim.  Thus, he’s able to represent both sides very well and leads a discussion that is very informative and fun to read.  Of course, Qureshi is a Christian so before reading you know what side he will come out on, but the discussion is deep, informative, and edifying.

There are many points of contact between Islam and Christianity so theological distinctions and discussions are important and Qureshi doesn’t disappoint.  I think Christian readers will not only be well served in learning some about Islam, but will also learn and be encouraged by the strong Christian theology in the book.  I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about Christianity, Islam, and their distinctions.

Neighboring Faiths

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Winfried Corduan is professor emeritus of philosophy and religion at Taylor University.  He received his PhD in World Religions from Rice University and is a known expert in the field.

Dr. Corduan has written an outstanding “Christian Introduction to World Religions.”  Although, the word “Christian” shouldn’t scare away any non-Christians interested in learning about World Religions from reading this book, it would be beneficial for all.  Corduan sets out on quite the task: introduce World Religions from a Christians perspective, and I must say he succeeds.  The book is almost 500 pages (big pages) and is better thought of as a textbook.  This is no mere handbook to flip through, but a book to study deeply.  He begins with discussing “Religion” in the general sense: defining it, discussing the origin of religion, the different theories of religion, and how rituals and rites of passage fit into religion.  In this first chapter, Corduan discusses and then critiques the “evolutionary model” of religion.  He then lays out his model of religion (original monotheism, Romans 1 cough cough…) building off of Wilhelm Schmidt’s research.  This chapter is a great intro to these discussions and I point the interested reader to Corduan’s newest work In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism.  The rest of the book is dedicated to introducing different world religions.  Each chapter deals with a different world religion.  The religions he covers are: Judaism, Islam (which he spends two chapters on, the second chapter on radical Islam), Baha’i, Zoroastrianism, Traditional Religions (African), Native American Religion, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Chinese Popular Religion, and Shinto (as well as other Japanese Religions).  Obviously, this is a plethora of religions, but Corduan handles them all in quite a bit of detail.  It is obvious that Cordon is wide-read, well-travelled, and able to effectively communicate the beliefs and practices of all of these religions.  Although his in-depth description of the religion, its philosophy, and its practice are always well done, the best part of each chapter is the last section.  This section is called “So you meet a Buddhist [insert observer of said religion]…”  In this section he describes “what you might expect” when you meet a practitioner of a religion and then how “relating the gospel” to that person might be achieved.  These sections alone might be worth the price of the book.  Overall, this is a well-rounded, in-depth, and effectively communicated “Christian Introduction to World Religions.”  I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in studying World Religions and I am confident after reading it that you will better understand “Neighboring Faiths.”