Saturday Book Review: “Understanding World Religions” by Irving Hexham

Saturday Book Review: “Understanding World Religions” by Irving Hexham

During the 2004 Presidential election, I was living in Northern Virginia while working on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. That morning I, along with millions of other Americans, went to my local elementary school to vote—no I won’t tell you for whom I voted! And during this voting experience I was struck by something I had not seen or realized before. I remember waiting to vote and glancing around and saw something peculiar: on the door of the “little boys room” was the English word “boy” and five accompanying translations, including Spanish, Arabic, and an Asian language.

That sight and experience shouldn’t have been peculiar, because it wasn’t. But it was striking in that I realized for the first time how multi-ethnic and cultured America has become. Now truth be told at the time I lived in the county I lived in the most diverse county (Fairfax County) in the country. So it makes sense there were six languages helping little boys find the appropriate bathroom. I think it does illustrate the reality nationwide, however, that we are no longer the homogenous, white, Christian nation we once were. Things have changed. And not only on the ethnic front, but the religious front, too. Which is why I am thankful I was given a new book from Zondervan by Irving Hexham, called Understanding World Religions: An Interdisciplinary Approach, which I think is a valuable offering to anyone in American grappling with the surrounding religious pluralism and who is interested in engaging that pluralism intelligently and knowledgeably.

The book is divided into four parts: Studying Religion, African Traditions, Yogic Traditions, and the Abrahamic Traditions.

The first part is an introduction of sorts to the comparative religion enterprise, which was a very helpful introduction indeed and included an overview and examination of the major postures toward the understanding of religion.

Part two begins our foray into an understanding of world religions by beginning with Africa and African traditions. It begins with a good, healthy introduction to the African religious experience, noting that “writing about ‘African religions’ is like writing about ‘European religions’ or ‘Indian religions.’ There are many very different African religious traditions; therefore it is impossible to speak about ‘African religions’ without qualification.” (49) But he does qualify and he does attempt to talk about them, beginning with describing them as “primal religions,” “because they are essentially oral traditions that give primacy to the interpretations of experience rather than to a collection of sacred scripture.” (51) From this intro chapter, Hexham takes the reader on an exploration through witchcraft and sorcery (Ch 4), the Zulu religion (5), and ends with a chapter (7) outlining the problems encountered when attempting to study primal religions by exploring perceptions of the Zulu religious leader Isaiah Shembre. This section was probably the least valuable given our American religious climate, though I understand why it was included given the scope of the project.

In part three things become much more relevant to American Christians as Hexham delves into the “Yogic religions,” which include Hinduism, Buddhism, Har Krishna, and other smaller religions (e.g. Sikhs). This section opens with a good historical overview of Indus valley religions and their civilizations and cultures. From this introduction, the author examines “richness of the Hindu tradition” in Ch. 8 and 9, covering the classic ancient forms/roots, the various reform movements that have contributed to modern forms, and the surprising modern “mission movement” to the West, which coincided with the mass migration of skilled Indians to Europe and North America. A fascinating chapter (10) follows these two on the life and contribution to Hinduism by Mahatma Ghandi, who was born a devout Hindu.

Following these chapters on Hinduism are two chapters (11 and 12) on Buddhism, which Hexham say “is arguably the most misunderstood [of world religions] in Western society,” which he says is the result of 19th century European writers co-opting Buddhism as an alternative to Christianity and using its texts to satisfy Western needs. (179) Instead, Hexham seeks to go beyond the ethnocentric concerns and interpretations of Westernism in order to “see Buddhism as it is seen by Buddhists and not as we would like the religion to be.” (180) In other words, he helps us understand Buddhism on its own terms, not the version co-opted and crafted by the West. He helps us along in this by tracing the history and development of the religion with a detailed re-telling of the Buddhist story and tracing it all the way from India to Europe and beyond to America, an interesting tale indeed! His chapter on practices and beliefs was particularly helpful, especially in light of the recent phenomenon within the Church of younger (and even older!) Christians co-mingling Christian and Buddhist practices.

The final part, part 4, outlines the Abrahamic faith: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Ch 16 on Rabbinic and other Judaisms was particularly helpful, especially ch. 17 on Jewish faith and practice, which includes a helpful section on Jewish mysticism. One of the best chapters in this volume was ch. 18, which rounded out the Judaism section with a conversation on Martin Buber and his Zionist spirituality. Hexham writes, “In seeking a Jewish religious leader as a representative figure to give…some insight into the appeal of modern Judaism and the way in which Jewish scholars have negotiated the challenges of the Enlightenment,” Hexham chose Buber because “he has profoundly influenced Christian theology…[and] he has also had an enormous effect on Jewish thinking and practice through his philosophical works and studies of Hasidism.” (311) As Hexham reveals, Buber does not seek to prove God exists. Instead, “for Buber, it is a basic presupposition that if humans are to live in the world, they must love in the world with meaning…[and that] humans have found meaning in many different ways, and in finding meaning have found themselves as human.” (323) Again, a good, solid chapter at the end of a good section.

After Judaism Hexham tacles the history, beliefs, and practices of Christianity, and (curiously) chooses Abraham Kuyper as the Christian representative in a chapter (22) on Christian politics. Hexham rightly states “Anyone wishing to understand modern Christianity in North America needs to begin by recognizing that since the 1980′s evangelical Christians have undergone remarkable political transformation,” and he says Kuyper has influenced the political thought of both the left and right within evangelicalism. Though I understand why this chapter was included, it didn’t really do anything for me, though that’s probably because I wasn’t interested in the book for the Christian section anyhow! I must say I was very disappointed, and even confused, why these chapters didn’t spend more time on subChristian sects like Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, which are both increasing in membership from Christians themselves and threats to the historic Christian faith. Addressing them in a chapter on subChristian, deviant sects would have been a very helpful addition. Neglecting them—even failing to mention them in the history section from what I remember—is a major miss in a book on world religions—a serious, regrettable miss, actually.

This volume and part 4 conclude with a lengthy set of chapters on Islam, the biggest development religiously (and even politically) speaking in the West. I must say these were a nice set of “fair and balanced” chapters on a religious topic that often gets the shaft by Christians. I appreciated Hexhams work in these chapters because they were “attempts to understand Islam as it is presented by Muslim scholars who are best-selling authors in the Muslim world and whose works are popular in English-translation among Muslims living in the English-speaking world,” which is why he also states that “the understanding of Islam presented here is significantly different on certain issues form that found in most other religious studies textbooks.” A solid posture, me thinks. And this posture that listens to the voices from Islam itself takes us through Islam’s history, beliefs, practices, and contemporary expressions. Two very interesting sections for me were on jihad and Muslim piety (Ch 25).

Regarding jihad, Hexham explains “For many Muslims…[it] is not an embarrassing relic from the Middle Ages but a practical means to free humans from the demonic dominance of a corrupt society. Jihad provides Muslims with a practical way of imposing God’s law, the Sharia, on society to free people from their own inclinations and the evils that are encouraged by rulers who do not acknowledge the true law of God.” (430) Now that’s a different explanation than the one I’ve heard from Western leaders, especially conservative Christian ones! Also, the section on Muslim piety was enlightening, especially regarding how Muslims view the Qur’an: “from a Muslim viewpoint Christians confuse the idea of revelation with that of inspiration. Thus, for Muslims, while the Bible is an inspired book, it is not the revealed word of God. For Muslims only the Qur’an is the revealed word of God.” Furthermore, “The words of the Qur’an are not the words of the Prophet [Muhammad] but the words of God, and the origin uncreated Qur’an exists in heaven. This means that unlike the Bible, the Qur’an is not a historical book in the sense that it originated in a distinct historical setting, where it was written down by men who influenced the literary style.” (447) This was a very helpful distinction and revelation on the Muslim view of their Scriptures.

In the end, I thought Hexham’s Understanding World Religions was an extremely helpful, condensed examination of the major religions of the world. Though I think neglecting Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witness as deviant, subChristian sects is a serious miss, I still think this volume is a good introduction and manual for pastors, students, and church leaders in understanding the major religions that are no longer simply “out there” in the world, but are right around the corner as neighbors, coworkers, and even fellow students of our elementary kids. If you’re looking for a good overview of the history, beliefs, and practices of the Religious Other that you encounter in your community, pick up this handy manual by Hexham.