Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Book Review: American heretics : Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the history of religious intolerance by Peter Gottschalk

Author: Peter Gottschalk
Title: American heretics : Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the history of religious intolerance by
Publication Info: New York: Palgrave McMillan (2013)
ISBN: 9781137278296
Summary/Review:

I received a free early reviewers copy of this book via the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

As Americans, we proudly proclaim our religious tolerance and maintain that our country was built on religious freedom.  While many forms of religious expression have flourished in the United States, Gottschalk reminds of the many instances of religious intolerance in our country from earliest settlement to the present day.  The book is divided into seven chapters focusing on:

  1. Puritan persecution of Quakers in colonial Massachusetts
  2. The struggles of Irish Catholic immigrants in Protestant-dominated cities in the 19th century
  3. The Ghost Dance and the extermination of the Sioux
  4. 20th prejudice against Jews by the Ku Klux Klan, Henry Ford, and immigration restrictions
  5. The Latter Day Saints struggle against violent opposition in the 19th century and how the political careers of George and Mitt Romney show a growing acceptance.
  6. The Branch Davidians and the vilifying of outsider groups as cults
  7. Islamophobia in the wake of the September 11th attacks

The book is short for all the topics it covers and Gottschalk really only touches upon these various topics.  The author can get oddly deep into some parts of the topics while being very broad at other times.  I also found it troubling how much he defends the Branch Davidians as a persecuted minority rather than recognizing that child rape and their vast military arsenal were a threat to the community at large.

It’s an interesting overview, and if you have a familiarity with American history there shouldn’t be too many surprises.  But if you think that religious groups have always been welcomed in the United States, you’ll want to read this book.
Recommended books: Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America by Steven Waldman and The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Where God Was Born by Bruce Feiler

Author:Bruce Feiler
TitleWhere God Was Born
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2005)
ISBN: 9780060888572
Summary/Review:

Feiler’s book is a unique combination of travelogue, history, theology, and personal growth.  Feiler documents his journeys to Israel, Iraq, and Iran to visit the sites of places mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures.  There’s a lot of interesting discussion of the Israelites and the connection to land, but how the religion was born only once they were taken from the land.  There are also hints that the Babylonian captivity was not as bad as depicted in the bible.  Feiler also has an interesting take on David, the flawed hero, who spent many years as a bandit and even collaborated with the enemies of Israel. Perhaps the most remarkable part of the book is when he worships with a Jewish community in Iran who have a surprising amount of religious freedom, something Feiler traces back to the Persian king Cyrus who liberated the Israelites from captivity.  He also traces Zoroastrian influences to the Abrahamic religions to this period.  In the end, Feiler finds in the Bible a blueprint for religious tolerance and understanding that could be followed today.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: When spiritual but not religious is not enough by Lillian Daniel

AuthorLillian Daniel
TitleWhen spiritual but not religious is not enough : seeing god in surprising places, even the church
Publication Info: New York, NY : Jericho Books, 2013.
ISBN:  9781455523085
Summary/Review: A Christian minister writes several essays about contemporary religious life, challenging people to go beyond seeing God in sunsets and waterfalls and seeking out God in the flawed human beings in the community around them.  Daniel is wise and humorous and at times sounds like a cranky old person (I looked at her author photo, she’s not), but always with the underlying goal of startling the reader into taking their relationship to God and community to a higher plane.
Favorite Passages:

“When you witness suffering and declare yourself to have achieved salvation in the religion of gratitude, you have fallen way short of what God would have you do, no matter what religion you are called to.

And by the way, while I think God does want us to feel gratitude, I do not think God particularly wants us to feel lucky.  I think God wants us to witness pain and suffering and rather than feeling lucky, God wants us to get angry and want to do something about it.

The civil rights movement didn’t happen because people felt lucky.  The hungry don’t get fed, the homeless don’t get sheltered, and the world doesn’t change because people are who are doing okay feel lucky.  We need more.” – p. 9

“At one point, the whole world was safe for animals.  Now their territory is constricted.  Human beings control so much of the landscape and we have huge areas where animals rarely go — schools, hospitals, stores, churches.  So I like to think of the sight of an animal in the airport as a special gift.  We get a glimpse of nature in a sterile place.  We get a dose of animal instinct in a place where we all have to behave ourselves.  It’s as odd as hearing a dog bark in church, and just as wonderful.” – p. 137

“I don’t want to choose.  The church has plenty of tents staked out on the battlegrounds of who Jesus is, and why it matters.  I pitch my tent in the field of mystery, and have yet to nail it down.” – p. 161

“I’m tired of playing by that dull and pedestrian set of rules, which has everything to do with a litigious, factoid-hungry culture and nothing to do with following Jesus.  I don’t come to church for evidence or for a closing argument.  I come to experience the presence of God, to sense the mystery of things eternal, and to learn a way of life that makes no sense to those stuck sniffing around for proof.” – p. 166

“I believe that there really is a connection between who we were raised to be and who we are now. It might bot be a straight line, but you cannot connect the dots.  God works through all kinds of religious communities at different points in our lives.

No spiritual home is all good or all bad. So give thanks for the small and tender blessings of every place that has never been our spiritual home, and for lessons you have learned.”  – p. 182

Recommended books:The Call to Conversion by Jim Wallis, Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, and Pray All Ways: A Book for Daily Worship Using All Your Senses by Edward M. Hays.
Rating: ***

Book Review: God After Darwin by John F. Haught

Author: John F. Haught
Title: God After Darwin
Publication Info: Boulder, Colo. : Westview Press, 2000.
ISBN: 0813367239
Summary/Review: This is a complicated book which I didn’t thoroughly comprehend so I may not be able to justice to it in a review.  Nevertheless, it tackles an issue near and dear to me that is how to reconcile the theory of evolution with belief in God.  I like the approach that puts aside the false dichotomy of science versus religion even if I don’t understand the science and biology behind it.  There’s definitely a core idea that faith should be challenged to be deeper by the truth of evolution rather than denying the science or creating something like intelligent design.  Definitely a work worth rereading.

Recommended booksQuarks, Chaos & Christianity: Questions to Science And Religion by John Polkinghorne and Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey by Jane Goodall.
Rating: **

Book Review: Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton

Author: Alain de Botton
TitleReligion for Atheists
Publication Info: New York : Pantheon Books, c2012.
ISBN: 9780307379108
Summary/Review:

An erudite atheist, de Botton makes a good case for religion.  Not for the belief in god or the supernatural, but the basic fact that humans invented religion and carried it down through the ages that it must serve some good purpose.  In this book he proposes adopting some of the best elements of religion to secular purposes.  In chapters on subjects such as community, kindness, education, tenderness, pessimism, perspective, art, architecture, and institutions. he identifies the best of religion and make proposals for how these things may be adapted.  For example, he proposes agape restaurants where people dine and converse with strangers and universities where people read books to learn from their emotional content instead of literary analysis.  At times the ideas are silly, but I really like de Botton’s approach and open mind.  As a religious person myself, I find that extreme atheists (really, anti-theist bigots) are one side of the same coin of religious fundamentalists.  It’s good to have ideas that move beyond the tired arguments of the extremes and work toward the betterment of humanity.

Favorite Passages:

“In a world beset by fundamentalists of both believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.  It is when we stop believing that religions have been handed down from above or else that they are entirely daft that matters become more interesting.  We can then recognize that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill:  first, they need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses.  And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of love ones and to our decay and demise.  God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away….” p. 12

“The true risks to our chances of flourishing are different from those conceived of by liberterians.  A lack of freedom is no longer, in most developed societies, the problem.  Our downfall lies in our inability to make the most of the freedom that our ancestors painfully secured for us over three centuries. ” p. 77

“‘The object of universities is not to make skillful lawyers, physicians or engineers.  It is to make capable and cultivated human beings.’ – John Stuart Mill” p. 100

“Secular education will never succeed in reaching its potential until humanities lecturers are sent to be trained by African-American Pentecostal preachers.” p. 131

Recommended booksBlue Like Jazz by Donald Miller and Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism) by Frank Schaeffer.
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong

Author: Karen Armstrong
Title: The Battle for God
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2004), Edition: Abridged, Audio CD
ISBN: 0060591870

Summary/Review:

Karen Armstrong explores fundamentalism in the three monotheistic churches – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Some of the material covers the same ground as her later book (which I read earlier) The Case for God and follows the same approach of taking an historical approach to the theology and practice of these churches.  Armstrong asserts that although fundamentalism is often knocked as “medieval” it is in fact a modern practice and things such as literal understandings of scripture in Christianity or the requirement of women to wear a veil in Islam are relatively recent innovations.  Fundamentalism also uses modern tactics even as it attempts to confront modernism.  Armstrong focuses on the history, development, and rise to political power of fundamentalists among Christians in the United States, Muslims in Iran and Egypt, and Jews in Europe and Israel.  It’s a fascinating if chilling portrait of how we got to where we are.  I’ve enjoyed and been informed by both Armstrong books I’ve listened to as well as interviews and articles so I expect I will be reading more of her work.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Case For God by Karen Armstrong

Author: Karen Armstrong
Title: The Case for God
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2009), Edition: Unabridged, Audio CD
ISBN: 0307702375

Summary/Review:

From the title this book appears to be an apologetic approach to theism.  Close but not quite.  Karen Armstrong in fact writes an history of religious belief and practice (and the parallel growth of atheism) from prehistoric cave paintings to postmodern philosophers.  While mostly focused on Western thought – and Christianity within that – Armstrong manages to incorporate a lot of world religion which makes a massive topic for a short book.  And yet it’s chock full of fascinating tidbits and connections I’ve never made.

Armstrong’s main points in this book are that literalism – both that which is insisted upon by religious conservatives and railed against by their anti-theist opponents – is a relatively modern phenomenon.    Historically practice trumped belief and our fore-bearers would not comprehend the all-or-nothing approach of today’s religious adherents.

I’m not going to admit that I understood it all, but I did enjoy Armstrong’s writing and ideas and would like to read more of her work.

Favorite Passages:

A good creation myth did not describe an event in the distant past but told people something essential about the present. It reminded them that things often had to get worse before they got better, that creativity demanded self-sacrifice and heroic struggle, and that everybody had to work hard to preserve the energies of the cosmos and establish society on a sound foundation. A creation story was primarily therapeutic. – p. 16

Fundamentalism — be it Jewish, Christian, or Muslim — nearly always begins as a defensive movement; it is usually a response to a campaign of coreligionists or fellow countrymen that is experienced as inimical and invasive. – p. 271

Thus the cosmologist Paul Davies speaks of his delight in science with its unanswered, and, perhaps, unanswerable questions …. Davies has confessed “It may seem bizarre, but in my opinion, science offers a surer path to God than religion.”  He is still asking the primordial question: Why is there something rather than nothing? – p. 310

The ideal society should be based on charity rather than truth.  In the past, [Gianni] Vattimo recalls, religious truth generally emerged from people interacting with others rather than by papal edict.  Vattimo recalls Christ’s saying, “When two or three are gathered in my name, I will be in the midst of them,” and the classic hymn, “Where there is love, there is also God.” – p. 314

Recommended books:
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims

The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims (2006) by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Joan Chittister, OSB, and Murshid Saadi Shakur Chisti tells the scriptural stories of Abraham and the conflict that rages between the peoples descended from his two sons, Jewish from Isaac and Islamic from Ishmael. The book begins with two tellings of Abraham’s journey, one from the Jewish scriptures and midrash and one from the Quran.  Toward the end of the book there is a combined account that acts as a guide for beginning to find common ground.

The heart of the book is where each of the authors takes turns writing interpretations of Abraham’s journey from the perspective of their religion.  These take the form of series of short, interelated essays both on scriptural studies and the current crisis among the Israelis and Palestinians.  These essays can be very beautiful and insightful as well as educational offering new takes on Abraham’s story in the Bible and the completely new-to-me Islamic telling of Abraham’s story.  Rabbi Waskow has an interesting take on Abraham being the most dangerous person in the lives of his two sons: one he banished into the desert  the other he tried to sacrifice. Both would have died if not for divine intervention.  Sr. Joan reflects on many conferences of Israeli and Palestine woman working to end the killing of all their children.

The appendices of the book include resources for “pitching your own tent” and working toward peace among the peoples of all three faiths as well as some related essays by other authors.

Favorite Passages

When either community mourns the death only of those on “its side” who have been killed by those on “the other side,” the outcome is often more rage, more hatred, and more death.  If we can share the grief for those dead on both “sides,” we are more likely to see each other as human beings and move toward ending the violence. – p. 59-60, Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Now, thousands of years later, Israelis and Palestinians are locked in mortal battle over the precise measurement of whose land is whose.  The painful attempt not to be cheated is, ironically, cheating both of them out of peace and fellowship and trust. And all the while, it was  precisely Abraham’s decision not to invoke his right as the elder to chose the land that would be his.  It is a painful lesson lost.  The even greater concern is that unless both peoples discover that less can be more, the more their rights they get – unlike Abraham, who was willing to trust the soul of the other – the poorer in spirit they will all be.  – p. 97, Joan Chittister

A human being is capable of holding vastly different and paradoxical points of view at the same time.  We seem to have so many different voices within us, and our motivations are often unconscious.  So simply nodding in agreement is no guarantee that I will act the way I intend. … So I find myself called not to more thoughts but bigger thoughts and feelings accompanied by real action, based on the experience of a greater reality we all share. – p. 132-33. Murshid Saadi Shakur Chisti

Book Review: A Portrait of Jesus by Joseph Girzone

In A Portrait of Jesus(1998), Joseph Girzone uses a similar approach that he uses in his fictional series of Joshua novels to understanding the historical Jesus.  That is, to avoid theology, doctrine, and Christology and look at Jesus as a real person who came to earth to spread His message of love and freedom through creating relationships with other people.  It’s a simple yet revolutionary approach and proves very enlightening and inspirational, especially in the early chapters.  Yet, even as something of a Fr. Girzone fan I have to admit that while full of faith and prayerful contemplation, Fr. Girzone is not the best writer and comes across a bit hokey.  In the later chapters he sort of recreates the Gospels in a more common language, but kind of cherry picks stories from all the Gospels into one narrative.  Fr. Girzone also depicts Jesus as unique in relationship with the poor, oppressed, and women against a rule-following, monolithic Jewish religious leadership, which is a fallacy according to what I read last Lent in Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew.  Still, for all it’s flaws this is a good inspirational book.

Favorite Passages

Even though you may be weak, are you focused on God, are you sensitive to the pain and hurt all around you?  This is the essence of the person who is pleasing to God.   Not that accuracy in belief and disciplining human weakness are not important, but loving the Father in heaven and caring for others is absolutely essential  They were the teachings that were critical to Jesus.  Jesus realized few people will ever have an accurate understanding of the nature of God and even the identity of the Son of God, but He knew that it was within the heard of everyone to care for others.  – p. 32-33

And in telling His followers to love as He loved, it constrains us to continually deepen our intimacy with Him so we can understand Him and what He expects of us as His friends, and grow as love grows, naturally from within, without imposing on ourselves artificial imperatives from outside.

As a result, following Jesus and knowing what is expected will always be confusing, as walking in faith is destined to be, Jesus may have explained things more clearly to the apostles, as the writings of the early Fathers of the Church indicate, but even the apostles did not comprehend everything the way we would have desired. – p. 91

Author : Girzone, Joseph F.
Title : A portrait of Jesus / Joseph F. Grizone.
Edition : 1st ed.
Published : New York : Doubleday, 1998.
Description : 179 p. ; 22 cm.
ISBN : 0385482639

Book Review: Faithful Dissenters by Robert McClory

Robert McClory puts the Catholic church under the historical lens in Faithful Dissenters: Stories of Men and Women Who Loved and Changed the Church (2000) to show instances when individuals have stood up against official Church teachings and hierarchy.  These dissenters are sometimes punished in their time, but all have been revealed to be prophetic voices whose ideas are accepted by the Church at large to the Church’s benefit.

The Faithful Dissenters include:

  • John Courtney Murray, who proposed the very American idea of “freedom of religion”
  • Galileo, who respectively tried to incorporate his observations of the heavens into the Church’s longtime understanding of cosmology only to have his studies repressed
    • “Still, there are two facts about which no dispute is possible: first, on the scientific issue, Galileo was overwhelmingly correct and the institutional Church was wrong; second, by seeking to quell an idea whose time had come, Church leaders dealt the institutional Church a severe blow from which it is still recovering,” – p. 26
  • John Henry Newman, who insisted that doctrine actually develops bottom-up from the laity
  • Mary Ward, who founded an order of religious sisters active in apostolic works of teaching and charitable work within the world at a time when women religious were expected to be cloistered
  • 16th century Jesuits who realized the changing economy of Renaissance Europe meant changes in the understanding of usury as well
  • Catherine of Siena, who took it on herself to tell the Avignon papacy to shape up and ship back to Rome
  • Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary to China who success converting the Chinese to Christianity by controversially incorporating local Buddhist and Confucian philosophy
    • “In a very real sense, his biographers have noted, Ricci tried to do for Confucius what Thomas Aquinas did for Aristotle: provide a complex belief system witha a philosophical and moral undergirding, thus making the mysteries of the faith more approachable to the people of a specific culture,” – p. 97.
  • Hildegard of Bingen, a visionary with startlingly modern concepts of the feminine divine
  • Yves Congar, an ecumenical activist for fellowship, dialogue and respect of other Christian denominations and Judaism
    • “Congar wrote of two great temptations confronting the Church in every age: “Pharisaism,” that is, absolutizing religious rules and regulations rather than serving the spiritual and pastoral needs of the people; and “the temptation of the Synagogue,” that is, freezing tradition in such a way that cannot develop beyond what was understood in the past.  What the Church must do, he insisted, is harmonize itself more generously with the style of a new society — “a society she [the Church] is called to baptize as she has baptized others in the past,”” – p. 124
  • John Purcell and Edward Purcell, who taught that slavery was sinful at a time when it was widely accepted in the Church

In the conclusion, McClory writes:

In two important respects the dissenters described her are unqualifiedly alike.  First, they absolutely refused to leave the Churh in the face of all their difficulties.  One could argue that this stubborn fidelity, this standing in place while contradicting authority, was the principal factor in their  ultimate success and (sometimes posthumous) vindication.  Second, they did not see themselves as disobedient persons.  They shared a remarkable awareness that submission to God and submission to Church authority are not always the same thing.  Some today might call them “cafeteria Catholics.”  In a sense, they were; they maintained that not everything in the cafeteria was edible. Nevertheless, their acknowledgment of Church authority and their gratitude for what the Church offered them over the long haul never left, ” – p. 164

I thought this was a good book as the historical sketches were well-written and informative.  Additionally, it is written very respectfully, resisting the temptation to condemn those who tried to quash dissent as history’s losers or turn this into a rallying cry for our times.  McClory message is that good people can disagree and some ideas are ahead of their time, but eventually that which is of God will triumph.

Author : McClory, Robert, 1932-
Title : Faithful dissenters : stories of men and women who loved and changed the church / Robert McClory.
Published : New York : Orbis Books 2000.
Description : viii, 180 p. : ports ; 24 cm.
ISBN : 1570753229 (pbk.)

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