In our increasingly global society, books that compare and illuminate the worlds’ faiths can prove useful tools in fostering tolerance and cooperation. Today, with events in the Middle East still at center stage, understanding Islam in the context of other faiths dominates the field.
Says Amy Caldwell, executive editor at Beacon Press, “There are still so many stereotypes out there and misunderstandings, and although Muslims represent a growing section of the U.S. population, they are still often branded as terrorists.” Beacon’s Sons of Abraham (Sept.), co-authored by Orthodox rabbi Marc Schneier and Imam Shamsi Ali, is aimed at fostering better understanding. Caldwell describes the book as “part personal—the authors explain their journeys from prejudice to pushing for acceptance of the other,” and part theological, locating points of similarity between Judaism and Islam, as well as raising “the hot-button issues, theological and otherwise.”
Wm. B. Eerdmans has produced a number of books in recent years comparing Islam to other faiths, including 2009’s A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor, edited by Miroslav Volf, Ghazi bin Muhammad Talal, and Melissa Yarrington. According to Anita Eerdmans, v-p of marketing, the book consists of essays in response to an open letter a number of Muslim leaders had published in the New York Times to acknowledge the differences between those two faiths but also emphasize the areas of commonality. Now Eerdmans has published The Torah, the Gospel, and the Qur’an by Anton Wessels (Sept.). “Certainly as the many conflicts in the Middle East stay in our news headlines every day, there will continue to be great interest in trying to understand the dominant faith traditions of the region,” Anita Eerdmans notes.
For Westminster John Knox editor Dan Braden, a book such as John Wogaman’s What Christians Can Learn from Other Religions (WJK, Mar. 2014) can help close the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims: “Understanding Islam has become especially relevant, because, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the U.S.’s war on terrorism and [statements by] irresponsible news outlets have generated dangerous misconceptions and generalizations.” The book covers a gamut of traditions from Hinduism to Buddhism to Islam, even covering atheism. Beacon’s Caldwell says including atheism as a system of understanding the universe is another trend in comparative religion books.
Some comparative religion books take a novel approach. Can we understand different faiths through objects or pictures or a word? Some publishers say yes and will soon release books that describe the major religions through a thematic lens. S. Brent Plate’s A History of Religion in 5½ Objects (Beacon, Mar. 2014) examines how religions around the world use the same five objects—bread, stone, incense, drums, and crosses—that correspond to one of our senses. “In the last two or three decades, ideas of ‘lived religion’ have become paramount in religious studies,” says Plate. “With my book, I’m saying religion is an experience, and a sensual experience at that. We can’t understand how religion is ‘lived’ if we don’t understand how it is sensed.”
Likewise, The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd by Addison Hodges Hart (Eerdmans, Oct.) moves in a nontraditional direction by examining the 10 ox-herding pictures of Chinese Zen master Kakuan Shien and comparing them with the teachings of Christ as the Good Shepherd. In a similar if more cerebral vein, David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (Yale, Sept.) finds common entry into various faith traditions by examining how each understands the concept of God.
Yale University Press and others are also focusing on specific faiths. According to Jennifer Banks, religion acquisitions editor, “Editorially, we’re developing projects that look at individual traditions in the context of a multifaith world. What does it mean to commit to a given faith when there are so many spiritual paths available to people today?” The more traditional interfaith focus—Jewish-Christian relations—can be found in Christians and Jews Faith to Faith: Tragic History, Promising Present, Fragile Future by Rabbi James Rudin (Jewish Lights, Oct.), just out in paper to capitalize on interest in interfaith relations under the newly elected Pope Francis.
WJK’s Braden expects an increase in comparative religion as a subcategory. As geopolitical crises related to religion continue to flare up, he says, interest in learning more about how the different faiths compare and relate to each other will continue to grow. At a grassroots level, he says, young people are increasingly questioning “the misconceptions that popular culture is feeding them; these young people and students are seeking truth.”