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Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism

Philip Kitcher. Yale Univ., $25 (200p) ISBN 978-0-300-20343-1

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Yale's annual Terry Lectures have yielded another elegant book that addresses contemporary concerns. Kitcher's well-organized presentation ranges widely in drawing together sources from literature, philosophy, and the sciences to respectfully make a persuasive case that a secular outlook on life can produce value, meaning, and solace, all functions that religion has traditionally filled. He reasons sans broadsides, finding that religion is not so much violent or evil—as many of today's atheists argue—as it is improbable and, more important, unnecessary. He is a kind critic of religion, conceding that "refined religion," the highest form of belief and practice, has at least the advantage of being better organized to act for human improvement, since there are as yet no numerous or vast bodies of secular humanists doing disaster relief. (Give it time, he suggests.) Kitcher's real strength is his sensitivity to human suffering and mortality, and the ways in which those concerns must be addressed by a robust secular ethic. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/03/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Lives of Muhammad

Kecia Ali. Harvard Univ., $29.95 (342p) ISBN 978-0-674-05060-0

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Ali, an associate professor of religion at Boston University (Profiles, p. 12), takes an innovative approach to a biography of Muhammad, comparing the various accounts of his life in what is probably the only book to do so comprehensively. She concludes that, as sensibilities evolved in the time since Muhammad's life, the biographies of the prophet expanded or even altered in keeping with prevailing mores. Ali refrains from assessing the veracity of the variant readings, although some of the more obvious sinkholes would stun even the moderate Muslim reader or casual Islamic scholar. (For example, the man named Muhammad probably originally had a pagan-sounding name that was whitewashed by later historians.) Such views shatter the standard and much-cherished life story of the prophet, which, as Ali herself argues, has grown organically from the moment Muhammad died. This book calls into question most of Muhammad's biography, leaving the frustrated believer to wonder what really is true if such core understandings are shaky. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/03/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion

Lerone A. Martin. NYU, $24 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-4798-9095-8

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Although histories of American religion have focused on the relationship of radio to the growth of preaching in America, especially among white clergy, there has been no study of the impact of the phonograph on the development of black preaching in the mid-20th century. Martin draws deeply on record company archives to explore how the phonograph sermons of black Protestant preachers between 1925 and 1941 significantly shaped African-American religion and culture. With no access to radio, more than 100 black clergymen teamed up with Columbia, Paramount, and RCA-Victor, among other labels, to record and sell their sermons, creating records that sold in numbers often rivaling those of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. Martin demonstrates that preaching on wax made black Christianity a mass-produced commodity, and phonograph religion laid the foundations of modern religious broadcasting in black Christianity. Martin's vital study contributes significantly not only to the history of religion, but also to the lively, ongoing discussion of "race records" by African-American musicians in early 20th-century America. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/03/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought

Terryl Givens. Oxford Univ., $34.95 (416p) ISBN 978-0-19-979492-8

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Givens (By the Hand of Mormon), possibly the most significant voice in the field of Mormon studies, has previously explained Mormonism by way of scripture, history, and philosophy. Here, he turns his attention to theology, a more difficult proposition than it sounds, since Mormons tend to emphasize practical living rather than theological speculation and believe in continuing revelation. Although scholars will appreciate the sweeping way in which Givens provides context to Mormon cosmology, rank-and-file LDS members will likely resonate more with the book's brief, discrete chapters on what Mormon leaders have taught about specific issues: the Godhead, theosis, Heavenly Mother, the Fall, premortal life, the Holy Ghost, salvation and the afterlife, and other topics. What emerges is a complex, nuanced picture of a dynamic faith. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/03/2014 | Details & Permalink

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A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology

J. Richard Middleton. Baker Academic, $26.99 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-0-8010-4868-5

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Theologian Middleton tackles a huge question: is a glorious afterlife the best hope Christianity can offer, or does the promise of a new, redeemed Earth give humans hope for today? His biblically grounded answer is the latter. To make a convincing argument for what he calls "holistic eschatology," he goes through both testaments of the Bible, deep down to its Greek- and Hebrew-language roots, and also takes on the received wisdom of many a Christian hymn that extols the far-off heavenly shore, provocatively calling the latter "singing lies in church." Most of the book is more carefully footnoted than provocatively put, in keeping with the rules for academic persuasion. But the implications for lived faith are bold, and the air this brings into theological discourse about what God intends for human creation is fresh and bracing. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/03/2014 | Details & Permalink

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