Friday, July 17, 2009

Book Review: Nelson's Illustrated Guide to Religions: A Comprehensive Introduction to the Religions of the World by James A. Beverley

Title: Nelson's Illustrated Guide to Religions: A Comprehensive Introduction to the Religions of the World
Author: James A. Beverley
Publisher: Thomas Nelson Publishers; SuperSaver Edition edition (Feb 3 2009), Hardcover, 644 pages.

(Click on cover icon for this book's listing)

To read that Nelson’s Illustrated Guide to Religions: A Comprehensive Introduction to the Religions of the World is “the product of over thirty years of study and teaching” (p. ix) is no surprise. To discover that the actual project took author James A. Beverley a mere ten years from inception to publication is, in some ways, amazing, considering the extent of the book.

In this encyclopedic volume, Beverley, a long-time Professor of Christian Thought at Tyndale College in Toronto, gives readers an overview of the main religions of the world. The mere 19 chapters (encompassing Baha’i to Witchcraft) are deceiving. For within them he explores the themes and variations of each main belief system, so that the actual number of faiths he discusses adds up to hundreds. (In the chapter on Protestantism, for example, Beverley discusses 28 denominations and historical movements within the protestant stream of Christianity.)

Beverley takes his cue on how to tackle each religion from the religion itself. For example, his discussion about the short-lived and relatively recent Branch Davidians cult is brief with a focus on news reports surrounding the controversial raid of their Waco Texas headquarters in 1993.

Buddhism, on the other hand, with its modern resurgence in the west and its history spanning centuries, gets much longer treatment and includes Beverley’s description of his meeting with the Dalai Lama.

Information about each religion includes names of its key people and describes the roles they played, details beliefs and worship practices, traces the religion’s history in a time line, and suggests websites and books to consult for more information.

The author makes no claims that this is an objective appraisal of the world’s religions, however. In a must-read introduction he states that he presents his material from the perspective of an evangelical Christian scholar. He writes:

"I realize that many readers will not share this paradigm or worldview….I recognize that this book would be different if written from a Buddhist, Muslim, esoteric, or other tradition. It would also be a different book if it adopted the standpoint of relativism, or postmodernism, or the perspective of the so-called objective academic." (p.7)

Though in many places Beverley sounds like he’s trying to be cooly objective and present both sides of an argument in a diplomatic way, in others he is outspoken in voicing his opinion. For example, after quoting a criticism of Brian McLaren (Emergent Church) by R. Albert Mohler Jr. of the Southern Baptists, he says, “This is far too harsh and distorts McLaren. However, McLaren should be more aware of the epistemological complexities …. and be more careful in argument, rhetoric, and treatment of major Christian doctrines." (p. 538)

For the Christian reader, it is exactly Beverley’s bias that makes Guide to Religions valuable. For included within the discussion of each religion is his evaluation of how it relates to Christian orthodoxy as he understands it. We may not agree with him, but he has done his part to make our choice easier with his explanations and analysis.

Also included in the book are several valuable lists: 10 things to consider when studying a religion, 10 points of Christian response to religions, 20 basic tenets of the Christian faith, and 10 tests for truth in religion. The book ends with four appendices and an exhaustive (100+ page) index. Color photographs add information, interest and beauty. From the viewpoint of design, though, the shaded fill of the text boxes and the blurred borders of the photos give the book an old-fashioned look.

For me, a layperson and no student of theology or world religions, Nelson’s Illustrated Guide to Religions is a most helpful reference. Though not exhaustive, its information about the world’s main religions and their offshoots is more than adequate to give me an understanding of the faiths of my neighbors and friends. Should I want to find out more, I need only consult the book’s numerous lists of resources for further study.

This readable reference book would be a valuable addition to any home, school or church library.

James A. Beverley's website.

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