Martin Luther, Secularism, Ancient Christianity, Kahlil Gibran, Faith Journeys | Spirituality & Religion Reviews

The 500th anniversary of German theologian Martin Luther’s 95 Theses (1517) is this October, and a fresh influx of Luther-related titles commemorate the occasion. Craig Harline’s A World Ablaze offers a straightforward history of an early slice of Luther’s life. Andreas Malessa’s The Unreformed Martin Luther investigates common stories about the man. Meanwhile, Ruth Tucker explores one of the more neglected figures of the Reformation: Katie Luther. Those wanting to go further back in history might appreciate works by James Scott and Robert Knapp, which analyze ancient Christianity. On the other hand, some argue that the Reformation was one step toward modern secularism, and Andrew Copson’s new book offers a defense of that outcome. Other titles highlight the nuances of religion and spirituality from Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim perspectives.

history & philosophy

Arjana, Sophia Rose. Pilgrimage in Islam: Traditional and Modern Practices. Oneworld Pubs. (Foundations of Islam). Jul. 2017. 288p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781786071163. pap. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781786071170. REL

Arjana (Islamic studies, Iliff Sch. of Theology, Denver) states that a pilgrimage in Islam is far more than the TV images of thousands of people gathering at the Kaaba, a scared mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The author maintains that the cultural diversity and sectarian varieties of rituals, languages, and countries are elegantly illuminated through the prism of an Islamic pilgrimage. Combining anthropology and religious history, Arjana seeks to disavow readers of the narrow fundamentalist picture of Islam, demonstrating the synergy in places such as the Great Mosque of Damascus and the Sayyidah Ruqayya Mosque, both in Syria. The journey can be interior, contemplative, and even virtual, as technology now allows for a cyber-pilgrimage. VERDICT Arjana successfully negotiates among history, belief, practice, and the methodological agnosticism of religious studies to provide a fascinating guide to a vibrant and dynamic tradition. A clearly ­written work well worth reading.—SC

Copson, Andrew. Secularism: Politics, Religion, and Freedom. Oxford Univ. Dec. 2017. 176p. illus. ISBN 9780198809135. $18.95. REL

Copson (executive director, British Humanist Society; editor, Wiley-Blackwell Handbook on Humanism) aims to define, explain, and defend secularism—the belief that religion should not play a role in government—to a wide audience. He starts with a definition from French sociologist Jean Baubérot involving the separation of religious and political institutions, the freedom of conscious, and nondiscrimination by the state. Copson then reviews the evolution of ­secularism in the West from ancient times to the present, explores its further developments in the late modern period, and measures different theories against his own. The discussion is rounded out with presumed challenges and a hopeful look forward. Although thought-provoking, the author’s project is at once either too brief or overly ambitious. For example, historical glosses detract from the overall presentation, and the section on alternative interpretations is far too lean, resulting in an uncertain grasp of the concepts in opposition to ­Copson’s. Finally, the claim that communism should not be seen as a variant of secularism is strained. VERDICT ­Copson could have been content with arguing for a pluralistic instead of political form of secularism. Even so, he provides a thoughtful ­defense.—JW

Exile: A Conversation with N.T. Wright. IVP. Aug. 2017. 336p. ed. by James M. Scott. notes. index. ISBN 9780830851836. $40. REL

Since the 1990s, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has maintained that from the time of the Babylonian Deportations through to at least the end of the Bar Kokhba Rebellion in 132 CE, exile and the hope of restoration was an ever-present reality for the Jewish people. This theme, Wright has argued, is key to St. Paul’s understanding of the Gospel and Jesus’s understanding of himself. Since then, Wright’s views have gained increasing currency in biblical criticism and theology, particularly in the area of eschatology. In 2000, Scott (religious studies, Trinity Western Univ.; Paul and the Nations) organized a symposium around this theme with Wright as the featured speaker. This volume expands on that event, leading with Wright restating his thesis. What follows are chapters of extended commentaries, analyses, and critiques from experts in Old and New Testament criticism, early Jewish history, and systematic theology. Scott has managed to bring together a very capable group of scholars on a surprisingly lively topic. VERDICT An excellent entry point into Wright’s books on biblical theology, ­Jesus, or St. Paul. Both theology students and general readers will find it useful.—JW

Hahn, Thich Nhat. The Art of Living: Peace and Freedom in the Here and Now. HarperOne. Jun. 2017. 224p. ISBN 9780062434661. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062434722. REL

Vietnamese Zen monk Hahn (Peace Is Every Step) has a long history of applying ­Buddhist principles to resolving conflict. Here, he employs seven techniques—which he unpacks as the habit of mindfulness—to everyday living. Hahn eschews attempts to find confirmation of Buddhist ideas in modern science or a vague mysticism. For instance, his discussion of emptiness could have easily devolved into one of quantum mechanics. Instead, Hahn provides a phenomenological exploration of the not-self, offering a pragmatic viewpoint. Each of the seven principles are interrelated and may be reread in no particular order. Those who have studied Buddhism extensively, as well as some practitioners, may dispute a number of the author’s assertions (e.g., that obtaining enlightenment seems less rigorous than generally acknowledged), and his attempt to relate Christianity to Buddhism is somewhat Procrustean. However, Hahn’s goal of being fully aware without separating the self from the world is well within Buddhist understanding. VERDICT Readers do not need to be familiar with Buddhism to appreciate Hahn’s practical approach to life.—JW

Kamali, Mohammad. Shariah Law: Questions and Answers. Oneworld Pubs. Aug. 2017. 304p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781786071507. pap. $19.99. REL

Using a question-and-answer format, Islamic jurisprudence and legal scholar Kamali (CEO, International Inst. of Advanced Islamic Studies) endeavors to make the Islamic legal field both accessible and understandable, especially for the nonspecialist. Addressing 190 questions, such as what is Shariah (Islamic law) and what is fiqh (understanding or human interpretation), as well as the broad topics of violence and jihad, gender, family, property, and bioethics, the author keeps his answers generally to the point, based upon his own knowledge of Shariah in the 21st century. He acknowledges that while he depends heavily upon the Qur’an and Sunnah for answers, some, given their unrealized ends such as cloning and genetic engineering, will necessarily remain open-ended. Each section concludes with pertinent Qur’anic verses, hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), and further legal maxims. Fairly forthright and devoid of legal jargon, this account still requires a bit of work. Islamic terms are helpfully defined in a glossary. ­VERDICT A solid jump-start into the subject for ­inquiring minds.—SC

Knapp, Robert. The Dawn of Christianity: People and Gods in a Time of Magic and Miracles. Harvard Univ. Aug. 2017. 320p. notes. ISBN 9780674976467. $29.95. HIST

This foray into ancient Christianity by Knapp (classics, Univ. of California, Berkeley) is an amalgam of history, culture, and religion that intends to answer why polytheistic Greco-Romans would find appeal in a monotheistic religion. Knapp’s strength is his comprehensive insight into ancient civilizations and polytheistic practices. He is on less firm ground with his assertions regarding Judaism and Christianity, often generalizing distinct points in order to reveal their larger historical impact. For example, he claims that Jews and early Christians embraced the idea of wifely subservience even though Rodney Stark’s The Rise of ­Christianity compellingly argues for Christianity’s counter-cultural stand specifically against such issues. His claims regarding Paul and Pauline writings depend largely on the Book of Acts, written by Luke, rather than Paul’s own letters (the New Testament epistles). Those interested in pursuing further research will find helpful references in the notes section, ­including biblical citations. VERDICT An intriguing perspective but not an essential read on the topic.—SC

Memoirs & Biographies

Chandler, Paul-Gordan. In Search of a Prophet: A Spiritual Journey with Kahlil Gibran. Rowman & Littlefield. Sept. 2017. 200p. illus. notes. ISBN 9781538104279. $19.95; ebk. ISBN 9781538104286. BIOG

Episcopal priest Chandler (Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road) concedes that there are many fine biographies of Kahlil Gibran (1883–1931), the early 20th-century artist and writer best known for The Prophet. Instead, Chandler invites readers to follow Gibran’s spiritual journey, of which Prophet is but one vista. The narrative is also a record of Chandler’s own pilgrimage. With each stop, Chandler reveals how Gibran’s intense embrace of all that was around him mirrored a direct spiritual encounter that underlies the edifice of religion. Chandler enriches the narrative with quotes from Gibran’s works and letters, descriptions of his artwork, reflections from people who knew him and those for whom his works are still transformative. Gibran was bound and embraced by many worlds: East and West, Muslim and Christian, pastoral and urban, ancient and modern; intoxicated with the teachings of Jesus, but not the church. VERDICT Chandler succeeds in providing a portrait of a hard-won spirituality that transcended religion even while embracing it.—JW

Coles, Gregory. Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity. IVP. Aug. 2017. 144p. ISBN 9780830845125. pap. $15. MEMOIR

“I’ve lost count of how many times over the years I’ve come out to family and friends. It’s a bit like stripping naked every time someone asks to see your tattoo,” says Coles (English, Pennsylvania State Univ.). With refreshing candor, the author documents his journey from growing up in an Evangelical faith community and holding traditional biblical views to praying to be straight, to no avail. His thoughtful, intentional path leads him to conclude that he is “a mythical creature”; that is, a committed Christian man who, realizing he is gay, does not act on his same-sex impulses. His decision to remain celibate renders him equally misunderstood by both his Evangelical family and his LGBTQ community. VERDICT A modern reflection on what constitutes an authentic faith. The power of Coles’s book is his honest battle with faith and identity politics, meditating ever so sparingly on how the world might be.—SC

Mirvis, Tova. The Book of Separation. Houghton Harcourt. Sept. 2017. 320p. ISBN 9780544520523. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780544520547. MEMOIR

Novelist Mirvis (The Ladies Auxiliary) has fallen out of love with both her husband and Orthodox Judaism—and is struggling not only to articulate what that means to her but also how to define such disconnection. ­Mirvis is not in limbo throughout this book. As she begins her memoir, she documents what it feels like to leave her husband and religion; her only hint at what caused the break is that she can no longer “shape myself into a form that felt too tight.” The author has shared custody of three ­school-age ­children and a budding romance, both of which she negotiates with gentle aplomb. Her interior narrative voice draws readers in, asking if she can be loved for who she is, not who she was, especially in her withdrawal from her natal religion. VERDICT A soothing picture of personal and religious divorce.—SC

Martin Luther, 500 Years Later

Harline, Craig. A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation. Oxford Univ. Oct. 2017. 312p. illus. maps. bibliog. ISBN 9780190275181. $27.95. REL

Harline (history, Brigham Young Univ.; Way Below the Angels) focuses on a pivotal period in Martin Luther’s life, from the publication of the 95 Theses in 1517 to his return to Wittenberg, Germany, following his “abduction” to ­Wartburg, Germany. This is not the story of Luther the ­crusading reformer but of a compassionate priest and brilliant scholar compelled by internal and external forces that would lead him to become that reformer. That route, however, is almost a beeline compared to the many intriguing side trips Harline explores here. There are discussions of political and religious situations of the era, lively outlines of significant personalities, and overviews of the academic and intellectual climate. These provide a vivid portrayal, told with a deft and light touch of an amused yet sometimes perplexed admirer. Harline provides plenty of drama, giving a window into the apprehension felt by all involved in this part of history. VERDICT Harline modestly maintains that this delightful biography is for ­general readers. It will also be useful as part of an introductory course in European or church history.—JW

Malessa, Andreas. The Unreformed Martin Luther: A Serious (and Not So Serious) Look at the Man Behind the Myths. Kregel. Jul. 2017. 168p. tr. from German by Matthew L. Hillman. photos. bibliog. ISBN 9780825444562. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9780825475139. BIOG

Martin Luther was an outsized and sometime outrageous figure, and journalist Malessa (Kleines Lexikon Religiöser Irrtümer) intends to set the record straight on 25 popular stories about the reformer. The topics range from amusing to abhorrent: Did Luther’s wife, Katharina von Bora, come to him in a herring barrel? Was Luther an anti-Semite? Malessa’s guarded humor is as controlled as Luther’s was crass—a trait that comes through in her narrative. This disarming quality allows readers to appreciate Luther without becoming partisan and to let go of the more iconic stories of her subject. Malessa makes no attempt to excuse the darker side of Luther, particularly the vitriolic writings he directed against Jews. Readers should note that this translation contains works cited in German, a possible limitation for those wishing to utilize Malessa’s sources. VERDICT An entertaining read with a serious purpose for those interested in the early Protestant Reformation.—JW

Tucker, Ruth A. Katie Luther, First Lady of the Reformation: The Unconventional Life of Katharina von Bora. Zondervan. Jun. 2017. 208p. notes. ISBN 9780310532156. pap. $17.99; ebk. ISBN 9780310532163. REL

Apart from a few historical scraps, we know very few details about the life of Katharina von Bora (1499–1552), wife of Protestant reformer Martin Luther. With this account, independent scholar Tucker (From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya) has two aims: to provide a fuller expression of Katharina, and to explain why so little of her history is left to us. Tucker accomplishes the former by reviewing letters to or about Katharina and interpolating from the lives of her contemporaries, such as reformation supporters Katherine Zell, Argula von Grumbach, and Renée of Fererra. The result is something of a historical cameo of Katharina and her times, if not a full biography. This prompts Tucker’s second question and the tentative conclusion that Katharina was ignored because she did not fit the mold of a pious wife. VERDICT Tucker’s thoughtful exploration of Katharina von Bora provides those curious about the Protestant Reformation and women’s studies a sympathetic view of a neglected life.—JW

Sandra Collins (PHD, MLS, Univ. of Pittsburgh) is Library Director and Professor at Byzantine Catholic Seminary, PA. James Wetherbee (MA, Trinity Evangelical Divinity Sch.; MSLS, Univ. of Kentucky) is Network and Library Systems Administrator at Wingate University, NC, and Library Liaison for the departments of religion and philosophy

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