Daniel L. Pals Seven Theories of Religion describes seven different attempts to describe what religion is, how it arose, and what it means to society. The book begins with a look at the two writers who first attempted to study religion through a scientific lens: E.B. Tylor and James Frazer. Both men described what they perceived as the evolution of religion across numerous societies around the world. They each described essentially the same progress, from primitive magic to animism (where everything in the world was inhabited by some spirit) to polytheism to monotheism.
Edward Viljoen’s Bhagavad Gita: The Song of God Retold in Simplified English is sort of a CliffsNotes retelling of the Hindu classic. Viljoen paraphrases the story’s eighteen chapters in twenty-six pages of simple, straightforward English. The remaining seventy or so pages of the book are devoted to backstory about the main characters and definitions of some of Hinduism’s core concepts. Viljoen understands that no simplified paraphrasing can do justice to the poetry of the original work.
This is a good overview of the basic tenets and flavor of world’s major religions. I found the sections on Hinduism and Islam to be the most interesting. Before reading this, I knew very little about the fundamental beliefs of Hinduism, other than what had filtered through in my readings of Alan Watts. I knew more of Islam, having read some of the Koran. Smith spends most of the section on Islam writing about the historical context in which Mohamed lived, the formation of his ideas, and the course of his life after his initial revelations.
This book reads like a transcription of talks given before live audiences. The initial chapters read like the joke-filled exhortations of a professional self-help writer, but the book begins to deepen around pages 60-70. De Mello was a Jesuit priest, a trained psychologist, and apparently a devoted student of both Eastern and Western religion. His knowledge is broad and deep, and he has obviously brought great passion to his learning.
I’ve read many of Greene’s books, and this is the most powerful and intense of the lot. The book follows the travels of a priest on the run from a communist regime that has sworn to abolish religion, and has got rid of every priest in the state, either by execution or by forcing them to marry. The “whiskey priest” is the last in the state. He’s been on the run for years and is wearing down.
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