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Review: Norton Anthology of World Religions

My library finally said they had my requested copies of The Norton Anthology of World Religions so I picked them up the other day. I'm guessing the delay was NOT because people are on pins and needles waiting to read them. Rather, the library mine borrowed them from probably had them on order. It was just published in February and these pages are so crisp and stuck together from drying ink that I'm fairly certain nobody else has cracked them open.

Each volume is about 2000 pages (without the index) and the Preface and General Introduction is the same in both volumes--once you've read one, you can move straight into the specific field of coverage in the other volume. These cover why a new anthology was necessary and how to understand religion in this context, respectively. The emphasis is on primary texts so that instead of talking about how other people view the religions, the voices are from members of the various faiths speaking in their own words.

Like other works in the Norton family, you can expect an academic explanation of where each included piece fits historically, philosophically, and in terms of importance. They do a fairly reasonable job, for the novice, in explaining, say, the Bible in terms of being a collection of books written by many authors over many years. The attempt to read context and setting is implicit and fits well even for someone without a comparative religion background. I started off with Volume 2 which covers Judaism, Christianity, and Islam...just because I felt like I could wrap my mind around the organization of topics better. Volume 1 is Hinduism, Buddhism, and Daoism. I've given Volume 2 a fairly decent skim--at least as far as Jewish-to-Christian thought--and am about to begin Volume 1.

Judaism is probably the easiest to describe in terms of what the anthology does. It begins with the pre-Biblical period and an excellent explanation of early Jewish identity, the development of the Temple, cultural mixing with Greece, and the gradual emergence of commentary. The next sections are divided by larger influential topics: Hasidism, mysticism, the impact of women, reactions to modernity, Zionism, the Holocaust. The section on Judaism then concludes with secular Jewish thought confronting tradition.

For me, I found the highlighting of key Talmud passages especially helpful. And I was impressed with the depth of the exploration of very, very early Jewish identity. Several prominent events are called into question such as the Exodus...the history reads here more like a complicated movement of tribes. And there's a very nice explanation of Ashkenazic Jews mingling with German scholarly society to produce not only Yiddish but a blend of local custom with talmudic law. Plenty of intelligent tidbits to be had.

The section on Christianity begins with a few "Old Testament" highlights, very briefly covers the New Testament, then moves to longer segments on early Christian worship (the disappointment at not being Jews, for instance), Roman persecution, and an excellent section on creeds. To match the Jewish parts on demonic tales, there is a section on medieval visions of Heaven and Hell (with Dante, of course), but the real meat is the Protestant Reformation. (Martin Luther never nailed 95 Theses to a door, sorry.) We get Edwards, Wesley, Rousseau, Pascal, Milton. But also Joseph Smith and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." I was pleased to see Kierkegaard make the section on Scandal and Paradox. Moving into the 20th century, we get Jane Addams and TS Eliot, neither of whom most people would consider "Christian" as such. The theme here is a mix of giants like Thomas Merton or Paul Tillich with more popular figures like Martin Luther King, Jr or Desmond Tutu. The Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II stands right there beside CS Lewis or Bertrand Russell's "Why I Am Not A Christian."

If any of you, readers, are familiar with other Norton anthologies, I'd make the same criticism here that it can be very light on very dense periods of complicated content. But they also hit just the right tone on a few others. If we're talking English literature, for instance, the editor can be forgiven for including too much Shakespeare and not enough Hemingway. Shakespeare being easier to pull excerpts from for highlighting. Where these anthologies really shine is in distilling down to essence. It's great for overviews or introductions so that those with further interest have a jumping off point for more exploration.

My take is that these collections also knit together ideas well...sometimes the commentary is better than the actual writings. Only because most of us do not grow up with someone able to relate the concepts of Muslim respect for other religions based on written word vis-a-vis the Christian domination of the New World or the debate over Christology. Most of all, these volumes show the evolution of religious thought over centuries and the changing philosophies of religious thinkers by time and location.

In fact, Volume 1 begins with the rather appropriate: "Poets have told it before, and are telling it now, and will tell it again. What is here is also found elsewhere, but what is not here is found nowhere else." It's from the Hindu Mahabharata (which includes the Bhagavad Gita for those of you less familiar with Eastern religion).