Sunday, March 09, 2008

Book Review - A Spectator's guide to World Religions

A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions
John Dickson
Blue Bottle Books

What do you know about Buddhism – the current religion of choice for those interested in choosing a new religion? What do you know about Hinduism, or Islam, or Judaism?

John Dickson, known to many as the author of ‘A Sneaking Suspicion’, ‘Hanging in there’, and ‘Stranger than Fiction’, sets out to guide us through the various beliefs of the ‘big five’ of world religions. He seeks to do so from a spectator’s perspective rather than a critiquing perspective – an idea that is both useful and frustrating. His rationale is as follows:
“... Imagine yourself as an art curator who is convinced that one piece in his collection has an unequalled quality. What will you do? Will you dim the lights on the 'competitors' in the gallery and put spotlights on your favourite piece? Of course not. That would be a sure sign you were not actually convinced about the special beauty of your treasured masterpiece.”
And so he sets out to give an unbiased description of each religion in such a way that assumes no prior knowledge.

In this regard he succeeds, setting out clearly and simply what each believes. One of its strengths is that Dickson doesn’t seek to analyse each through a particular grid as many other writers tend to. He doesn’t ask, “What does Buddhism teach about sin?” or “How do Hindus understand forgiveness?” which would be largely meaningless. He says:
“I’ve often wondered what it would look like if an author set out to describe Christianity from the perspective of the Buddhist concepts of 'Self', karma and rebirth. I imagine Christianity would look rather thin.”
That’s a very helpful comment – so often we approach witnessing to different religions through our own framework of ideas and don’t really hear what they are saying. At the end of each chapter there is a handy 2-page summary of what that religion believes.

The book concludes with an interesting twist. Instead asking “What’s wrong with each of these religions?”, he asks, “What do these religions find wrong with Christianity?”. And once again this is a really helpful perspective, putting us in the other shoes and allowing us to see Christianity through their eyes.

Throughout, the book is generous to other faiths, dispelling misconceptions along the way. He really does seek to represent each in its best light.

Having said all that, you can no doubt hear the hesitation in my voice. While I can appreciate what he has done – and he has done what he set out to do – I still think that the book lacks an important critical edge. Dickson regards it inappropriate to critique the other faiths without first attempting to see what others see in them, until you’re able to answer a question like – ‘Why are millions of people attracted to Buddhism?’. I agree wholeheartedly with that, and this book equips you to find out what they believe. But it never reaches the second part of the equation – critiquing after you have understood.

It’s too nice, too understanding.

It’s like a recipe book which has a selection of poor recipes in amongst the good, but the kindly editor doesn’t want to point out which are which. He expects people to be able to tell from the description.

And Dickson’s analogy of the art curator is slightly off because it assumes that if we could see all the religions in the same light we would instinctively choose the right one. It seems to overlook the reality of a deceitful heart that suppresses the truth. When you have a group of vision-impaired students looking at art work, the curator needs to do more than simply turn up the lights – he should explain why one is better than another.

There are a few other quibbles along the way – Given his approach it’s no surprise that when it comes to Christianity he simply describes the differences between what the world would see as the three major brands of Christianity – Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodox. And therefore it shouldn’t be surprising either to find amongst the list of ‘Famous Christians’ the names of Mel Gibson and Mother Theresa. But given that the author is an evangelical Christian I would have liked to see him give a different set of representative examples of Christianity for non-Christians to look at.

The problem with the book is that it is betwixt and between. It isn't fully useful to non-christians, and isn't fully useful to Christians either. But in what it does do, it does well. It teaches simply and clearly about other religions. And for that I would still recommend the book.

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