Theology and religious studies

A fluid and increasingly high-profile discipline requires excellent foundational texts to inform deeper analysis and study. Ursula King is spoiled for choice by the latest offerings

May 23, 2013

A colleague used to describe students’ writing as either a dry field to be fertilised or a lush jungle to be cleared. Many books would also benefit from such watering or weeding, including some on this impressive list, since few will meet all the needs of undergraduates as they are.

But whatever the case, this list attests to a vibrant field of activity. UK and US publishers are trying to reach a global readership, whether publishing hardbacks, paperbacks or e-books. It is a real thrill to discover the growing attention given to religion in higher education and public life. Yet theology and religious studies remains a rather fluid domain with less well-established boundaries than scientific disciplines and less reliance on textbook teaching.

A good textbook provides an up-to-date introduction to a subject written in clear, accessible language, with summary overviews and questions to test a student’s understanding. It can also have lists of key concepts, glossaries and essential writings. The best include attractive visual material and extensive web references, with great learning potential. Few titles on this list are textbooks in this strict sense; most provide a competent overview or substantial introduction to a specific field, theme or religious tradition. Some contain rich resources for intensive study and background reading.

Textbooks in this wider sense vary enormously, ranging from the briefest summaries to substantial research monographs. Some have become so well established that they have been republished in updated editions, such as Harvey’s comprehensive An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices, Baldick’s Mystical Islam: An Introduction to Sufism and ­Warner’s acclaimed monograph, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the ­Virgin Mary. Quite different are the overviews in Oxford University Press’ Very Short Introductions series, whose religion-focused titles now include Martyrdom, Rastafari, The Devil, Spirituality and a revised edition of Buddhism. Hodder Education has launched a similar short-format series, All That Matters, which includes titles on Muhammad, Judaism and God.

A short text can whet one’s appetite, but the serious study of any discipline requires critical analysis and clear guidance for students to find their way through the maze of an ever-growing academic literature, especially when the simple conjunction of theology and religious studies hides many differences in approach, background and themes between these two cognate, yet often quite separate, areas of enquiry. Biblical studies are foundational to theology, but so too are Church history, doctrine, philosophy and ethics. More recently, sociology, religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue have grown in importance. Religious studies is tradition-specific, whether concerned with Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam or other faiths. It includes questions about the meaning and function of religion past and present, issues of contemporary social justice, peace and violence, ecology, gender, global­isation and the impact of these on contemporary religious practice.

These emphases are revealed in different series – the guides, introductions and companions – popular among publishers. Although they are not always textbooks in the literal sense, they function as such in many courses. Examples include Wiley-Blackwell’s Christian History: An Introduction (McGrath) and its The Student’s Companion to the Theologians (Markham) (the theologians are mostly male, of course, even in the 21st century) and Bloomsbury’s Guides for the Perplexed, offering concise introductions to Western Esotericism (Hanegraff), Confucius (Huang), the Baha’i Faith (Stockman), Pente­costalism (Vondey) and Postliberal Theology (Michener).

Excellent guidance for studying different religious traditions is given in Routledge’s Introducing African American Religion (Pinn) and Introducing Tibetan Buddhism (Samuel). The companion website for the latter is truly outstanding. Of the new titles, the two best all-round textbooks in terms of organisation, presentation, visual attractiveness and close attention to the needs of beginners are both from Oxford University Press, Invitation to the New Testament: First Things (Witherington) and Introduction to ‘Gnosticism’: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds (Lewis). They make learning a joy but they are also rather pricey.

Other titles offer substantial research monographs of high quality, probably most useful as background reading for upper-level and postgraduate students. Especially noteworthy are Goossaert and Palmer’s magisterial work on The Religious Question in Modern China, Ruthven’s Encounters with Islam: On Religion, Politics and Modernity, ­Stiver’s fine Ricoeur and Theology and Ashgate’s Contemporary Ecclesiology series. Other helpful resources for in-depth study are the handbooks and readers produced by a number of publishers. An outstanding example of great contemporary relevance is The Oxford Handbook of Religion and ­Violence (Juergensmeyer et al) with perceptive analyses of religiously motivated violence across different faith traditions.

Some new titles concern interfaith peacemaking, the theology of religions, religion and science and, not surprisingly, the new field of religion and the internet. Key questions are discussed in Aquinas on the Web? Doing Theology in an Internet Age (Bennett) and in the remarkable set of essays in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds (Campbell). In the future, the study of religion – indeed, all subjects – will be reshaped by the internet, with a profound impact on the nature and use of textbooks. Whatever the tools of teaching, I hope the best will kindle a desire for a deeper understanding of religion in today’s world.

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