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Archive for the ‘interfaith’ Category

Colorful interfaith book for children

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Book review: ‘What Do You Believe?’ DK Publishing, 96 pp, $16.99.

As a recent New York Times article observed, a growing number of parents are raising their children outside a church or synagogue. How to teach them about beliefs?

Book cover 02002, onlineOne answer is What Do You Believe?, a colorful, remarkably lucid introduction to religion. This slim, storybook-size book handily digests the history, beliefs and practices of the world’s major religions — and some of the minor ones — into simple terms.

With its big graphics, bright colors and picture-book format, What Do You Believe? is clearly aimed at preteens. But it’s much better than that. It’s a brisk but systematic work that combines a survey on religion, comparative religion, history of religion and even philosophy of religion. All in less than a hundred pages.

There’s a breathtaking timeline starting not in the Middle East, as so many such books do, but in Europe with cave art from 15,000 B.C.E. The book also mentions prehistoric burial mounds and stone circles, then moves to the more familiar Sumerians, Egyptians, Chinese, Indus Valley Civilizations and others.

A nice, big, double-spread chart compares six major religions — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism — for their numbers, beliefs and practices. Included are main scriptures, main festivals and how many gods are worshiped.

More double-spreads go a bit more into each religion: its start, its key concepts, its main branches. You’ll also learn about four main types of yoga; the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism; the Torah and worship and acts of kindness as the heart of Judaism; how Sufism is not a separate branch of Islam, but can inform the other two main branches; and how Sikhs stress good deeds and devotion to God over rituals. The book even has a Campus Crusade-style diagram on how Jesus bridged the gap between God and humanity.

Other units scan “Native Religions,” including those of native Americans, northern tribes and Australian Aborigines; East Asian religions, such as Shinto, Taoism and Confucianism; and “New Religious Movements” like Cao Dai, Christian Science, Krishna Consciousness and Scientology. This section is elastic, though; it includes the Mormon church, which began back in 1830.

And there’s still more: closer looks at holy books, an explanation of prayer, a glimpse at rituals and festivals, distinct clothes and hairstyles, ethics of food and fasting, etcetera.

History 005, onlineEven departures from organized religion have their say. A look at “Modern Spirituality” notes that it borrows practices from Eastern religions, but not their main beliefs and structures. And a surprisingly sophisticated unit on atheism notes subtle shades, like agnosticism and secularism. The book also notes that Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism don’t require belief in a deity.

The section on philosophy probes the Big Questions, including what God is like, what is ultimate truth, why do bad things happen, and why do religions preach peace, then fight over it. In the latter case, the lucid answer is that some in every religion care about others, while some care more about their beliefs. The book scrupulously draws a line between fundamentalists — those who simply want to spread their teachings — and extremists, who use violence and terror to draw attention to their religion.

Especially impressive is how the book gets down to basics with questions like “What is a Religion?” For this answer, it calls on the late religion professor Ninian Smart, who developed a seven-part definition involving ritual, ethics, experience and the like. The book even neatly defines faith as “to have great trust in something or someone.”

One might say this book is colorful to a fault. It has so many big pictures, graphics and clashing colors that each page spread assaults the eye.

More basic, the book asks “What is a Religion?” on page 20 — after its gallop through religious history. If the question is important to ask, shouldn’t it be asked at the start?

And there’s at least one spelling gaffe, where the book says, “God is both transcendent (beyond the world) and imminent (inside us).” They meant, of course, “immanent,” i.e., indwelling.

But those are fairly minor flaws for the feat of orderly clarity that is this book. The biggest surprise is that it doesn’t list one author, just editors and designers. Someone deserves the credit for masterminding this.

James D. Davis


Written by Jim Davis

January 12, 2013 at 7:36 pm

Just the facts on religion

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Why do Hindus use a swastika? Why is the Cross of St. Peter upside down? And why do Scientologists weave an “S” through two triangles?

Those and more answers are on Religion Facts, which fittingly has the slogan, “Religion is interesting; knowledge is good.” The anonymous religion student behind this site has kept his promise: straight facts, no manipulation.

And the 37 featured groups go beyond the usual world religions. It’s also Aladura of west Nigeria and Cao Dai from Vietnam. It’s the Druze of the Middle East and Zoroastrianism, which has one of its fire temples in Yazd, Iran (pictured here).

Each section has a short intro, then bulleted Fast Facts. Then comes a history of the religion, then beliefs and practices. Footnotes are plentiful and often lead to offline articles.

Better yet are the comparisons. A “Big Religion Chart” gives a quick rundown on each group. Other charts parse out differences among various types of Christians, Muslims and Buddhists.

Although the information is generally objective, the very choices inevitably raise questions. Is Deepak Chopra’s center a distinct religion? Are ancient Greek Stoicism and Epicureanism religious? And should you put atheists, who attack the very idea of faith, on a list of faiths?

The author does urge us to continue our own studies. For those, he provides glossaries and book lists, some of them linking to eBay or Amazon.

Written by Jim Davis

November 15, 2008 at 6:04 am

A mis-directory?

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All Things Spiritual shows both the beauties and pitfalls of creating a religious supersite. Meant to fill “the need of the time for greater connection to God,” the site is easy to understand. It’s also not well maintained — and, in places, a little misleading.

First, the good. The unadorned design has fast-loading links. And you can hardly ask for more variety: Christian mysticism, Bible-themed museums, Hinduism-related toys, Tibetan singing bowls, Celtic flutes, a Virtual I Ching, Feng Shui tips, prophecies from Nostradamus and a host of others.

There’s also meaty material like ancient Chinese texts, and historic Christian leaders like Francis Asbury. You can learn Carl Jung’s beliefs on how personality affects spirituality. You can check out an intriguing mix of Judaic art and philosophy called Decoupage for the Soul.

The bad? Well, for one, many of the links are broken. Worse, some are misclassified. A site on yoga is grouped under Taoism. Soka Gakkai, a form of Japanese Buddhism, is under Shintoism. Sufism, a branch of Sunni Islam, is listed separately from that faith. And there’s a link under Christianity to A Course in Miracles — a metaphysical book supposedly dictated by Jesus.

The site’s unnamed founders clearly take an interest in the stew of therapy, mysticism and esoterica that is often called the New Age. There’s a subhead by that name here. But there are also several others — Enlightenment, Mind-Body, Meditation, Shamanism, Spiritualism, Psychism, the Paranormal, Out-of-Body Experiences — that are synonyms or subgroups.

Is that good or bad? Welllllll, I guess it depends on your own tastes.

Written by Jim Davis

November 1, 2008 at 3:31 am

United we sing, and maybe dance

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Sure, the world is awash in ignorance and prejudice, but what can one person do?

Ask Jack Bloomfield. In 2004 he founded One Planet United, an organization that brings together people as varied as Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Pentecostal Christians — all in the simmering melting pot of South Florida.
What does he get them to do? Talk out differences. Cool down tensions. Understand people different from themselves. And sing and dance together — with choirs and soloists joining in annual concerts called Faith in Music.
Even better, you can do it, too — with model plans, called “templates,” on this Web site.
Like “Unity in our Community,” a program using music, dance and drama in community celebrations. Like “Looking Glass Theater,” a series of eight sketches with morals of acceptance. “Like OPU Clubs,” where middle and high school students can promote dialogue and mediate intergroup problems.
The free documents, 150k to 300k long, don’t take any expertise. Each project is broken down into committees, time requirements, press releases, program outlines. There are even suggested theme songs, like Where is the Love? by the Black-Eyed Peas.
A list of OPU-endorsed speakers is a bit heavy on the New Age, with the likes of Gary Zukav, Deepak Chopra and Neale Donald Walsch. But it also has a few conventional folks like Della Reese and Harold Kushner.

But that’s the beauty of the templates. Whether you share all of Bloomfield’s beliefs or not, the plans will still work for you. Imagine: trusting his tools with people he’s never seen. That goes even beyond interfaith work.

Written by Jim Davis

October 7, 2008 at 3:55 am

Divine appointments?

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Sure, you know the date for Christmas and maybe Hanukkah. How about Lag B’Omer or Bodhi Day? Or Holi or Ramadan?

You can track those and many more on the Interfaith Calendar, the generous work of a Methodist layman. The site not only shows holiday dates, but brief explanations of the parent religions.

You can find little-known holidays including St. Brighid of Kildare Day for Celtic Christians. You’ll also learn that Diwali or Deepavali is observed by three religions: Hindu, Sikh and Jain. A sizable glossary defines each holiday and its importance.

One page groups the major holidays by religion, although this would have been more useful if each holiday were cross-linked to the glossary. Another page groups religions by types: one god, many gods, no god, or some mixture.

You can even find out about newer, more exotic religions — like Cao Dai from Vietnam, the Middle Eastern Yezidis and Mandeans, even the alien-themed Raelian Church.

Another thoughtful touch: print-friendly versions of the list, usually keeping a month ahead.

Finally, there’s a list of sites on religion and food — not just practices like kosher, but even recipies. A tasty dessert for a nourishing site.

Written by Jim Davis

August 3, 2008 at 11:41 pm

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