In the Beginning Was the Word by Mark A Noll (Oxford University Press, £19.99). Noll adds nuance to our understanding of how the Bible was used in Britain’s American colonies. On the one hand, it was deployed to conceptualise and sacralise the imperial project, but it also became a vehicle of dissent. Sometimes the Bible was positioned as the only source of authority, other times not. It could be the focus for campaigns of liberty, or an anchor of the status quo. Trajectories of the Bible in the American colonies tend to identify a master narrative: Noll reveals just how multivalent Scripture could be.
A Little History of Religion by Richard Holloway (Yale, £14.99). Holloway, the former Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh, is well known for his controversial views and he certainly hasn’t reined them in here. His aim is to tell the entire story of religion – from primitive societies to the three “Religions of the Book”, to Eastern religions and modern religious movements. Holloway presents eminently readable “biographies” of all the main religions. He isn’t keen on some aspects of organised religion, but he tells a good story and this is a useful primer.
The Bible Makes Sense by Walter Breuggemann (DLT, £9.99). Breuggemann, a scriptural scholar and ordained minister in America, argues that Scripture “provides us with an alternative identity, an alternative way of understanding ourselves, an alternative way of relating to the world”. Challenging a “modern-industrial-scientific” view of reality, the author persuasively reminds us that “we live in a world where healing mysteries surge among us”. His book includes passages for group reflection and discussion, alongside scriptural passages for meditation.
Jerusalem 1000-1400 by Barbara Drake Boehm and Melanie Holcomb (Yale University Press, £50). The holy city has always been at the crux of political and religious movements in the Middle East. But what this book so brilliantly demonstrates is that, during the Middle Ages, Jerusalem was also a centre of artistic creativity and experimentation. It was the successive waves of invaders and migrants that created such a rich ferment – Jews, Christians, Copts, Turks and Persian all flocked to the city and brought their cultures and artistic worldviews with them. This is a stunningly well-produced work.
Inventing American Religion by Robert Wuthnow (Oxford University Press, £19.99). Though focused on how pollsters have assessed the state of religion in America, this enlightening volume has much to say about the accuracy of any vox pop exercise. The questions asked can directly shape debate and help to construct partisan identities – the Religious Right during the 1980s knew this better than most. Wuthnow traces how polling became an American obsession after World War II and one is left with the impression that the complexity of religious belief is least amenable to such box-ticking analysis.
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