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A must-have for any serious student of comparative religion is a general guide to the religions of the world. Nelson's Illustrated Guide to Religions is most useful for the Christian student of comparative religion. Its author, James Beverly, is a devout Christian and admits that he views all religions through that glass.

One might expect to see a clear bias from an avowed Christian, but Beverly is adamant about approaching each subject with love and tolerance, and this approach serves his readers well. The information is set out for us, and while there is analysis based in Christian thought, it's not intrusive; use it or not as you choose. The facts he sets out are no more or less valid no matter which you choose. I found no evidence of the twisting of facts to serve an agenda which is a good signal, in my opinion. It means that Beverly believes his faith is strong enough to withstand an honest comparison with any other. I found it all quite refreshing as well as reassuring.

That said, I must admit that the section on Witchcraft was disappointing. I can't set it down to any bias on the part of the author since he is clearly trying hard to make sense of what is a difficult subject to begin with. But either he got bad information and wasn't able to work through it, or he was simply overwhelmed by the amount of often conflicting information available about Wicca, Neo-Paganism and the other religions which he seems to think are virtually interchangeable. For example, in spite of a separate chapter on Satanism, he does cite Satanism in this chapter, implying that some witches are Satanists, which is simply not true. (Satan is a Christian construct and Wicca has no roots in Christianity or even in the other two great Mid-East religions, Islam and Judaism.) He uses Witch, Wiccan and Pagan almost interchangeably, and while it's often difficult to differentiate -- ask any six Neo-pagans what they believe in or call themselves and you'll get at least twenty answers -- it's worth doing so if you're trying to be fair to the faith.

I don't believe that the few drawbacks of this book are going to be too problematic for most readers. What is critical is that for the most part Beverly has done his homework, and he has been consistent in presenting his information fairly. That makes this a valuable reference.

Nelson's Illustrated Guide to Religions: A Comprehensive Introduction to the Religions of the World

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This is a curious book with a curious notion behind it: That one must read certain books in order to feel well-read. It's not enough to be a voracious reader if all we read are the latest magazines and newspapers, or the latest best-seller, or loads of junklit. This is a book which purports to be a reference to literature which has had an impact on the world, and on our collective imagination, but it omits such obvious influences as Shakespeare and The Bible without explanation of any sort. Surely these two works have had as much influence on the Western world as all the rest put together, and Shakespeare, at least, has a universal appeal which cuts across any religious lines.

A quick examination shows a volume weighted heavily towards contemporary literature. More than 700 of its 900+ pages are devoted to 20th and 21st century works. While I don't doubt that many, if not most, of these works are worth reading, I would question the notion that all have and will continue to have a great impact on world thought. While I am heartened to find works by many non-Western authors within the same two chapters, I have to wonder why so few appear in earlier chapters. I also can't help but wonder about why pre-eighteenth century literature is limited to about 20 pages, and we go from Aesop to the 19th century in about 150 pages.

I spent a couple of hours marking each book I'd already read - an occupation more amusing than useful - and discovered to my dismay that I'm not nearly as well-read as I'd hoped. At least by the standards of this book. And yet by most standards I know I am well-read. Again, curious.

In all honesty, as interesting and even useful as I find this book, I find that my objections to both inclusions and exclusions to be about equal. While the commentary is good, often fascinating, I don't see that it can make up for the weight given to contemporary and Western literature, particularly English-language works.


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Tracy Rowan

August 2013

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