2021 Outstanding Academic Titles: Religion

Five selections from the Choice Reviews 2021 Outstanding Academic Titles list. This week we highlight Choice 2021 Outstanding Academic Titles about religion.

1. Founding God’s nation: reading Exodus
Kass, Leon. Yale, 2021

Kass (Univ. of Chicago) is a well-known, widely published scholar of the humanities who—by his own admission (see, for example, the wonderfully revealing preface to this volume)—came late to the study of the Hebrew Bible. Readers owe him many debts of gratitude for the decision to turn his formidable philosophical and literary talents toward the book of Genesis (in The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, 2003) and now the book of Exodus. As Kass demonstrates throughout this volume, he manages to maintain the interaction with the text of a first-time reader while generously drawing on his own insights from a lifetime of learning and teaching. In addition, Kass graciously acknowledges how much he owes to contemporary study partners as well as to a wide range of earlier exegetes. He is especially insightful in showing the sublime importance of the all-too-easy-to-ignore accounts of the Tabernacle and the masterful ways through which the author(s) of Exodus gives universal significance to the process of founding a nation through the insistence that every detail of Israel’s experiences has value. View on Amazon

2. Four views on the axiology of theism: what difference does God make?
ed. by Kirk Lougheed Bloomsbury Academic, 2020

This specialized but accessible volume addresses a recently defined topic in the philosophy of religion. The question of God’s existence prompted a longstanding philosophical debate, but scholars have also begun to address the axiology, or value, of God’s existence—that is, whether one should even want God to exist. Lougheed (Univ. of Pretoria, South Africa) assembled four scholars (all men) of varying seniority, affording each the chance to offer his own argument and respond to commentaries from the other three participants. Essays address a wide range of concerns, from the existence of possible worlds to skepticism and naturalism to—probably most productively for future scholarship—the expansion of axiology from theism to pantheism. View on Amazon

3. The Jewish body: a history
Jütte, Robert. tr. by Elizabeth Bredeck Pennsylvania, 2021

This is a masterful study of all aspects of the notion of the “Jewish body” across the millennia, from biblical to modern times. In his important opening chapter, “The Biological Body,” Jütte (director emer., Institute for the History of Medicine of the Robert Bosch Foundation) reviews the standard subjects of body stereotypes, e.g., the “Jewish nose,” “Jewish lips,” “skin color,” “beards,” and “hair color,” along with the infamous notion of the “Jewish smell.” He then progresses to central issues of sexuality and gender, including the unequal treatment of the sexes, the repercussive topic of circumcision, the stereotype of the “effeminate Jew,” and homosexuality, prostitution, and virginity. Jütte also analyzes medical and health issues, which have again become a crucial issue due to COVID-19 and myths spreading over the internet about Jews causing this pandemic. In addition he considers Jewish traditions regarding pain, visits to the doctor’s office, the obligation of visiting the sick, and the stereotypes that these subjects have engendered. Jütte ends with “The Mortal Body,” an interesting analysis of death criteria and end-of-life matters, including suicide, autopsy, and the belief in resurrection. View on Amazon

4. Migration and the making of global Christianity
Hanciles, Jehu. Eerdmans, 2021

This volume is a companion to Hanciles’s Beyond Christendom: Globalization, African Migration, and the Transformation of the West (CH, Jun’09, 46-5552). After dissecting how “migrant” embraces traders, pilgrims, women relocating for royal marriages, captives, slaves, Crusaders, and a host of others, Hanciles (Emory Univ.) shows how such ordinary migrants carried the Christian message into Europe beyond the Roman Empire long before the church organized institutional missionary endeavors. Especially significant was how such migration planted a Nestorian understanding of Christianity in China and other Asian regions thanks to trade and travel along the Silk Road. These unwitting migrant ambassadors for Christianity interacted with local cultures, often creating a pluralistic ethos and sometimes fusing Christian belief and practice with local religious expression. When missionaries arrived, Christianity was already flourishing in many places, although in some, early migrant Christianities did not survive. Hanciles provides a compelling rethinking of how Christianity spread through the known world prior to 1500, and of the diversity within Christianity. He convincingly argues that migration is the key to understanding Christian expansion, analyzing alternative interpretations as appropriate. View on Amazon.

5. Reinventing religion: beyond belief and scepticism
Moore, Peter. Reaktion Books, 2020

This is the most clear-eyed, level-headed interrogation or “reconstruction” of the proper way to study religion this reviewer has read. In this book, Moore (formerly, religious studies, Univ. of Kent, UK), who previously published the extraordinarily thought-provoking Where Are the Dead? Exploring the Idea of an Embodied Afterlife (2017), flips many taken-for-granted notions about religion on their heads, offering readers enticingly novel views of what religion is all about. Moore begins with why it is important to launch into a book on religion without a firm definition of religion and continues with provocative investigations of religions as sets of “ideas, practices, experiences and institutions,” what he considers the four basic “dimensions of religion.” He examines religion as a complex, evolving assemblage of constructions—social, historical, individual, and accidental in origin—that together produce what is known as religion. Employing exquisite, finely wrought prose, the author’s tour de force final chapter and epilogue are especially noteworthy. View on Amazon.

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