Book Reviews: Books from Oxford University Press
What God Has Joined Together? A Christian Case for Gay Marriage
The legalization of gay marriage is one of the most significant cultural and legal debates in America today. Opponents of gay marriage are almost entirely Christian and their arguments are framed by traditional Christians beliefs. What about supporters? Well, many if not most of them are Christians, too, but their arguments are usually framed by...
The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang, edited by Grant
Social groups and professions often acquire specialized terminology and unique words with particular meanings just for that group. Since politics can be way of life that is so disconnected from the reality which everyone else deals with, it's no surprise the it has its own language as well - but the breadth and depth of political slang might not be fully realized by most, even those who use it on a regular basis. What this slang is and how it's used reveals something about political culture.
Jealous Gods and Chosen People: The Mythology of the Middle East
A significant percentage of people in the world belong to one of the three major religions that originated in the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. A significant percentage of the world's violent conflicts also originate in the Middle East as well as between these three religions. It follows, then, that understanding these religions and the conflicts they generate can be aided by a better understanding of the ancient religions and cultures they grew out of.
A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America
Euthanasia is an increasingly important issue in American politics. As people grow older, and more face the possibility of living long lives with painful, debilitating, and fatal conditions, the possibility of ending things quickly, painlessly, and with some dignity will become ever more attractive. Only the state of Oregon allows this, however, and there are many in America who object strongly to legalized euthanasia. This issue could eventually eclipse abortion debates.
Changing Face of Anti-Semitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day
Antisemitism has been a serious issue in Western culture for millennia. Although known in the ancient world, it became a significant aspect of Western culture because of Christianity; what started out as religious animus was eventually transformed into a pseudo-scientific bigotry against a so-called Jewish 'race.' The development of Antisemitism continues today on account of Israel and Zionism and people's criticism of those institutions.
Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation
Quiet mediation or contemplation seems to have been an important aspect of most religions around the world throughout human history. Christianity of course has such a history, but in recent years many Christians have begun importing meditative practices from Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. This may make some sense, given how much...
Road to Martyrs' Square: A Journey into the World of the Suicide Bomber
The suicide bomber, someone who will use themselves as a weapon and is willing to die in order to achieve the goal of killing as many people as possible, has become a symbol of Islamic terrorism around the world. Especially in the Middle East, suicide bombers are not just a tactic used by militant groups, but are now seen as representing an unhealthy obsession with death. Yet just how accurate is this perception?
Thicker than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia
Many people tend to assume that the political relationship between America and Saudi Arabia is driven by oil, and indeed may be based entirely upon America's need for Saudi petroleum. There is a kernel of truth in this because that oil tends to form a coating over everything that happens. At the same time, though, this relationship started before oil became an issue and has many important facets which extend well beyond America's need for oil.
Faiths of the Founding Fathers, by David L. Holmes
Debates about the role of religion in contemporary American politics and law invariably turn to questions about the beliefs and intentions of the 'Founding Fathers' - the political and social leaders of early America who led the revolution against Britain and constructed a new system of government. What did the authors of America's government...
The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life
Sometimes people talk about things they shouldn't; far too often, though, people keep quiet about things which should be discussed and brought out into the open. Whether done individually or collectively in a 'conspiracy of silence,' the denial of uncomfortable or embarrassing truths appears to be a common aspect of human social relationships.
Pride: The Seven Deadly Sins, by Michael Eric Dyson
Pride tops the list of the seven deadly sins - it didn't always take first place and it wasn't always considered the progenitor of all the other sins, but over time it acquired that status and remains there to this day. Even more recently, however, the idea of pride simply being a sin has also changed.
Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy
Perhaps the most intractable political issue in the world today, and one which drives so many other international crises, is the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. These two groups have been at each other's throats for decades, each insisting that they alone have exclusive rights to control the same lands.
Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins, by Joseph Epstein
Do other people have things which you want - and, even worse, which they don't deserve in the first place? If so, then you are envious. Envy isn't jealousy: to be jealous is to want to protect what you have; to be envious is to want what others have. Of all the deadly sins, envy is the one which few people are willing to admit to or willing to...
Gluttony: The Seven Deadly Sins
Knowledge of the seven deadly sins today is inferior to the past, but many can still name most of the sins on the list. How many remember that gluttony is one of the sins, though, much less understand why it was traditionally condemned by Christianity as a sin equal to that of lust, pride, anger, or envy?
Greed: The Seven Deadly Sins
Do you wish to acquire more and more? Do you covet what others have but you do not? Are you ambitious to have more money or material goods? In short, are you greedy? Many people may be willing to answer 'yes' to these questions, at least until we get to the last one...
Mencken: The American Iconoclast
Henry Louis Mencken is one of the most important journalists and defenders of free speech in American history, yet he was also a complicated person. He defended free speech, but was disdainful of everyone he considered an intellectual inferior. Who was he, really?
The Rehnquist Court and the Constitution
With the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, we can expect to see a large number of books examining the history and likely legacy of his time on the Supreme Court. This is only fair because Rehnquist served for over 30 years on the Court, pushing for a conservative shift away from the Burger and Warren courts of the previous decades.
How to Read the Bible: History, Prophecy, Literature
The Bible is one of the most important and influential books in Western civilization; despite this, few people have much detailed knowledge of it or even know how to read it properly. This is partly due to a decline in classical education, but also partly to a failure of religious leaders to teach people how to approach the text properly.
Who Shall Lead Them? The Future of Ministry in America
For decades the social status of clergy has been in decline: whereas before they were among the educated elite, today they appear almost irrelevant at times. As America becomes increasingly secular and religious Americans turn away from organized religion in favor of more personalized spiritualities, what is the future for American clergy?
The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court is one of the most influential political institutions in the United States of America. It's also a relatively unique institution: other nations have their own high courts, but these courts don't typically have the same broad power to strike down laws as the Supreme Court does.
Fear: The History of a Political Idea, by Corey Robin
Fear is an ubiquitous part of the human condition. It is a basic, primal emotion which can motivate a person to act reasonably in defense of their safety and well-being or act irrationally in a manner that threatens the well-being of others. Because of its effectiveness as a motivator of action, it's only natural that it would become part of politics...
Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America
Conservative evangelical Christians are an important part of American culture, yet they are a part of culture which the rest of society often doesn't pay much attention to; this forms a basis for their complaints that despite their power and numbers, they are a persecuted minority. The one thing they can point to positively, however, are the...
Genetic Destinies, by Peter Little
As human scientific knowledge and technological ability progress, the prospects for human control over our genetic code increases. For some, the prospects of genetic manipulation open up dreams of an improved, disease-free future. For others, such manipulation suggests that the social problems of today will only be magnified, producing a genetic nightmare.
With Pleasure: Thoughts on the Nature of Human Sexuality
Sex is fun. Sex is pleasurable. This is obvious, right? These sorts of things don%u2019t need to be said, right? Well, perhaps they do. Everyone realizes that sex is fun and pleasurable (though some seem to wish that it weren%u2019t), but the prevailing belief is that sex really only exists for procreation and that pleasure is merely a byproduct.
Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value
Everyone is at least vaguely familiar with classical music, but far fewer actually spend much time deliberately listening to it. At most, they listen to small amounts that appear in movies, but never in a reflective manner. Music today is more a form of entertainment and distraction than a form of art and a source of insight.
Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction of the South
Religion played an important role in the Civil War - far more important than most people realize. Both sides viewed the conflict in explicitly Christian terms and claimed that God was on their side such that their victories or defeats were signs of God's preferences. Even less well known is the role played by religion in the South after the...
Mirror of the Gods: How Renaissance Artists Rediscovered Pagan Gods
Most people probably know that the Renaissance was a rebirth of scholarship and learning derived from ancient history. Most people are unaware, however, just how the reclamation of Europe's religious heritage occurred. It wasn't inevitable and it didn't occur independent of contemporary political, social, and religious considerations.
Making Babies: Is There a Right to Have Children?
Reproduction is fundamental to any species - without offspring, a species will die off. It's established in most societies that people have right to reproduce, in that the state cannot interfere and prevent them from having children. Do people, though, have a right to children such that they have a right to medical assistance when they can't have children naturally?
Madness: A Brief History
Mental illness has a checkered past in the history of Western culture. Even today, some argue that there is no such 'illness' at all - it is instead simply a label we apply to those who for whatever reason don't fit in with the culture's prevailing notions about proper behavior.
Eastern Religions: Hinduism, Buddism, Taoism...
Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Shinto) encompass a significant percentage of the world’s population and are part of some of the oldest cultures on the planet. For most Americans, though, they are nearly invisible. Most people may have heard of them, but probably don’t know anything about them.
The First Crusade: A New History
For years, scholars and historians focused on material or economic factors behind the Crusades. People argued that the Crusades were caused by nobles seeking land, wealth, and conquest. Today this has shifted and historians are focusing more on ideological causes: the Crusades were launched because people sincerely believed in the cause.
First Democracy: The Challenge Of An Ancient Idea
Democracy is very important to America. It’s a fundamental component of America’s politics, America’s culture, and most importantly America’s self-identity. America is defined less by ethnicity or religion like other nations and more by a political ethic of democratic self-governance. Is America truly democratic, however? Does it understand what...
Fighting For Christendom: Holy War and the Crusades
The Crusades were one of the most important features of the European middle ages. For over 200 years, European soldiers traveled to the Holy Land in “Crusading Fever,” attempting to capture sacred sites in the name of Christianity. Today the Crusades are a powerful image — more for what they are made out to be by propagandists, though, than for...
America is host to a bewildering array of religions, religious beliefs, and spiritualities. Among the most misunderstood and misused are probably the religious beliefs of Native Americans. At different times vilified and lauded, Native American beliefs have played a serious, if often unseen, role in America’s religious landscape.
Ancient Philosophy: A New History Of Western Philosophy
For many, philosophy is an esoteric subject only studied in the ivory towers of universities; this is unfortunate because a solid grounding in philosophy also provides a strong basis for dealing with just about everything else in life: ethics, politics, science, and relationships. Understanding the connections isn't always easy, but it's almost...
Hinduism: Origins - Beliefs - Practices - Holy Texts
Hinduism is one of the world’s great religions. It’s one of the oldest continuing religious and cultural traditions still in existence (though of course it has evolved over time) and provides context for the lives of a significant proportion of the world’s population. Nevertheless, it remains something of a mystery to many in the West.
Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code
Dan Brown's 'The Da Vinci Code' is one of the most popular fiction books of recent memory, but it’s just that: a work of fiction. How many readers who are supposed to know this also fully appreciate what this means? Just how much of the purportedly 'true' documents and history in the book are really fiction? Most readers don’t know, but they...
Anger: The Seven Deadly Sins
Everyone gets angry from time to time - arguments, heated words, and hateful thoughts that we wish we could take back. Anger has been the cause of much suffering, sorrow, and tragedy. Some argue that anger is an inevitable part of being human, something that must be endured and channeled; some even argue that it has its uses if properly directed.
Sloth: The Seven Deadly Sins
Is your life as busy and filled with activities a everyone else’s seems to be? Mine certainly is - I never seem to have a free moment. I’m up early to work and spend the entire day involved in one task or another. If hectic schedules rule your life, then perhaps you could benefit from a self-help book - or an anti-self-help book, to be more...
The concept of 'apology' is basic to all human cultures - indeed, it is arguably basic to human nature and communities in general. What, however, is an 'apology,' what makes one effective, and how can people learn to apologize in a better manner? For a concept that is supposed to be so fundamental, it’s curious that so many questions would exist...
No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam
The rise of political Islam in the Middle East has generated a great deal of concern and fear - not only in West, but also among Muslims themselves. Many are worried that this will become a regression to medieval theocracies, but what if there are alternatives? Perhaps a strong, self-conscious, and overtly political Islamic system doesn’t have to be a repressive theocratic system?
Travels in Four Dimensions: The Enigmas of Space and Time
Space and time are the foundations of our existence, our experiences, and our lives. Nothing is more fundamental than they, and probably because of that, nothing is more capable of producing paradox and confusion than attempted reflection on their nature. Just what are space and time, how do they operate, and do they even 'really' exist?
Humankind: A Brief History
What does it mean to be human? This may sound like it should be obvious and, at one time, it was - but not anymore. Science has blurred the once sharp biological distinctions between humans and other primates. Science has also blurred the behavioral differences between humans and other animals.
John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father
One of the more obscure figures in American history, John Winthrop may be one of the least famous people every American should know something about. Winthrop was part of the transition from the Old World to the New. With religious worldviews rooted in the more radical wing of the English Reformation, he came to embody attitudes which would be...
The Romans: From Village to Empire
The rise and fall of the Roman empire has fascinated not just historians but others as well for hundreds of years. Why did a small village on the Italian peninsula grow to dominate not only the region, but even much of western world? Once on top, why did that same empire then collapse and disappear except for ruined buildings and roads as a...
America Right Or Wrong: An Anatomy Of American Nationalism
America is arguably both the most modern and the most traditionalist society in the world today. This contradiction lies at the heart of the various problems America has had with its foreign policy. Every nation has some form of nationalism, but American nationalism consists of both strongly forward-looking and strongly backwards-looking elements.
From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East
One of the problems which has plagued American interventions in the Middle East has been the relative lack of knowledge they have had about the region - ignorance which has covered religion, culture, history, and relations between the various states. Would greater education about the Middle East improve the quality of interventions, prevent them entirely, or not really have any effect at all?
Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race
Both religion and race have played important - and sometimes deeply interconnected - roles in American history. Religion was used to justify both slavery and abolition; likewise it was used to justify both segregation and desegregation. Today even conservative Christians support equality between the races, but that doesn’t mean that everything is settled or peaceful...
Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture
The diversity of Christian beliefs today is extraordinary - but it is matched, if not exceeded, by the diversity of beliefs among the earliest Christians. As much as Christians today may not be aware of how much diversity there is among their contemporaries, they are quite ignorant of what it was like in the earliest days of Christianity....
A Brief History of the Mind: From Apes to Intellect and Beyond
Scholars and scientists have, over the years, suggested a number of supposedly 'human' qualities that are claimed to sharply differentiate us from the rest of the animal kingdom. All have, upon further research, proven untenable - but the most common and the one quality that many assume almost instinctually to be particularly 'human' is our intellect.
Walking the Tightrope of Reason
One of the things which sets humanity apart from other animals is our ability to use reason; unfortunately, another thing that sets us apart is our ability to be irrational and ignore reason. Perhaps, though, these two characteristics are as opposite as they might appear - perhaps there is a necessary connection between rationality and the acceptance of irrationality.
One of the most important figures in early American history (and indeed, in American history generally), Thomas Jefferson has long been a figure of intense political and historical research. Every American knows his name, and for many, he is practically a mythic figure who is more responsible than most for the American experiment in democracy and civil rights.
Six Days of War
In the West it is known as the Six Day War. Among Arab Muslims it is better known as 'The Disaster'? or 'The Setback.'? Egypt, Jordan, and Syria went to war with Israel -” and lost badly. In the aftermath Israel captured large amounts of territory - land the Torah said was granted to the Jews by God and conquered by military force, land now...
Life, Sex, and Ideas: The Good Life Without God
Philosophy is a serious and often difficult topic, yet just as often it is made out to be more difficult than it actually is. The basic point of philosophy is, at least much of the time, to think reflexively and critically about those things which matter most in our lives. It's about fundamental questions without easy and pat answers.
Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land
The principle that church and state are both best served when they remain separated has long been a guiding principle in American public and political life - or has it? In fact, the separating of church and state was a long and difficult process, and it hasn't quite been achieved even today. It is important to understand what has come before in order to better grasp the problems that face us now.
The Lion and the Tiger: The Rise and Fall of the British Raj
It's been said that America and Britain are two nations separated by a common language. It's possible to also say that Britain and India are two nations separated not merely by thousands of miles, but also by several hundred years of common history. From the foundation of the East India Company down through the 20th century, India played a significant role in Britain's politics.
New Religions: A Guide - New Religious Movements, Sects, Spirituality
The religious diversity of modern America is obvious to anyone who takes a look around, yet knowing that diversity exists and understanding what it means for society is another matter entirely. A first step towards that is a better understanding of how some of these new religions and new religious groups relate to one another and what they...
Fascism: A Very Short Introduction
Everyone has heard of fascism - it's one of the most significant political philosophies of the twentieth century. But what is fascism, exactly? Is it a reactionary program against modernity, or is it a revolutionary program against the traditional order? Actually, it is a bit of both - and that is why it has always managed to have some appeal to people on both the left and the right.
Anti-American Terrorism and the Middle East: A Documentary Reader
It has often been said that when you want the straight truth about something, it is generally better to try to go to the original sources rather than allowing the authors of secondary literature to tell you what those sources say. Naturally many in the West are intensely interested in learning the truth about what radical Islamists think and why...
Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment
Debates about the death penalty sometimes take a back seat to those over matters such as abortion, but they don't really end and they rarely seem to arrive at any sort of conclusion. This shouldn't be a surprise - capital punishment has been in regular use in the West for thousands of years, and no one started to question it in a serious manner...
Lust: The Seven Deadly Sins
There are few sins with which people are so well acquainted as the sin of lust. But should lust get such a negative reputation and be treated as something dirty and nasty? Might lust be a good thing?
The Oxford Dictionary of Islam
Islam is the second largest religion in the world; in some regions, it is the fastest growing religious faith. Everywhere that Islamic regions intersect with areas dominated by other religions, there is conflict and strife - sometimes violent conflict. It's clear that understanding the beliefs and history of Islam is important, but it's also...
A Brief History of the Paradox
The term paradox comes from the Greek paradoxos, which means "conflicting with expectation," and refers to some idea which has the appearance of being logically true but which is in fact so absurd that it cannot possibly be true. Herein lies the attraction to both philosophers and lay people: trying to figure our where the error lies. Is there...
Galileo in Rome: The Rise and Fall of a Troublesome Genius
Galileo's conflict with the Catholic Church is well known - the stuff of legend, in fact, and that may be part of the problem. It seems as though Galileo has become a martyr in the name of science, struck down by religious bigotry and ignorance even though he was only trying to advance our knowledge about our world and universe. Yet how much of...
Islamic World: Past and Present
The power and influence of Islam around the world are undeniable, yet at the same time, many in the West are ignorant of even the most basic aspects of Islam and what it means to be a Muslim. What do Muslims believe? What religious and social duties to Muslims have towards each other and towards nonbelievers? What is the relationship between...
The Ancient Olympics: A History
What connection do the modern Olympics have with the Olympics of ancient Greece? The ancient Olympics were not the graceful, iconic displays of physical ability which people have idealized them as - but then again, neither are the modern Olympics. Both are rooted in our humanity, which means that both have involved more suffering, corruption,...
Fundamentalism: The Search for Meaning
During the Cold War most international conflicts were framed in the context of the United States vs. the Soviet Union. Today most conflicts seem to involve religion - specifically, religious fundamentalism. Although conflicts also involve economic or territorial issues, there is little doubt that without the driving force of fundamentalism, the problems wouldn't be as heated or violent.
Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul
Sacred Pain: For most people, pain is something to be avoided: it is a sign that something is wrong and that something needs to be fixed. But for a few people, at least some times, pain is something sought after. There are even religious reasons to seek pain and discomfort. But why would people do this? Are they insane, or do they know something the rest of us don't?
Spiritual but not Religious: Unchurched America
Spiritual but not Religious: A figure commonly cited in atheist circles is that around ten percent of the population in the United States are nonbelievers. The resulting assumption, understandably enough, seems to be that if ten percent are nonreligious, then the remaining ninety percent must be religious, right?
Making Sense: Philosophy Behind the Headlines
There is a common prejudice which says that philosophy is an esoteric subject with little or no relevancy for daily life. If true, this would suggest that the study of philosophy would bring no practical benefits. But is it true? I don't think so, and a recent book demonstrates that it isn't.
Meditations for the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age
According to Socrates, an unexamined life is not worth living - but why is that so, and do you agree? Do you reflect upon your life? Is your life worth living? Moreover, if an examined life is so important, just what is necessary to achieve it?
What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam
Islam, for the West, is commonly regarded as a perpetual 'Other' - so very familiar but also so very strange and different. A lot of misunderstandings are created by prejudice and ignorance; people tend to rely more on stereotypes than on reality. But how can that be cured?
New Buddhism: Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition
Buddhism has become very popular in the West over the past couple of decades, but to what degree has Buddhism been changing the West, and to what degree has Buddhism itself undergone change? According to William Coleman, Buddhism has changed a lot, yet nevertheless, it is fundamentally the same as it has always been. But how can this be?
Nature Cures: The History of Alternative Medicine in America
The use of so-called 'complimentary and alternative medicines' has been widespread in America; by all accounts, its popularity increased dramatically during the late 20th century. At the same time, the effectiveness of scientific medicine has also increased, and the outlook of what scientific medicine may be able to achieve in the coming decades continues to improve.\
A common perception of science tends to focus upon a few great figures who stand out from the crowd, leading their colleagues to new frontiers of discovery through the brilliance of their insights and tenacity of their research. Although this is surely sometimes the case, it is perhaps less often the true than most people assume.
Handbook of Religion and Health: A Century of Research
Is religion good for your health? For a long time, religion and medicine were closely intertwined, with healthcare generally relying heavily upon the ideas created by religious tradition. In the modern age, the two diverged and medicine became a subject of scientific research. Today, however, religion and medicine may be moving closer together again - but should they?
Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet
Who was Jesus? Biographies of him are plentiful and arouse intense passion among authors and readers - more so than with the biographies of other figures. Everyone seems to have their own opinions as to who Jesus 'really' was and what his 'genuine' intentions must have been.
God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist
Debates about the existence of God fascinate some and bore others; nevertheless, they have occupied a great deal of philosophical, theological, and scientific interest over the centuries. Many of the arguments currently used are very old, while others are based upon recent developments in science and philosophy. Has either side developed an...
Law and Religion - Current Legal Issues 2001
For most Americans, the relationship between law and religion is limited almost exclusively to the question of the separation of church and state. That is not, however, the true extent of the relationship, as demonstrated in this recent anthology of articles.
Transformation of American Religion
Religion in America has been changing over the past few decades - and the change is one which reflects similar changes in previous centuries. Earlier changes were called 'Great Awakenings' - mass movements of people reaching radical new understandings of their religion, their spirituality, and the place religion had in their lives. According to...
By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture
Just what is the Book of Mormon and what has been the source of its appeal to the millions of Mormon believers? How did it launch not only the first major new American religion, but perhaps the first major world religion since Islam came out of the deserts of Arabia?