A brief but beneficial guide to where “religion as we know it” comes from.



Why religion is seen as an activity all its own.

Pulitzer Prize winner Miles (Emeritus, English and Religious Studies/Univ. of California, Irvine; God in the Qur’an, 2018, etc.) presents a slim volume drawn from his work as general editor of The Norton Anthology of World Religions. Miles sets out to explain the process by which the West, and then the world, came to see “religion” as a distinct activity which could be observed, categorized, and studied apart from language, culture, and other aspects of society. After an unnecessarily long introduction—at roughly one-fifth the length of the book, the preface wears out its welcome—the author examines the idea of religion, an ill-defined yet universal concept, which he and the Norton Anthology approach through the aspect of practice rather than “belief.” He moves on to note that until the advent of Christianity, there was no sense of religion as we understand it today. “Religious” practices could not be divorced from one’s culture and/or ethnicity. However, as Christianity took aspects of Judaism and transferred them into a proselytizing, transcultural movement, the Christian faith became something unique. Eventually, Islam would do much the same thing. As Christendom came to dominate Western thought, Europeans increasingly saw other faith traditions from a Christian viewpoint and thus imposed the idea of “religion” on cultures where such forms of practice had hitherto been inseparable from other aspects of life. With time, this view spread and became a worldwide phenomenon. Within this global story, Miles succinctly encapsulates what is essentially the history of religious studies, including particular scholars and authors who made surprisingly vast contributions to the world’s understanding of religion. The author’s use of his own personal story in this already-small volume is not particular helpful. However, his presentation of a fascinating and rarely understood background to modernity’s way of thinking is worth the read.

A brief but beneficial guide to where “religion as we know it” comes from.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-324-00278-9

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Sept. 11, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2019

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955

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