An often challenging and wide-ranging inquiry into organized religions.



A search for the common origins of various cultures’ faiths.

In this densely packed work, Martin initially offers a roughly chronological survey of organized religions through the ages, including those of the ancient Egyptians, the early Mesopotamians, and the Chinese, where the roots of faith run deep. In these and all other cases, Martin seeks to trace the common, key theological concepts that run through them all. For example, he quotes from ancient Egyptian Scripture and concludes that Egyptians of the time “understood that man has a sinful nature, but God has a forgiving nature,” just as in Christianity and other faiths. Likewise, he examines the nature of divine proscriptions in conjunction with observable history. “It is clear that crimes like murder were [seen as] intrinsically wrong and did not just become wrong once there was a law against it,” he writes, with an eye toward the commandments featured in the Old Testament. “The law came after the sin to illuminate the presence of the sin.” The analytical tenor of many of Martin’s theological sources is clearly reflected in his own text, and some of the analysis is heavily inferential, as when he notes that “Sumer had developed a culture of beer drinking and leisure, which kept the people occupied and dependent on the lifestyle.”

In part due to his research’s extremely wide ambit, Martin sometimes slips into error or excessive enthusiasm—although, to be fair, in a work with this much detail, such moments could hardly be avoided. Some of the pronouncements here do seem to be strangely ignorant of history, though, as when the author writes that “karma” is atheistic in origin or that “Polytheism…has always weakened nations, while monotheism, in contrast, has united nations.” In the latter case, many of the longest-lasting cultures in history have been largely polytheistic, and two of the most powerful Western nations to be ripped apart by civil war, America and England, are mostly monotheistic. In addition, Martin’s reliance on reference works such as Eerdmans’ Handbook to the World’s Religions seems to introduce a tone of literary criticism into his theological discussions, as when he writes, “In the Bible, God appears to create mankind purely because He is maximally good, and it is more fully good to share existence than to keep it all to oneself.” (The Book of Genesis does not state God’s motivation for Creation.) That said, the author’s historical insights are usually quite sharp, and he expertly marshals his sources to make his points. His thoughts on the symbology of the serpent and the egg in modern Hinduism, for example, are intriguing, and some of his summaries are thought-provoking, as when he notes that “the Christian practice of communion is one area that has historically shown how the priesthood became a priestcraft.” The breadth of his research does have the effect of blurring his stated focus on modern Hinduism, but it also results in a great deal of engaging content.

An often challenging and wide-ranging inquiry into organized religions.

Pub Date: Nov. 4, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-03-911366-4

Page Count: 198

Publisher: FriesenPress

Review Posted Online: Jan. 19, 2022

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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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A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.


A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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