Juli Cragg Hilliard

The Quest for Understanding

What novelist Athol Dickson knew of Judaism he had learned from other Christians. That's the way most of us gain information on religions other than our own, he says--secondhand, filtered, reframed by those who preach and teach what we already believe. What about asking other people about their beliefs? What about attending their worship services and seeing for ourselves?

Dickson, an evangelical Protestant, spent five years of Saturdays in Torah study with a Reform Jewish congregation in Dallas and wrote about it in his first nonfiction book, The Gospel According to Moses: What My Jewish Friends Taught Me About Jesus (Brazos Press, May). The book exemplifies a theme commonly seen this spring among the many new and forthcoming interfaith titles--hands reaching across canyons of religious differences, relating person to person instead of believing stereotypes.

Time and again in conversations with PW, authors and editors expressed the wish that their books could move readers toward peace in an atmosphere of strife and war. Says Dickson, "The more we know about each other the less likely we are to demonize." Thomas Moore (The Care of the Soul) notes, "Truth doesn't have to mean that I have the facts now and that other people don't." Maggie Oman Shannon (One God, Shared Hope) says, "There are examples in every religion that we can learn from and be inspired by."

A Common Heritage
In 1995, when Dickson was still a practicing architect in Dallas, a Jewish business associate who knew he was a passionate Christian invited him to an interfaith Shabbat service. Dickson found himself so stirred by the experience that he kept returning to study with the rabbi and the Jewish congregation. Raised Southern Baptist and attending a nondenominational Christian church at the time, Dickson says he had never been inside a synagogue before and only knew about Jews what he had heard from other Christians. "That's no way to learn about people from other faiths," he now says. "That was the key lesson for me."

From his growing-up experiences in a conservative church, Dickson had understood he was to suppress his questions about paradoxes and apparent contradictions in Scripture, and take everything on faith. But among a group of liberal Jews who felt free to voice questions he considered almost blasphemous, he learned that "God loves an honest question."

Dickson has written three novels and is working on a fourth for Tyndale House, which published his most recent novel, They Shall See God (2002). His hope is that The Gospel According to Moses (see Books in Brief) will inspire readers to learn about other faiths directly and personally. According to Brazos marketing director Bobbi Jo Heyboer, the press sees the market for the book as primarily Christians who want to open their minds to the Bible in a fresh way, and secondarily Jews who want to understand their Christian neighbors better. Promotional plans include radio interviews, which will offer storyteller Dickson a chance to communicate directly.

Another Christian, Mary Blye Howe, explores her friendships within several Jewish communities in the spiritual memoir A Baptist Among the Jews, which Jossey-Bass will publish in August (see InProfile). "The book is fostering the interfaith dialogue that I think needs to go on, this valuing of each other in the Jewish-Christian world," says Sheryl Fullerton, executive editor of J-B's Religion in Practice line. Not all of J-B's books promote interfaith or interreligious dialogue, but Fullerton says it's a sub-agenda underlying many titles in their diverse list, which includes books for evangelical and mainline Christians, as well as for Jewish readers. "We envision our mission as transforming lives through the renewal and practice of faith, which is a nice, broad umbrella to be doing books under," Fullerton notes. Their market is readers who are looking for resources to deepen and enrich their spiritual lives, with a focus on consumers rather than professionals or clergy. Fullerton tells PW that J-B's books try to cultivate a "nuanced and sympathetic view of spirituality."

Several other titles seek to find common ground between the two faiths. Roy H. Schoeman, who converted from Judaism to Catholicism, examines Judaism's role in the history of salvation in Salvation Is From the Jews (Ignatius, Sept.). In Merton and Judaism (Fons Vitae, April), edited by Beatrice Bruteau, several academics discuss the late author and Trappist monk Thomas Merton's interest in Judaism. Michael L. Cook, a Jesuit, focuses on the Hebrew Bible as the common root of Christianity and Judaism with Justice, Jesus and the Jews (Liturgical Press, Jan.). In The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story & Significance of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family (Harper San Francisco; March) Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington III argue on behalf of James's call for Jewish Christians in the first century to preserve their Jewishness.

The Buddha and the Christ
Numerous new and forthcoming titles aim to strengthen the connections between Christian and Buddhist spirituality, with insights to be shared by each tradition without necessarily leaving one's own. Transforming Suffering: Reflections on Finding Peace in Troubled Times (Doubleday Image, Aug.), edited by Donald W. Mitchell and James Wiseman, offers counsel on interpersonal relationships gleaned from Buddhist and Catholic monastic communities.

Because these monastic traditions possess thousands of years of experience in living together, "there's a wealth of practical wisdom about dealing with the problems of our typical human existence," says Mitchell, a professor of philosophy at Purdue University in Indiana. Wiseman belongs to the Benedictine community of St. Anselm's Abbey in Washington, D.C., and teaches theology at the Catholic University of America. Mitchell says he was raised without much religion but later investigated different faiths. He practiced Buddhism for eight years, has a doctorate in that religion and has taught it for 30 years, but is now Catholic. That doesn't mean he has left Buddhism behind. "I still think I have very much of a Buddhist heart and many Buddhist friends," Mitchell says. He has been active in Buddhist-Christian dialogues including, with Wiseman, as an organizer for a 1996 retreat initiated by the Dalai Lama at Gethsemani Abbey, Merton's home in Kentucky. That retreat produced The Gethsemani Encounter (Continuum, 1999), which Mitchell and Wiseman edited.

In their new book, Pope John Paul II writes about the meaning of suffering, and the Dalai Lama about transforming suffering into a path of compassion and healing for ourselves and others. Other topics include overcoming violence, accepting sickness and aging and facing death. "There's a lot of agreement," Mitchell notes: Buddhist and Christian spiritual leaders' common advice on overcoming a sense of unworthiness is to relate to other people, and care for them. Mitchell explains, "It's in the process of caring for other people that you tap into those emotions and can direct those emotions to yourself." Doubleday expects national review attention for the book, which is being positioned to appeal to mainstream spirituality readers, reports Alexandra B. Morris, publicity and marketing manager.

More Bonds with Buddhism
In the seventh century, Christian monks from Persia traveled into China and absorbed influences from Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. The "Jesus sutras," long-hidden ancient scrolls that join the teachings of Jesus with these Asian religions, were uncovered in 1900 and form the basis for The Lost Sutras of Jesus: The 1300-Year-Old Teachings of the Da Quin Christian Monks (Ulysses Press, May), edited by Thomas Moore and Ray Riegert. The book recounts the monks' adventures and interprets the sutras for contemporary relevance.

Moore says the new volume amounts to a user's guide to the sutras, which he describes as putting a fresh face on the Gospel. In Christianity, people talk about the Holy Spirit; in the sutras, the same idea is called the "cool wind" or "cool breeze." Moore is Catholic but finds no conflict between that faith and Taoism or Buddhism. He believes it is vital in this century to come to grips with the fact that there are many religions. "I think we're going to have to get past the competitive aspect, where people are trying to find out which one is correct," he says. But that may take more time for some religions than others. Says Moore, "I think we're still quite a ways from the point where Christians could actually realize they could get something for themselves from Islam the way they can get something for themselves from Buddhism."

Several books aspire to contribute to that dialogue, including No God But God: A Path to Muslim-Christian Dialogue on God's Nature by A. Christian van Gorder (Orbis Books, April); Islam and the Jews by Mark A. Gabriel (Strang, March); and Islam: A Guide for Jews and Christians by F.E. Peters (Princeton, May; see InProfile). Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer tackles the relationship between religion and violence in Christianity, Judaism and Islam with Is Religion Killing Us? Violence in the Bible and the Koran (Trinity Press International; March).

Riegert, Moore's co-editor and the publisher at Ulysses, says that during these war-shadowed times anything is helpful that brings people together and shows them how religions are similar, including how they can incorporate the beliefs and ideas of other faiths. He believes many readers are open to that. "When you start taking the best of different religions, it really can provide an answer for a significant number of people." The Ulysses release Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings (cloth 1997, paper 1999), which Riegert edited with Jesus scholar Marcus Borg, sold more than 50,000 copies. The 2002 Ulysses paperback Jesus and Mohammed: The Parallel Sayings, edited by Joey Green, has also sold well. Riegert expects The Lost Sutras to appeal to liberal Christians and people interested in Eastern religion, but he believes it will find a broader readership because of the adventurous tale of the monks. "It would be wonderful to see it as a movie," he says. Both editors will make bookstore appearances, Moore in the East and Riegert in the West, and do media interviews in what Riegert describes as a "fairly aggressive" campaign.

Seven Jews and seven Christians describe their personal encounters with Buddhism in Beside Still Waters: Jews, Christians, and the Way of the Buddha (Wisdom, April), edited by Harold Kasimov, John P. Keenan and Linda Klepinger Keenan. Kasimov, religious studies professor at Grinnell College in Iowa, hopes the book will be a testimony to how studying another religion can enrich one's own. A child survivor of the Holocaust who considers himself fully Jewish, Kasimov says that now more than ever he feels interreligious dialogue is a key for peace. "Religious leaders are more of a problem sometimes than a solution to what is going on in the world. The idea of possessing the truth or having the truth in your pocket or having the only path has been a significant problem." John Keenan, married to Linda Keenan, is retiring as a religion professor at Middlebury College in Vermont and is vicar of St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Scarborough, Maine. He says he has always been Christian but has been enriched by Zen meditation. "I haven't felt it to be threatening or New Age-y," Keenan says, but just a way of deepening his faith.

Nonprofit Wisdom Publications specializes in Buddhism books, and its traditional market has been Buddhists, but Beside Still Waters could appeal to open-minded Christians and Jews, says publisher Tim McNeill. Contributors include Sylvia Boorstein, author of That's Funny, You Don't Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist (HSF; cloth 1996, paper 1998) and Sister Elaine MacInnes (see sidebar). The Dalai Lama wrote one of Wisdom's biggest sellers, The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus (cloth 1996, paper 1998). McNeill notes that the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader has gone out of his way to state people should stay committed to their own religions. McNeill expects increasing interest in Buddhism, in large part because of the visibility and celebrity of the Dalai Lama.

James W. Heisig writes about Buddhism from Buddhist and Christian perspectives in Dialogues at One Inch Above the Ground (Crossroad, April). Poet and Zen priest Norman Fischer, who provides commentary in Beside Still Waters, offers new translations of the Psalms in Opening to You (Penguin, March). Novelist and essayist Fenton Johnson describes traveling to Buddhism and back to Catholicism in his memoir Keeping Faith: A Skeptic's Journey (Houghton Mifflin, March). David Pond, prominent in metaphysical circles, examines the philosophies behind Eastern mysticism in Western Seeker, Eastern Paths: Exploring Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism & Tantra (Llewellyn, Jan.)

The Road to Tolerance
Though many books focus on Christian-Jewish and Christian-Buddhist relationships, other titles survey a broader panorama of religions and how they intersect or parallel one another. William R. Hutchison, history professor at Harvard Divinity School, documents American's challenge to achieve religious tolerance in Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal, which Yale University Press will release in May and position as its lead religion title this season.

In July, Red Wheel will publish Nevill Drury and Anna Voigt's A Way Forward: Spiritual Guidance for Our Troubled Times, essays on personal meaning that compile reflections from such peace advocates as Jesus, Buddha and Martin Luther King Jr. Harold Coward discusses views on human frailty and an afterlife from Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu perspectives in Sin and Salvation in the World Religions: A Short Introduction (Oneworld, paper, July).

Rodney Stark looks at how people acting in God's name have molded contemporary culture in For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts and the End of Slavery (Princeton, May). Scholars from Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Buddhism supply insights on religious fundamentalism and social change in The Freedom to Do God's Will (Routledge, March), edited by Gerrie ter Haar and James J. Busuttil.

Jacob Neusner, research professor of religion and theology at Bard College, adds new chapters on American-made world religions such as the Mormon faith and Scientology in a new paperback edition of World Religions in America (Westminster John Knox, July), originally published in 1994. Paul Kriwaczek traces the origins of various religions back to Zoroastrianism with In Search of Zarathustra (Knopf, Feb.), and David Klinghoffer writes about Israel's first patriarch in The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism (Doubleday, Feb.) Religion journalist Ira Rifkin examines various faith traditions' views in Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval (SkyLight Paths, Feb.).

Some books take the viewpoint of one denomination within the same religion learning from or scrutinizing another. Indiana Mennonite pastor Arthur Paul Boers delves into the ancient practice of fixed-hour prayer, not a part of traditional Mennonite practice, for The Rhythm of God's Grace (Paraclete, April). Jewish author Sue Fishkoff examines another branch of Judaism in The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch (Schocken, April). Carmen Renee Berry explains how major Christian traditions vary in The Unauthorized Guide to Choosing a Church (Brazos, May).

People who go looking for insights in other faiths sometimes find a surprising path. As she researched One God, Shared Hope: Twenty Threads Shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Red Wheel, May), Maggie Oman Shannon was so moved by the beauty and wisdom of the traditions that tears came to her eyes. "I also, quite unexpectedly, found myself being draw to the passages on my own faith of origin," she says. Shannon grew up Episcopalian but had become intrigued by all religions and classified herself as an interfaith spiritual director. Now she is once again attending a Christian church.

Still, Shannon says she maintains an interest in world religions, which she thinks is important for all to do today. She wrote the book for anyone who might want to know what the three religions have in common. These days, Shannon says, "I think there's a lot of fear and a lot of uncertainty. Our world is very complex; it seems increasingly so every day. I think we are in a really crucial time for humanity, and I hope this book can in some small way have a healing effect."

L. Annie Foerster collects nearly 80 prayers for interfaith gatherings in For Praying Out Loud: Interfaith Prayers for Public Occasions (Skinner House, May). Spirituality teacher Andrew Harvey offers wisdom for today in A Walk With Four Spiritual Guides: Krishna, Buddha, Jesus and Ramakrishna (Skylight Paths, March; see Books in Brief). Fredrica Halligan writes about the mystical traditions uniting Eastern and Western religions in Listening Deeply to God: Exploring Spirituality in an Interreligious Age (Twenty-Third Publications, April).

Reading a book is a good start, but it's another thing to take action toward the kind of mutual understanding authors like Shannon and Dickson advocate. Dickson says, "I think people of all religions should get together and talk about God. Religion is to the human mind as nuclear power is to the world at large. Like radiation, religion can save or destroy."

Selected Works

Articles
Sarasota Herald-Tribune May 6, 2008
Religion BookLine April 9, 2008
Publishers Weekly Oct. 15, 2007
Publishers Weekly, May 21, 2007
Religion BookLine, May 2, 2007
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Feb. 16, 2007
Religion BookLine, Dec. 13, 2006
Manatee magazine, Winter 2006
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Sept. 14, 2006
Style magazine, Sept. 10, 2006
Religion BookLine, Aug. 30, 2006
Manatee magazine, Aug. 7, 2006
Manatee magazine, Aug. 7, 2006
Manatee magazine, Aug. 7, 2006
Religion BookLine, July 19, 2006
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, June 15, 2006
Religion BookLine, June 7, 2006
Publishers Weekly, May 22, 2006
Manatee magazine, April 24, 2006
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, April 22, 2006
PW Religion Bookline, March 29, 2006
Publishers Weekly, March 27, 2006
PW Religion BookLine, March 22, 2006
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Feb. 3, 2006
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Dec. 9, 2005
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Dec. 9, 2005
Publishers Weekly, Aug. 29, 2005
Beliefnet, Nov. 28, 2005
PW Religion Bookline, Aug. 3, 2005
Gulfcoast Healthy Living, July 2005
Publishers Weekly, July 25, 2005
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, July 22, 2005
Publishers Weekly, May 23, 2005
Publishers Weekly May 23, 2005
Gulfcoast Healthy Living, May 2005
Publishers Weekly March 28, 2005
Publishers Weekly Nov. 15, 2004
Publishers Weekly, Aug. 23, 2004
Publishers Weekly, May 24, 2004
Religion News Service, April 16, 2003
Publishers Weekly, March 24, 2003
Publishers Weekly, Oct. 10, 2003
Publishers Weekly, February 10, 2003
Religion News Service, Nov. 25, 2002
Religion News Service, March 27, 2002
Religion News Service, Jan. 3, 2002