This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2004 vol. 161 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
Dictionary of Contemporary Religion in the Western World: Exploring Living Faiths in Postmodern ContextsInterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL March 1, 2002
Although religious pluralism is not a recent phenomenon, numerous factors make understanding its current manifestation a particularly pressing need for Christians. Technological advances have resulted in an explosion of information. Anyone with access to a computer can discover and disseminate information quite easily. However, there is no necessary connection between availability and reliability. Further, in the West, postmodern culture explicitly and intentionally values toleration and diversity. Although some forms of toleration and diversity are Christian ideals, they are not naively unbounded, as is sometimes assumed by non-Christians. These cultural factors make a dictionary like this a valuable tool. The editor explains its purpose: “Because it is of great importance that contemporary Westerners, not least Christians, have at least a basic grasp of the faiths, beliefs and issues that contribute to their religiously and culturally plural milieu, the aim of this dictionary is to provide a ready and accessible reference tool which will go some way to providing for this need” (p. 3).
This dictionary is written for a broad constituency—scholars, students, Christians engaged in interfaith dialogue, Christian workers seeking to communicate the Christian message to their contemporaries, and laypersons interested in furthering their general knowledge. Achieving such a noble and lofty goal is difficult, yet this dictionary does it well, although the essays tend to fall on the more scholarly and technical end of the spectrum than on the popular and lay level. A bibliography at the end of each article gives additional sources for readers who desire more information. Since the dictionary focuses on contemporary religion, the historical background and development is limited. Also since the dictionary focuses on the West, the rest of the world is treated from this ethnocentric perspective. Every work such as this must make these kinds of decisions, since no single volume could adequately cover every topic.
The first two sections include articles on general and introductory issues, such as “Religion,” “Religion and the Arts,” “Religion and the Environment,” “Religion and the Media,” “Religion and Politics,” and “Religion and Science.” These essays are a helpful introduction to these broad topics. Most of the selections of topics are easily understood, although some seem less clear. For example why include an essay on “Religion and Youth Culture” (pp. 130–34), particularly since there are no essays on “Religion and Children,” “Religion and Baby Boomers,” “Religion and Generation X” (or Y or Z, etc.), or “Religion and the Elderly”?
Articles in the second section discuss a broad range of religions and spiritualities. The editor explains that “the number of entries has been restricted in order to provide scope for slightly more extended and informative treatments than might ordinarily be expected in a dictionary of this size” (p. 4). Traditions, movements, and spiritualities were selected not only because of their size or number of adherents, but also because of their impact on popular Western culture. These essays are arranged alphabetically, and the book contains an index, which greatly improves the usability of the resource.
The authors are all practicing Christians, but the articles are intentionally descriptive. Criticism and confessional bias are minimized in favor of fair and unbiased descriptions of the topics. This is a handy resource for scholars, students, pastors, teachers, and laypersons who are interested in understanding the contemporary religious landscape. It will not answer every question, but it is a good introduction to the issues covered and is likely to be a well-used source of quick and helpful information for Christians who want to understand the contemporary religious landscape. Of course the ultimate value of such a resource is the contribution it makes to the spread of the gospel. To that end this book is recommended.
—Glenn R. Kreider