Monday, March 12, 2007

Good God

Hi. It's confessional Monday, and today's confession? I know embarrassingly little about the world's religions. And it is a real embarrassment, given the fundamentalism within and without the United States.

This knowledge deficit hit me once again when I was reading Jane Smiley's Ten Days in the Hills this weekend, and Smiley writes this from the Buddhist character's perspective: "Paul roused all of a sudden with what he considered to be the most terrifying thought, that he was in time." Later she writes, "During the day he didn't believe in either death or time..."

Because I was reading this all hepped up on cold medication, my first thought was one of sympathy for Paul. The time, or specifically the time change, semi-annually screws with my head. (Spring ahead! Fall back! Spring back! Fall down! Swing your pardner round and round!) I drive Brandon and myself crazy trying to figure out what time it is really. Should I be hungry for dinner? Not yet? But we're eating anyway? Okay.

Anyway, a few seconds later I think I got what Paul was talking about, the inability to transcend these things that, during the day, seem like illusions. To him. It's a testament to Smiley's writing that I got that much.

The last chapter of Practically Perfect is titled "The Soul," and I quickly realized that to get up to speed on the world's religions would be a whole book unto itself. As a result, it's pretty heavy on the Christianity and Judaism, with a smattering of transcendentalist thought thrown in.

I'd like to fill the huge spot of ignorance in my brain about the world's religions. (I'd be willing to give up knowing all the words to both Grease and Sixteen Candles. Sixteen Candles anyway.) One of the books I read but didn't use was Karen Armstrong's The Spiral Staircase, a memoir by a former nun who becomes one of the leading religious scholars today. I also loved Kristin Ohlson's Stalking the Divine, a book about a group of cloistered nuns in Ohio whose main job as to pray for others. (I'm looking forward to reading Kristin's latest, with Deborah Rodriguez, Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil.)

The problem with books about religion is they tend to be filled with abstractions whch makes for some snoozy reading. So, I'm looking for some suggestions for fascinating and readable books about religion: Buddhism, Hindusim, Islam, what have you. Lay it on me!


Lauren said...

Have you ever read Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott? It's not a treatise on religion; it's really a personal account of her journey. Have you read anything by Lauren Winner? I haven't but she's on my list of People to Read. As for theology, read Henry Nouwen for a humane take on the Gospel.

You should look at The Revealer, if you don't already. It's an online review of religion; very smart and well-written.

Jennifer said...

Oh, Lauren, I love Anne Lamott! That's exactly the vein I'm looking for. I'll have to check out the other authors.

I just got my new issue of The Believer and there's an interesting interview with Pankaj Mishra, who has a book on Buddhism. It sounds interesting--the Buddha is the main focus, but it has some personal stuff, too. Which is sort of the meat and potatoes for a lot of writing for me.

Heather Annastasia said...

Religion is one of my favorite subjects, much to the dismay of the religious.

If you'd really like to get right at the core of all things religious without being weighed down by the particulars of any single religion, I recommend The Sacred and the Profane by Mircea Eliade (on a sleepiness scale of 1-10 though, it's about an 8).

If you're interested in the historical and/or philosophical evolution of western religions, here are my recommendations in order of most to least sleepy: Geza Vermes, Karen Armstrong, Elaine Pagels, and Peter Stanford.

I'm probably one of the few people on earth who find the source books fascinating. I've read the Bible, the Koran, much of the Apocrypha and the Pseudographia, and the I Ching. A lot of the latter texts are obscure and used to be almost impossible to find, but thanks to the internet, you can read these obscure texts online absolutely free! (You know, if you want to.)