A Student’s Guide To Religious Studies, by D.G. Hart
I must admit this was not the book I was expecting to read. As someone who has done a large amount of religious studies, both in the Bible as well as comparative religions and even patristics , I expected a guide to religious studies to recommend the sort of religious studies that a student should undertake. What I read instead was a book about the history of religious studies in the United States and the way in which the relationship between religion and the academy has been, to put it very mildly, deeply troubled within American history. The author is, to be sure, sober and restrained in his conclusions, and the story he tells is deeply interesting, but it wasn’t the story I was expecting. This is not a bad thing, to be surprised in such a fashion, but it certainly was a remarkably unusual thing to read a book about a field that I have not particularly studied because my own religious beliefs have always been outside of the worldview and have seldom been found within any universities outside of our own sectarian educational institutions.
This book of about a hundred pages or so is divided into three parts, after a short introduction. The first part of the book looks at the (often forgotten) religious roots of the University in the United States and how religious studies found professionalization a two-edged sword in providing a great deal of respect while also leading to a growing hostility towards revealed biblical religion. After this the author talks about the academic problem with religion, namely that genuinely religious faith and studies run afoul of the approach of the academy towards knowledge in general. After that comes a lengthy discussion of the history of religion in the west, starting from the early Christians and the apostolic fathers (the author is particularly fond of Origen), the rise of Christianity, the division of Christianity after the reformation, and the troubled relationship between Christianity and modernity. After that the author closes with sensible advice to a would-be student of religious studies to take what they can get in the academic world but to realize that it is the job of the church (and the student themselves) to work on their religious faith and that religious studies should be used to know about religion and not necessarily to bolster their own belief systems.
Although this book was not what I expected, I must admit that I found a great deal to appreciate in it. Being neither a part of the Protestant ascendancy in this nation that would expect for my religious faith to be promoted in mainstream universities, it is hard for me to relate to the ambivalence that many people have towards the Academy and to the way that universities forfeited their honor by going against their confessional roots. That said, the ambivalent relationship between the University and religious faith was certainly easy enough to see, and something that I appreciated reading about. There are some readers, no doubt, who will think that this book does not sufficiently mention the double standard that exists from the wholehearted praise of Islam and Eastern Religions that exists in the University and the often hostile attitude towards biblical Christianity, or that it does not sufficiently mention non-Western religious beliefs in general, but this book deliberately avoids those subjects, even if they are known to many readers. This book does what it sets out to do and does it well, even if it may not be what the reader expects at first.
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