Books on My Desk: Jesus' Brother, Wesley's Yoga, Sacred Trees, Words with Islam...

Cambridge, MA. We are now safely into Fall, and so it is really time to clear off my desk of books that came in during the summer: that is to say, books that were sent to me, sometimes from friends or authors I’ve known over the years, and sometimes out of the blue. In front of me right now are six books that have arrived since June. With the exception of the first two, I think most of them will be unlikely to receive reviews in America, and yet each, in its own way, is worthy of note. Cumulatively, they have an even greater impact, as it were an accidental sketch of the kind of writing and interests thriving around us today.
     While I will not attempt to review the books or give them a proper theological reading, I will introduce them briefly. You can follow up and see them (in some libraries) or purchase copies from the publishers if so inspired.
1.    Retrieving James/Jakov, the Brother of Jesus: from Legend to History. By Sean Freyne. Annandale on Hudson: Bard College, 2008. 44 pages. Professor Freyne visited Harvard for a few semesters in the last several years, and everyone here is still grateful for his presence and his scholarship. This slender volume, elegantly printed, is wonderfully instructive, pulling together both scriptural and historical/contextual information on James the Elder, a leader of the Jerusalem Church who is described in the New Testament as the brother of Jesus. It is amazing how an important figure can remain "hidden" in scripture.
2.    A Common Word and the Future of Christian-Muslim Relations. Edited by John Borelli. Georgetown University, ACMCU Occasional Papers, 2009. 112 pages. Readers will remember that in 2007 a group of Muslim scholars, from across the Islamic world, wrote A Common Word, a highly important letter to Christians, highlighting our common ground and the challenge that this commonality makes it possible and all the more necessary for Muslim and Christian scholars work together in deepening their understanding of one another’s traditions. This volume brings together seven papers from a 2008 conference at Georgetown’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. The essays are by Christian and Muslim contributors, and show us the important and hard work that is being done to move forward the dialogue, on a range of theological and related topics. I do hope that this book is reviewed properly in America!
3.    John Wesley and Yoga: A Cross-Cultural Study in Wesleyan Spirituality and Yoga. Rev. Naveen Rao. Jabalpur: Ravi Printers, 2003. 72 pages. Being the kind of scholar I am, and also a Catholic, it turns out that I know more about yoga than I do about John Wesley, in honor of whose bicentenary this book was written. John Wesley and his brother Charles are counted as the founders of the Methodist Christian community. As “Methodism” suggests, Wesley was attentive to the spiritual path and disciplined progress along it. Rev. Rao suggests that attention to Methodism and Yoga shows that they do share common features in their practices, regarding discipline, care for the body, and their sense of language. This is a wise approach, since religions that may seem doctrinally far apart may in fact share practices and sensitivities that can be a better starting point for dialogue.
4.    Jnanasara and Prameyasara of Arulalapperumal Emperumanar. Translated by BSS Iyengar. Bangalore: Sri Parampara Sabha, 2009. 58 pages. I have never met Sri Iyengar, but over the years he have been kind enough to send me a number of his small books, which bring forward in simple translation with clear explanation key works of poetry and theology from the classical works of the Srivaisnava Hindu tradition of south India. His goal to make sure that this important literature is available particularly to Hindus growing up in the West, or without the benefit of traditional learning. Arulalapperumal Emperumanar was a disciple of the great theologian Ramanuja. The Jnanasara (Essence of Wisdom) summarizes in 40 verses the way of life, attitudes, and devotion that characterize the true believer. The Prameyasara (The Essence of What Is To Be Known) summarizes in 10 verses the Tirumantra, perhaps the most fundamental of the mantras, prayers, of the tradition. (I wrote about it myself in my book, The Way, the Truth, the Life.) After all my years of study, I keep learning how much I do not know of other religions, even those I study!
5.    Christian Gnosis: From St. Paul to Meister Eckhart. By Wolfgang Smith. San Rafael: Sophia Perennis, 2008. 231 pages. This book came to me unexpectedly, and is nothing less than a rehabilitation of Christian gnosticism. For historical and theological reasons “gnosticism” has often had a negative aura about it — as elitist, secret knowledge that distorts the meaning of Christian — and in recent years has been rehabilitated as a suppressed current of Christian reflection. This book seeks to help us understand and appreciate gnosticism in a learned but accessible way. It offers studies of the early sources, and then Jewish and Christian Kabbalah, Jacob Boehme, and finally Meister Eckhart, focusing on the meaning of creation (and what is beyond it), and related understandings of God and the world.  
6.    Tree of Life, Mythical Archetype: Revelations from the Symbols of Ancient Troy. By Gregory Haynes. San Francisco: Symbolon Press, 2009. 345 pages. This is the largest of the books that came to me this summer, large in size of page and in number of pages. It is full of pictures and line drawings. As the title indicates, it takes the reader on an erudite journey through multiple cultural and religious sites East and West, offering insights and articulations of the sacred tree motif in ancient and more recently cultures. One cannot go back to Genesis 3 and the tree in the Garden of Eden innocently after this book, as our heads will be filled with a vast range of new images and insights.
     Enough! I am sure, to put it mildly, that this is a different collection of summer books than most theologians will find before them. Lucky them - and lucky me. Honestly, I have not read them cover-to-cover. But I do think it worthwhile to bring them before you, for two reasons. First, you may want to see out one or more of them for your own study and reading, and I think any of them will be worth the effort and cost. Second, I find the cumulative effect of this small list — a random sample as it were — simply reminds us of the great interest in religion today, the ways in which this interest is bearing fruit in very different kinds of study, and the fact that none of us can really do a good job in keeping up with it all. We — the human race — have not given up on religious learning, and are in many ways seeking to know God and the Mystery of Reality. We therefore need to focus – in our own tradition, perhaps (as I do) in two – for beneficial learning. But still, we need to know what we do not know, that we do not know it all. We do have God's Truth in the Christian Faith; yet books like this may also be our God’s way of keeping us humble, if we are willing to attention to those who do us the service of writing such worthy books.

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9 years 5 months ago
Isn't James the Brother of the Lord referred to by name in Acts rather than the Gospels?
9 years 5 months ago

I went looking for Sea freyne's book - Retrieving James/Jakov, the brother of James: from legend to History. Niether Amazon or Barnes & Noble could help.


I called Ananndale on the Hudson, Bard College - 845 758 7417. The person answering knew exacly what I was looking for and is shipping out two copies as I type.


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