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Recommended religious/spiritual books

Past book selections: 2014-July to December

Previous months' recommendations

The current month's recommended book

Tentatively scheduled selections for future months

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2014-July's selection

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Elaine Pagels, "The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics"

Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store. $14.04 in Kindle format& $10.72 plus postage in Paperback. book description:

"From the religious historian whose The Gnostic Gospels won both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award comes a dramatic interpretation of Satan and his role on the Christian tradition. With magisterial learning and the elan of a born storyteller, Pagels turns Satan's story into an audacious exploration of Christianity's shadow side, in which the gospel of love gives way to irrational hatreds that continue to haunt Christians and non-Christians alike."

Some book reviews:

  • "... ground-breaking. Many times in the course of reading her explications I found myself saying, 'Of course, why hasn't someone said this before?' By showing how the sectarian demonization of the 'intimate enemies'--Jews and heretics--shaped early Christianity, the book helps us to understand the power of irrational forces that still need to be confronted in contemporary society. -- S. David Sperling, professor of Bible, Hebrew Union College.

  • "Pagels ... here examines the New Testament tendency to associate the Devil with Jews resistant to the teachings of Christianity." Reed Business Information, Inc.

  • "Elaine Pagels is an exceptional author and skilled interpreter of Christian history. The "Origin of Satan" is an excellent book for laypeople trying to understand the evolution of one piece of the Christian paradigm, namely the cosmic battle between good and evil, and the vilification of the Jews in the gospels.

    The book is organized in three principal sections. The first part dissects the four gospels in the order they were written, and delineates the relationships between the authors, their social context, and their thinking with regard to Satan and all things/people evil. Among the most helpful recognitions in this part of the book is that as the gospels evolved, Pilate and the Romans grew more and more "innocent" (the Christians were trying to make a distinction between themselves and the troublesome dissidents of Palestine), and the Jews grew more and more "responsible" for Jesus' crucifixion, thus "under the influence of Satan." Much of this awareness is found in the recognition that Jews in the Roman Empire were torn between the social elite who were for the most part the priesthood and the wealthy, and the poor fundamentalists who saw the privileges of the empire in opposition to the covenants with God.
    The second section of the book describes the growing rift between the pagans of the Roman empire and the growing Christian sect. What is most helpful in this section is comparing the writings of such pagan minds as Celsus and Marcus Arelius with the early writings of Justin, Origen and others. In the Roman Empire, there was no greater virtue than that of "citizenship" in the empire, and the strength of the empire was assured by performing the ritual obligations to the Gods. The Christians saw themselves not as citizens of Rome, but of Heaven, and their rituals ran counter to those of the Pagans. Naturally, this was threatening to the pagan majority, and resulted in the wholesale slaughter of Christians who wouldn't cede to the authority of the Roman pantheon. Satan, of course, was identified with the pagans.

    The last section of the book discusses the growing dissent within the early church itself, and the identification of Satan with heretics from within. For me persoanally this was the most engaging part of the book, as it was SO telling in terms of the evolution of the control paradigm so apparent in Western religion to this day. Reading the writings of Tertullian in particular, compared with the gnostic writers of the same time period, is incredibly enlightening!

    In spite of the title, this book is in no way "dark." In fact, it shines light in so many dank dark corners of our history that it is truly a bright spot on my bookshelf and in my mind. This is a "Highly Recommend" book!" Review by "Missing in Action" an Amazon customer.

Insightful excerpts from Amazon customer reviews:

  • Anon: "Such moral interpretation of conflict has proven extraordinarily effective throughout Western history in consolidating the identity of Christian groups; the same history also shows that it can justify hatred, even mass slaughter."

  • Anon: "A society does not simply discover its others, it fabricates them, by selecting, isolating, and emphasizing an aspect of another people’s life, and making it symbolize their difference."

  • Barry Schwartz: "Among themselves, Christians debated whether converts should maintain ordinary social and familial relationships or break them, as Jesus in the gospels required. ... We have seen that Christians did teach converts not only that the bonds of family, society, and nation are not sacred, but that they are diabolic encumbrances designed to enslave people to 'Roman customs,' that is, to demons. ... As we shall see, Jesus’ followers did not invent the practice of demonizing enemies within their own group, although Christians (and Muslims after them) carried this practice further than their Jewish predecessors had taken it, and with enormous consequences."

Popular excerpts from the book as highlighted by readers:

  • We cannot fully understand the New Testament gospels until we recognize that they are, in this sense, wartime literature.

  • while angels often appear in the Hebrew Bible, Satan, along with other fallen angels or demonic beings, is virtually absent.

  • Jesus’ followers believed that there was no point in fighting the Romans because the catastrophic events that followed his crucifixion were signs of the end—signs that the whole world was to be shattered and transformed.

  • The figure of Satan becomes, among other things, a way of characterizing one’s actual enemies as the embodiment of transcendent forces.

  • the figure of Satan, as it emerged over the centuries in Jewish tradition, is not a hostile power assailing Israel from without, but the source and representation of conflict within the community.

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2014-August's selection

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Jennifer R. Prince, "The Handy Bible Answer Book"

Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store. $15.11 plus postage in Paperback. Not available in Kindle format.

This book explains what the Bible says about thousands of topics. It usually interprets the Bible neither through a conservative or liberal lens. Thus, for example, it discusses what the creation stories say in Genesis. It talks about various estimates that have been made about the age of the Earth. It does not take sides on whether the earth and the rest of the universe is less than 10,000 years old or more than 4 billion years old. It discusses what the flood story says; it does not take sides on whether the worldwide flood actually happened or not. So, if you like our web site, you will love this book. book description:

"... The importance of the Bible, whether as a master work of literature, a historical artifact, or religious canon, can not be overestimated. The Handy Bible Answer Book helps readers dig deeply into the Bible to analyze the foundations of Judaism, Christianity, Western civilization, and the teachings of Jesus. This comprehensive guide also leads readers through the Old Testament, the foundation for both Judaism and Christianity and the moral and political cornerstone for many nations of the Western world. The Bible is not always read cover-to-cover, and The Handy Bible Answer Book's layout and index allows quick access to any of its passages. ..."

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2014-September's selection

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Robert Boston, "Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn't Give You the Right to Tell Other People What to Do"

Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store: $12.26 plus postage in Paperback.
Available in Kindle format for $7.86.

Robert Boston has written a concise and lucid explanation of what religious freedom should refer to. It is of immense significance now, because of two major shifts in religious beliefs found throughout the U.S., primarlily among religious conservatives:

  1. The redefinition of "religious freedom." The term used to refer to freedom of religious belief, speech, assembly, and proselyzing. It now increasingly refers to the freedom of individual believers and faith groups to actively denigrate and discriminate against others -- primarily sexual minorities.
  2. The large-scale downgrading of the importance of the Ethic of Reciprocity -- often called the Golden Rule in Christianity. book description:

"Increasingly, conservative religious groups are using religious liberty as a sword to lash out at others. In this forcefully argued defense of the separation of church and state, Robert Boston makes it clear that the religious freedom guaranteed in the First Amendment is an individual right, the right of personal conscience, not a license allowing religious organizations to discriminate against and control others. The book examines the controversy over birth control, same-sex marriage, religion in public schools, the intersection of faith and politics, and the 'war on Christmas,' among other topics.

Boston concludes with a series of recommendations for resolving clashes between religious liberty claims and individual rights."

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2014-October's selection

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Rob Bell, "What we talk about when we talk about God

Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store.
$12.33 plus postage in Paperback, $18.77 plus postage in Hardcover.
Also available in Kindle format for $12.55. book description:

"New York Times bestselling author Rob Bell, whom the The New Yorker describes as “one of the most influential Christian leaders in the county,” does for the concept of God what he did for heaven and hell in his book Love Wins: He shows how traditional ideas have grown stale and dysfunctional and how to return vitality and vibrancy to lives of faith today.

Pastor Rob Bell explains why both culture and the church resist talking about God, and shows how we can reconnect with the God who is pulling us forward into a better future. Bell uses his characteristic evocative storytelling to challenge everything you think you know about God. What We Talk About When We Talk About God tackles the misconceptions about God and reveals how God is with us, for us, ahead of us, and how understanding this could change the entire course of our lives."

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2014-November's selection

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"Candida Moss, "The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom"

Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store.
$19.82 plus postage in Hardcover or $12.33 plus postage in Paperback.
Also available in Kindle format for $15.69. book description:

"In The Myth of Persecution, Candida Moss, a leading expert on early Christianity, reveals how the early church exaggerated, invented, and forged stories of Christian martyrs and how the dangerous legacy of a martyrdom complex is employed today to silence dissent and galvanize a new generation of culture warriors.

According to cherished church tradition and popular belief, before the Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal in the fourth century, early Christians were systematically persecuted by a brutal Roman Empire intent on their destruction. As the story goes, vast numbers of believers were thrown to the lions, tortured, or burned alive because they refused to renounce Christ. These saints, Christianity's inspirational heroes, are still venerated today.

Moss, however, exposes that the "Age of Martyrs" is a fiction—there was no sustained 300-year-long effort by the Romans to persecute Christians. Instead, these stories were pious exaggerations; highly stylized rewritings of Jewish, Greek, and Roman noble death traditions; and even forgeries designed to marginalize heretics, inspire the faithful, and fund churches.

The traditional story of persecution is still taught in Sunday school classes, celebrated in sermons, and employed by church leaders, politicians, and media pundits who insist that Christians were -- and always will be -- persecuted by a hostile, secular world. While violence against Christians does occur in select parts of the world today, the rhetoric of persecution is both misleading and rooted in an inaccurate history of the early church. Moss urges modern Christians to abandon the conspiratorial assumption that the world is out to get Christians and, rather, embrace the consolation, moral instruction, and spiritual guidance that these martyrdom stories provide."

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2014-December's selection

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Susan Katz Miller, "Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family"

Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store.

$18.90 plus postage in Hardcover or $13.68 plus postage in Paperback.
Also available in Kindle format for $14.36.

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"Susan aKatz Miller grew up with a Jewish father and Christian mother, and was raised Jewish. Now in an interfaith marriage herself, she is one of the growing number of Americans who are boldly electing to raise children with both faiths, rather than in one religion or the other (or without religion). In Being Both, Miller draws on original surveys and interviews with parents, students, teachers, and clergy, as well as on her own journey, to chronicle this controversial grassroots movement.
Almost a third of all married Americans have a spouse from another religion, and there are now more children in Christian-Jewish interfaith families than in families with two Jewish parents. Across the country, many of these families are challenging the traditional idea that they must choose one religion. In some cities, more interfaith couples are raising children with “both” than Jewish-only. What does this mean for these families, for these children, and for religious institutions?
Miller argues that there are distinct benefits for families who reject the false choice of “either/or” and instead embrace the synergy of being both. Reporting on hundreds of parents and children who celebrate two religions, she documents why couples make this choice, and how children appreciate dual-faith education. But often families who choose both have trouble finding supportive clergy and community. To that end, Miller includes advice and resources for interfaith families planning baby-welcoming and coming-of-age ceremonies, and seeking to find or form interfaith education programs. She also addresses the difficulties that interfaith families can encounter, wrestling with spiritual questions (“Will our children believe in God?”) and challenges (“How do we talk about Jesus?”). And finally, looking beyond Judaism and Christianity, Being Both provides the first glimpse of the next interfaith wave: intermarried Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist couples raising children in two religions.
Being Both is at once a rousing declaration of the benefits of celebrating two religions, and a blueprint for interfaith families who are seeking guidance and community support."

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Want a Kindle? has millions of eBooks, newspapers, and magazines available for download into their Kindle eBook reader. They have apps that work on PCs, tablets, and many other devices. Not only is this more portable than lugging up to 3,500 books with you but you can save a lot of money, because eBook versions generally cost significantly less than print versions. You can download for free the cover page, index and the first part of any book you are interested in. Ebooks have a search function. You can highlight passages from books and store them in a text file for use by an editor program on a PC or Mac. It appears that Amazon sells Kindles at a price below their manufacturing cost; what they lose in the initial purchase, Amazon makes up in later book purchases.

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Copyright © 2014 & 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2014-AUG-02
Latest update: 2015-JAN-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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