Nathan R. KOLLAR, Muhammad SHAFIQ, editors. Sacred Texts & Human Contexts: A North American Response to “A Common Word between Us and You.” North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014. Pp. 453. $35.50 pb. ISBN 978-1500845407. Reviewed by Thomas DONLIN-SMITH, Nazareth College, Rochester, NY 14618.
An interesting collection of twenty-six essays originally presented at an academic conference, this book provides a variety of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars’ examinations of issues arising from the “Abrahamic” religions’ common emphasis on sacred texts. Each of these religious communities is challenged to understand how its texts are both sacred yet thoroughly enmeshed in human contexts. The resulting questions of textual meaning and authority are further complicated in the contemporary North American context of religious pluralism as each community has the potential of learning from the others but also carries the burden of histories of exclusivism and conflict.
The book begins and ends with context-setting comments from the editors telling an encouraging story of the original conference and how a remarkable interfaith scholarly community formed around discussion of these essays. The main body of the book is organized into four parts.
Part Three broadens the scope of the book considerably with essays on specific issues of textual translation, interpretation, and use across multiple geographic regions (e.g., North America, Morocco, Turkey) religious communities (e.g., Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians, Sephardic Jews, Sunni Muslims), and historical periods. There is hardly any discernable organizing principle to this portion of the book and yet its very diversity represents well the vastness and complexity of the book’s subject matter.
Part Four, appropriately titled “Reading Divisive Texts in a Chaotic World,” takes up the challenge of coming to terms with the sacred texts’ most exclusivist and violent passages and interpretations. This is likely the most interesting and pressing topic for many readers and the book does not disappoint in its range of examples, honesty of approach, and constructive proposals for living successfully with these sacred texts in a pluralistic world.The book bears the usual strengths and weaknesses of anthologies. Among the latter are the lack of consistent focus and development of ideas across essays. The basic theme of the book is so general that the essays speak to an astonishing array of texts, exegetical and hermeneutical issues, historical contexts, and social controversies. Thus, it is likely that different portions of the book will be of interest to different readers. There is an index which helps somewhat the reader who would like to search for a particular topic across essays. The book is also not particularly well balanced in terms of the religious background of the authors, with Christian and Muslim scholars far outnumbering Jews. The imbalance is an accident of the composition of the pool of scholars who submitted proposals for the original conference, and Hebrew Bible texts are addressed in knowledgeable ways in several of the essays written by Christian and Muslim authors. Nevertheless, the editors would likely have preferred greater participation by Jewish scholars. The book is recommended for upper level Religious Studies students through professionals in the field.