IRVING HEXHAM'S 'UNDERSTANDING WORLD RELIGIONS' IS OUTSTANDING

Hexham's Deep Respect For Christianity, Coupled With a Rare Zeal For Including the Important, Make His Book An Ideal Reference Point For Evangelicals

We Recommend This Book With No Reservations...


The following book review is a consideration of 'Understanding World Religions,' by Irving Hexham. This is a hardback on ISBN: 978-0-310-25944-2. It is published by Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, United States of America in 2011.



Irving Hexham, who has produced a most outstanding book.

I am indebted to Zondervan for sending me a copy of Irving Hexham's 'hot off the printing press' 'Understanding World Religions.' I review this 2011 book with considerable respect, for it is a most worthy volume and surprisingly enjoyable to read.


Evangelicals and Bible-believing Christians have been waiting a long time for a book of this kind, that is, a book which contains up-to-date, scholarly but freely accessible information containing a true assessment of this world's major religions. We have long wanted a single, but highly-informative, volume investigating such matters as what members of other religions generally believe, how they practice those beliefs, the main movements within those religions, and the parts of the world in which those religions are strongest. We have also long wanted just a bit more information on the leading figures within those religious movements, where they came from, and what information, or claimed revelation, they based their core beliefs upon. Well, here is that very long-awaited book!

First of all, however, just who is Irving Hexham?

Irving Hexham, who was born in the Whitehaven district of Cumbria, England, is a Canadian academic and writer who has published over twenty books, plus numerous articles and book reviews in respected academic journals. Currently, he is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Hexham has lectured in undergraduate and post-graduate programs covering topics such as cults, sects and new religious movements. He is passionately interested in the history of religion, the sociology of religion, African history and religions, and millenarian-type movements.

Okay, to kick off, how is this book organized? This is a substantial hardback (a paperback may, of course, follow) of not much under 500 pages. The footnotes are liberal and the illustrations very good. The sepia-hued outer page borders are also most attractive, matching the use of only non-colour photographs - this is effective.
The book contains four sections, 1. Studying Religion, 2. African Traditions, 3. The Yogic Tradition (substantially Hinduism and Buddhism) and 4. The Abramic Tradition (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Of these sections (leaving aside the opening 'Studying Religion'), the section on African traditions is by far the smallest (four chapters and less than 50 pages), the fourth section, 'The Abramic Tradition,' by far the largest (12 chapters and over 200 pages).

Books with titles like 'Understanding World Religions' tend to be somewhat heavy-going tomes. While one might expect such books to be highly illuminating in parts, often one finds it to be a question of 'digging out' the more interesting sections. Here I had a major surprise; this book may be picked up and read almost like a novel such is the author's easy-going and most accessible writing style.

The book soon produces a few fascinating surprises. Hexham hits out strongly at those writers who, while giving serious attention to Indian religion, virtually ignore African religion even though Christianity has had strong fundations in Egypt and other parts of north Africa. The point is interesting, the author then suggests a form of unconscious racism for the omission. He goes on to attack some aspects of the Enlightenment, making the comment, "A good case can be made that modern racism originates in the Enlightenment." (p 39). Since I have also made many comments to reveal the nagative sides of the Enlightenment, and the influences which have come from it, I was immediately interested in this comment. In seeking to establish his 'unconscious racism' point, Irving quotes some interesting examples. He concludes with,

"From these examples it is clear that the leading figures of the Enlightenment, and of the subsequent Romantic Movement, held a very low opinion of Africans." (p 41).

I think that to be a perfectly correct comment. To find such provocative and challenging statements so early in this volume was encouraging,

Yet I did not find it to be the section on African religion which started to really bring this book to life for me but, rather, the consideration of the religions of the Indian sub-continent. In chapter seven, 'The Origin of Yogic Religions,' I found much intriguing information. Although covering no more than around 13 pages this is a most fascinating section concerning the movements of the Aryans within ancient Indian history and the various theories which have been adopted on this matter. It is great stuff! Writing as somebody who was put off the entire topic of 'Indian Religion' because of a poorly constructed module of that name which was dished up within my Christian theology degree, I enjoyed Hexham's very clear yet challengng style in this section. No dry, wordy, academic language here (indeed such a thing never appears in this book) just a clear gift for communication and for encouraging enthusiasm in others. Great stuff indeed.

I was surprised that a book on the religions of this world would contain an entire chapter (chapter ten) on one relatively modern figure, Gandhi, whom Hexham calls, "the great contrarian." Still, it's not a long chapter and I found it most revealing. I have to admit that my admiration for the great Indian leader has risen greatly after reading these pages. He was obviously far more influenced by Christianity than I had ever realised before. Especially, one will be struck by the Indian reformer's huge respect for John Bunyan (especially his truly great work, 'The Pilgrim's Progress'). But Gandhi, apparently, also admired John Wesley and Oliver Cromwell. All of this did not, of course, overrule his respect and adherence to certain aspects of Indian religion, yet there now seems little doubt in my mind that Gandhi attempted to practice certain facets of Christianity although to what degree he truly understood its core message is hard to say. Without question, this fact is of interest.

The whole 'Yogic' section (that is, section 3), was, for me, absolutely riveting and incredibly illuminating. For me, this proved to be an antedote, at last, to the confusion and sheer tedium of my 'Indian Religion' university module all those years ago.
A passage, alas, all too brief, on Confucius also came up in this section. I have long been intrigued and fascinated by this major figure of Chinese political and religious life but the problem appears to be that very little is known about him. The Confucianist principles we do know about, however, often sound remarkably similar to what one might term 'Christly principles.' But, alas, there is a sad scarcity of information. Hexham is a very honest writer so he is not one to claim that extensive evidence exists where it is plainly absent.

The book's consideration of Judaism (within 'Abramic Tradition,' of course) was another highlight for me, this is absolutely sound material and also very even-handed and well-researched. I recommend it to all those Christians who cannot really understand, much less explain, how Christianity had to tolerate groups like the Judaistic legalists at Galatia before finally needing to separate itself from such a background. Hexham takes a marvellously thorough look at the diaspora, even explaining how the two main European branches of the Jewish family (the Ashkenazys and Separdics) became such a vital part of European life, The author also highlights how certain regrettable events eventually led to such things as the Soviet pogroms against the Jews, apart from the horrors of the holocaust itself. Many who have never studied European history will not be aware of some of these points and, as always, Hexham's commendable style sparks interest and enthusiasm for the subject.

Hexham's consideration of Christianity, within this fourth section ('The Abramic Tradition'), extends from chapter 19, page 325, up to chapter 22, page 397 and it is compelling, continually interesting and absolutely denominationally-balanced. It matters not whether the reader is Roman Catholic or a Protestant conservative evangelical, there is absolutely nothing here to offend and much to illuminate. The reader is taken through a consideration of Christianity (as a whole), then Christian history, Christian Faith and Practice, and finally, Christian Politics According to Abraham Kuyper. Though its inclusion might surprise some, this last section is quite absorbing. Maybe Irving Hexham, like myself, is worried at the modern evangelical's frequent complete lack of understanding of how ones beliefs might shape ones political existence. Certainly at one level or another we all have what might be termed 'political lives' (even if such lives do not extend to active participation in some political party). Abraham Kuyper is a Calvinist writer who gave this subject considerable thought. Without question, some of that thought is clear and appealing, while other parts of it are somewhat ambiguous. Yet I think that the modern Protestant Christian can only benefit by some serious consideration of the thoughts of Kuyper on this tricky subject. Hexham's comments here will - hopefully - prove to be a great appetite-whetter!

I may say that, unlike so many authors who consider Christianity within such a work, the writer refuses to be negative in general approach and Professor Hexham does not undermine Christianity in any way - what a refreshing change! All too often such works give a fair consideration to other religious traditions but are perfectly happy to undermine the faith of the believer when it comes to Christianity, Hexham refuses any such path. For him, it would appear, Christianity amounts to a most marvellous whole, something to be celebrated, divisions et al. I must say that I fully agree with this perspective.
The only slight criticism I would have (and it really is only minor) is that when discussing Christian eschatology, the author gives good consideration to premillenialism and to postmillenialism but seems to think that amillenialism (which I admit to being my own position), is hardly worth a mention, whereas I believe that this eschatological position (which I prefer to refer to as 'realized millenialism'), goes quite deep and has a lot going for it.

Quite amazing, but I am finding just about nothing to be critical about in this book!

Now we come to Hexham's consideration of Islam. Once again, this section is very impressive, also the author is quite prepared to be bold in some of his comments. I was so happy to discover - but hardly expected - that some of my views on this major world religion are shared by Irving Hexham. We have stated on the UK Apologetics website that the popular western liberal rhetoric which insists that Islam is really a peaceful religion and only the "extremists" are interested in things like 'jihad' (holy war), is an erroneous view and that the principle of jihad is intrinsic to Islam. In his exhaustive consideration of Islam in this great book, the writer states much the same thing. That is pleasing. For example he states,

'...the popular, milk-and-water version of Islam found in most religious studies texts is, to say the least, misleading. Jihad is indeed primarily a form of warfare waged in defense of Islam. This means that, however one may disagree with the methods of people like Osama bin Laden, it is highly misleading to dismiss them as "extremists" or argue that they "don't understand Islam," as some writers suggest.' (p 434).

Yet Hexham is fair to Islam, not going for a polemical approach. He simply willingly faces up to difficulties, and does not shrink from confronting common misunderstandings. That is surely most commendable. I would also point out that In this section on Islam, as in other sections, some of the charts are really helpful.

Finally, any quibbles about this book?

Remarkably few. I might only note that I was disappointed with the very light brown font colour of the footnotes. I am a lover of footnotes, but I do wish that publishers would consider those with eyesight problems! In this book the same colour accompanies the often exceptionally good photographs. Even using my strongest reading spectacles I occasionally found it difficult to read the small faint light brown script in anything except the most advantageous light conditions. And that's it - no other criticisms. The book is superb.

My recommendation? Go out and buy this book if you want a valuable reference tool for evaluating the beliefs of the world's major religions, including numerous facts, figures, charts and fascinating insights into the same. Frankly, I wish that I had had access to such a fine resource many years ago, but better late than never.
Irving Hexham is to be congratulated for producing this really impressive book.
Robin A. Brace. UK Apologetics, April 5th, 2011.

UK APOLOGETICS