Re­li­gious texts have a life of their own

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Miriam Cosic

BOOKS are like chil­dren: af­ter all the love and at­ten­tion, they fly the coop and have in­de­pen­dent lives. None more so than re­li­gious books, the ur-texts over which count­less souls through the cen­turies have in­ter­preted and ar­gued and or­gan­ised their ma­te­rial and spir­i­tual lives.

Fred Ap­pel, who com­mis­sions books on re­li­gion at Prince­ton Univer­sity Press, be­gan think­ing along these lines af­ter a con­ver­sa­tion with Is­raeli philoso­pher Avishai Mar­galit, who said he was bored with bi­og­ra­phy. ‘‘ You know what I’d like to read?’’ he said. ‘‘ A bi­og­ra­phy of a great book, the story of its re­cep­tion over time.’’

From this ex­change a se­ries, Lives of the Great Re­li­gious Books, took shape and we now have the first three books, on the Ti­betan Book of the Dead, Au­gus­tine’s Con­fes­sions and the writ­ings of Di­et­rich Bon­ho­ef­fer.

Ap­pel’s idea was to com­mis­sion bi­ogra­phies that would be ac­ces­si­ble to a wide pub­lic. They would be writ­ten by ex­perts, how­ever, and draw on state-of-the-art schol­ar­ship. He has planned a long and com­pre­hen­sive list, in­clud­ing on Ge­n­e­sis and the Book of Rev­e­la­tions, the Bha­gavad Gita, The Analects of Con­fu­cius, Rumi’s Mas­navi, the Book of Mor­mon and many more.

It’s a timely ex­er­cise. Sec­u­lar­i­sa­tion seemed un­stop­pable in the West un­til Mus­lim fun­da­men­tal­ism caused re­li­gion to come roar­ing back. Not only has it surged in coun­tries strug­gling with mod­erni­sa­tion, coun­ter­ing the in­flux of for­eign ideas, but it has drawn a cor­re­spond­ing re­sponse from the post­mod­ernist West, even in An­gloSaxon and Scan­di­na­vian coun­tries, where the in­dige­nous re­li­gion, Chris­tian­ity, is mostly nom­i­nal.

The Prince­ton se­ries is more than timely, how­ever. It is also a fas­ci­nat­ing con­tri­bu­tion to the his­tory of ideas for a lay read­er­ship.

Garry Wills, a his­tory pro­fes­sor and critic, writes about Au­gus­tine’s Con­fes­sions sym­pa­thet­i­cally but rig­or­ously. He traces its

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.