Religious texts have a life of their own
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