Passwords to Paradise: How Languages Have Reinvented World Religions

Nicholas Ostler. Bloomsbury, $30 (384p) ISBN 978-1-62040-515-4
Ostler (The Last Lingua Franca) roams across several millennia of world history and delves into precise linguistic shifts looking for clues to how the "missionary religions" of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam have been affected by the new language communities they entered. Paradoxes arise when "diversity of expression" meets "unity of revelation," Ostler writes, then demonstrates exhaustively how these three religions may have been altered not only by the imperfect art of translation but by their social, political, and military contexts. The growth of Mahayana ideas as Buddhism moved north, the splintering of eastern Orthodox churches into separate linguistic communities, and the spread of Christianity into a new continent with multiple native languages are only a few of the topics Ostler investigates. While his treatment is generally accessible, his enthusiastic, wide-ranging inquiries sometimes venture far from his thesis, and into abstruse detail. Stating his religious unbelief at the outset, Ostler is largely even-handed, though not without some pointed wit at expense of adherents. Quite noticeable is the contrast between his love of languages and his attitudes toward organized religion, with religion coming across as more grist for the mill of his intellectual curiosity. For those fascinated by linguistic transitions, this impressive study is a feast. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 01/18/2016
Release date: 02/23/2016
Genre: Religion
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