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The I Ching Oracle: A Guide Through the Human Maze

Timothy and Johanna Dowdle. O-Books, $20.95 trade paper (264p) ISBN 978-1-78904-704-2

The Dowdles, a husband and wife team, debut with an accessible introduction to the mysteries of the ancient Chinese divination tool known as the I Ching. It’s a 4,000-year-old template of 64 hexagrams, each consisting of six solid or broken lines that can be consulted for wisdom and guidance on situations faced in everyday life. To begin, the authors write, one formulates a question (“Should I buy this house?”; “Should I look for a different job?”) before choosing a random selection method—such as tossing coins or sticks—to generate numbers. Following the authors’ instructions on converting the numbers into a hexagram diagram, readers then find the corresponding hexagram in the book that offers solutions to the question. The authors provide straightforward descriptions of all 64 hexagrams, their representations, and modern methods of interpretation. For example, hexagrams describe life paths that can bring one into conflict, achieve peace, or assist in starting a project. Beginners can use the authors’ thorough descriptions as a primer, while experienced users will learn fresh interpretations. It’s a great starting point for anyone interested in dabbling in divination. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/13/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Come and Hear: What I Saw in My Seven-and-a-Half-Year Journey Through the Talmud

Adam Kirsch. Brandeis Univ., $32.50 (256p) ISBN 978-1-684580-67-5

Poet and literary critic Kirsch (The Blessing and the Curse) turns his attention to the Talmud in this thoughtful take on the appeal of Talmud study’s intellectual rigor. After realizing his understanding of Jewish literature and history required more of a grounding in the Talmud, he embarked in a program of study usually only undertaken by Orthodox Jews, to “read one page of Talmud every day for 2,711 days, about seven and a half years,” a practice called Daf Yomi. By sharing his reactions to the texts, which cover practical religious questions about what is and isn’t permissible on the Sabbath (for instance, what to do with “just born” items or problems that appear on the Sabbath day itself), as well as more fanciful parsing of rabbinic law—such as whether an elephant can serve as one of the walls of a sukkah—Kirsch gives a tantalizing taste of what reading and seriously grappling with the Talmud is like. The end result meets his goal of sharing the Talmud’s “moments of strangeness and profundity.” This is a great complement to Jonathan Rosen’s The Talmud and the Internet. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/13/2021 | Details & Permalink

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American Sage: The Spiritual Teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Barry M. Andrews. Univ. of Massachusetts, $26.95 (232p) ISBN 978-1-62534-607-0

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a uniquely American spiritual leader whose insights continue to offer valuable wisdom today, argues Unitarian minister Andrews (Transcendentalism and the Cultivation of the Soul) depicts in this solid study. In recounting Emerson’s struggles to discern his true path—as well as his activism in the abolitionist and women’s rights movements—Andrews sets up Emerson as both a model and a guide for contemporary spiritual seekers. As a product of Harvard College and the Unitarian Church, Emerson was exposed to Romanticism, historical biblical scholarship, and Eastern religions, influences which led to his departure from parish ministry and inspired his participation in the Transcendentalist movement. Andrews credits Emerson with separating the term spirituality from particular Christian denominations—thus freeing the essence of religion from outdated rituals and traditions. Other key themes from Emerson’s writings include the necessity of individuals discerning their own spiritual paths, self-reliance, seeking truth, experiencing solitude, and spending time in nature. Though Andrews can meander, he succeeds in making Emerson’s ideas and recommended spiritual practices accessible and relevant to contemporary readers. Those interested in 19th-century American spiritualism or the father of transcendentalism should take a look. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/06/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Muhammad, the World Changer: An Intimate Portrait

Mohamad Jebara. St. Martin’s Essentials, $29.99 (368p) ISBN 978-1-25023-964-8

In this accessible debut, Islamic scholar Jebara delivers an intimate portrait of Muhammad as a spiritual figure and leader. Here, the prophet emerges as a man who “endured terrible setbacks and traumatic suffering, only to turn his brokenness into an asset, unlocking latent abilities to improve the world around him.” Jebara traces Muhammad’s footsteps in the deserts of Arabia to create an endearing account of his tumultuous journey from orphan to businessman to political leader. Jebara humanizes Muhammad with stories of him doing housework and building a lover’s loft for his wife Khadijah, and by considering Muhammad’s personal tastes, such as his favorite color: green. Along the way, Jebara depicts Muhammad as a hero who “laid the intellectual mindset for the modern world,” and also explains the roots of Arabic words including Quran (the blossoming process), Muslims (those who repair cracks in the city wall), and Islam (the constant pursuit of completion). Those looking for an introduction to the life of the Islamic prophet would do well to start here. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/06/2021 | Details & Permalink

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How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion

David DeSteno. Simon & Schuster, $28 (256p) ISBN 978-1-982142-31-5

DeSteno (Emotional Success), a psychology professor at Northeastern University, delivers an exceptional and expertly researched study of the science of believing in the divine. He dissects the brain functions involved in the practice of faith and how they help individuals develop senses of morality and ethics, as well as assist in forming a foundational sense of family. DeSteno contends that “centuries before psychologists ever studied [religion], almost every tradition had adopted it as a way to bind people together—to nudge them to support one another and to reduce the toll loneliness can take on the body and mind.” DeSteno also explains the separation between practicing religion and subscribing to a theology, suggesting the benefits of religion come in the form of everyday work more than in the proclamation of belief. He backs up his points with numerous studies and argues that the bonding benefits of religious acts—whether Japanese birthing rituals, Native American coming-of-age ceremonies, or Buddhist compassion meditations—are consistent across many different faith traditions: “The upshot here is clear. Belief soothes worry. Avoiding the impulse to assess every possible outcome—many of which we can’t control—eases stress, making us calmer and healthier.” This thorough, insightful study will convince readers that worship itself is a boon for mental and physical health. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/06/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Symbols of the Occult: A Directory of over 500 Signs, Symbols, and Icons

Eric Chaline. Thames and Hudson, $24.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-500-02403-4

Editor Chaline (The Book of Gods and Goddesses) packs this lushly illustrated guide to the occult with a miscellany of intriguing if haphazardly organized facts. Bringing together ancient magical traditions, astronomy, demonology, and witchcraft symbols into one volume, Chaline bites off more than he can chew in attempting to catalog all iconography related to occult practices. He categorizes his material into broad topics such as “The Natural World,” “Occult Sciences,” and “White Magic and Cartomancy,” but placement decisions can sometimes feel random, such as putting the Greek classical elements in the section on astrology. Some illustrations, like that of the Sigillum Dei or the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, are reproduced too small to be readable. Other symbols, however, get plenty of page space but lack guidance on how to use them: the section on Egyptian hieroglyphics, for instance, omits information on how to read them phonetically. Neopagan readers will be disappointed to have their traditions mostly mashed into a symbolically confusing graphic of the Wheel of the Year and a short final section titled “The New Age” that combines Wiccan signs with Slavic god-glyphs and Satanic iconography. This may work as a flip-through coffee-table book, but readers will need to look elsewhere for a comprehensive occult resource. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/06/2021 | Details & Permalink

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To My Beloveds: Letters on Faith, Race, Loss, and Radical Hope

Jennifer Bailey. Chalice, $16.99 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-0-8272-3727-8

Minister Bailey debuts with a wide-ranging, considered collection of essays inspired by the lessons she learned doing restorative community work as founder of the Faith Matters Network. The short entries examine what Bailey terms “radical hope”—or the idea that “the material conditions of the world can be better and that (humans) have the capacity to bring about that change in the here and now”—and its three characteristics: memory, imagination, and living. The pieces, which take the form of letters, focus heavily on Bailey’s faith life and experiences as Black woman, with some addressed to ancestors, personal heroes, and, most poignantly, her own unborn son. Memories of her mother’s death from cancer and a friend’s from suicide are interspersed with reflections about living as “an act of willful defiance against the death dealing forces of hate that would see me and my kindred eradicated and erased from the tomes of history.” Instances of bigotry in Bailey’s life mingle with historical and current violence against Black Americans, as seen in instances of police brutality and a pandemic that has “devastated [Black] communities.” Bailey’s call to action to build bridges and heal communities will resonate widely. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/06/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions That Changed American Politics

Rebecca L. Davis. Univ. of North Carolina, $30 (272p) ISBN 978-1-4696-6487-3

Historian Davis (More Perfect Unions) wows with this sterling history of mid-20th-century religious conversions and the social issues surrounding them. Clare Boothe Luce, a playwright and Connecticut congresswoman, argued in the wake of her 1946 conversion to Catholicism that only that faith would work as a bulwark against “the infectious thrall” of communism. Cold War dichotomies propelled Alger Hiss’s accuser, Whittaker Chambers, to renounce communism for Quakerism—and Davis also stresses how his conversion papered over his homosexuality. Harvey Matusow, “a staggeringly prolific government informant” who admitted to fabricating lies about prominent media figures being Communist Party members, joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and, Davis contends, “embodied the modern American search for a religious ‘identity’ as an object of adult self-knowledge.” She also details the racism Sammy Davis Jr. experienced after his conversion to Judaism, as well as how Muhammad Ali’s joining the Nation of Islam caused rumors that he’d been brainwashed. Davis creates a propulsive image of American life in her depiction of “how religion mattered to democracy, mass culture, and authentic identity” during a time of many highly publicized conversions. This impressive work captures a fraught period in American political and religious history with a clear eye and insightful reasoning. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/06/2021 | Details & Permalink

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City Witchery: Accessible Rituals, Practices & Prompts for Conjuring and Creating in a Magical Metropolis

Lisa Marie Basile. Quarto, $18.99 (144p) ISBN 978-0-7603-7081-0

Magic practitioner Basile (Light Magic for Dark Times) presents a useful guide to help readers “develop a sacred practice” through writing prompts and activities focused on living in and exploring city environments. Basile acknowledges that much conversation around witchcraft encourages a relationship with nature and green spaces, which can be lacking in urban areas. As a remedy, she shares empowering rituals for city dwellers. For example, the concept of intuitive wandering (walking around and “noticing synchronicities” of “words, numbers, images, colors, names, things that happen after you think of them, or symbols”) is encouraged and requires one to take note of places where one can feel “something powerful occurred.” Chapters start with overviews of basic practices such as grounding, shielding, and cleansing, and the author covers other common magic concepts—moon magic, sigils, crystals, kitchen witchery—that can be utilized for various purposes; for example, the “culinary history” of a location can be explored and integrated into one’s cooking routine to form a bond with the city, while a portable altar may be a good choice for small spaces or moving around urban areas. Illustrations with subtle color palettes also showcase cityscapes and magical supplies. Urban witches will love this. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Cross Examined: Putting Christianity on Trial

John W. Campbell. Prometheus, $39.95 (674p) ISBN 978-1-63388-684-1

Trial lawyer Campbell debuts with a resounding and meticulous refutation of Christianity. Starting with the premise, “Christianity should be singled out [among religions] because of its unique cultural and sociopolitical significance,” Campbell demonstrates that “there are no good, compelling reasons to accept the claims of Christianity and many compelling reasons to reject them for naturalism.” Campbell’s criticisms fall into two categories: contradicting apologetical arguments with empirical evidence, and analyzing the logic gaps within biblically inspired beliefs. For example, when discussing cosmological arguments for God (which assert that, since everything must have a cause, God must be the “uncaused cause”), Campbell points out that quantum mechanics can offer just as satisfying an explanation—and that even if such a supernatural entity existed, it would not necessarily resemble the Christian god: “The very concept of the scientific method, with its implicit refutation of dogma and insistence on following the evidence wherever it leads, is the antithesis of Christian epistemology, which relies on divine revelation.” The conclusions Campbell hopes his audience will reach is that “much of the Bible is simply useless baggage that should be quickly discarded” and that “misguided Christian beliefs have led to enormous harm.” This provocative work rests comfortably next to works by E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and Robert Ingersoll. Even those who disagree with Campbell will find his arguments worth engaging with. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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