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Against Dharma: Dissent in the Ancient Indian Sciences of Sex and Politics

Wendy Doniger. Yale Univ., $26 (224p) ISBN 978-0-300-21619-6

In this detailed investigation, Doniger (The Hindus) explores how two ancient Indian texts—the Arthashastra (on the pursuit of power), and the Kamasutra (on the pursuit of sensual desire)—subverted the ethical and social standards of their day. The “three aims” of human well-being (dharma, artha, and kama, loosely described as religion, politics, and pleasure) were ideally kept in balance by Hindus, but Doniger maintains that, at the time the books were written (between the fourth and second century B.C.E., dharma was privileged in practice and the Arthashastra and the Kamasutra surreptitiously challenged its dominance. Their strategies included what Doniger calls bookending, the practice of undermining the focus on the spiritual by providing practical, functional ideas for navigating the political and sensual realms of life. With ease and wit, Doniger builds her novel case that the Kamasutra and the Arthashastra dissented from the status quo of their day, and diligently considers passages from the texts as she discusses ways Indians found to continue defying the primacy of the dharma through many hundreds of years. Considering the Lokayatikas and the Charvakas, materialists and skeptics in contemporary India, she writes that they are “heirs of the Arthashastra and the Kamasutra, at least to the extent that the idea of doing whatever you need to do to get what you want... with no regard to the dharma in either case, was fuel for the Lokayatika/Charvaka legend.” Although Doniger’s writing is clear and direct, readers not thoroughly familiar with the lessons and principles of the dharma will get lost in her long comparisons across texts. This detailed treatment of a narrow, specialized topic is best suited to academics interested in the history of Indian rebellion against the dharma. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/23/2018 | Details & Permalink

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No Other Gods: The Politics of the Ten Commandments

Ana Levy-Lyons. Center Street, $26 (304) ISBN 978-1-4789-7721-6

In this accessible reinterpretation of the Ten Commandments, Levy-Lyons, senior minister at First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn, N.Y., argues that, despite the signs that religion is dying out, what religions offer is more important than ever. According to Levy-Lyons, there is such a thing as too much freedom and too few moral boundaries. She challenges readers to consider the importance of communal rules, rituals, and a set of ethics that govern daily life, rather than subscribe to the notion that anything goes, which she feels has become the norm in an increasingly secularized American society. She argues that the Ten Commandments are a time-tested framework for social justice and applies an inclusive, progressive interpretation of the Commandments throughout the book: her take on the Third Commandment (do not take the name of God in vain) involves its relevance to hate speech, and she writes that the Eighth Commandment (do not steal) is really about protecting the environment and honoring the gifts of the natural world. This useful book serves as an invitation for readers to reconsider what these ancient rules have to offer in the present day. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/23/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Given Up for You: A Memoir

Erin O. White. Univ. of Wisconsin, $26.95 (208p) ISBN 978-0-299-31820-8

White’s meandering memoir raises questions about finding a place inside Catholicism as a feminine lesbian mother, but fails to fully explore them. A persuasive and manipulative therapist encouraged White to experience Mass as a young adult, and she quickly felt a strong passion for belief and belonging. At the same time, she embarked on her first serious romantic relationship and soon abandoned organized religion. White continued to struggle with faith even after leaving the Church, a concern that only sporadically appears as the memoir progresses and White spends more time recounting the frustrations of early motherhood. Supported by her career-oriented lawyer wife, White sought out traditionally feminine things (wearing makeup, taking care of the home, bearing their two daughters and raising them as a full-time parent) and found them both rewarding and exhausting. Though the book is positioned as a religious memoir, White only sporadically writes about her faith after the introduction. Her best writing captures the tension between her attachment to old-fashioned femininity and her eagerness to crusade for LGBTQ rights, forcing her to consider her insecurities around her gender expression as well as her barely explored belief in the Christian god. Less successful is her portrayal of her marriage, which leans mostly on instances of irritation and failures to connect, but readers will sympathize with her hurt and confusion around her inability to directly confront her strong, lingering feelings for Catholicism. This is a heartfelt but poorly constructed book. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/23/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education

Adam Laats. Oxford Univ., $29.95 trade paper (360p) ISBN 978-0-19-066562-3

In this fastidiously researched but biased study, Laats, professor of history at Binghamton University, describes the development of fundamentalist higher education since the 1920s as an attempt to modernize evangelical training schools in response to secular education. Laats links this new brand of higher education to the shared goal throughout fundamentalist communities of providing a competitive education in an environment with strict standards for student conduct and an academic curriculum that wouldn’t contradict beliefs in biblical inerrancy. He explores the governing philosophies at various schools (particularly the racist policies at Bob Jones University, where black students weren’t admitted until 1970 and interracial dating was prohibited until 2000) before turning the discussion to the cults of personality that have developed around school founders and leaders. The book concentrates mainly on Bob Jones (and his heirs) and Clifton Fowler at the Denver Bible Institute, both of whom conducted staff purges and placed personal loyalty above educational excellence. Laats’s other large concern is the schism between mainstream evangelicals and the fundamentalists who objected to their “big tent” policies. Although Laats concedes that much of fundamentalist orthodoxy is irreconcilable with academic standards of research, he minimizes the importance of the teaching of evolutionary science as a driving force behind the rise of fundamentalist institutions, and glosses over disputes about geologic time alternatives. Delving into these issues may not be necessary for specialists, but general readers will be frustrated by the lack of broader context in an otherwise enlightening book. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/23/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Friend of Sinners: Why Jesus Cares More About Relationships Than Perfection

Rich Wilkerson Jr. Thomas Nelson, $16.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-0-7180-3270-8

This collection of musings from Wilkerson (Sandcastle Kings), the celebrity pastor of Miami’s Vous Church, challenges readers to be open to the possibility that they might not know Jesus as well as they think they do. Jesus isn’t a self-help guide, a makeover artist, or a demanding taskmaster, Wilkerson writes, though that is how many believers see him. Instead, he says, Jesus’s intent is to be a friend to believers, as well as to save those who have faith in his all-encompassing love. Wilkerson urges readers not to measure faith—or God’s approval—by cultural standards such as professional success, but rather by living the lessons of the Bible. Wilkerson retells Bible stories in colloquial language to challenge readers to view Jesus as a loving friend who gladly walks with them through the messes of life. Using personal experiences such as a family vacation where he underestimated a boy’s ability to swim, a flight with a seatmate who vocalized his dislike for pastors, and a middle school science project he procrastinated on, Wilkerson demonstrates how biblical teachings of humility and love (even toward those with whom one disagrees) are learned through mistakes and reflection. This upbeat book will please younger Christian readers looking for style along with scriptural substance. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/23/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Resurrecting Religion: Finding Our Way Back to the Good News

Greg Paul. NavPress, $15.99 trade paper (215p) ISBN 978-1-63146-666-3

Paul (God in the Alley), founding pastor of Sanctuary Toronto, a ministry serving marginalized communities, argues for a new definition of religion in this impassioned call for rethinking the role of Christianity in a community. Decreasing church attendance, divisions over doctrine, hypocritical church members, and the loss of young members have all contributed to Christianity’s declining reputation, Paul writes. He believes that “good religion”—motivated by empowering love, not power, money, or fame—can turn the tide. Instead of using faith politically, he writes, Christianity needs to become welcoming by directing individual faith toward communal good. Paul illustrates his points with examples from his ministry, as with the story of Mike, a homeless man with liver disease whom Paul takes in for a few months. Their time together makes Paul rethink how Sanctuary Toronto works with people who need housing, inspiring him to take a more proactive approach to finding and helping them. Paul also includes inspiring reflections on Bible stories, including the perspective of John, the brother of Jesus, and a gripping (and surprisingly humorous) recounting of the martyrdom of St. Lawrence. Paul’s uplifting message will appeal to Christians looking to reenergize their communities. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/23/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Metaphysical World of Isaac Newton: Alchemy, Prophecy, and the Search for Lost Knowledge

John Chambers. Destiny, $35 (480p) ISBN 978-1-62055-204-9

In this detailed book, the late academic Chambers (1939–2017) takes readers into the strange spiritual and occult world of Isaac Newton (1643–1727). Newton, known primarily as a physicist, a mathematician, and the author of Principia Mathematica, also practiced alchemy, researched prophetic biblical notions, and wrote extensively on theology and religion. Although he was a Christian, his theological views were considered heretical because he was anti-trinitarian (he denied that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one, inseparable entity) and did not see Jesus Christ as equal with God. Chambers (The Secret Life of Genius) dedicates a large portion of the book to Newton’s research on God and the universe—he believed biblical texts had been corrupted and that science held the most accurate account of God—and also dissects his thoughts on the Trinity, which were greatly influenced by fourth-century theologian Athanasius of Alexandria. The biggest surprise in Chambers’s tome is the revelation that Newton conducted extensive research into the Noah’s Ark story and the lost city of Atlantis. The book is aimed squarely at Newton fans, who will be delighted by Chambers’s insightful, thorough investigation. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/23/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are So You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be

Rachel Hollis. Thomas Nelson, $22.99 (240p) ISBN SBN 978-1-4002-0165-5

Hollis asks female readers to find their inner truths in this witty guide to healthy living. Hollis, founder of the lifestyle website TheChicSite.com and married mother of four, is a self-proclaimed recovering workaholic who suffered from erroneous beliefs instilled in childhood: “When I succeeded, I got praise and attention; I felt liked and accepted. But the moment the audience stopped clapping, it all went back to the way it was before. What this taught me... is the belief that in order to be loved, I felt I needed to produce something.” Hollis implores readers to stop worrying about external pressures to always do more and, instead, to find fulfillment by getting in touch with their own desires and feelings. Readers will find hope and humor in Hollis’s stories as she challenges them to take control of their physical, mental, and spiritual health through regulating habits, resisting unhelpful comparisons, and embracing changes such as marriage and motherhood. Opening up about her now-husband and their rough first year of dating, Hollis reveals she was trying too hard to make something work that didn’t fit, and admonishes other women not to do the same by making any single person their purpose for living. Throughout, she pairs biblical lessons with personal anecdotes to make her points. Hollis’s dynamic book is filled with inspiration for women who feel stuck on the path to realizing their dreams. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/23/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Unsettling the Commons: Social Movements Against, Within, and Beyond Settler Colonialism

Craig Fortier. Arbeiter Ring (AK Press, U.S. dist.; LitDistCo, Canadian dist.), $14.95 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-1-894037-97-6

Community organizer Fortier’s debut takes an unflinchingly honest look at North American activists and asks how they can situate their social justice struggles in a context that honors and respects Indigenous peoples’ views on land rights and decolonization. Challenged by a central contradiction of the global Occupy movement—whose participants often reclaimed public space without acknowledging the original occupants of those territories—Fortier interviewed more than 50 scholars and street-level activists linked with the anti-authoritarian movement’s ongoing tactical and strategic debates. Whether these activists agitate against gentrification of low-income neighborhoods, police brutality, economic inequality, or sexism and anti-queer bigotry, they share theoretical, often academic, insights on how best to engage in their work without ignoring or assimilating Indigenous voices. Scholars and activists will derive value from the discussion, but the book could have benefited from more of Fortier’s own distinctive voice and personal insights (featured most prominently in an excellent preface), as well as further examples of how all these theoretical discussions have been put into practice. Despite the book’s narrow focus and reliance on jargon, the ideas raised here have the potential to contribute significantly to ongoing discussions about reconciliation between colonizers and First Peoples. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/23/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Undocumented: Immigration and the Militarization of the United States-Mexico Border

John Moore. PowerHouse, $50 (176p) ISBN 978-1-57687-867-5

Photographer Moore’s harrowing photo essay, the culmination of over a decade of work, documents the grueling immigration process for undocumented Mexicans and Central American coming to U.S., from the abject poverty and vicious gang violence that often propels them to leave to their everyday experiences once established in the United States. Some of the most haunting photographs depict the physical journey across the borders. A series of photos details the notoriously dangerous journey atop a freight train known as “the Beast”: dozens of migrants piled on top of the train in the blazing sun, a Nicaraguan immigrant clad in a plastic bag on the train during a thunderstorm. In addition to action shots, Moore includes yearbook-style layouts of headshots of Honduran gang members, trainee border agents, undocumented inmates serving time in an Arizona jail, and newly naturalized U.S. citizens. Essays by Elyse Gobb, director at the National Center for Border Security and Immigration at the University of Arizona, and Jeanette Vizguerra, an immigration rights activist and undocumented mother living in Colorado, offer additional context and are provided in both Spanish and English. The book paints a sobering picture of the undocumented Mexican and Central American immigrant experience. Color photos. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/23/2018 | Details & Permalink

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