Irving Hexham, Concise Dictionary of Religion, InterVarsity Press, 1993, 245pp. NZ$29.95.
Its hard striking the right note when talking about other religions. It is rather easy to think that if we do justice to the good in other places somehow we are not maintaining what it is about Jesus you cannot find anywhere else. There are those who feel that even the study of another religion carries a theology of universalism and an attitude of relativism and compromise.
It is true that we are more likely to have a theology of religions that is overly optimistic or unfairly negative if we do not know what we are talking about. If our information about other faiths is a collection of horror stories and our method is to compare Christian ideals with others at their worst our attitudes are neither fair nor properly informed. It is also true that ignorance is no preparation for mission in another religious context, and if we do not know what other religions are about, in both their ideals and their everyday mixture of folk practice and official teachings, witness is hazardous and informed contextualisation is impossible. Communities of believers more and more have to live with one another, and whatever our commitment to evangelism, positive community relationships and the avoidance of ethnic conflict require that we know where other people are coming from.
There are now a number of books which are helpful for a Christian understanding of other faiths and which can be commended for their Christian faith and sympathetic insight into what other religions are about. The Lion Handbook, The World’s Religions with its clear text, good photographs and charts is the sort of book which should be in every church library. Some ten years after that was first published, Hexham’s Concise Dictionary of Religion should be considered as a useful supplement.
Hexham has compiled this dictionary of some 2000 entries in response to the need of students to find their way around the hundreds of unfamiliar names and concepts, never mind places and dates, which the study of another religion always presents as an immediate challenge. It is not just a matter of beliefs and rituals, but confronting history and culture likely to be daunting in its unfamiliarity. The result is a concise dictionary - the entries are short and there is an annotated bibliography to guide further reading. This is the handbook to have to get through those other books on religion that assume you know these things already. It contains some surprises in what Hexham considers important. Christians might learn some things about themselves as well.