Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Book Review: Faith: Five Religions and What They Share

Faith: Five Religions and What They Share. Dr. Richard Steckel and Michele Steckel. 2012. KidsCan Press. 36 pages.

I've debated with myself on if I should even try to talk about this one because I've certainly got opinions on it. For better or worse. I think the premise is flawed, to a certain degree.

This nonfiction picture book seeks to teach kids about five religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. I would say the focus is almost exclusively on what 'they all have in common' and 'how they are all essentially more alike than different'. Differences between the five faiths are not explored at all. Explanations on why each views the others as being different or in opposition to the others is not explored at all. The book does not point you as to what makes each unique--truly unique--from the others.

I'll share with you the table of contents so you'll see what this one has to offer:

  • What is faith?
  • Understanding religions
  • Five major religions
  • Buddhism
  • Christianity
  • Hinduism
  • Islam
  • Judaism
  • Many religions, one golden rule
  • Spiritual leaders
  • Sacred texts
  • Clothing
  • Symbols
  • Places of worship
  • Common acts of worship
  • Acts during prayer
  • Charity
  • Cherishing children
  • A note to parents and teachers
  • Glossary

I'll try to keep this to two main points.

First: A Matter of Trust

I know little (or in some cases, very little) about Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism. (What I know about Judaism, I've learned from the Old Testament, Messianic Jewish writers, and the dozens of Holocaust books I've read where faith or worship wasn't exactly the primary focus.) But what I do know is Christianity. Perhaps not all denominations of Christianity equally. But some about Catholicism, and a lot about Protestantism. (I do know what makes these two different from one another. I've done a good bit of reading on the Reformation.) And what this book doesn't say about Christianity could fill libraries. Seriously.
Christianity began 2000 years ago with the teachings of Jesus. Jesus was born a Jew in what is now the Palestinian Territories. His followers believed him to be the Messiah, the savior whom God had promised to send to the Jewish people. Jesus preached that people should love one another as God loved them. His popularity made Jesus a threat to politicians, and they had him crucified (nailed up on a cross). The Christian scriptures say that, days after his crucifixion, Jesus was resurrected (rose from the dead). He met with his disciples before going up to heaven to be with God. Christians believe that Jesus' death and resurrection help them to forgive and be forgiven, and that it offers the promise of eternal life. Christianity spread and became the world's largest religion. As it grew, it split into different branches. The largest branches are the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant churches. (11)
It isn't exactly what is said that is problematic. It is what is NOT being said. And to a certain degree, the same could be said about the "explanation" for Judaism:
Judaism began about 4000 years ago among the Hebrew (or Israelite) people in the Middle East. According to the Hebrew Bible, God promised a man named Abraham that he would take care of Abraham's people forever, if they would obey his laws. This agreement, or covenant, is the basis of Judaism. Later, God spoke to Moses and gave him commandments, including the Ten Commandments, which are laws and guiding principles for how to live as a Jew. For Jewish people, Judaism is not only their religion, it's their way of life. The main branches of Judaism are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist, and each has different principles that guide the way their followers live and worship. But all promote a belief in one God and uphold Jewish law, which sets out how a person should behave toward others. (13)
Both lack an obvious big picture or context. Who is God? Who is Man? [What did Jesus Do? What Did Jesus Command?] Both the Judaism and Christianity entries fail to focus on God. (Is this surprising? I'm not sure. I don't know that they even tried.) A good place to start is by looking at who God is and how he relates to us, how he has revealed himself to us. He is Creator. He is Judge. He is Savior. Why Judge and Savior? One little three-letter-word. SIN. What is missing from both entries is the mention of sin. And how sin SEPARATES or DIVIDES or PUTS UP BARRIERS between God and humanity. Sin doesn't only effect our relationship with God. It effects our relationships with others too. The consequences of sin effect every aspect of our lives, our cultures, our societies. When we sin, we need forgiveness. We need to make things right. How do we do that? How do we make things right with God? Can we make things right with God? How do we make things right with others? It is hard--really, really hard to forgive others sometimes. The more we've been hurt, the easier it is to be stubborn and not forgive. Even when we know forgiveness is the best way to live. So you and I have a sin problem. We do. Sins complicate things in this life, but the consequences of sin aren't just in this life alone. It's a matter of eternity. It is essential, absolutely FUNDAMENTAL that sin not be left out of any discussions about Christianity. Christianity cannot be (rightly) understood unless you know what a person is being saved from. Jesus was not crucified because he was popular or because he was good. He was crucified because he was claiming to be the Son of God, he was claiming to have a message direct from God, he was claiming to have the ability and authority to forgive sins, he was doing things only God could do. He was doing more than healing--though healing is miraculous enough. He was doing more than teaching--though his teaching was powerful and compelling. He was raising the dead, he was proclaiming that he could give people eternal life. He was claiming to be the light of the world, the one, true way to God. He was light and life. He was the WORD. He was God-made-flesh. He was God-Manifested. He offered SALVATION from sins and restoration with the Father. He was telling people how they could be adopted into God's family. Jesus came in the world to save sinners. He came to make peace between God and sinners. Through his life, death, and resurrection he provided the way for sinful people like you and me to be justified (declared righteous) with the Father. His fulfillment of the covenant offered us a new and living way. He is the much-needed Savior.

While I can't offer much light on Judaism and sin. I do know that much of the Old Testament is about sin and how sin divided the Israelites from God. They were given commandments, told not to sin, but a way was provided to cover that sin. The sacrificial system was put in place. They were told how to worship, why to worship, when to worship, how often to worship, and WHERE to worship. They were given hundreds if not thousands of detailed commandments on how to live rightly before a righteous God. You can't read any of the law or the prophets without seeing the impact of sin, the devastation of it. It just matters too much to be excluded from discussion.

So my conclusion is, if what the book says about Christianity fails to capture the essence of the faith, can I trust it to rightly, authentically tell me the truth about the other three religions that I know essentially nothing about. How do I know that the other entries aren't flawed and one-dimensional? What would be the benefit of using this book as a resource for other religions?

Second: Flawed Premise/Flawed Logic

Essentially the premise of this one is that ALL five religions have similarities, that the similarities between these religions outweigh many of the differences they might have. That by focusing only on what they have in common and completely ignoring their differences, world peace can be achieved. But ignoring differences because you don't want there to be differences does not mean that the differences are erased. You can't just say "all religions are the same" and have it be true in reality. Well, I suppose you can say it and repeat it. But you have to make sacrifices and compromises. You have to make your own faith weaker to supposedly make your tolerance stronger. And while I know tolerance is for some the most absolute important thing ever, I can't believe it. As I read once, Christians used to tolerate people with whom they disagreed, now Christians are being "encouraged" to tolerate ideas--any ideas, all ideas, no matter what.

Flipping through this one you'll see dozens of examples of the kinds of things they have in common. Some are legitimate, completely legitimate. Loving others, forgiving others, being generous with others in need, valuing family, having special holidays or observances, etc. But some similarities are a bit of a stretch. For example, arguing that the five faiths are "so alike" because each uses candles. (I honestly don't remember if it was all five that used candles, or just some that used candles). If you fill your argument with examples like those, it loses something, in my opinion. Would anyone really argue that because bathrooms and kitchens both have sinks that they fulfill the same purpose in a house? Wouldn't the presence of the stove and refrigerator and the toilet and tub mean more than the similarities? My point is that no matter how many similarities you can find, the differences are still significant.

Conclusion: To be valuable as a resource, I believe that any book that seeks to teach others about different religions should present the whole truth of any religion. That is, don't just give me what they have in common. Give me the basics. Give me the facts. Show me what makes that faith different and unique. Show me how that faith is lived out. Show me what doctrines and beliefs it holds. Teach me about the special days, the ceremonies, the worship, the prayer. Discuss how this faith is supposed to be lived out in the daily life of the believers. True, there may be details with the potential to offend someone, if someone is looking to be offended. Give me enough that I can make my own conclusions. Let me decide for myself how much or how little these religions have in common. Let me participate in the process.

IF anyone is looking for a kid-friendly way to talk about Christianity, what Christians believe, I'd recommend The Big Picture Storybook Bible by David R. Helm.

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

1 comment:

Sidne said...

If the book is suppose to teach kids about the 5 types it does not need to be a comparison to do this. However it content must be factual.