Thursday, March 1, 2012

Michael Molloy's "Experiencing the World's Religions": Review

Most "reviews" (of this textbook on Amazon) remarked briefly on its delivery, condition, or the student's course. A couple criticized doctrinal points, and a few praised its tone and scope. I've been assigned (note the verb--we profs don't always have a choice!) this text to teach a Comparative Religions course, so I've prepared by studying it cover to cover.
"Understanding Religions" opens, then indigenous varieties, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism & Sikhism, Daoism & Confucianism, and Shintoism. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam follow. Alternative religions and "The Modern Search" wrap it up.

Michael Molloy's updated this all for its fifth ed. He takes his task seriously, but he adds insight and verve. That is, he integrates personal encounters into the beginning of his chapters as well as within them, keeping the pace snappier than a chronological structure (each religious tradition's evolution) and geographical one (first ancients everywhere, then Asian, then Middle Eastern, then Western, New Age, earth-based, alternative, and "new religious movements") might portend. His own Hawaiian orientation allows him to use this logical East-West portal as a place for contemplating the island's indigenous and syncretic faiths and outlooks, and his Californian upbringing enriches this with another fitting place from which to scan the varieties of belief and ritual and outlook.

I kept an eye out for how contemporary scholarship, often not matching the mindset of many believers in the pew or temple, entered his treatment of issues. For instance, the lack of evidence for the Exodus, the writing down of sutras long after the death of the historical Buddha, the composition of the Qur'an, and the lag between the ministry of Jesus and the recording of the Gospels are common topics of discussion in seminars but not always within congregations. Molloy manages to address these within his chapters, while not overemphasizing controversial subjects or diminishing the outlooks adopted by everyday folks. He also adds endnotes where some intricate issues are expanded.

Within his Buddhism chapter I found the pithiest yet most diverse discussion of the possible meanings for the mantra "Om mani padme hum" yet, ones more advanced textbooks had not summed up so well. His Christianity chapter notes well how the Gospels differ in depicting Jesus by a process analogous to four portraits rather than identical photographs as it were. He cites another image given for the Qur'an, its suras stacked like leaves falling, the earliest layers first and then later ones on top of them. Such comparisons show the care with which Molloy's arranged his material.

Boldfaced terms are glossed after each chapter, and a handsome timeline graces the flyleaves. Films, music, websites, questions for study, and suggested reading append each chapter. It's not a fatal flaw, but I found his reading lists often bafflingly eclectic or way too narrow or offbeat. This may attest to his wide-ranging attention to quirkier approaches into what makes a faith or a ritual "tick." You never know what source may spark one's own interest.

Overall, as the "further reading" choices don't detract from the success of this ambitious, 560-page work, I'd give it a favorable rating. Another reviewer remarked on the text's lack of alternative religious coverage. Within the limits of two chapters of a vast survey, I'd counter that Molloy examines enough material to give a sense--if not a full treatment of--newer religions, sects, and emerging eclectic or humanist approaches. He discusses the dark side of religious suppression; the damage done by intolerance; the treatment of dissenters, women, and minorities; and the possibilities of multicultural and inter-religious progress. He encourages a critical position that places one within the perspective of each religious variety, enhanced by arts and culture.

Molloy ends this edition wonderfully with a conversation he had with friends, in which Einstein's perspective about miracles, God, and belief offers a profound reflection on the great matters this text in six-hundred pages addresses. Its photos, sidebars, and diversions may encourage respect and reflection, no matter what belief or lack of belief or combinations thereof its readers hold. (Amazon US 12-16-11, to counter lots of misspelled twenty-word blather posted by students complaining or praising their textbook's delivery, price, condition, professor, or seller, not the contents of the volume itself.)


Lily ( Laura I Love You) said...

MIchael Molly was my teacher for a semester many years ago and touched my life forever. If you have have a chance to meet this amazing humble compassionate man you will be ever so lucky..

Fionnchú said...

Lily, thanks for the note; I think he teaches in Hawaii, so I may not come across him, but as he grew up in Southern California, where I live, perhaps we may cross paths? My students enjoyed his textbook, and it's a wonderful resource written with insight, breadth, and sensitivity; the opening vignettes add a welcome personal touch. I am happy you got to know Prof. Molloy!