Understanding World Religions: An Interdisciplinary Approach

by Irving Hexham

Zondervan, 5300 Patterson Avenue SE, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49530, 512 pages, 2011, $39.99.

Reviewed by Terry C. Muck, dean, E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism, Asbury Theological Seminary.

Irving Hexham’s new world religion textbook raises an intriguing pedagogical question: How do Western students best learn about non-Christian world religions? Most world religion courses follow a predictable path of general lectures recounting the most widely-accepted scholarly findings on the history, beliefs, and practices of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Islam, etc.

A few such courses sprinkle in field-based learning with visits to temples and mosques. Fewer still might mix in modified versions of case studies and perhaps some biographical material, particularly about the founders of such religions: Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, etc.

Hexham’s innovation is to use what might be called an “issue-focused pedagogical approach.” Instead of simply recounting the history, beliefs, and practices of each religion, he raises issues related to each religion. These include issues surrounding how the religion has been studied from the West and debatable issues from within the religions themselves—controversial figures, doctrinal and theological disputes, etc. In the course of raising these issues, the history, beliefs, and practices of the religions are communicated, but within the context of a controversy.

The theory seems to be that students will be stimulated by knowing some of the behind-the-scenes disputes that make up the religion and the study of that religion.  

For example, in the 60-page section on African religions, Hexham spends a great deal of space arguing that African religions have not been given their due by scholars from the West. His argument is convincing, but the trade-off for such an extended treatment of that issue is that less is said about African religions themselves. Still, the section is one of the best summaries I have read of African religious traditions. Not only is the material interesting because it is controversial, but the information about the religions themselves is reliable.

The result is what might be called an idiosyncratic approach to the teaching of world religions, a textbook written very much in the image of its author and focused on the issues he finds important. This approach extends to the way the book is divided and the religions covered. The section on African religions (four chapters) is an important one, often ignored by Western world religion texts. This section is followed by eight chapters on The Yogic Tradition (Indian religions) and twelve chapters on the Abrahamic Tradition (Judaism, Christianity, Islam).

Perhaps for lack of space, all Chinese religions (Confucianism, Taoism) and other East Asian religions are squeezed into the Yogic tradition section in the short space of only five pages. This feels odd to me. It would seem that the importance of the so-called Confucian cultures and their approach to religion warrant more space, especially since nearly one-third of the world’s population practice these religions or hold these worldviews.  

By all accounts, students respond well to this issue-oriented method. Hexham is a popular teacher at the University of Calgary, where he is professor of religious studies. This is a good book and the teaching style modeled is well worth trying.


EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 1, pp. 124-126. Copyright  © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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