Newspaper article International New York Times

Legions of Faith, Girded for Battle ; Norton Anthology Takes on Major World Religions, in 4,000-Plus Pages

Newspaper article International New York Times

Legions of Faith, Girded for Battle ; Norton Anthology Takes on Major World Religions, in 4,000-Plus Pages

Article excerpt

The latest Norton anthology takes on major world religions, in 4,000-plus pages.

Jack Miles has undertaken no less ambitious a project than writing a "biography" of God, winning a Pulitzer Prize in the bargain.

But when the publisher W.W. Norton & Company approached him nine years ago about serving as general editor of its inaugural edition of "The Norton Anthology of World Religions," Mr. Miles, a former Jesuit seminarian, balked. While the timing seemed right, given the continuing post-Sept. 11 hunger for interreligious understanding, the task was dauntingly huge.

"I didn't think I knew enough," Mr. Miles, a professor of English and religious studies at the University of California, Irvine, recalled recently.

Still, he was persuaded, and now the anthology -- featuring some 4,200 pages of texts spanning roughly 3,500 years -- is here.

The two-volume set, weighing in at over eight pounds and boxed in a slipcase decorated with a suggestively numinous but culturally nonspecific swirl of colors, seems intended to become the go-to holiday gift book for the ecumenically minded. (Or, if you are Richard Dawkins or a wobbly coffee table, the present from hell.) It's also one of the most complex anthologies Norton has tackled and one that promises to start arguments with higher stakes than the squabbling surrounding another of its influential compendiums, "The Norton Anthology of English Literature," during the height of the canon wars.

"There will be dust-ups," said Julia Reidhead, the editorial director of Norton's college division. "This was built from a secular point of view, but the orthodox from any tradition might look at various things and say, 'I don't think so."'

The anthology, Norton emphasizes, comes in peace, with the intent of letting the world's six "major, living, international religions" - - Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- deliver their wisdom "in their own words." The selections, chosen by an expert in each tradition recruited by Mr. Miles, include foundational texts like the Bible, the Quran and the Rig-Veda, along with responses and elaborations by preachers, theologians, missionaries, philosophers, poets, and even a hip-hop artist, RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, whose book the "Wu-Tang Manual" is excerpted in the Taoism section.

Special attention was given to texts by and about women, from as many periods as possible, among them an excerpt from the autobiography of Jarena Lee (1783- circa 1849), one of America's earliest known black female preachers, and a medieval Islamic tribute to pious Sufi women. There are also plenty of what Mr. Miles called "scandalous voices," from dissidents like the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith to radical fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden to atheists like Bertrand Russell, whose 1927 essay "Why I Am Not a Christian" is excerpted.

"We didn't shy away from such voices," Mr. Miles said. "Where they mattered within the tradition, we included them."

Ms. Reidhead admitted to having some "Will it sell in Texas?" moments (a reference to that state's large college market): for example, when Wendy Doniger, the Hinduism editor, wanted to include a contemporary Dalit poem whose title puts God in a compromising position with his mother.

"There are texts in all these traditions that are blasphemous," Ms. Reidhead said. "But that was a case where I asked, 'Do we really need this?"'

The poem was dropped. But the sheer range of material in the anthology, some scholars say, stands as a rebuke to reductive caricatures, whether of Islam as "the mother lode of bad ideas," as the writer Sam Harris recently put it, or Buddhism as simply a mindfulness practice.

"This is an important project, and not just in the academy," said Mark C. Taylor, the chairman of the religion department at Columbia University, who was not involved with the anthology. "We desperately need for people from all walks of life to have a better understanding of these traditions. …

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