Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW– The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World

Readers interested in the early history of Christianity will enjoy historian Bart Ehrman’s latest book and bestseller, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. The book focuses mainly on what happened, and why things happened the way the did, during the 4th century. In 301 CE, Christians were a small but visible minority within the Roman Empire, subject to persecution by decree of emperor Diocletian. By 399 Christianity was the official religion of the empire, and probably half the population practiced it. How did so dramatic a change unfold? What factors made the rise of Christianity improbable? What factors contributed to its success? Unlike some historians,…

BOOK REVIEW: Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity

Readers interested in the early development of the Christian religion will enjoy Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity, by biblical scholar James D. Tabor. The book focuses on the first 30 to 40 years of the Christian movement, a period that is poorly documented and poorly understood.   Much of Tabor’s assessment falls well within the mainstream of scholarly opinion. Jesus of Nazareth was a real, historical person, although the romanticization of his life story makes it difficult for us to know anything about him. He was an observant Jew of the first century CE, who taught a particular interpretation of Judaism that was somewhat unique, but nevertheless…

BOOK REVIEW: Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts

The literature, both scholarly and fanciful, on the European witchcraze is voluminous and of uneven quality. It was a pleasure, then, to find a work of scholarly quality that stands out for its unusual perspective. Historian Anne Llewellyn Barstow has studied the phenomenon from a much need feminist perspective in Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. There is far less here, than in many other studies of the same phenomenon, about religion and beliefs about witchcraft, and a lot more about the roles of women and men, and changes in the social and economic structures of Europe during the worst years of the witchcraze (1550-1750). Barstow sets…

BOOK REVIEW: Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?

    In Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?, archaeologist William Dever grapples with the disconnect between biblical texts and the material remains of the ancient cultures of Canaan. Dever’s perspective is scholarly, based on a knowledge both of the contents of Hebrew scripture — what Christians call the Old Testament — and of what digging in the dirt can still turn up from biblical times. Dever’s book focuses mainly on the origins of the Israelites, the Children of Israel who, according to the Bible, were enslaved in Egypt, escaped by divine intervention, and conquered the lands of the Canaanites in and around what we…

BOOK REVIEW: Atheism for Dummies

Dale McGowan’s latest book, Atheism for Dummies, is an excellent introduction to a complex topic. While some short introductions to atheism focus almost exclusively on positive atheism (the active assertion that there is no God), Atheism for Dummies describes varieties of unbelief such as agnosticism, religious humanism, and secular humanism. It places unbelief in historical contexts both ancient and modern, dispels many of the popular myths about atheists, and points the interested reader toward additional resources. The aim of the book is to deliver breadth rather than depth. There are no abstruse arguments about epistemology, philosophy, or theology. Instead, the reader will finish the book with a general understanding of what…

BOOK REVIEW: Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them

The Barna Group is a Christian organization that does sociological research for churches and other Christian institutions. One of their recent publications is Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them. If you’re interested in how Christians see those who’ve left the faith and why, Churchless could be a fascinating read. Christian organizations are painfully aware of America’s increasing religious diversity and secularism. Through reports like Churchless they get a better understanding of the large and growing percentage of Americans who have no church affiliation. Surprisingly, only about 25% of the “unchurched” are agnostics or atheists. A majority are Christian believers of various sorts, who have chosen not…

BOOK REVIEW: Leaps of Faith: Science, Miracles, and the Search for Supernatural Consolation

In Leaps of Faith: Science, Miracles, and the Search for Supernatural Consolation, psychology professor Nicholas Humphrey accomplishes a brief but thorough debunking of psychics, mediums, spoon-benders, and a whole host of supposedly paranormal phenomena. This is not a detailed examination of attempts to test and measure such phenomena, but a broad and philosophical view, pointing out the ridiculousness of the whole psychic show. Humphrey writes, “I think the search for the paranormal is all a big mistake. Sad to say, there has never yet been an authentic example of soul-power worth the name. The phenomena never pass muster. Their promoters always emerge with egg on their faces, with their hand…

BOOK REVIEW – Grandiose Delusion: Mike Huckabee’s God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy

I admit I had multiple prejudices before I even opened this book, based solely on the author and title. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t read a book by Mike Huckabee, one-time governor of Arkansas, Fox News bloviator, wannabe presidential candidate, and Baptist minister. Nor would I usually read a book with a title like God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy. But Huckabee is a notable public figure and has been a best-selling author before, so I decided to give it a try. At least I didn’t pay for a copy, checking one out instead from the public library.   By page seven, I knew finishing the book was going to be difficult. It’s…

BOOK REVIEW: The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails

The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, edited by John W. Loftus, 2010 John W. Loftus has given us a number of volumes, most famously his monograph Why I Became an Atheist : A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity. Continuing the themes and arguments from that work, Loftus gathered a group of writers from different disciplines to expand on or respond to topics such as the relationship between Western society and Christianity, the psychology of religion, the relationship between world-view and reason, the morality of the Judeo-Christian God, and the like. The result is an admirable edited volume, published in 2010 under the title The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails. Each chapter…

BOOK REVIEW: Psychic Mafia by M. Lamar Keene

If you spend time in bookstores, and if you’re of a skeptical bent of mind, you may have noticed that books debunking one or another kind of pseudoscientific nonsense are just not very popular. You’ll find a foot or more of shelf space occupied by books about ancient extraterrestrials, but at best an inch for the books that call such stuff nonsense (Wilson’s Crash Go the Chariots is a favorite of mine). You’ll find many feet of shelf space dedicated to a variety of psychic phenomena, and again an inch, if that, for the more down-to-earth doubters (James Randi’s Flim-Flam, say). One of those unpopular but worthy volumes is M….

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