Volume 2015, Issue 1
  • ISSN: 2218-7480
  • EISSN:


Religion continues to play an important role in our contemporary world. In global affairs and politics, religion plays a major part in issues dealing with violence, peace, justice, and reconciliation. Such a significant phenomenon requires the right methodology for understanding its various dimensions, processes, and structures. The study of religion truly has an enduring dimension. The study of religion is intellectually stimulating because it provides a clue to the mystery of the other. It is one of the disciplines that ponders the boundary questions of life and death and of love and violence that constitute an integral part of the human condition. The work of Jonathan Z. Smith provides pioneering insights into the academic study of religion. His seminal thoughts and reflections on religious pluralism, religious studies, teaching, and transcendence provide a sound theoretical framework for dealing with these issues. This book is divided into thirteen chapters with a concluding essay by Christopher I. Lehrich. The chapters are lucidly written with copious information about teaching, scholarship, and participation in the professional guild. Pedagogical insights about the college classroom, advice about college and graduate education are the focus of the introduction, chapters one, four, five, nine, and ten. To teachers, Smith offered these words of wisdom: “don’t start at the beginning, start rather at the end… I always begin by trying to imagine a final examination. Not so much the particulars I would want the students to know, but the issues I want them to confront” (p.3). This advice serves as the road map for navigating themes and issues in religious studies. The classroom becomes a living laboratory for exploring complex issues and subjects dealing with the transcendence and its implications for self and society. Smith counsels the instructor to create a context that is liberating rather than paralyzing. In chapters five, six, seven, eight, twelve, and thirteen Smith offered relevant information about new horizons in the study of religion. All these chapters add new dimensions to the open-ended conversations about teaching and studying religion. In these chapters, Smith addresses topics such as the dynamic relationship between religious studies and theology, the prospects of religious studies, and new frontiers in liberal arts education. On the future of liberal learning, Smith noted, “Let me be blunt. The situation we find ourselves in and which we look forward to is new, and it is promising” (p.137). These are comforting words from a man of remarkable stature and experience. Events and stories in our contemporary world do require disciplines that can provide objective and critical analysis. The study of religion is fraught with much misconception and misinformation, hence the need to clarify some of the intellectual conundrums surrounding this enduring endeavor. Smith provides a compelling treatise that uncovers the caveats and challenges associated with the task of understanding religion and its concomitant implications for public policy and enlightenment. With the need to separate the tree from the forest; Smith delves into issues dealing with pedagogy, curriculum development, public engagement, and professional development. By using personal anecdotes, he allows readers to have a good appreciation of the joys and travails of a teacher-scholar of religion. For more than three decades, Jonathan Z. Smith has been one of the dominant voices in the academic study of religion. His lectures and writings provide a sound methodological framework for the role of religion in matters of education and public policy. They also offer rich insights into the complex web of religionswissenschaft. For Smith, education should not be treated with benign neglect; rather, it is a phenomenon that should influence public policies and actions. Some of the fundamental issues that should be bore in mind remain: What are the differences between college and high school? What is the correct role of an introductory course? What functions should a department serve in undergraduate and graduate education? How should a major in religion be conceived? What are roles of academic guilds in public discourse on education and religion? What are the connections between scholarship and teaching? How do the two influence each other? These questions remain germane to the academic study of religion in contemporary times. Smith is concerned about the approach to the study of religion that is educational and comparative in nature. This must be rigorous, comparative, interdisciplinary, and objective. To teach about religion is an educational exercise that strives to introduce students to the rich world of religious traditions and their complex histories, mythologies, and philosophies. It is an intellectual journey that is full of many surprises and discoveries. Smith has done a yeoman’s job in identifying the best strategies and practices for being a teacher-scholar of religion. His writing and erudition offer profound insights that can be considered important in the field of religious studies. His advice: “there is nothing that must be taught, there is nothing that cannot be left out” still rings true in the humanities today. This is a sublime reminder for integration and selectivity in course preparation and delivery. These are key factors in what Smith defined as “decisions and operations” in the classroom context.


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  • Article Type: Book Review
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