Recent Reference Books in Religion: A Guide for Students, Scholars, Researchers, Buyers, & Readers Review

Recent Reference Books in Religion: A Guide for Students, Scholars, Researchers, Buyers, and Readers
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Recent Reference Books in Religion: A Guide for Students, Scholars, Researchers, Buyers, & Readers Review`Recent Reference Books in Religion' by University of Massachusetts Professor of History, William M. Johnston is that rare kind of book which you always wish you could find, but which seems to elude the best searches, and you end up stumbling over it by accident. This is a valuable book for those who use these resources, especially for small public and private libraries, which are not attached to colleges or universities where there are people who would know about such books.
The book gets high marks for the accuracy of its title and subtitle, and the reader is admonished to take the title quite literally. What I mean is that this book is NOT limited to citations of Christian references. It is also, thankfully, not limited to works in English, although it does stay very close to the primary languages of scholarship of Western Europe, English, German, French, Italian, and Spanish, in roughly that order. This selection offers a wonderful example of how most of the very best encyclopedic and handbook style references are written by the Germans and the French, especially on religious subjects. Since Martin Luther, Bible scholarship has been a major academic industry in Germany. The subtitle also importantly indicates that this book will be valuable to anyone interested in studying religion, even if you do not intend to purchase many of these books. The reason for that is in the superb comparative evaluations of many of the reference works which have the same or overlapping subjects. A fine example of this is in the comparisons of the Harper Bible Dictionary, the Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, and the Anchor Bible Dictionary. The first two are single volume references and the last is a six-volume work, where each of the volumes is as large as the Harper and the Eerdmans. But Johnston successfully shows that this does not automatically mean the Anchor is the best. The author points out that the Anchor editors concentrate on `just the facts', so theological discussions are weak at best. The Eerdmans, on the other hand, offers the reader the Protestant theological interpretation in many entries, reflecting the fact that it is a translation of a Dutch work. The `non-denominational' material is so good that a Catholic, for example, can easily overlook this fact, since the Protestant material is always presented in a special section at the end of articles. Johnston points out that Eerdmans is not without some weaknesses, but if you want a Bible dictionary you can carry around with you, this may be your best bet.
These three works point up the fact that Johnston's book is obviously dated. It was copywrited in 1996, which is, I believe, the same year the Harper Bible Dictionary became the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, with important revisions; although I see that the criticisms of the older edition may still be relevant to the current edition.
This being out of date appears in other, more significant places. The aging `Encyclopedia of Philosophy' which first came out in 1967, had eight volumes and was edited by Paul Edwards, is criticized for out of date bibliographies. But my local library has a new edition with a new editor, running to twelve volumes, and with updated bibliographies. This is important, since this is the first and still the best general reference on Philosophy in English.
My most important complaint about this book is that it does not cover two very important genres of reference book. The first is the dictionary of New Testament theology, of which there are at least two very large samples. The first is the twelve volume `Theological Dictionary of the new Testament' originally published in German and translated into English, also available in a one-volume abridged edition edited by Geoffrey Bromley. The second is the four volume `New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology', edited by Colin Brown. This work was also translated from a German edition. I use both, and find this genre has things which all the other types of Biblical reference simply do not have. The second missing genre is the Biblical concordance, typified by many editions under the title of `Strong's' concordance, with different editions for the major different English translations of the Bible. It is possible this borders on the type of book an individual is likely to own if they are dedicated to reading the Bible. But the same can be said of the two one-volume dictionaries mentioned above.
In spite of these observations, the book has great value, especially in offering titles for works which are outside one's normal scholarly neighborhood. For example, I am well-versed in ancient mythology, but I am unfamiliar with many of the handbooks and encyclopedias cited here.
Especially useful in this book are its several indexes and appendices, helping one find particular works, most especially those which one may find valuable to own, if you happen to read, write, or study one or more of the world's religions. Although I will warn you that they may not be perfect, as I used them to try to locate the review of Edwards' Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and could not find it through the several indices.
One may be disappointed that things such as interlinear translations or commentaries on particular books in the Bible are not here, but I am sure these works simply do not appear in Reference sections of libraries.
Recent Reference Books in Religion: A Guide for Students, Scholars, Researchers, Buyers, & Readers OverviewRecent Reference Books in Religion provides incisive summaries and evaluations of more than 350 contemporary reference works on religious traditions ancient and modern that have been published in English, French, and German. For maximum usefulness to readers, Professor Johnston has broadly defined religion to include not just the world religions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism but also such alternative approaches as mythology, folklore, and the philosophy of ethics. Each entry, analyzing a particular work, includes full bibliographic details as well as commentary: outstanding articles and contributors are highlighted, strengths and weaknesses are carefully noted and weighed. Readers are directed to volumes whose strengths complement the weaknesses of others. An indispensable guide in any religious studies collection, Recent Reference Books in Religion: 2nd edition includes works published through the end of 1997. It also includes a Glossary that describes types and functions of reference books, and five indexes: Titles, Authors, Topics, Persons, and Places.

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