01: The Complete Guide to Buddhist America (Shambhala, $23.95), edited by Don Morreale, not only profiles Buddhist groups in the U.S. and Canada, but also provides interesting accounts of Buddhism as practiced at the group and individual level.
The book mainly concentrates on the Theravada, Vajrayana, Mahayana (Zen) and “non-sectarian” varieties of Buddhism that practice meditation and acknowledges that the non-meditative and ethnic branches of the faith are largely omitted. An introduction by Morreale provides an interesting portrait of Buddhism in America based on his “unscientific” sampling of Buddhist centers.
While the three branches of Buddhism profiled in the book have doubled or tripled their numbers of centers in the past decade, there has been a ten-fold increase of “non-sectarian” Buddhism, or what Morreale calls “polydenominationalism.” The largest growth has been in the home-based and lay-led groups. Over one-fifth of U.S. meditation centers listed by Morreale are located in California, while more than a third of Canadian centers are found in the province of Ontario.
02: It was only a matter of time that a full-blown theology of the computer would be written.
Jennifer Cobb’s Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World (Crown, $24) views computer technology as opening the way for a new understanding of the divine. Cobb, a computer consultant, holds that in cyberspace, particularly through the Internet and the emerging forms of artificial intelligence, divine creativity is expressed in its pure form.
The fact that human technology can convey the sacred challenges ideas of God as separate from the world and is in line with process theology, which teaches that the nature of God unfolds through evolution and human creativity. Although the ideas may be dense and hard to follow at time, Cobb does provide interesting first-hand accounts of the new technologies and the scientists involved in these fields and how their work applies to these theological concepts.
03: The declining state of Christian churches in the Middle East under Islamic pressure has become a key concern of the new human rights crusade focusing on religious freedom.
For that reason alone, William Dalrymple’s book From The Holy Mountain (Henry Holt, $30) should be required reading. Dalrymple takes an extended journey among the Christian churches and remnants of such countries and places as Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Egypt and finds signs of decline and sometimes near-extinction.
The Christians are most beleaguered by militant Islam in Egypt, while the Israeli government created the most pressure for Christians in Jerusalem and other West Bank villages. In Syria, the Muslim-Christian interaction is more benign, reflecting a time when Eastern Christianity and Islam were far from enemies. Dalrymple provides colorful examples of how a good deal of syncretism still takes place — Muslims crowding Eastern Orthodox shrines for blessings and cures and offering gifts of goats to priests who obligingly sacrifice them.