Book Notes: A few new Very Short Introduction titles

04.02.2013 | Blair Hodges

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

When it comes to “spirituality,” Jesus’s response to Nicodemus as recorded in John’s gospel could resonate in different ways to many different religious traditions, from Jewish mystics to whirling dervishes. This inherently ambiguous concept of “spirituality” has been embodied in many forms, including music, literature, architecture, painting, and sculpture. A variety of prescribed approaches ranging from monastic retreat to social activism have been developed with the intent of enhancing spirituality. More recently, even secular models of spirituality have been proposed.

Spirituality is a more rich and complex subject than readers might imagine. This complexity makes Philip Sheldrake’s Spirituality: A Very Short Introduction all the more remarkable for its ability to offer a substantive and wide-ranging overview in a mere 144 pocket-sized pages. Sheldrake, a Cambridge Theological Federation researcher and interfaith specialist, argues that the core of spirituality involves the transformation which can occur when a person considers her place in the world in relation to God, self, and others:

“[Each type of spirituality] seeks answers to such questions as where transformation is thought to take place (context), how it takes place (practices, disciplines, and ways of life), and what the ultimate purpose or end-point of transformation is (human destiny)” (Sheldrake, 25).

Although Sheldrake does not single out Mormonism in his discussion, Mormon readers will be interested to consider his general discussion of spirituality as understood by the wider Christian family and other religious faiths.

Spirituality is the 336th volume of Oxford University Press’s ongoing Very Short Introduction series. Previous religion-themed subjects include Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, Islam, Sikhism, and Protestantism, not to mention Richard Bushman’s Mormonism and Terryl Givens’s The Book of Mormon.

The 338th volume of the series, Martyrdom, by Jolyon Mitchell, is less well organized than Sheldrake’s. By relating examples beginning with Greek philosopher Socrates up to 20th-century martyrs like Salvadorian archbishop Oscar Romero, Mitchell explores the political undertones of martyrdom and the contests which rage around the memories of the deceased. If you’re interested in learning more about the background of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (a popular Protestant compilation which Joseph Smith evidently spent time reading before his incarceration at Carthage Jail), Mitchell’s slim volume provides good contextualization.

Given the choice between the two, though, I’d go with Spirituality.