A Little History of Religion

by Richard Holloway

This book was recommended, I believe, by my fellow Bahá’í Rob Weinberg.  I had only vaguely heard of Richard Holloway, and while waiting for this book to arrive in my local library, I read his memoir Leaving Alexandria – a Memoir of Faith and Doubt.  This gave me some insights into the man, and was quite helpful while reading his ‘little history’.

The book lives up to its name, with each chapter four to five pages in length, and no more than three chapters given to any one religion or topic.  The book is neatly structured: each new topic is introduced at the very end of the previous chapter, given the impression that there is indeed some kind of progression or common theme running through religions.  Holloway does not gloss over the shortcomings of religions and their adherents over the years.  Far from it; the last two chapters, on Holy War and the future of religions, asks some very serious questions.

It would be hard for me here to give much of a picture of this book without writing it again!  (And I am sure I could not do such a good job.)  The author gives the historical and social context of each of the religions and sects that he writes about, so that the reader can get a feel for how they evolved and the impact they had.  It is assumed that the reader knows something about religion – a reasonable assumption, if you have elected to read this book.  But he does not assume that they know anything in detail about any one religion, and so is able to explain in basic language, for instance, the content and message behind various of Christ’s parables; the difference between the Abrahamic religions’ emphasis on a continuing spiritual life after death and Indian religions’ belief in a continuing cycle of life on this earth; and the political as well as theological basis for the Reformation.

This is an excellent book, written in clear, accessible but not simplistic language.  It is one that I may well end up purchasing to read again and share with others.

Leaving Alexandria – a Memoir of Faith and Doubt

by Richard Holloway

I had heard about Holloway’s book A Little History of Religion and, while searching for it on the library website (I have reserved it), found this one.

The subtitle tells it all – this is a memoir of Holloway’s life, from his childhood attraction to the Anglican Catholic church to his later run-ins with established theology and church practice.

Holloway’s approach to his subject – his journey of faith – is thoughtful and insightful.  Though it does at times seem that he is preoccupied with this, to the exclusion and possible detriment of those around him: colleagues, children and wife.

Holloway is very well-read, and quotes poetry in particular to support the points he makes.  I found this a revealing and ultimately rather disturbing read.  But at the same time, it helped me to realise that everyone – even a bishop – will have moments of doubt and wavering in faith, even deep despair, while still holding onto a view of the Creator.