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A History of Religious Rules: A Legacy of Piety and Coercion
The prophets and founders of the great monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have brought stirring messages of fulfilment and hope through faith. Besides great spiritual visions, these messages have contained many rules concerning morals, ethics, organization, punishments, and piety. This book is history of how these rules have played out over the last 2500 years. The other religious questions about eternity, heaven, and paradise will, as always, be the subject of personal experience.
In his ambitious survey, Varner compares the three great monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in their rules for behavior, giving history and a typology. He views these rules in four categories: Moral Rules, General Admonitions, Organizational Rules and Religious Rules. Moral rules cover basic principles of living together, such as admonitions against murder or lying, while general admonitions are principles without specifics. These two categories of rules are often shared across religious traditions and can be derived by reason. Organizational rules determine how societies govern themselves, and they are rare in religious texts themselves. Varner focuses on religious rules, the specific details revealed to prophets, of how to be holy.

Perhaps since Varner anticipates his readers to be less familiar with the Qur’an and Hadith than other religious texts, he spends more pages discussing Islam’s relationship with religious rules than Christianity and Judaism, taking care to show the broad scope of legal and faith traditions within Islam and including a helpful appendix with extensive quotes from the Qur’an and Hadith, plus extensive bibliographic notes. He also touches on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism but doesn’t deal with those traditions in as much depth as the monotheistic traditions.

A History of Religious Rules is well researched and respectful of all the different traditions it discusses, even in its occasional tangents—in a discussion of the “'Woke’ narrative” debated in contemporary U.S. politics, he strives to present complex positions and contested history evenhandedly. Varner is well aware of diversity within and between religions and sketches them out clearly for an educated lay audience. Throughout, Varner endeavors to spread tolerance by making it easier for people to communicate about where they disagree. His typology provides a valuable tool for that communication. Readers of any faith will appreciate Varner’s care as he lays out different types of rules within religions and how they serve our societies or sow dissent.

Takeaway: Illuminating survey of the typology of religious rules across the great faiths.

Comparable Titles: Gil Barrett’s A History of World Religions, John Bowker’s World Religions.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: A-
Illustrations: A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: B+