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by John Wilson

What I Saw at AAR/SBL

A report from San Diego.

A faint air of regret hung about the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, whose longstanding relationship will be dissolved after this year—at least for the short term, and despite the misgivings of many members—freeing the AAR of the taint of particularism. Still, that melancholy prospect didn't seem to have done much to dampen the spirits of participants: thousands of professors and assorted publishers, journalists, and such, meeting in San Diego. The convention site, right by the marina, was as pleasant as could be imagined, and the recent fires might have been in another country. (How easily we get on with our lives amid news of "troubles" somewhere else.)

As usual, there was a massive exhibition hall with aisle upon aisle of books. Just out from Paraclete Press is a book you might want to read with your family over the next month: God with Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas, with contributions by Scott Cairns, Emilie Griffin, Richard John Neuhaus, Kathleen Norris, Eugene Peterson, and Luci Shaw—a wonderful lineup—edited by Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe. This volume, which is superbly illustrated, aims to serve as "a companion for those who want to experience Christmas … in the larger context of Advent and Epiphany." It succeeds admirably. (Apologies for the lack of hyperlinks for this and other titles. My laptop presented me with the Blue Screen of Death this weekend, and I wasn't sure I would even be able to get this report done. Thankfully it has repaired itself, after a fashion, but inadequately.)

Speaking of the season, don't miss the wonderful quasi–documentary, What Would Jesus Buy?, if you are fortunate enough to be near one of the big cities in which this outstanding film has opened. I'll have more to say about the Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping in the coming weeks.

As you might expect, dozens of new and forthcoming books focus on religion in the public square, especially but by no means exclusively in the American context. (This was the subject, by the way, of the only session I was able to attend, in which N. T. Wright gave a characteristically provocative talk—rapturously received by the AAR/SBL audience—on the theme "God in Public? The Bible and Politics in Tomorrow's World.") I picked up galleys of Randy Balmer's God in the White House: A History, 1960-2004, coming from HarperOne in January, and E. J. Dionne's Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right, coming in February from Princeton. (Memo to Chris Hedges et al.: Please note the little word "After" in Dionne's title. Evidently the Reich of the Christian Fascists was rather short–lived. But no doubt they are gathering even as I type, convened perhaps at the summons of Richard John Richelieu, planning their next move.) The Fall 2007 issue of the journal Radical History Review, published by Duke University Press, is devoted to "Critical Approaches to Religion and Politics." Also newly published by Duke is a collection of essays that caught my eye, The Crisis of Secularism in India.

If you are going to be meditating on such matters—and if you will be following the 2008 presidential campaign—you will have occasion to think about the subject of Alan Jacobs' forthcoming book Original Sin: A History, due in May from HarperOne, sure to be one of the most interesting books of the year. And I have been waiting forever, it seems, for Amy Laura Hall's splendid book, coming in January from Eerdmans. (Do you remember her cover story for the November/December 2005 issue of Books & Culture?)

When I bump into people on the floor of the book display, they often ask what "trends" I've noticed. There are clusters of books, of course, such as the one I've mentioned above. I was struck also this year by the large number of ethnographies and histories devoted to varieties of Buddhism (all of them quite remote from what "Buddhism" connotes to the average American who considers himself or herself to be sympathetic to this way of understanding the world and our place in it). I picked up a copy of one of these, from Oxford University Press—The Navel of the Demoness: Tibetan Buddhism and Civil Religion in Highland Nepal, by Charles Ramble (Oxford University Press). There's a piece on Tibetan Buddhism, by the way, coming in the January/February issue of Books & Culture.

But what strikes me much more forcefully than any "trend" is the sheer profusion of titles on an extraordinary range of subjects. There's Cambodge, by Penny Edwards (University of Hawaii Press), which looks at Cambodian nationalism in the 20th century, shedding light on the rise of Pol Pot. This is a book we'll have to cover in B&C. Ditto Reading in the Wilderness, by Jessica Brantley (University of Chicago Press), a study of medieval devotional reading. Trying to be VERY selective, I jotted down the information about these books and roughly two dozen more, wonderfully scattered all across the map, that look like books we must reckon with (and most of them books that I want to read myself AS SOON AS POSSIBLE).

So many books, so little time. But I was glad to be here, and I look forward to next year's gathering, in Chicago.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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