Review – The Heart of Religion

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I received the electronic version of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The authors have taken on quite a task. Through qualitative and quantitative statistical methods they seek to understand the impact of experiencing divine or godly love has on benevolence. The quantitative survey served to determine what categories had impact on benevolence. The real treasure, however, is their use of qualitative interviews to put “meat” onto the skeletal bones of the survey data.

The book does not focus on organized religion such as denominations or organizations, but rather “lived” religion which the authors believe, at the source, lies an inner experience of love that provides the impetus for religion. The book is appropriate for wide range of individuals from social scientists to laypersons. While each group will find items of interest, because of its wide audience, there could be disappointments as well. The authors mention that when they shared drafts with people, the scholars wanted it to be more academic and the non-scholars wanted it less academic. Yet, whether scholar or not, people wanted to read the rest of the book, a desire with which I concur.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in how divine love “plays out” in someone’s life. This is a scientific work. The survey data was enlightening, but the interviews and the exemplar’s stories were able to give insight into how one, empowered by divine love, views his or her life and lives in response to that love.

There’s a lot I could say about this book. While there have been religious surveys in the past, this is perhaps the first one to truly look behind the data. There were surprises and confirmations. What I appreciated the most was the authors commitment to digging under the surface of assumptions to understand what happens in a person’s life when they experience divine love. One of the great takeaways for me was their heuristic of “The Process of Participating in Godly Love” which, I believe, could be used to undergird a mentoring or discipleship process. At the very least, the heuristic gives insight into how one’s life is affected by godly love.

I did have some struggles while reading the book. The authors sought to discover “how Americans wake up to the reality of divine love in  a Christian context and then attempt to express that love to others through benevolent acts.” Yet, many times I felt the accounts of the exemplars were more from outliers than normal everyday Americans. The exemplar’s whose stories were told ran complex and extensive ministries, put their lives or livelihoods on the line, or were instrumental to social change. I wanted more data from everyday people who were trying to live life and how divine love impacted their benevolence.

I started wondering if that wasn’t part of the point. When someone’s life has been overtaken by an experience of divine love they do become an outlier. Their lives are turned completely upside down. They become somewhat consumed by love which is lived out in ministry to the world. Or, perhaps they authors believed that looking at exemplars gave greater insight into the effects of godly love than the live’s of non-exemplars would have. In all fairness, the authors did mention several times that the book represented a small part of their research. With the size limits of the book, it would not be possible to include data from all of the individuals interviewed.

Because of the extensiveness of the findings the authors had to choose to focus on a small part of the results, choosing to focus on those more pentecostal (as a worldview rather than denomination). I would have liked to see a broader address of other non-pentecostals and perhaps even faiths other than Christian. Given the choice to focus on pentecostalism, I found it interesting that at least one of the authors had already written several books about pentecostalism. It doesn’t seem that was the reason for the pentecostalism focus, but rather that those more pentecostal, or open to experience of God’s spirit, also tend to experience godly love more often.

As it stands, the book is over 300 pages (with endnotes), so including more data, more interviews, more stories, would have made the book too large. I, for one, look forward to seeing more results from this research.

One surprise was how this book has caused me to reassess some of my prejudices and piqued my interest in alternative expressions of Christianity. The book contains enough statistical data that to plumbs its depths would take more than a single reading. I thank the authors for their work and pray for their continued success and insight.

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