Foreword Reviews

Our Special Section on Religion: The Incomprehensible Elephant in the Room


A well-known Eastern parable asks six sightless people to touch different parts of an elephant, and to describe what they are feeling. Each interprets the thing beneath their hands differently. Each person is a little bit right; no one articulates the full picture. The elephant stands stock still, waiting to be comprehended.

That elephant, and its bumbling analysts, still seems to me to be a perfect illustration of our manifold approaches to ultimate truth. We’re all describing a pinch of it; there’s no way that any of us is encapsulating it all. Listening to others, and honoring their understandings, is our best chance of piecing together a reasonable idea of the whole.

I didn’t grow up in environments that approached religion that way, though. The denomination that loomed over my small Southern town was staunchly fundamentalist; those who attended were absolutely convinced that what they felt beneath their hands comprised the total truth.

In a high school discussion, my classmates traveled from Hester Prynne to the topic of salvation. “What about a child who dies before they’ve heard about Jesus?” Someone challenged. Believers had an answer ready: no eternity. “What about someone who lives their whole life well, but never hears about God?” Damnation is damnation.

I never could bring myself to accept that exclusivity. It was the thing about the South that wouldn’t stick. Wisteria springs, sweet tea and fried green tomatoes, a handy and adaptable drawl: that’s all great, y’all. But even as a believer, narrow ideas of salvation rubbed me wrong. Flannery O’Connor is my South, and Harper Lee; the notions presented on simple tracts never could be. The truth there seems to be, at most, as wide as an elephant’s tail.

Our planet now hosts seven billion people plus, with seven billion plus slightly different worldviews—even if worldviews do often converge. There’s a beauty in that diversity, and a richness and nuance that resists dichotomies. There’s a rightness to so much passionate disagreement. Honoring this multitude of paths to the ultimate truth seems to be the most enriching way to approach discussions of religion, and we’ve sought to honor that here.

For our focus on religion, we included the stories of those who moved away from faith, who moved into it, and who traveled between traditions; we’ve included both overt religious expressions and explorations of spirituality, too. Those who believe in one god are present, as are those who believe in many; those who find holiness in the natural world are here as well.

Religion is praised for its loveliness and is indicted for the ways in which it causes pain and strife. God is honored; God is challenged. Every book honors somebody’s truth; every page brings us closer to understanding the whole, complex world around us.

The world’s religions are a medley; the noise generated by and around religious topics can often get cacophonous. We hope that those who approach these diverse books might come to agree that it doesn’t need to be that way—that order can be found in listening to each other, rather than in choosing to talk over differing perspectives. From the medley we can draw a melody. There’s a full elephant in there, somewhere, just waiting for our descriptions to converge.

Religion Special Section

Children’s Religion

For Children: Children are often curious about the world around them—including how it was formed, the morals associated with participating in it, and the stories of their beliefs. These Books Guide Children Through Religion

In Fiction: Religion plays a major role in many people’s lives all over the world. Shouldn’t that be reflected in our fiction? These fiction books showcase the importance of religion in the characters’ lives.

Culture: Religion is something that can permeate your activities, it can build cultures, and it can help in times of trouble. These books reviewed in our Religion Spotlight demonstrate how religion can be a part of our actions and experiences. Books on Religion to Guide Everyday Life

Histories and Journeys: Religion is complex and personal, but it’s also good to reach out and discover more of it. These books reviewed in our Religion Spotlight focus on personal journeys, histories, and intricacies of religion.

Michelle Anne Schingler
Michelle Anne Schingler is the managing editor at Foreword Reviews. You can follow her on Twitter @mschingler or e-mail her at

Michelle Anne Schingler

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