Cover image for Recent reference books in religion : a guide for students, scholars, researchers, buyers & readers
Recent reference books in religion : a guide for students, scholars, researchers, buyers & readers
Johnston, William M., 1936-
Personal Author:
Revised edition.
Publication Information:
Chicago : Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1998.
Physical Description:
329 pages ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
Z7751 .J654 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks-Non circulating

On Order



First Published in 1998. Routledge is an imprint of Taylor & Francis, an informa company.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Theological librarianship has a long and distinguished tradition of selection tools for library collections. Among the titles published over the past decade, from brief lists for clergy to multivolume bibliographies, the best guides not only help researchers keep abreast of what is being published but in varying degrees of detail provide evaluations or recommendations. Johnston (Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst) offers a guide that in several ways stands out from others. Its most remarkable quality is its uncanny mix of learning and enthusiasm. Johnston's book rests on a staggering amount of thorough, critical reading of hundreds of works, but the author's advocacy, and his unflagging conviction that reference sources are undiscovered, underappreciated, neglected treasures, never fail him. The book is energized by a love for this literature. One expects thoroughness and accuracy in a work like this, but not its animation and liveliness. It is a "gourmet guide to the feast of reference sources," peppered with adjectives like "meaty," "piquant," and "zesty" and verbs like "digests," "tantalizes," and "whets," in a remarkable combination of erudition and appetite. In his two-part introduction, the author reveals his aims, "to clarify the purpose and function of reference books," and to redefine their meaning in a postmodern culture (i.e., the "deconfessionalization" of religious studies in an environment of "pluralized discourse" and "blurred genres"). He hopes to reawaken scholars to the value of reference works: "never have reference books been so numerous, so comprehensive or so inventive as during the past ten years, and yet few critics have saluted this accomplishment. . . . [They are] the unsung masterpieces of postmodernism." He attributes this neglect to scholarly preoccupation with research intended to "further career advancement. In today's academia scholars get so lavishly rewarded for honing specialized expertise that they hesitate to put forward knowledge that may seem `merely' encyclopedic." The glossary sets out to clarify the types and functions of reference works, of which Johnston identifies 22. This taxonomy not only provides a schema for his assessment of hundreds of reference titles, but prods readers to reconsider the complexity and variety of the literature. The "Directory of Reference Works" consists of a critical selection of more than 300 reference titles, most published since 1980, arranged in five broad categories (World Religions, Christianity, Other Prophetic Religions, Asian Religions, and Alternative Approaches). These categories have numerous subdivisions (especially Christianity), each of which begins with a survey of its current reference literature. In the "Works Analyzed" sections that follow, comment is pithy and frank, with acclaim offered as appropriate ("superlative . . . incisive . . . sophisticated . . . indispensable . . . no historian can afford to ignore it"), as well as criticism ("this behemoth too rarely throws up pithy insights . . . lack of sparkle does a disservice to a field that has nurtured brilliant writers"). One of Johnston's 22 categories, "Menippean Satire," is reserved for works that exhibit a "surfeit of erudition." Comparisons between works are numerous. Entries are numbered to facilitate cross-referencing and indexing. Two appendixes are helpful and intriguing: "Favorite Reference Books" suggests titles for specific needs or scenarios, and "Reference Books That Cry Out to Be Written" points to significant gaps in the literature. Since Johnston frequently notes poor or absent indexes and bibliographies, it is no surprise to find five indexes in his own book: titles, authors, topics, persons, and places. This revision of his earlier book with the same title (1996) has a ten-page addendum of works with imprint dates from 1996 and 1997, with comments usually briefer and more favorable. Johnston concentrates on resources in print, according electronic and other nonprint media only cursory mention: "scholars linger over bibliographic searches conducted via the Internet in catalogs of libraries worldwide. . . . Almost always, the best sifted bibliographies on any question, great or small, pop up not in a computer database but rather in an up-to-date reference book." Not everyone will be convinced: Johnston might usefully have compared the printed and CD-ROM versions of The Anchor Bible Dictionary (CH, Apr'93). Both as the premier selection guide for religion and theology, and to goad students and scholars into rediscovering the reference section in their libraries, Johnston's book is timely and welcome. Ironically, its appearance raises questions of who will ensure periodic updates and whether this level of quality can be maintained. D. Stewart Regent College