Religion For Dummies just smart enough

In our USA Today sound-bite culture, information is increasingly consolidated and summarized for busy readers. Thus no one should be surprised at the phenomenal success of the “For Dummies” series of self-help, how-to books, which have sold an astonishing 125 million copies in 39 languages since first appearing in 1991.

Based initially on intimidation fostered by the technological revolution, the series began in response to computer manuals that made otherwise intelligent people feel like “dummies.” As the series advertising boasts, these are reference books “for the rest of us.”

The first book in the series, “DOS for Dummies,” provided the needed information but also related to the anxiety and frustration that people felt about the rapidly shifting technology. A hallmark of the “For Dummies” series is its self-effacing spirit, poking fun at the subject and using stories and cartoons to provide occasional comic relief.

The basic approach of each of the dozens of titles in the “For Dummies” series is access and simplification. Technical language and detailed elaboration is eschewed in favor of crisp, concise descriptions rendered in pithy paragraphs enhanced by modest design layouts, sidebars and occasional pictures and cartoons. Checklists relieve some of the lengthier text portions.

“Religion for Dummies” is a paradigm of the recipe. First, take an incredibly complicated topic that lots of people want to know about (religion). Second, assign the writing to attractive authors (syndicated “God Squad” personalities Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman). Third, lay out some fundamental data (religion basics, beliefs, rituals and ethics in 12 chapters). Fourth and finally, include profiles with something for everyone. The authors give us 13 of those.

It is likely that the editorial process required to condense so much human knowledge and experience leaves little room for nuance or exploration in depth. This makes the “For Dummies” books easy targets for derision. But looked at as introductions to subjects they can be quite useful. “For Dummies” is really designed for the unsophisticated novice, navigating uncharted seas.

A student of comparative religions would need to look elsewhere, such as to the Time-Life Series on the World’s Great Religions (first published in the 1950s but still meritorious), to begin to do justice to the subject. So who is this volume for? One thought: It might be helpful to those of us who realize in these troubled times how relatively little we know about Islam. “Religion for Dummies” offers 103 entries in the index referring to Muslim views.

The book might also be used in Jewish education to compare and contrast Judaism with other faith traditions regarding such topics as the nature of God, sacred texts, rituals, meditation, pilgrimage, charity, marriage and the afterlife.

Yet the disadvantages of such cursory treatment inevitably becomes clear. For example, there is ample introductory coverage of the practice of baptism in Christian churches, but no mention of the role of water in Judaism, as in the mikvah. But all in all, this is a book that doesn’t disappoint just because it really cannot offer encyclopedic coverage. Rather, it is made for dipping into and skipping through.

An interesting, even amazing, variety of religious cultural beliefs and practices awaits the spiritual explorer. But caveat emptor for the seeker of advice, which is a staple of the “For Dummies” series: the sections on “Understanding Human Nature,” “How Should We Live?” and “What Happens After We Die?” each receive about a half-page treatment. Judaism gets two pages.

“Religion for Dummies,” by Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman (432 pages, For Dummies, $21.99.)