Books are the power tool of the Western mind, nearly always the best way to put together an explosive subject.
That was the current state of scientific inquiry when two ambitious young women in 1978 set out to write the first history of world religions.
Their books, the splendidly titled The Lives of the Dead and the flawed but joyfully innovative The Stalking of the Shroud, were watersheds: a pioneering attempt to teach the full extent of the afterlife and to debunk fundamental elements of each faith; not only skeptical of all the multiple faiths but mostly ignoring them entirely. That is to say that in Les Payne’s soon-to-be updated, 20th-century-archaeological and biographical The Dead Are Arising, people mingle and clash, studying the dead and living.
Mr. Payne is a dogged chronicleer: if he does not know who a deceased man, woman or child is, he doesn’t keep a record; they are not people. But neither are they mere propitiations or holy messengers. Their writings are intricately layered, as is Mr. Payne’s biography.
Readers will read about worlds (Christianity) built on juxtapositions, in which the Judeo-Christian tradition has been able to win converts (Roman Catholicism), or to distract the faithful from politics (Islamic sects). More distinct and complex than did his earlier books on subjects such as African spirituality, the epidemiology of death, and the “natural science” of the Holocaust are the ways in which these religions lived alongside and toward each other.
Read the full review at NYT Book Review »