Monday, July 29, 2013

5 theology-rocking books

Photo by Aaron Suggs via Flickr
While the series on the Hauerwas & Coles book proceeds here on Restorative Theology with the Brothers Jonathan, I'm slipping this post in as part of an ad hoc NuDunkers "summer interlude" series. We've been too busy with summer commitments to organize any topical discussions, but Josh Brockway had the great idea for each of us to write up a list of "5 books that 'rocked my theology."

Dana just put hers up Saturday, Josh put his up today, and mine appears below. I'm looking forward to the other NuDunkers chiming in! And as always, anyone's more than free to join the conversation in the comments on any of these posts and at the NuDunkers G+ community page.

Like Dana, I share a distaste with systematic theology as a genre. My only substantive engagement with anything considered "systematic" is the three-volume series by James McClendon (which was an intentional short-circuting of the systematic genre). I found McClendon's work somewhat helpful but it doesn't make the list below. Next, this list will not strike some theology snoots as "proper theology," so what I'm listing below are books that have profoundly shaped my theological approach, rather them being straight-up works of theology. Finally, I'll be listing the books below in the order in which they appeared in my life (a narrative approach), thereby rocking my theological world.

1. A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren

I read this book before seminary, while completing my undergraduate studies in English in the adult degree program at Simpson College. I was 28, had been engaged in various church ministries for about 4 or 5 years, had been discerning a call to ministry, and was beginning to get intellectually curious about the Christian faith. It was sitting on the bookshelf at the Presbyterian church we were worshipping and serving with at the time in suburban Iowa, and it rocked my world. This was really the first book I read as an adult that offered serious and honest reflections about the Christian tradition, from the perspective of the author's own (righteously confused) sense of place within it. He was trying to bridge gaps, break categories, and craft something transformative and, as the title suggests, generous. And while I've since parted ways with some of McLaren's substantive commitments, this was the proverbial Right Book at the Right Time. It got me thinking critically about the church for the first time, and McLaren actively tried to defy the battleground/camp mentality of contemporary American Christianity, something I to this day actively try to ecumenically and charitably embody within my rascally minority traditions of Anabaptism and Radical Pietism.

2. The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict by William T. Cavanaugh

This is the book that taught me to forever put scare quotes around the word "religion," especially when it relates to violence that is purportedly "religiously" motivated. I was 30 years old and had just finished my first year of seminary. (I no longer had the problem of not having read "serious" books about the Christian faith, I assure you!) While taking the class, "Faith-based Peacebuilding" at EMU's Summer Peacebuilding Institute, my theology professor (Mark Thiessen Nation) and I started what came to be a seminary career-spanning practice of long conversations about "deep stuff." Mark wasn't teaching the course, but was rather giving me additional reading material to chew on while pondering the topic of peacebuilding work and the Christian faith. Reading this was also the birth of my continuing love affair with political theology, and Cavanaugh has continued to be a big figure in my reading. (Here's my first post on the book from three years ago; and a published review of another of his books from last year.)

3. World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age by C. Kavin Rowe

The following fall semester, beginning my second year of seminary, I was in a course with Mark Thiessen Nation called "The Politics of Jesus Re-mixed." Typical of any of Mark's classes was a mountain of challenging reading material which included this book. It is easily the most difficult book I've ever read (up there w/ Crime and Punishment), but, also like Dostoevsky's classic, one of the most rewarding. It took a book of the Bible that I already loved and consider central to my own spiritual journey and blew my intellectual doors wide open on it. This is the book that taught me the significance of the central confession that "Jesus Christ is Lord" and just how subversive that confession was (and is still today). Part of the rigor came from copious amounts of untransliterated Greek (which I didn't take in seminary beyond an intro Greek & Hebrew course), some untranslated German theology references, and even some untranslated Russian! This is also the book that introduced me to the game-changing concept of the "social imaginary," drawn from philosopher Charles Taylor, which continues to shape my thinking. So this is the book that began my love affair with philosophy, in addition to its political theology dimensions.

4. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter

For some stupid reason, I voluntarily added this book to my reading list in the same course as the previous book. Hunter is a sociologist and not a theologian, so his work in this book is diagnosing American Christianity, which he does brilliantly by breaking the current scene down into three categories: the Christian Left, the Christian Right, and Neo-Anabaptists. Near the end of the book he presents his constructive theological argument called "faithful presence," which wasn't nearly as helpful for me as the diagnostic stuff in the first three sections of the book. His eleven propositions on what culture and cultural change is/are continue to be helpful in my thinking. With this and the previous book, I tried to write a "serious" paper on radical biblical and cultural hermeneutics, which was later presented at a "young scholars" symposium. So I guess these two books marked the beginning of my trying to be a scholar in more ways than just writing papers for seminary courses.

5. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory by Alasdair MacIntyre

Yet another book that is not theology, but has permanently messed with my brain which is where I do my theologizing. As a work of moral philosophy, this book has been incredibly influential. It was footnoted countless times across my seminary career, and I finally started reading it in my final semester and finished it just after graduation last year when I proclaimed here, "After Virtue...I'm exhausted." This book continued the philosophical trajectory of my intellectual development and will no doubt continue to do so as I pursue my abiding interests in political theology and moral philosophy, particularly around Christian witness and the restorative justice movement.

Authors of honorable mention

Lurking behind much of the above is the work of three men (yes, more men; more on that below): John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and James K.A. Smith. Their influences were so pervasive as to not be easily identifiable in any single book. I read a lot of all of them. Yoder & Hauerwas were in the water I drank from Mark Thiessen Nation and pervaded much of my reading, writing, thinking, and discussions. James K.A. Smith was a huge influence as well, and was mostly responsible for the "philosophical turn" in my development. He got me into MacIntyre, Taylor, and Wittgenstein before going into any of the primary source material, and his "cultural liturgies" project has been a huge influence.

When it comes to the "peacebuilding" side of my education, I also need to mention the work of my professor and mentor, Howard Zehr, and his book Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice and David Cayley's The Expanding Prison: The Crisis in Crime and Punishment and the Search for Alternatives. The work I've done on the integration between restorative justice and Anabaptism wouldn't be possible without these two. And bleeding back into theology and biblical studies is Christopher Marshall's incredible book Compassionate Justice: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue with Two Gospel Parables on Law, Crime, and Restorative Justice.

Amazingly, stupidly absent: Non-whites, non-men

I am a white man in the middle class, and most of my intellectual influencers have been white male intellectual elites. This is a problem. Mostly due to my prior education in postmodern lit with an emphasis on minority perspectives (and coming from a minority tradition within Christianity), I continue to grapple with this and actively look for ways to make sure the reading, writing, discussion, and theologizing I'm doing is not perpetuating the historically problematic tendency of European and European-derived men that We Know Everything About Everything And Aren't Afraid To Tell You (Even If You Didn't Ask). I know I continue to have blind spots here and eagerly invite critique and discussion as it relates to the pure testosterone factor of my intellectual life.

So there you have it. The books that rocked my theological world.

No comments:

Post a Comment