Monday, March 27, 2017

Twenty works on theology and religion everyone should read

I have a slew of friends headed to seminary this coming fall, and some of them have been asking for reading recommendations. Of course, they'll be buried in reading assignments once they get their syllabi, but in the meantime, I thought I'd post a suggested reading list. No claims to any kinds of comprehensiveness here, there's so much I've left off, but I hope this is idiosyncratic and inspiring enough to get you started (or continuing) a lifetime of reading that takes the top off your head (Emily Dickinson).

1. Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology, Volumes 1 & 2: I start with systematic theology, not because it is the end-all-be-all of theology and religion, but because it is sometimes the most startlingly clear, and in the case of Jenson, it also happens to be the most beautiful. You can learn from Jenson not only how to write theology, but also how to construct prose.

2. Andrew Pettegree's Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe--and Started the Protestant Reformation: The title pretty much says it all, but in this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this one, more than any other book, will connect the dots between our century and Luther's.

3. James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree: Every book by Cone is worth reading, but this one is easily the most accessible, and life-changing. You'll never see the cross, or race in America, the same way again.

4. Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins: There are many incredible works of feminist theology, but this one is the most I read as I started seminary that taught me that re-interpreting the faith in light of feminism (and against patriarchy) means reading all the way back to the origins.

5. Gerhard Forde's On Being a Theologian of the Cross: My theological mentor, Forde taught me Lutheran theology, and this book does it more clearly than any other.

6. Fink and Starke's The Churching of America: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy: Almost everything we think we know about the development of Christianity in America is wrong, and these two authors show us why.

7. Ellen Davis's Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible: I wanted to list Wendell Berry here, but he's theology "adjacent" rather than theology straight up, but his closest theological reader and biblical scholar is Ellen Davis, and this commentary will knock your socks off.

8. J.R.R. Tolkien's On Fairy Stories: Okay, this isn't theology per se, but to understand the theological underpinnings of the greatest myth outside the Bible, this is the work of Tolkien to read.

9. Athanasius's On the Incarnation: I needed to list one church "father," so I chose this one, which I do genuinely love. Christ crucified in the air.

10. Tex Sample, Earthy Mysticism: Spirituality for Unspiritual People: Tex gets Christianity and class issues better than anyone else. Take a deep dive into all his stuff, especially writings on the working class.

11. Colin Gunton's Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: There are many ways into the revival in Trinitarian theology, but I just can't get enough of Gunton, who died too soon, and left us a legacy of beautiful written reflections on the Trinity.

12. James Alison's  On Being Liked: A Catholic theologian who takes Girardian theology and makes it accessible, especially transforming the way we think about sexuality and gender. Read lots of him.

13. Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness: Well, it's not theology straight up, but the apprehending of black bodies is the THE theological heresy of our era, in our nation, and Alexander is the voice that changed the conversation.

14. James Kugel's, How To Read the Bible: Kugel is a modern biblical scholar and Harvard AND an Orthodox Jew. He holds these in tension in his reading of Scripture, and leaves you the reader in the tension also. This is a VERY long book, and totally worth all the time you give to it.

15. Eugene F. Rogers After the Spirit: If you're going to read theology, you should probably at some point read a pneumatology. A constructive proposal for an "embodied pneumatology" that is uniquely scriptural and liturgical, one that post-critically mines the riches of the tradition (writ large) while speaking in a fresh voice that moves us beyond the impasse of much modern thought on the Spirit.

16. Elizabeth Johnson's Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints: I love Mary, and love that many of my neighbors in faith (Catholics and Orthodox) TRULY love Mary. This is a beautiful catholic and feminist exploration of such love.

17. Edwin Friedman's A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix: So many books about leadership, but really pretty much this one covers it all. Then go back and read his stuff on family systems theory.

18. Martin Luther's Freedom of a Christian. Then, Walter Altmann's Luther and Liberation: A Latin American Perspective: If you're going to read theology, you're going to want to read liberation theology, and if you're Lutheran, you're going to want some tools for connecting Lutheranism and liberation. This book does the job, and then some.

19. Friedrich Schleiermacher's The Christian Faith: If we're talking history of influence, this book, and this author, have probably had more impact on Christian theology today than anyone else.

20. Leslie Newbigin's Foolishness to the Greeks: A classic in missiology that invests the majority of its energy in reframing how those who wish to be on mission are shaped by their Western culture.

Having completed the list, I'm already thinking of all I've left off: Marilynne Robinson, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sertillanges book on The Intellectual Life, and on and on. But this is a start. Please, add more suggestions in the comments.


  1. Seriously missing is Luther's Freedom of a Christian. I'd also suggest that Cyril of Jerusalem's mystagogical catecheses (lectures on the sacraments) might have a place on the list.

  2. Christus Victor by Gustav Aulien and pedagogy of the oppressed by Paulo Freire are two books I've found to be essential.