Every so often I read a book that is so influential in my life that it creates a paradigm shift of sorts — sometimes by providing new insights related to various topics I’d already thought about, yet other times by substantially shifting altogether the very way I perceive things (or non-things!) to be (e.g. God, humanity, the world, etc.). Here are a few of the books that initially come to mind, along with the context surrounding the time and place in which I read them. I’d love for you to create your own lists in the comments section…
The College Years (1992-1997)
Here I begin to rethink the fundamentalism of my youth (but without having to give up the music of Rich Mullins!)
The Ragamuffin Gospel Brennan Manning
It seems kind of quaint to talk about now, but at one point along the way this little book was a game-changer for me. I read it during college, just as I was on the verge of leaving Christianity and the church altogether (essentially throwing the baby out with the bathwater). I had grown up in quite fundamentalist circles of Christianity, and had long struggled reconciling the love of Christ with the rhetoric of condemnation and harsh judgment that was so readily espoused in the churches. I vividly remember sitting on the bleachers during a Bible school basketball game (if you can believe it, in the town I grew up in there was a big rivalry between the two Bible school college basketball teams, complete with cheerleaders with skirts touching their knees!) and during halftime I asked my friends something along the lines of, “How in the world can someone like Gandhi, or someone who has never heard of Christ, burn forever in hell? How can God be so relentless in tortuous punishment if God is a God of grace?” I found their answers deeply unsatisfactory. Thankfully The Ragamuffin Gospel provided a different lens through which to view the Christian faith and I remain grateful for it to this day.
A Grief Observed C.S. Lewis
A college professor (I’d transferred to the state school by this time) asked us to read this book along with Lewis’ The Problem of Pain. A Grief Observed allowed me to see that Christianity doesn’t necessarily have good and easy answers for everything, especially in the face of suffering, which was contrary to what Lewis had previously stated in The Problem of Pain (which he had written *before* his beloved wife died of cancer far too young). At this point along the way questions related to the theodicy (i.e., “How can an all-loving and all-powerful God permit horrific evil?”) were coming to the fore and challenging my belief systems.
Night Elie Wiesel
When reflecting on the Holocaust, the Jewish theologian Irving Greenberg once said, “No statement theological or otherwise should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.” After reading Night, I began to wonder how we even begin to do theology in the wake of such atrocities. Is it even possible? While these are questions that I still ask, it wasn’t until I got to seminary a few years later that I was introduced to a handful of possibilities (particularly those that re-imagine the role and agency of God, as in process theology or even post-theism ala Caputo).
Wishful Thinking Frederick Buechner
Buechner is a Presbyterian pastor and author (his novel, Godric, made him a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in fiction). I read Buechner while in college (a year or two after reading Brennan Manning), and Wishful Thinking represents my first actual engagement with what might loosely be referred to as Protestant liberalism. While I’ve theologically moved on from here (in the same way I’ve moved on from the evangelicalism of Manning), Buechner allowed me to begin to glimpse approaches to theology that I found to be far more generous and thoughtful than the fundamentalism of my youth. I suppose I owe a debt of gratitude to evangelical author Philip Yancey, whose book Disappointment with God led me to the writings of Buechner.
Grad School (1999-2002)
Here I begin to more firmly move into liberal approaches to Christianity (these are the kinds of approaches that pretty much shape mainline theology)
Thinking the Faith Douglas John Hall
This was the very first book I had to read for the Intro to Theology course at Phillips Theological Seminary. I began to recognize that theology is always a contextual enterprise, i.e. the perspectives that are part and parcel of one’s experiences inevitably shape one’s theological outlook. The experiences of a straight white affluent guy with lots of power and privilege in the United States is not going to be the same as someone who isn’t straight or white or male, etc., and this tends to shape one’s theological commitments. This book also introduced me to Karl Barth (and the neo-orthodox theologians), Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Luther’s theology of the cross, as well as the problems of Christendom, especially its love affair with power (the theology of glory, to be contrasted by the theology of the cross).
Race Matters Cornel West
My theology professor had us read Race Matters along with Thinking the Faith, in large part to help students more fully understand how experience shapes one’s outlook, theology, and commitments. Here I was first introduced to what might be called structural racism, which runs far deeper than simple bigotry or prejudice, and I was challenged to consider how my own theological outlook was (or, more accurately, wasn’t) prepared to address such matters. Up to this point in my life most of my theology and faith was concerned with personal interests (personal salvation, personal morality, etc.), but here I began to see that any Christian theology worth its salt had to be concerned with social realities and not just personal ones. To this day I believe that substantial transformation (or, in Christian language, the coming of the kin-dom of God), has to do with social and structural transformation (the “powers and principalities” if you will) every bit as much as personal transformation. In other words, it’s not enough to simply care about other people (on a personal and sentimental and emotional level). Christianity isn’t about warm fuzzies (not that I’m entirely opposed to them!). More importantly we are called to build communities that allow everyone the opportunity to thrive — communities where structural and systemic discrimination and exploitation of all types is dismantled so a better world can come into being. Hence the reason that social justice is such a prominent theme throughout the Bible.
Thinking About God Dorothee Sölle
I so wish this book was still in print. It is a fantastic primer that introduces readers to various ways of approaching the Bible and Christian theology, including several pitfalls to look out for. I’d love to use it for a Wednesday night series at Brentwood. Sölle introduces readers to concepts like process theology, feminist theology, liberation theology, and what might loosely be described as postmodern theology. It opened my eyes to theological approaches that I had only been aware of in a most vague sense.
Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time Marcus Borg
I would be remised if I didn’t mention this early book of Borg’s, which I read in my Intro to New Testament course at Phillips Theological Seminary. Here I was further introduced to an idea that has become a major part of the way I preach and teach to this day: how to take the Bible seriously, if not always literally. There are several other books I could name that have helped me in this regard, but Borg pretty much remains the touchstone for me and so many others. It is remarkable how much the Bible came back to life for me when I began reading stories like the Garden of Eden or Jonah and the Whale (er, Big Fish) from a figurative rather than literal perspective. I used to have to do all kinds of interpretive gymnastics and hermeneutic acrobatics to try to make the Bible maintain some sort of validity, but Borg’s work, along with that of others, has helped me value the Bible in a way that I didn’t know was possible when I was younger.
Proverbs of Ashes Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker
In a book with a rare combination of deep personal depth and scholarship, Brock and Parker highlight the problems associated with the myth of redemptive violence. So often in our world we are led to believe that violence saves — it is even at the heart of Anselm’s theology of the cross — yet Brock and Parker ask if this the most helpful and faithful approach to salvation when viewed through the lens of the tradition of Jesus. Along with critiquing approaches to theology that either implicitly or explicitly support violence and abuse, this book considers a fundamental rethinking of the violence behind the doctrine of the atonement.
Saving Jesus (from those who are right) Carter Heyward
Heyward invites us to imagine God as the power of right-relation shared in and among human beings and our relationship with one another and the earth. Here the significance of Jesus for Christians leads us toward ecological, racial, economic, and gender expressions of justice.
Letter from Birmingham Jail Martin Luther King Jr.
To quote King:
“In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
There was a time when the church was very powerful . . . In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”
Need I say more?
The post-seminary days (2003 to present)
Here I begin to shift from fairly conventional liberal approaches to more “postmodern” ones, though there is still much in the liberal traditions that I continue to value
What Would Jesus Deconstruct? John Caputo
The work of Caputo first introduced me to understanding God, or the kingdom of God, beyond the lenses afforded to me in both evangelical and liberal approaches to Christianity (each of which I found wanting). Caputo shifts the conversation from “God” to “the event harbored in the name of God,” i.e., what is going on in and through theological language, what is trying to get itself done in the name of God? For Caputo, religion isn’t about trying to figure out what is (metaphysically) going on behind the scenes, but rather what is going on when we long for justice, for forgiveness, for hospitality, for love, etc. He is interested in the solicitation and call that is upon our lives, which he doesn’t have to associate with a big magical being in the sky. He likes to invoke a question made famous by St. Augustine: “What do I love when I love my God?” There is a certain unconditionality, Caputo might say, to our religious expressions, for they contain affirmations of that which we hope and sigh and dream and weep for, yet can’t quite put into words. For Caputo (and this is one of the primary reasons I find his work so persuasive and inspiring — so much so that I decided to write a book about it!), the hunger evoked in the name of God takes place with or without religion, among those who believe in God and those who do not:
“[It] seems to me more productive and fruitful to think of God as the object of affirmation and desire. Then the question is not whether there is a God — no more so than there is a question about whether there is desire — but the question is the one that Derrida picks out of Augustine’s Confessions: ‘What do I love when I love my God?’ God is the name — an endlessly translatable name — of what we love and desire and of affirmation and for me the question is, what is that? What do I desire? . . . For, in the end, it is not the name of God that we affirm, but something — some event — that is being affirmed in our affirmation of the name of God.”
In Jeffery Robbins’ excellent book After the Death of God, he summarizes Caputo’s work this way:
“The love of God is a love without category or, better, a love that exceeds all categorizations–whether religious or secular, whether theist or atheist, and whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, etc. . . . [Theferefore, the death of God, as pronounced by the Enlightenment], is not the final word, and religion is more fundamentally about desire–even, or especially, when our old beliefs have been worn away or stripped apart, whether it is by the brutalities of modern life to which we have all become spectators, or more complexly still the pretense of self-sufficiency. God is the (or, at least, one) name that we give to this desire, and religion is the (or, at least, one) means by which it takes its institutional form. But even when the name rings hollow and the form grows stale, it is the event of desire that stirs beneath that we still strive to articulate, that we still mean to affirm.”
God, the Gift, and Postmodernism John Caputo and Michael Scanlon
If you are a theology nerd interested in a bunch of essays related to religion and philosophy in a postmodern world, then this book is a must read. It features essays and dialog with Jean-Luc Marion, Jacques Derrida, John Caputo, Richard Kearney and several others. Each of these thinkers have made a *huge* impact on my understanding of God, and my theology would simply not be what it is without their respective contributions.
The Weakness of God John Caputo
Okay, you’ve sensed the trend toward Caputo by now, so I won’t say much more. The Weakness of God explores in more formal theological and philosophical terms several of the things Caputo hints at in What Would Jesus Deconstruct? He conceives of God not as the power of brute force, of magic and superstition, but, with St. Paul, as the power of the powerless, revealed in weakness and vulnerability, yet harboring (paradoxically perhaps) “the only thing strong enough to save us.” You might say that Christianity is not fundamentally about the love of power, but the power of love, as well as the claim that this unconditional call of love makes on our lives (a claim that doesn’t come with a big army to back it up, but in itself contains both risk and hope, which the crosses in our sanctuaries, provided they aren’t made of too much gold, are supposed to attest to).
Any book by Mark Driscoll