Sunday, November 15, 2009

Favorite Theological Books: The Short List

During my recent travels, one of my friends asked if I would compile a list of my favorite theological books. I said of course and then got to work mulling it over. I don't want to be too overwhelming. I don't want to include every book that's ever been important to me. At first, I tried to limit myself to 10 books, but I let myself go over that limit a bit.

I thought this list might be useful to other people, and so I post it here:

1. Anything by Kathleen Norris, but if I had to choose just one, I’d choose The Cloister Walk—it makes me want to write poems, it makes me want to visit a monastery (perhaps to move to a monastery), it makes me want to revisit books of the Bible which I haven’t thought about in years. There are longer essays for days when you have more time, and short essays for days when you don’t. Easy to dip in and out of.

2. Things Seen and Unseen by Nora Gallagher. This book follows the writer through a liturgical year, as she delves deeper into her faith. Great thoughts on labyrinths, the issue of homosexuality, the role of Christ, the pain of death, the joys of everyday life. Her book Practicing Resurrection is fabulous too, especially for those of us who play with the idea of becoming ordained ministers.

3. Anything by Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was one of the first theologians I ever read. My father loved him too. When I was in college, my dad came to a Sojourners Pentecostal peace and justice event with me. He didn’t agree with all of the politics, but the pull of Nouwen was stronger than political disagreements. I’m most fond of Nouwen’s journals, in which he honestly writes about his struggles, particularly with wanting to be liked/loved. It took him many decades to find his niche, in terms of work, and his journals write about his efforts to discern his true call.

4. I have yet to read a book by Eugene Peterson that I didn’t like. I particularly admire the series he begins with Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, but a more accessible book is A Long Obedience: Discipleship in an Instant Society.

5. If you want an interesting approach to the Emergent church movement, you might start with The Church in Emerging Culture. Len Sweet moderates a conversation with writers/theologians/leaders from various points on the church spectrum: Andy Crouch, Michael Horton, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Brian D. McLaren, and Erwin Raphael McManus.

6. So far, I’ve liked all of Brian McLaren’s books, but my favorite is A Generous Orthodoxy. He discusses a variety of spiritual traditions (both within and outside of Christianity) and what he finds valuable about each.

7. I have no problems with the Jesus Seminar and the idea of using recent archaeological discoveries to inform our reading of the Bible. My favorite scholar in this tradition is Marcus Borg, and my favorite book of his is The Heart of Christianity.

8. On my first trip to Mepkin Abbey, I picked up Beyond the Walls by Paul Wilkes. It’s a great introduction to monastic life and what we can learn from the monks. It’s a great story of a man’s return to Mepkin Abbey as the seasons change and of all that he learns.

9. I recently read An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor. It’s a lyrical look at the places outside of the church building where we can encounter God. She also discusses several spiritual practices, like keeping some Sabbath time each week.

10. Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution both enchanted me and made me feel like I wasn’t as fully committed to living out my faith as I should be. He’s young and tells the story of the alternative, religious community of which he’s part. Very inspiring.

11. Faith Works by Jim Wallis is the book for when you need to feel inspired to continue doing social justice work.

12. Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art had already expanded my brain by page 19: “God is always calling on us to do the impossible. It helps me to remember that anything Jesus did during his life here on earth is something we should be able to do, too.” The rest of the book does not disappoint.

13. Likewise Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire by Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat expanded my thinking about spiritual issues, particularly tithing: “Our guidepost we work with is that if ever find in a given year that we have invested more in our own future by way of retirement savings than we have given away for someone else’s present need, there is something terribly wrong. We tend to think the ratio should be at least two to one: for every dollar we invest in retirement savings, two dollars should be given away to an agency that will serve the poor” (189).

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