Overtime: Reading for after Our Courses

There is nothing like the rush of being finished with a course and getting a good night's sleep. It is a kind of resurrection. It must be — what other explanation can there be when students and alumni ask for further reading suggestions?

But what a great question! If we don't keep exercising, the conditioning we worked so hard to achieve fades and eventually disappears. Vital participation in the life of the church is of course essential to keeping doctrine alive, but for people who have had formal theological training further reading is important too. Theological books are to formally trained theological thinkers as the Eucharist is to believers.

Yes, I really said that. (And I don't mean that you should "keep it special" by not doing it too often.)

But before I give you concrete suggestions on books to read, you need to learn something more important.

The Basics of Theological Bookshopping

Think of how you learn about the music you like. It happens through connections. A friend turns you onto a band, or you hear a track somewhere and chase it down. Once you discover an artist, you go through that artist's catalog. If the lead came through a friend, you find out what else your friend likes. You also go through the artist's influences — through the music that this artist likes and follows. You check out similar sounding material, radio or internet-radio stations with similar play lists, and so on. If you are really an insider, you also pay attention to what labels release the music you like. When I was a college DJ in the eighties, Warner Records had a great alternative music catalog. Their A&R department did a good job covering the scene. So when I saw something from Warner I was more interested in it than I was when I saw something from CBS.

Connections work because pop music is a tradition. Traditions are messy, sprawling things, with all kinds of voices, levels of quality, points of view, pioneers, leaders, followers, betrayers, exploiters, paths of influence, conversations, arguments, and social circles. Navigating through them means working through the movements and circles and personalities. Six Degrees of Separation isn't an accident.

Theology works the same way. Fortunately, we are scrupulous documenters of our connections, so working through our tradition is pretty easy. When you find something you like — say, an idea in a book, or a sermon from your pastor — chase it down. Where did the author or pastor get the idea for that message? Pastors don't usually footnote their sermons (oh, how I wish they did), but writers do. Check the footnotes and note both the person and the text cited there. Check the index for people who are prominent in the argument. Check the bibliography for the works that fueled the author's thinking. Check the blurbs in the back, and check the acknowledgements and introduction in the front. If you notice that, say, Richard Bauckham comes up many times or in a pivotal point in the author's reasoning, then cool! You just made a connection to a brilliant theologian and biblical scholar. Chase him down and his work will bless you.

Here is how to chase him down:

  • Who is he? (Check the author's bio in a book, or google him. Maybe he has a home page!)
  • What else has he written? (Check amazon.com, a well-stocked bookstore, and his bibliographies.)
  • What does he read and whom does he argue with? (Check his indexes and bibliographies, and pay attention when you read his books.)
  • Who reads him? (Check blurbs on his own books, and indexes and bibliographies in others' books. This information will only emerge over time.) Who writes about him? (Book reviews in theological journals.)
  • What are his theological-social circles? (See what else his publishers publish, who else teaches at his school, and what denominational afflilation he and they have.)

The key here is being both observant and diligent. The information is there, and the detective work is pretty straightforward. Do it and you will not only have plenty of absorbing reading, you will become part of a scene.

General education classes and majors are here to get you started, but you need to continue on your own if your education is really going to live. Think of a car with a manual transmission. The job of first and second gear isn't to get you places. It's to get you moving.

Reading Suggestions

In that spirit, here is a list of "second-gear" readings for "alumni" of my general education Doctrine classes (rs20). Below is a "third-gear-plus" list for alumni with a degree in religious studies. Of course, both groups are welcome to peruse my list of reading for aspiring theologians.

Both lists include symbols designating their level of sophistication. A useful rule of thumb is that if you received an A in the course, you are ready for or even , while if you received a B or lower you should probably start with before moving on.

My favorites are in boldface.

rs20 Further Reading

My doctrine courses no longer feature a main general introductory text to Christian theology. This is not because there is no good one — there are many very good ones — but because in an intro course the author's voice interferes too much with mine. We overlap; we differ; we do things in a different order. Add this interference to the distinctions between my agenda and all the different agendas of our secondary readings, and having a primary text is more trouble than it is worth.

After the course, it is a different story altogether. Now is the perfect time to let someone else lead you through his or her theological vision. Read through a one-volume (or if you really loved the course, a multi-volume) systematic theology and you will discover that theology is recorded in stereo. Mine is not the only voice; not by any means. Others see the glory too, but from different perspectives. These different perspectives show you things I haven't shown you, things I don't see, and things I don't think are there.

Here are some good one-volume theological introductions:

James Howell, Exploring Christology. A good solid introduction not just to theology but Old Testament, New Testament, and church history. Use it to remind you, whet your appetite, or gain other perspectives.
A.J. Conyers, A Basic Christian Theology. Traditional Baptist.
Alan Johnson and Robert Webber, What Christians Believe. Basic, evangelical-ecumenical.
John H. Leith, Basic Christian Doctrine. Reformed, generally conservative.
Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine. Reformed, moderate rather than conservative, slightly Barthian.
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters. By a Roman Catholic New Testament scholar.
The Evangelical Catechism by Pilgrim Press. An introduction to the basic creedal faith of the Christian tradition.
Roger Olson, The Story of Christian Theology. Goes historically through the major developmental milestones of Christian thought.
Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline. Creedally ordered reflections in a post-World War II pastoral teaching context.
Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), Introduction to Christianity.
A masterful exposition of the significance of the Apostles' Creed, drawing on everything from twentieth century philosophy to history of religions to theological exegesis.
Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Official Catholicism. Begin with the section on the creed.
Helmut Gollwitzer, ed., Karl Barth: Church Dogmatics: A Selection.
The greatest hits from Barth's expansive multi-volume systematic theology.
James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Doctrine.
A postmodern Baptist reformulation of classical biblical theology.

I stuff my book lists with secondary readings. These develop the lessons of Christian doctrine in narrower and more concrete contexts.

Augustine, Confessions. How to think about God, the world, and yourself; how to pray; how to confess; how to live. Augustine changed everything.
Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo, Adventures in Missing the Point. Takes aim at ways evangelical theology falls short, ignores important issues, and obsesses about theological and practical trivia. I don't use it in class because I worry it would make you cynical rather than critical.
David S. Cunningham, Reading is Believing. Cunningham insightfully keys the main topics of theology to pieces of literature and film.
Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret. A Trinitarian account of mission that has revolutionized my understanding of the good news.
Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy. McLaren is working toward an ecumenical synthesis of insights from the various groups of Christians across the world and from the past to the present. This is a particularly successful step in that walk of appropriating and re-crafting the teachings of historical Christianity in a postmodern, postdarwinian context.
Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People. Why the church is supposed to look different.
Vincent O'Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered. A Catholic missionary turns to Paul for a strategy to witness to the Masai people of Kenya, and surprise! it works!
Brad J. Kallenberg, Live to Tell: Evangelism in a Postmodern Age. Apologetics and evangelism work differently, and better, than we usually think. Kallenberg explains why. If you feel "stuck" in a lifeless faith or feel unable to communicate the good news, this might refresh you.
Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence. This is a historical, philosophical, theological account of why our categories of reason, faith, subjectivity, objectivity, theory, practice, facts, values, worldview, and the like fail us. This will turn your understanding of Christianity right side up.
John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus. Yoder doesn't say "yes, but" to following Jesus. This is an academic sketch of what it looks just to say "yes."
R.R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church. Sage advice for those caught up in the American habit of leaving churches that disappoint.

rs Major Further Reading

(Sorry — this part is still under construction!)

For religious studies majors who are graduating, or just looking for summer reading in theology, my main suggestions are in my list of reading for aspiring theologians. Beyond those, I recommend a look at the reading lists for my upper-division classes; look at the "reading" pages on my syllabi. I am just beginning the process of expanding these lists with further reading....

There is a place for reflecting on theology as a discipline unto itself. If you like theology enough to think about theology, rather than just think theologically, here are guides to help you do that. Warning: You may be headed into a life of doing this, either in the pastorate or in a teaching capacity. Fear not! It's great!

Colin Gunton, The Practice of Theology: A Reader. A historical and systematic guide that covers a wide range of eras, traditions, and movements.