Composing lists is always a dangerous thing. This is not so much a Top Ten reading list as it is, perhaps, something like Rich Simpson's "Greatest Hits." These are books from which thoughtful Christian leaders, both ordained and lay, have something to learn, and writers with whom we ought to be familiar. It's clearly not exhaustive, but it's a place to start. All of these are books that I'd enjoy discussing over a beer, or a cup of coffee. All of them have left a mark on me over time and have been read from cover to cover more than once. I think I've read Life Together a dozen or more times by now; I used to sit down and read it as a parish priest whenever I felt that my "wish dream" for the Church was overwhelming my gratitude for the complex fleshy reality of the congregation that I'd been called to serve.
My criteria is not only that they have all "stood the test of time" but that they seem particularly relevant today to our current context and therefore deserve another look. They all have gravitas. While I am fully aware that as soon as I publish this list I'll easily think of three or more books I should have added to this list, I think it's safe to say that as long as my list might get I can't imagine excluding any of these writers even if one might quibble over which of their books to begin with.
So it's a list of some of the recommendations that come to my mind in this moment in July 2017 for summer reading. Admittedly, most of these books were published a while ago, but in a sense this is the point. They are "classics" that people interested in Christian community should be familiar with, and for me, at least, they have stood the test of time. They deserve a first, or another, look in this time and place. They are for people who are interested, as I am, in the mission of the Church and some of the issues raised in fulfilling that mission; I think regardless of denomination or even of whether one situates oneself to the right, center, or left of the theological spectrum. None of them will be found in the self-help section or even in the "spirituality" section of a bookstore (if those even still exist!)
There are two Jews on this list for Christian leaders: Edwin Friedman and Amy-Jill Levine. If this list was fifteen recommendations I am certain that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would make the list and maybe he should be on this list (I'm just not sure who to drop!) Heschel's book on The Prophets and his work on Sabbath have left big marks on me. Friedman, Levine, and Heschel should be familiar to Christians who have too often forgotten our own heritage and our enormous debt to Judaism.
There are three African-Americans on this list. As mentioned below, James Cone could also be on this list as well and if I added him at #11 it'd probably be God of the Oppressed. Each of them have helped introduce this white boy to the spiritual depth and prophetic power of the Black Church. In these difficult times I need to return to them and others since I have been shaped by and live and work in a predominantly white context.
There are four women on this list and many more who have reminded me how "male" the tradition we have inherited has been and the enormous debt I owe to feminist theology. I was truly blessed by teachers like Jouette Bassler at Georgetown (before she left for Perkins School of Theology) and Catherine Keller at Drew who didn't ever make the men in their classes feel less than human even as they challenged the systems of male domination and privilege that continue to make women feel that way. There is a book written by Brian Wren entitled What Language Shall I Borrow? God-Talk in Worship: A Male Response to Feminist Theology that expresses well the sense of gratitude I share with Wren for the women who have both challenged and encouraged me in my journey so far.
What's not here? There isn't any Queer Theology and I need to rectify that so my list a decade from now reflects that learning. In seminary (1985-1988) and in my subsequent ordained life since then, I've been an advocate for full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the Church,especially around ordination and marriage equality because I've learned so much from the gifts that LGBTQ persons have so graciously shared with me and the Church along the way, in spite of the abuses they have suffered at the hands of other "Christians." And yet, my theological education has not caught up with that commitment and experience. So I'm open to suggestions on where to begin, since I know there is lots out there. I need others to add to my own reading list for this summer and beyond.
OK, then. Let me just say these are ten really great books you won't be disappointed in if you read them. They may not be light beach reading, but they are all worth the time.
1. Life Together: A Discussion of Christian Fellowship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I would recommend anything by Bonhoeffer: The Cost of Discipleship and Letters and Papers from Prison are also both excellent. But for my money, Life Together hits all the main points of why Bonhoeffer's resistance to the Nazis and his commitment to shaping a church that understood the costs of discipleship is crucial. This is a little, but dense, book about learning to be an underground church and a prophetic witness to the light.
2. A Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, by Amy-Jill Levine. Again, Levine has lots of good stuff but this is my personal favorite. What is so important (especially but not exclusively for preachers) is that Amy-Jill knows Judaism (as a practicing Jew) and the New Testament (as a Biblical scholar.) She situates Jesus in his Jewish context and offers a counter to the heresy of Marcionism, which for my money remains the most dangerous heresy the Church still faces.
3. An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, by William Stringfellow. Readers of this blog know of my recent interest in Stringfellow who wrote this book in 1973. He was an Episcopal layperson; and as a priest myself, I think it's important that he was a lay theologian. His reading of the Book of Revelation and how the powers of this world seek to destroy the creatures of God is extraordinary.
4. The Dream of God: A Call to Return, by Verna Dozier. (Amazon has a preview of Chapter 1 of this classic here to whet your appetite.) Speaking of Episcopal laypersons, I am amazed at how many people a decade or more younger than I are not familiar with Dozier. Twenty years ago, I had the amazing privilege to sit next to Ms. Dozier at the College of Preachers at an event being led by Phyllis Trible on Texts of Terror that included about a dozen of us. What an extraordinary person of faith; I felt all week that I was listening to an amazing scholar and sitting next to a living saint while doing so. The Dream of God is a clarion call for a less clergy-centered Church focused on the mission of God and the work of all the baptized. We take this language for granted these days (even if we have not yet lived into this dream) but Dozier wrote this book over twenty-five years ago.
5. An Altar in the World: a Geography of Faith, by Barbara Brown Taylor. (Here is a link to an Amazon preview.) There is a movement out from church buildings and into the streets: ashes to go, public liturgies, and the like. I support all of that. But Taylor give us a theology to undergird why. As an old hymn puts it, "This is my Father's world..." BBT looks for the holy in those places where we live and move and have our being, and helps us to do the same. (Leaving Church is also a "must read.")
6 Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America, by Cornel West. When I was studying for my Masters in Divinity from 1985-1988, there were two black theologians who left a huge mark on me: James Cone and Cornel West. Both are worth reading. In differing ways each of them challenged the white left-of-center United Methodist theology I had grown up with. In spite of them both, I have continued to be surprised at how segregated Sunday morning remains in America and how far we have to go. When I hear people say that "they don't see color" or respond to the Black Lives Matter movement with the smug "all lives matter" I want to refer them to West (or Cone) before engaging in any further conversation.
7 Trouble With Jesus: Women, Christology, and Preaching, by L. Susan Bond. This summer I was at the Festival of Homiletics and I was talking with a young PhD who studied at Vanderbilt. I asked her if Susan Bond was still there and she said she was not, that she thought she'd left academia. I was sad to hear that, because when I was studying for my D.Min. degree and had a long reading list on preaching from Barth to the current day, this was one of the most important books I read. Specifically I love it because she offers a thoughtful atonement theology that is grounded in the tradition and not focused on "the blood of Jesus shed for me." More generally, she offers a feminist theology of preaching that recognizes the limitations of a focus on Biblical texts, insisting that preachers need to be doing theology as well as Biblical interpretation in their preaching.
8 Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics and the Body of Christ by William T. Cavanaugh. (Amazon has a preview here.)This is a hard but important read focused on being the Church under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile from 1973-1990. Cavanaugh sees torture as a social-political strategy for control, and Eucharist as what the Church has to offer the world as a response: the broken tortured body of Jesus that offers an alternative vision of life and hope for the world. This is not an abstract book on Christian worship; it's about why the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup matter in a world where people are tortured and disappeared.
9 Friedman's Fables by Edwin L. Friedman. There are lots of ways one can go with Ed Friedman. Probably both Generation to Generation and A Failure of Nerve could vie for this spot and on another day of the week I might suggest just that. All three should be read and marked and learned and inwardly digested. Friedman wrote as a rabbi and a therapist, but what he understood is that systems operate like families. Understanding those dynamics is enormously helpful. For my money, the fables are a lot like the parables of Jesus in that they are wonderful for group learning and conversation and they tease out meanings that are less "academic" than the other two books but still hit you right between the eyes. There is even a study guide available. (Here is a link to a previous post of mine on Friedman that includes within it a link to one of the parables, "The Friendly Forest.")
10.Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation, by Walter Brueggemann. Anyone who knows me knows that this list would not be a "Rich Simpson list" without the amazing Walter B on it! And he's written so many books - it's hard to know which one to point people toward to begin. I have used his Message of the Psalms for numerous adult formation classes and it's one of my favorites but I think this book undergirds, in some ways, almost everything else WB has written: the prophets are understood best not as fortune-tellers or even social critics but as poets, who are able to imagine the world otherwise. The Church is called to participate in articulating that vision, for the sake of the world.