I know that I’m an odd duck. I’m not a scholar — I struggled my way through two years of graduate school, and now make my living as a humble bookseller for a monastery gift shop — but I enjoy keeping my finger on the pulse of what is happening in the world of academic religious studies. Of course, I know that many of the readers of this blog are academics, as well as clergy. So, whether you are just geeky like me, or actually have made the study of religion part of your livelihood, then I think you will be as excited about these books as I am. They all come from Blackwell Publishing, a leading academic publisher in the UK that is now part of John Wiley (a leading academic publisher based here in the US). Whenever I go to the UK I always love to visit a Blackwell’s Bookshop; although the retail and publishing companies are distinct, they were founded by the same family back in 19th century Oxford.
I learned from he-who-knows-everything-about-religious-publishing, Mike Morrell, that Blackwell has an impressive list of “Companion Guides” to various aspects of Christian theology and practice. These hefty tomes consist of an anthology of essays, by leading scholars, exploring the topic at hand from a variety of perspectives. Here are a few examples:
The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality is, for me of course, the juiciest book of the lot. It features essays by Mark A. Macintosh (“Trinitarian Perspectives on Christian Spirituality”), Robert Davis Hughes III (“The Holy Spirit in Christian Spirituality”), Diana Butler Bass (“Christian Spirituality in Europe and North America since 1700″, with Joseph Stewart-Sicking) and Philip Sheldrake (“Special Topics in Contemporary Christian Spirituality: Interpretation”). Essays cover not only a variety of special topics, but the history and theology of Christian spirituality as well as examining the topic from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives.
The Blackwell Companion to Catholicism and The Blackwell Companion to Eastern Christianity, as their titles suggest, consider these specific ecclesial traditions from a variety of historical, cultural, doctrinal and praxis-related perspectives. Contributors to the Catholic companion include Luke Timothy Johnson, Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt, Peter Phan, Avery Cardinal Dulles, and Wendy Wright. While I’m not as familiar with the contributors to the Eastern Christianity companion and so I can’t as easily cherry pick the most impressive names (!), take a look at a few of the topics covered: “Byzantine Christianity,” “Coptic Christianity,” “Russian Christianity,” “Syriac Christianity,” “Eastern Catholic Christianity,” as well as essays exploring the liturgics, iconography, architecture and hagiography of the Eastern churches.
I don’t consider myself a theologian, but I say that not as a point of pride, but rather as a confession. I think all Christians need to be theologically informed (and those of us who blather on about our faith in blogs, even more so), but of course it’s a daunting task, bringing one’s knowledge of theology up above the mere Baltimore Catechism level. Particularly in our age, when the shift from modernity to postmodernity has created both new crises and new opportunities for Christian discourse. So with this in mind, I’d like to commend a few additional Blackwell books to you.
The Blackwell Companion to Modern Theology can help you figure out where we’ve been which is usually a helpful prerequisite to getting a grip on where we’re going. Broadly covering the seventeenth century through the mid-twentieth century, modern theology represents the rise of theology as its own scholarly project, independent of ecclesial control. This companion provides a history of theology from the patristic age, through the medieval and reformation periods culminating in the modern era; examines the relati0nship of theology to other disciplines, such as Biblical studies, history, philosophy and social theory; considers key theological doctrines such as the Trinity, Incarnation, and Eschatology, points out the key players of modernity, from Kant and Barth to Rahner and Von Balthasar, and finally considers a few key topics, including feminism, social justice, interreligious dialogue, and my two favorites: eco-theology and the revival of mysticism (conspicuous in its absence is an essay exploring the theological foundations of Pentecostalism and Fundamentalism, but no book is perfect).
Whew! What a roller coaster ride. But wait, there’s more! For as soon as you get comfortable with the kaleidoscopic world of modern theology, the light show really begins, as we turn to The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology. Okay, all of you folks out there in blog-reader-land who are interested in the emerging church: here is the theological engine that is powering that grass-roots project. I won’t bore you with trying to define post-modernity, a term even more slippery than plain modernity, but clearly this represents the most recent trends in the great theological conversation. In this book we find a cornucopia of topics to explore; let me list just four of the essay titles so you can see what’s on the menu: “Earth God: Cultivating the Spirit in an Ecocidal Culture” by Mark I. Wallace, “The Poetics of the Impossible and the Kingdom of God” by John D. Caputo; “They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Regulated Improvisation: Ecclesial Hybridity and the Unity of the Church” by Mary McClintock Fulkerson, and “The Christian Message and the Dissolution of Metaphysics” by Gianni Vattimo. The essays are grouped into these categories: Aesthetics, Ethics, Gender, Hermeneutics, Phenomenology, Heideggerians and Derrideans.
Now, if all this is making your head spin and you feel like you need a more foundational look at postmodernity, there is The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader (Blackwell Readings in Modern Theology), which gathers together essays by pretty much all of the key figures in the postmodern conversation (Georges Bataille, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, René Girard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and others), along with additional essays considering topics such as feminism, liturgics, metaphysics and phenomenology. Read it and your grasp of postmodernity will be as clear as mud (which is about as clear as it’s gonna get).
Finally: for all of you non-scholars out there (like me), who feel totally humbled if not outright intimidated by these theological tomes, let me recommend a few other Blackwell titles that might serve as a “remedial” curriculum in theology. Indeed, these titles (each written or edited by the respected Anglican scholar Alister McGrath) are designed for undergraduate courses in Christian theology, so pretty much any reasonably intelligent reader will find much to savor here. Plus (I know this is trivial, but I can’t resist) look at the covers: they are gorgeously designed books.
Christian Theology: An Introduction considers theology from a historical as well as a doctrinal perspective, and also considers some of the philosophical problems associated with the study of theology; The Christian Theology Reader provides close to 300 original writings by great Christian theologians from the 1st century to the present day, mostly in short (1-3 pages) excerpts; think of this as “Christian Theology’s Greatest Hits.” Finally, McGrath’s Christian Spirituality: An Introduction connects the dots between theology (theory) and spirituality (practice) in the Christian life.
Finally, a word of warning: like all good academic works, these books are all tomes (averaging about 550 pages each) and are not cheap (especially the hardcover editions). So just get one at a time. Or go talk your local library into ordering copies. They should for these are books for the ages.