Back to School Book List

It’s the first day of Fall 2012 classes!  This semester, I’m teaching a Religion & Literature seminar shaped around contemporary autobiographies.

Here’s the reading list:

Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, The Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, by Eboo Patel

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley

Standing Alone:  An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam, by Asra Nomani

The Book of Mormon Girl:  A Memoir of an American Faith, by Joanna Brooks

Take This Bread:  A Radical Conversion, by Sara Miles

Miriam’s Kitchen:  A Memoir, by Elizabeth Ehrlich

Night, by Elie Wiesel

Several themes run throughout and between these texts:  Patel, Malcolm X, and Nomani give us very different and compelling windows into Islam.  Brooks and Miles relate Christian theological themes and traditions throughout their stories.  Nomani, Brooks, Ehrlich, and Miles speak to women’s experiences in faith traditions.  Patel and Malcolm X pay explicit attention to race in their life stories.  Malcolm X and Wiesel tell deeply personal stories in connection to magnificently important historical events.  Malcolm X and Miles share surprising conversion stories.  Miles and Ehrlich make explicit connections between faith and food.  Ehrlich and Wiesel live out different generations’ expressions of Judaism.

So there are many reasons for choosing these particular texts.  But something important about my teaching is represented by this reading list:  An ongoing commitment to every group of students that I teach that every class will have texts written by women and people of color.  Surprisingly (or not?), this is often a challenge, perhaps because I’m teaching about religion, and often specifically about Christianity.  I have seen in the past dozen years how, if I were not consciously thinking about gender and race, I could easily replicate generations of excluding women’s experiences, voices that talk about race, and never attended to sexuality or poverty or violence and oppression in anything I taught.

This is in part because of the industries to which I am often beholden when it comes to text selection.  What is published in any given year, what is out-of-print, what is hard to get, and whose work is promoted and reviewed in journals, at conferences, in publishers catalogs, and elsewhere.

Consequences of privilege and oppression are everywhere – even in college course book lists.  Awareness of them is essential, and is part of the reason I choose some of the books I do.  I owe it to my students to do this daily work with them in the most responsible fashion possible.

So there’s a back to school reading list for you, with some diversities in religions, positive and negative experiences of religion, and a range of reflections on gender, race, sexuality, food, justice, and theology.  If you’d like to read along with us, I’d love to know what you think.


About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.