The Top Ten Books that Influenced Me Theologically

What books have most shaped your theology? I have shared my top ten books below. Consider sharing your own top ten books.

1. Tony Campolo:20 Hot Potatoes Christians Are Afraid To Touch (1993) The summer before my senior year in high school, Campolo’s book gave me permission to ask some hard questions about the Southern Baptist Christianity of my childhood. Chapter titles include, “Can a Christian Own a BMW?” and “Can Christians Kill?”

2. John Shelby Spong: Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1998) As a sophomore religion major, I stumbled across Spong’s latest release on the bestseller rack of a large bookstore. I felt liberated to find an Episcopal bishop exploring many of the same questions I was asking.

3. William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) This classic book helped me notice the difference between first-hand religious experience (truth I had experienced directly for myself) and second-hand religious experience (what others claimed was true about religion, God, or reality).

5. Richard Rorty: Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) I also majored in philosophy as an undergraduate, and Rorty’s postmodern perspective shook the foundations of my religious assumptions more than any other philosopher.

5. Sallie McFague: Life Abundant (2000) As I prepared for the transition from college to seminary, I was stunned to read a major, contemporary, progressive theologian like McFague confess to discovering only recently the difference between writing that “God is love” and experiencing God’s love directly. She credited the insight to her work with a spiritual director. This book was the first time I had heard of spiritual direction, and ten years later I completed the training to become a spiritual director myself. (I recommend starting with McFague’s 2008 book A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming.)

6. Stanley Hauerwas: The Hauerwas Reader (2001) Hauerwas’ many books have been a regular reminder of what it means, not only to take Jesus seriously, especially the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, but also to take the potential of the church seriously. (I recommend beginning with Hauerwas’ 2008 book co-authored with Jean Vanier: Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness.)

7. Wendell Berry: What Are People For? (1990) Berry’s essays, poems, and novels invited me to see that neither “progress” nor “technology” are unalloyed goods; further, he refocused my attention on the importance of living simply, locally, and sustainably. (A more recent collection of his essays from 2006 is The Way of Ignorance.)

8. Rita Nakashima Brock: Journeys By Heart (1991) Nakashima Brock and her co-author in recent years, Rebecca Ann Parker, have helped me more than anyone else to rethink the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, specifically that we are called to risk emulating Jesus’ life of compassion, not merely to intellectually “believe in” a theory concerning Jesus’ death. (I recommend starting with their earlier, shorter, and more accessible Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us from 2002, then moving to their more recent, more historical, and much longer Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire from 2009.)

9. Marcus Borg: Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1995) and John Dominic Crossan: Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (1995). I list these two scholars together because they have collaborated so often in recent years. Borg and Crossan’s many books have helped me see how to translate progressive theology into accessible, meaningful terms. (I recommend beginning with Crossan’s 2008 book God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now and Borg’s 2004 book The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith.)

10. Philip Clayton: Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action (2008) I discovered Clayton’s work a few years ago while reading Gary Dorrien’s magisterial trilogy The Making of American Liberal Theology. Clayton was the most intriguing contemporary theologian I had never heard of, and his Adventures in the Spirit was a stunning example of a theologian who takes religion, science, and philosophy all with equal seriousness. (I recommend beginning with his much more accessible 2009 book Transforming Christian Theology.)

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