My Five Books Meme

Jared Calaway has inflicted/blessed me with a meme that has been making the rounds in recent days. It was started by Ken Brown, and I thought I’d share what he wrote when he did so (since it includes both the rationale and the rules):

As I’ve been preparing to apply for PhD programs, I’ve been thinking about those books and scholars who have most influenced the way I read scripture, and I’m curious which books have done the same for my fellow bibliobloggers. So, since I’ve always wanted to start a meme challenge of my own, here goes:

  1. Name the five books (or scholars) that had the most immediate and lasting influence on how you read the Bible. Note that these need not be your five favorite books, or even the five with which you most strongly agree. Instead, I want to know what five books have permenantly changed the way you think.
  2. Tag five others.

Here are my five:

  1. Jimmy Dunn’s Christology in the Making. I had a strong negative initial reaction to Dunn’s views when I first confronted them in Bible college, but they had both logic and evidence that were hard to deny. I spent a fair amount of time trying to deny that John’s Gospel was as different as Dunn and others made out. Once I admitted what to them was plainly evident, the question for me then became why John was different. I spent three years working on that question, at the University of Durham, under the supervision of Jimmy Dunn, and my first book John’s Apologetic Christology was one of the results (and my latest book, The Only True God, shows that I’ve continued to work on the subject).
  2. John A. T. Robinson’s The Body: A Study in Pauline Theology. I’m sure some would have expected me to choose his Honest to God, and I won’t deny the importance of that little volume. But Robinson made his biggest impression on my as a New Testament scholar, not only by offering a plausible case for his interpretation of Paul’s body language (if you’ll excuse the pun), but more importantly acknowledging that he once held another view, but having studied the evidence and though more about the matter, he changed his mind. That made a profound impression on me, and I’ve sought to be open to emulating his example in this matter whenever appropriate ever since.
  3. Rudolf Bultmann’s contribution to Kerygma and Myth (which nowadays one can read online). I was as exposed to the Evangelical demonization of Bultmann as anyone else who studied in a conservative Christian context. But Bultmann’s writings turn out to be powerful, insightful, and profoundly Christian, assuming one ever actually reads them after so many dismissals and denunciations. He is persuaded that it is possible to be a Christian in the present, persuaded that the Gospel is powerful. He is also convinced (and rightly so) that it is impossible (and thus cannot be necessary) for a modern person to accept a first-century worldview in its entirety. Yet the Gospel as expressed in the Bible is inextricably bound up with and expressed in terms of a first-century worldview. And so he devoted himself to the question of how to translate the message for his time. When it comes to his exegesis, the details of his source criticism, his views on the Mandaean background of the Gospel of John, and much else, I remain unpersuaded by a great many of his views and arguments. But theologically and hermeneutically I believe he hit the nail on the head and identified the most crucial issue for mediating Christian faith into any new historical epoch.
  4. Keith Ward’s What the Bible Really Teaches provided me with just what I needed at the time that I read it. Conservative Christian rhetoric of “believing the whole Bible” and “taking it literally” is remarkably effective at making those of us feel guilty who, precisely because we’ve become more familiar with the Bible, find such notions and such rhetoric problematic. But often we are cowed into a stance of apologizing, of saying in a whiny voice “Well, I’m a Christian too, even though I don’t believe everything a fundamentalist does”. Ward helped set me free, confronting me simultaneously with the dishonesty of claims to believe everything the Bible says, and a rich history and theology of Christianity that doesn’t follow that conservative approach. It helped me to be unapologetic about being a Christian, and instead of apologizing for not being conservative, instead to make a strong case for a very different approach being at least as Christian, every bit as Biblical (and unbiblical), but most importantly, far more honest about its relationship to the Bible.
  5. Like Jared, whenever I am down to my last slot, I suddenly seem to have trouble choosing one more book (or piece of music, or recipe, or whatever) to list as the final of my favorites. I’m tempted to go into Hebrews mode and say “Time will not permit us to mention Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, or Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and Children of God, or Geza Vermes’ Jesus the Jew, or Bruce Malina’s Windows on the World of Jesus or Kenneth Bailey’s Poet and Peasant & Through Peasant Eyes or Juergen Moltmann’s God in Creation or Geert Hofsteede’s Software of the Mind…” But I think I’ll give this final slot to: The Pimsleur language courses. They’ve made learning the basics of Russian, Modern Hebrew, Eastern Arabic, and even a bit of Chinese so unbelievably straightforward that it is unbelievable. The experience of living and studying in another culture (and eventually experiencing more than one), of interacting with Christians whom I expected to think much as I did and consider the same issues important and yet who did not, of discovering that the same sorts of issues that confront modern cross-cultural communication also affect us as we seek to make sense of the Bible: such insights and experiences have shaped my thinking. Not merely interacting with others, but being immersed in a culture other than your own, teaches you things that few and perhaps no other experiences can. Language learning often stands as a hurdle to those who might otherwise have such experiences, and so I give the last slot to Pimsleur (and others, like the Teach Yourself and Colloquial series) that make jumping the hurdle so much easier. The link may not seem obvious to some, but those who have had culture shock will hopefully appreciate how the experience of living in another culture, and communicating through another language, changes our perspective on the Bible in ways that no book or course ever could.

Knowing whom to tag is almost as hard as filling the last slot. But I’ll tag Eric Reitan, Doug Mangum, Gabriel McKee, Mike Leaptrott, and Terri. If you’ve already been tagged, you can decide whether to simply list ten books, or pass the tag on to someone else, or just post your own five and leave it at that.

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  • That is a great Dunn book. Have you read his "Jesus Remembered" from the Christianity in the Making series? It is phenomenal.

  • Thanks for this! I'm checking out Keith Ward's book from the library today. I've struggled a great deal with feeling like an outsider for not being conservative.

  • "If you've already been tagged, you can decide whether to simply list ten books"Well, Jared wasn't your only tagger, so looks like you've got a decision (even if it's to yield to your temptation "to go into Hebrews mode"). Nice top 5 btw.

  • +1 on the Pimsleur series, which can (with the help of your friendly neighborhod reference librarian) usually be acquired freely through public interlibrary loan.