Five essential theology books

Michael Westmoreland-White, riffing on this Christian Century article, asks folks to list “five essential theological works” from the past 25 years. (Actually, I think there was a meme on a similar topic circulating the theo-blogosphere a few years back.)

Anyway, not being a theologian, or professional churchly type of any sort, I’m not really qualified to judge the “best,” or “most influential” works of theology. So instead I’ll list five theological works published in the last 25 years that have had a significant influence on me (in no particular order).

Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theology This was my first in-depth exposure to feminist theology. Depending on who you ask, Johnson is either a dangerous radical who wants to overturn Christian tradition or a timid reformist who can’t face up to the inherently patriarchal nature of Christianity. I think she’s written a convincing book about how gender shapes theological language that at the same time breaks open new space for seeing God in ways that are less beholden to dead metaphors.

Clark Williamson, A Guest in the House of Israel: Post-Holocaust Church Theology As I wrote in my summary post about this book, it forced me to look closely at the issue of anti-Judaism in Christian theology. Supercessionist thinking is still embedded in much Christian theology and practice, left, right, and center. This book convinced me that becoming aware of it and rooting it out remains a hugely important task for the Christian community. Just as importantly, though, in articulated an understanding of the gospel that is rooted in the Christian tradition without being exclusivist.

Andrew Linzey, Animal Theology Regular readers won’t be surprised to see a book from Linzey on this list. This is his most sustained engagement with the theological tradition, one in which he tries to show that an orthodox, trinitarian conception of God not only permits, but requires us to re-think our views of non-human animals, but to radically change our practice.

Robert W. Jenson, The Triune Identity: God According to the GospelThis one’s kind of a cheat because the book was originally published in 1982. But the edition I read was the one reissued by Wipf & Stock in 2002, so there. Anyway, Jenson’s work was my first exposure to a sustained critique of the influence that Greek metaphysics and its attendant assumptions about time, eternity, and power had on the Christian doctrine of God. I don’t share all his conclusions (or his social conservatism), but the idea that God shares in–and even defines the divine identity through–the history of God’s creatures, rather than standing aloof and unmoved, is one that has stayed with me. Plus, it seemed like I should have at least one Lutheran on here (even if it’s an idiosyncratic one like Jenson).

Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning I don’t consider myself a “Girardian,” but I think once you’ve been exposed to Girard’s way of looking at the world–at violence, sacrifice, and the sacred–you see things differently. Girard sometimes seems to be offering an overly simplistic, mono-causal account of religion. Nevertheless, particularly in this work, he shows how the gospel can convey the power to overcome the violence that simmers just beneath the surface of human society. I’m not even sure this book counts as theology properly speaking, but if nothing else we can point to the ways that the brilliant James Alison has applied Girard’s insights to theology.

I also feel like there should be something about the historical Jesus on this list, but I don’t know that there’s one book I would single out (Luke Timothy Johnson, Marcus Borg, and Dale Allison have all been influences here, despite–or maybe because of–their disagreements). I would also want to cite something in the religion and science dialogue (probably Ian Barbour’s book).

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2 thoughts on “Five essential theology books

  1. Excellent list. I was torn between Johnson and LaCugna as the best feminist treatment of the Trinity. Johnson does better at incorporating feminine imagery for God (without losing an immanent Trinity as with so many), but LaCugna did better at relating to the life of the Church and I thought that was super-important. Had we been allowed more than 5 I’d have included them both.

    Linzey and Girard are great choices and Clark Williamson is on my “to read” list. Jenson doesn’t do it for me like so many of my theo-blogging friends. Too Lutheran for my tastes, but many like him.

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