I recently asked twenty-five friends and colleagues which five 'theological' books they would recommend for people considering - or commencing - studying theology. The participants were from diverse professions, nationalities, ages, theological positions, and traditions. Almost all of them had some formal theological education. There were three main reasons why I considered this a worthwhile enquiry, being: (a) I think it is a practical question, (b) I'm generally curious about people, and (c) I thought it might inherently reveal which books have had the most influence on people's theological/Christian formation (in this instance).
Other than now having quite a long reading list for myself, I felt incredibly privileged with what people shared. The books had often had a deep and profound effect on individual's theological development, coming to faith, and relationship with God. People regularly commented how some of these books were the first to spark their interest in theological enquiry. People's choice of reading had often been guided by others (particularly a mentor/spiritual director or the like) and formed an important basis for their spirituality in practice. People also noted that their initial reading was formative in how they later came to communicate theology. Thus, the books were important because they helped individuals to:
- Get excited about theology;
- Further understand/explore the Bible and various theological issues;
- Enrich their spirituality;
- Engage with someone to guide them in their growth; and
- Communicate their faith (and the questions that go along with it).
Most interestingly, whilst there weren't five 'stand-out' books (it seems that in some ways the recommendations were as diverse as the people), there were six that had two or more mentions:
- The Crucified God (1972), Jürgen Moltmann. [3 mentions.]
- Theology: The Basics (2004), Alister McGrath. [3 mentions.]
- Christian Theology: An Introduction (2001), Alister McGrath. [2 mentions.]
- The Great Divorce (1945), C. S. Lewis. [2 mentions.]
- Honest to God (1963), John A. T. Robinson. [2 mentions.]
- In the Name of Jesus (1989), Henri Nouwen. [2 mentions.]
- The Prophetic Imagination (1978), Walter Brueggemann. [2 mentions.]
Frankly, I was surprised by some of these - but nonetheless extremely intrigued. Perhaps most interesting was not the named books per se, but the prevalence of several theologians, namely:
- Alistar McGrath (British, b. Belfast, studied at Oxford). Total: 6 mentions. Books mentioned: Theology: the Basics, Christian Theology: An Introduction.
- N. T. Wright (British, b. Morpeth, studied at Oxford). Total: 4 mentions. Books mentioned: Evil and the Justice of God, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Surprised by Hope, The Meaning of Jesus - note I have linked the updated edition.
- Jürgen Moltmann (German, b. Hamburg, studied at University of Göttingen). Total: 4 mentions. Books mentioned: The Crucified God, The Open Church: Invitation to a Messianic Lifestyle.
- Miroslav Volf (Croatian, b. Osijek, studied at Evangelical-Theological Faculty (Zagreb), Fuller Theological Seminary, University of Tübingen). Total: 2 mentions. Books mentioned: Exclusion and Embrace, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace.
- Marcus Borg (North American, b. North Dakota, studied at Oxford). Total: 4 mentions. Books mentioned: Jesus: A New Vision - Spirit, Culture and the Life of Discipleship, Meeting Jesus again for the First Time, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, The Meaning of Jesus.
- Henri Nouwen (Dutch, b. Nijkerk, studied at Catholic University of Nijmegen and the Menninger Clinic). Total: 3 mentions. Books mentioned: In the Name of Jesus, The Return of the Prodigal Son.
Of course some of these names are hardly surprising! There are after all quite a few theological 'heavyweights' listed. There is also a strong presence from Oxford. (It is rather unfortunate that there are no females listed - although I suspect that if the exercise were repeated in a decade, that would change.) It's also interesting to note the way in which many of these people have strong relationships with each other. For example, both Borg and Wright studied under Caird at Oxford, whilst Volf studied under Moltmann.
But, what might it mean? Well, to begin, people are diverse and there are a lot of options! I am by no means suggesting that this forms the basis of a 'good' reading list (or any list for that matter). However - when I look on the list of authors - I do think these might be good places to start. And to a certain degree, whilst some are more challenging than others, it wouldn't matter which precise work of these theologians you choose. Just beginning to engage and emerse yourself in them will probably be beneficial. That said, I do think (perhaps most importantly) that it is wise to have a spiritual director/mentor who, by knowing, sitting alongside, reading the Bible, and praying with you, can make discerned recommendations. A good theology department could also of course provide an introductory reading list for you to consider.
- Read more widely (and prolifically);
- Tried to more thoroughly engage with the literature (seeking understanding in regards to its source, epoch, and position within theology);
- Been more intentional about my reading; and
- Read the Bible more consistently and intentionally (alongside and apart from my theological reading).
I'm sure you will have thoughts as well, so please feel free to share. This is of course not some definitive list, but more an interesting question to pose. (I do think it would be fascinating to do this on a larger and quantitative scale.) Personally, I am reminded that I need to take a more conscious and prayerful approach to how, what, and who I read (I'm sure why is also worthy of consideration!). I also think that it reinforces the constant need to engage with Scripture thoroughly - as without it, other reading lacks a framework within which to grow and be formed as a Christian (and within the Christian tradition). Many thanks again to all who got involved in this little experiment.
The Full List