Edifying discourses – books on Christian faith – Bibliography

We asked five theologians if they would each name a handful of books, written in the past two decades, which they would commend to pastors and church leaders for building up Christian life and thought.

Ellen Charry, professor at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, who this fall moves to Princeton Theological Seminary, recommends:

Christian Feminist Theology.

By Denise Carmody. Blackwell, 1995.

Here is a moderate feminist systematic theology that is thoroughly Christian and deeply spiritual, and that refreshingly probes faith for our time. Carmody touches the themes of traditional Christian doctrine using a feminist and catholic perspective to carry readers to know and love God through a practiced spiritual life. Incisive study questions are an added bonus.

The Creative Suffering of God.

By Paul S. Fiddes. Clarendon, 1988.

The notion that God suffers with and on behalf of those who suffer implicates God’s participation in time and space in a way that is foreign to traditional theism because it suggests that we affect God.

Fiddes works through the contributions of process theology and the work of Karl Barth, Paul Tillich and Jurgen Moltmann, moving to a trinitarian suggestion for understanding the God of Jesus Christ as thoroughly engaged with creation and yet fully God. He is also attentive to the implications of this teaching for the formation of piety.

A Teachable Spirit: Recovering the Teaching Office of the Church.

By Richard Robert Osmer. Westminster John Knox, 1990.

At a time when mainline Protestant denominations are both drifting and bickering, Osmer calls the church to chart a path between authoritarianism and individualism by reclaiming its authority to direct its life according to its own theological lights. The proper teaching office of the church is traced from the Catholic through the Lutheran and Reformed traditions and concludes with a contemporary proposal for engaging the faithful in their own theological growth.

Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology.

By Andrew Louth. Clarendon, 1981.

Louth is helping move theology past the Enlightenment legacy which has made it nervous regarding claims about God and truth and has forced it to package itself on the model of modern science.

Drawing on Hans Georg Gadamer, Michael Polanyi and Gabriel Marcel, Louth argues that modern science is itself a tradition, with its own methods and presuppositions, and that this tradition is parallel to but not dependent on the Enlightenment paradigm. His goal is to free theology to reclaim its own strength. He goes so far as to reconsider allegory as a way of getting at the truth.

Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin.

By Cornelius Plantinga. Eerdmans, 1995.

In a deceptively relaxed way, this book calls late 20th-century Christians to reconsider the centrality of sin. Plantinga’s anecdotes and vignettes from contemporary life amuse and pique the reader into seeing sin in a realistic light in a society that has ceased to value self-reproach and the pleasure of glorifying God. With insight into human nature worthy of the Desert Fathers, Plantinga reclaims the Augustinian insight that sin damages the sinner.

William C. Placher, professor of philosophy and religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, lists these works:

Christian Doctrine.

By Shirley C. Guthrie. Westminster John Knox, 1994.

Guthrie ironically defines himself as an authority on “what Presbyterians used to believe,” but he has written the best introduction for laypeople to the faith of moderate, mainstream Protestants. In this antitheological age, just laying out basic Christian doctrines becomes a bold project.

Binding the Strong Man.

By Ched Myers. Orbis, 1988.

At the core of the Christian faith is the conviction that reading the Gospels seriously might transform one’s life and begin the transformation of the world. Few books make the case for that conviction more forcefully than this radical reading of Mark’s Gospel.

Texts of Terror.

By Phyllis Trible. Fortress, 1984.

Two of the most important trends in contemporary Christian theology have been feminism and the appeal to literary approaches to reading the Bible. Trible’s work combines both approaches, and never more movingly than in these essays about the horror of Old Testament stories of women murdered and abandoned, stories which yet somehow speak to faith.

Saint Maybe.

By Anne Tyler Knopf, 1991.

A Prayer for Owen Meany.

By John Irving. Morrow, 1989.

These two extraordinary novels show that if it is possible (with grace) to live a Christian life, the thought of trying is pretty terrifying. Tyler’s readers will not soon forget the Church of the Second Chance, and Irving’s readers will be hooked from the first sentence.

Amy Plantinga Pauw, who teaches theology at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, offers this list:

The Message of the Psalms.

By Walter Brueggemann. Augsburg, 1984.

This work, along with Brueggemann’s other writings on the Psalms, including Israel’s Praise and the recent The Psalms and the Life of Faith, has done much to bring the psalter in all its diversity back into the homiletical, liturgical and pastoral life of the church. His reflections on the place of lament in Christian life and worship are especially valuable.

Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras.

By Diana L. Eck. Beacon, 1994.

Reflections on the relation of Christian faith to other faiths of the world has been a central theme in recent theological discussions. This book is a spiritual autobiography of the author’s struggle to reassert and redefine her own Christian faith in the light of her deep academic and personal encounter with Hinduism.

The Trinity and the Kingdom.

By Jurgen Moltmann. Fortress, 1993.

Moltmann combines two themes that separately and together have generated tremendous theological energy in the 20th century: the affirmation of God’s suffering and the centrality of the Trinity in Christian understandings of God.

Earth Community, Earth Ethics.

By Larry Rasmussen. Orbis, 1996.

Ecological themes have been increasingly prominent in Western theological reflection over the past 20 years. Rasmussen’s book stands out for the poetic beauty of its descriptions of our physical world, the depth of its reflections on the ecological implications of our biblical and theological heritage, and the concreteness of its proposal for”earth action.”

Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church.

By Letty M. Russell. Westminster John Knox, 1993.

Drawing widely on Christian feminist discussion of the past 20 years, Russell’s ecclesiology combines a deep critique of the structures and practices of the church with an equally deep devotion to its transformation.

Ralph C. Wood, professor of religion at Wake Forest University, who this fall joins the faculty of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, cites these books:

Basic Christian Doctrine.

By John Leith. Westminster John Knox, 1993.

Leith shows that, for all of its huge variety, Christian faith can still be viewed within a single conspectus as God’s all-embracing provision for the world’s salvation. While Leith’s book is Calvinist in substance, it is ecumenical in scope. Leith knows that the church abandons traditional doctrines not only at its peril, but at its death. But he does not simply repeat the grand themes and categories; instead, he shows their deep historical rootage and wide contemporary relevance.

Freedom for Ministry.

By Richard John Nenhaus. Eerdmans, 1979 (reissued in 1992).

This is the book which, as a layman, I always commend to prospective pastors. Written out of Neuhaus’s experience in a 17-year ministry at a Lutheran parish in Brooklyn (and before he converted to Rome), it is an excellent testament to the uniqueness of the Christian faith and its witness. Don’t look here for notions of the minister as conflict manager, community enabler or even servant leader. Neuhaus has a far more radical and faithful vision of the minister as the symbolic point of identification whereby the gospel is meant to receive clear public focus–the lightning rod who earths the heavenly fire.


By Clyde Edgerton. Ballantine, 1985.

This comic novel set in rural North Carolina is narrated by a naive Baptist, Raney Bell. She is guilty of almost every sin of theological, social and political incorrectness–even as her husband-to-be, Charles Shepherd, embraces all of the enlightened attitudes of our time concerning sex, race and religion. But because there is a divinely innocent goodness at work in Raney, this uncouth wife proves to be immensely more winsome than her cultured husband. In a kingdom where even laggard Baptists can come in first, Raney goes marching ingenuously into our sympathy–if not exactly into sainthood.

The Children of Men.

By P. D. James. Knopf, 1993.

A darkly admonitory work written by England’s queen of crime fiction. This apocalyptic thriller is set in the year 2021, when the last human being has been born. Our species has become unaccountably barren, perhaps as a biological manifestation of a spiritual sterility. James envisions a world that has turned away from God. Filled as it is with political terror, moral calamity and religious banality, the novel serves as a description of the wrath that has already befallen us, not merely as a prophecy of the evils to come.

Pilgrim in the Ruins.

By Jay Tolson. Simon & Schuster, 1992.

This biography of Walker Percy is one of the wisest books I know. It is an eloquent and thoughtful account of Percy’s fierce struggle to find–and then to live out, both in art and experience–his Catholic Christianity. Tolson shows how Percy confronted nearly all the horrors and quandaries of our era: Nazism and the Holocaust, scientific behaviorism and therapeutic psychologism, the race problem as it vexes not only the South but the entire nation, the breakdown of democratic pluralism into mutually anathematizing factions, and the collapse of Christian faith into fundamentalisms of left and right.

Letters from Lake Como: Explorations in Technology and the Human Race.

By Romano Guardini. Eerdmans, 1994.

This book barely made a stir when it was translated into English from the German version of 1926, but it has haunted my imagination. Though written in the aftermath of World War I, Guardini is imbued with a confidence that seems strange to us. His serenity is rooted in the long experience of European culture, but also in the assurance that the God who has become incarnate in one time and place inspirits and redeems all times and places, even ours.

Such faith does not make Guardini oblivious of the outrages of the Machine Age, but he remains soberly hopeful: “We must not oppose what is new and try to preserve a beautiful world that is inevitably perishing. Nor should we try to build a new world of the creative imagination that will show none of the damage of what is actually evolving. Rather, we must transform what is coming to be. But we can do this only if we honestly say yes to it and yet with incorruptible hearts remain aware of all that is destructive and nonhuman in it. Our age has been given us as the soil on which to stand and the task to master.”

Sarah Coakley, Mallinckrodt Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, recommends:

The Fire and the Rose Are One.

By Sebastian Moore. DLT, 1980.

The Inner Loneliness.

By Sebastian Moore. DLT, 1982.

Sebastian Moore is a Benedictine monk whose theological writing is quite unlike anyone else’s that I know in the contemporary theological scene.

Unfortunately, these two books, which were not particularly well marketed outside the UK, are currently out of print; but to me they represent classics of the 20th century in their attempt to mold together the insights of prayer, psychology, philosophy and theology. Reading them is rather like doing a meditation; one can take in a little at a time, and it gives one much food for thought.

In Memory of Her.

By Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. Crossroad, 1994 (tenth anniversary edition).

She Who Is.

By Elizabeth Johnson. Crossroad, 1992.

These two books are very different, one being focused on the New Testament period, the other on the developed (scholastic and contemporary) doctrine of the Trinity. But both are written by feminists struggling within or on the edges of the Roman Catholic Church. Fiorenza’s work pioneered in seeking out the early sources of patriarchalism in the New Testament period, and the possibility of Jesus’ message being untainted by such a perspective.

Elizabeth Johnson’s work attempts to rescue the doctrine of the Trinity from a patriarchal gloss, and does so with equally impressive erudition.

The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336.

By Caroline Walker Bynum. Columbia University Press, 1995.

This is in my view Bynum’s most magisterial work, and in many respects it is her most readable one too. With remarkable approachability, she traces the changes in attitudes to the body in relation to resurrection in this crucial patristic and medieval period.

The contrast with our contemporary attitudes to the body is startling and revealing. This is a remarkable study of massive learning and great attractiveness.

COPYRIGHT 1997 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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