Wednesday, May 19, 2010

More Divinity Nostalgia - Top "Ten" Seminary Reads

Before baccalaureate on Saturday, a few of us gathered at the 'Dillo and found ourselves discussing, among other things, the "top ten" books each of us read while at Duke. As I continue to work on some other posts, I thought I'd post my own favorites, listed here alphabetically by author's last name.

I have only listed books directly related to classes taken, omitting novels and other side-reads, which may be the subject of a future post. Also surprising to me was the fact that, despite being at Duke for three years, I actually did not read any Hauerwas, MacIntyre, Yoder, or Wendell Berry. Even so, I hope this list proves helpful to those searching for summer reading selections - I know its a blessing for me to have the opportunity to recall the ways God has spoken to me through those He has called to the ministry of working with words. Oh, and I couldn't resist, so my ten is actually eleven.

1) Hans Urs Von Balthasar - Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? - In laying bare the fact that the New Testament contains evidence both for God's desire for universal salvation as well as for the infernal consequences of unreprentance, sin, and possibly election, Balthasar places a missional burden upon the church to live in the kind of hope which, because it shares God's desires, is willing to engage and enter into places of damnation for the sake of making God's dream a reality. In the process, he taught me that, confronted with seemingly irresolvable paradoxes in Scripture and experience, the answer is to be found in wrestling with God while making one's life in response one's answer.

2) Karl Barth - Homiletics - While Church Dogmatics IV.1 is also a candidate, in this short work, Barth reminds theologians that their craft exists solely for the sake of informing proclamation of the Gospel. Along with humbling the academics, Barth challenges me to refuse, as long as possible, any point-of-contact in preaching, eschewing gimmicks and illustrations, in order to embody one's faith that the Word of God is sufficient and relevant in every age.

3) Brian Brock - Singing the Ethos of God - Brian's powerful critique of communitarian and narrative projects in Scriptural ethics awakened me from my dogmatic Duke slumber. Using Augustine's and Luther's exegesis of the Psalms as his model, Brock risks claiming that the way to allow Scripture to shape ethics is by actually reading, singing, submitting oneself to, and being transformed by continual engagement with and to the living Word of God. He forced me to smash the idols of a priori hermeneutical or methodological theorizing, removing any hedge or excuse I might have not to read the Scriptures - or be spoken to by them. There is no going back after this book by the Texan from Aberdeen. Read at your own risk.

4) Stanley Cavell - Must We Mean What We Say? - In this collection of essays, Cavell not only gives excellent introductions to the significance of Austin and Wittgenstein, but also stakes out the place of aesthetics in philosophizing, putting the "literary" back in the "linguistic turn." Along with amazing essays on Shakespeare and Kierkegaard, Cavell also introduces his notion of "acknowledgement and avoidance," whereby he undercuts the modern obsession with epistemology by arguing that the acknowledgement of another person goes beyond knowledge, requiring a response to that person. For those frozen by the icy stare of skepticism, Cavell's challenging writing provides a warm flame to thaw out the beating heart of humanity. Not an easy read - but as Rilke reminds us, nothing worthwhile ever is.

5) Roberto Goizueta - Caminemos Con Jesus: Toward a Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment - Displaying the power of theological aesthetics in action, Goizueta exposes the hypocrisy in Western academic thought by laying bare the condescending imperialistic assumptions of its epistemology. If we are to say that the belief in the Lady of Guadalupe is true "for Mexicans," we must accept that what happened on Tepeyac is in fact true for all. Such truth-bearing realities like the Stations of the Cross at a Hispanic congregation in San Antonio and popular Hispanic/Latino religious practices challenge the notion that theology only happens where method can be spelled out flawlessly. Instead, Goizueta argues that we are companions on the journey, and must learn to incorporate one another's discoveries of beauty into the greater tapestry, as equals to those we subconsciously still deem with our academic practices to be less rational- or risk becoming less rational ourselves.

6) Abraham Heschel - The Sabbath - Heschel's beautiful, personal meditation on the seventh day raises the question: if God made this day objectively holy, if it is a shrine through which we all pass during the pilgrimage of time we make each week, then when did it stop being thus sanctified? My attempted answer was to try living my response. This book taught me, in Wittgenstein's parlance, how to be able to "stop doing theology," and thus to discover the joy of simply receiving the love and wisdom of God, rather than continuously seeking to make it for myself. And probably also saved our marriage in the process. Leah have refused to do any school-related work on Saturdays, and have never regretted a moment. Thank God for the gift and witness of the Jews.

7) Claudia Koonz - The Nazi Conscience - Willie Jennings assigned this powerful work as part of our Barth course, and reading it during in the aftermath of the frenzy of the 2008 presidential elections made it all the more haunting. Koonz shows how a nation of brilliantly educated, deeply pious, fervently nationalistic, and rigidly moral people could be convinced not only to passively allow but to actively embrace the systematic destruction of its own citizenry when confronted with the threat of economic depression and historical insignificance. It often feels trite to draw connections to our own age, or to lay the blame solely on theological liberalism - until you read this book.

8) Henri de Lubac - The Splendor of the Church - In an age of criticism, nihilism and deconstruction, Lubac weaves together the fragments of a forgotten past as an argument for the primacy of positivity and beauty in proclaiming truth. For Lubac, the best way to convince others of the truth of Jesus, and concommitantly, of the Catholic Church, is to show it at its best, such that it will win converts by the coherence of its splendor. Out of this arises the important check on all of us would-be Catholics of the actual claims one would have to embrace to take Lubac and the Church seriously - as well as the hopeful reminder that in the end, the Church is a calling before it is a choice.

9) Ulrich Luz - Studies in Matthew - I would have listed the Gospel of Matthew, but having read it many times before seminary, thought that Luz is the next best thing. These essays show display the wedding of the best of historical-critical and theological-canonical readings of the Gospels. Luz argues that the Gospel of Matthew applies literally to the church of today - especially in its call to evangelical poverty, charismatic miracle working, and the embracing of suffering. Even if you disagree, Luz makes Scripture speak in ways that cannot be easily ignored.

10) Stephen Pfurtner - Luther and Aquinas on Salvation - In this lovely little book, a Dominican theologian takes the time to actually read Luther, and charitably at that! Not only does he unearth considerable harmony between Luther's understanding of faith and Aquinas' teachings on hope, but in the process, shows how much farther a hermeneutics of charity can carry a conversation than outright suspicion and polemic. While, contra-Huetter, its not certain that, had Luther read Aquinas, he would have been far less Reformational, Pfurtner lays the groundwork for understanding the seeds of Wittenberg as planted in the soil of Rome, and watered by the rivers of the Tiber, leaving open the tempting possibility of sumptuous ecumenical fruits in the future.

11) Ludwig Wittgenstein - Philosophical Investigations - The recent trendiness of this pick does not in any way diminish the power of the Wittgensteinian perspective. Regardless of how one takes his claims on the nature of language, one cannot put a price on learning to relinquish one's obsession with the slippery ice of idealistic claims in order to embrace the kind of learning - and living - that can only occur once one has come "back to the rough ground!" Grab a bottle of Duck-Rabbit and read this book - over and over again. Curiosity, imagination, and wonder await!

Honorable Mention: Jacques Lacan Ecrits; Gerard Loughlin Alien Sex; William Harmless Augustine and The Catechumenate; Jeffrey Stout Democracy and Tradition; William Kavanaugh Torture and the Eucharist; Stanley Hauerwas Hannah's Child; Samuel Freedman Letters to a Young Journalist; Eric Gregory The Priority of Love; Joel Marcus Anchor Bible Commentary on Mark; David Hart Atheist Delusions; Kavin Rowe World Upside Down; John Milbank The Future of Love; Gillian Rose Mourning Becomes the Law; Stanley Crouch Considering Genius: Essays on Jazz


  1. I love "The Splendor of the Church" by de Lubac. When I was living in Rome a group of graduate students, along with a Monsignor from the Congregation for Divine Worship, spent a semester diving into this book. As a Catholic, I obviously ate it up. I'm in interested in your take on it from a Lutheran perspective.

  2. great list! thanks for posting!

    surprised there's no bonhoeffer on the list.