Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Best Contemporary Theology Meme

Patrik tagged me with his new Best Contemporary Theology Meme, and as I am powerless to resist the call of the blogosphere, here's my best offering on an impossible subject:

I can't pretend to be an expert on any subject, but if I were it would definitely not be contemporary theology as Patrik has defined it. When I read Christian theology, anyway, I read mostly dead Germans. So it was a bit of a challenge to come up with three (or more) theological works from the past twenty five years. Despite evidence to the contrary (like this huge post), I've spent most of the day thinking this over, and I've come up with two sets of three books, with a surprising four of the six coming from Christianity, and no Buddhist books (the other two are Jewish).

The first set is my original answer. The second set contains mostly lesser known books that I wish everyone would read. So, (finally!) here goes:


The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, by Marcus Borg

Perhaps some "experts" may scoff at the first book here being written for a general audience, but what I love about Borg is just that: he writes for the people in the pews. You can't say that your theology is very "influential" if it takes two or three specialized degrees to read it. Additionally, this book, which makes a sharp distinction between faith and belief, is one of a handful of books that kept me firmly within the Christian tradition as my own theology was shifting so violently in the months that followed my departure from professional ministry.

Anyone who reads this blog very often knows what Borg's work means to me, so any additional explanation for including this at the top of the list would merely repeat ad nauseum what I've already written on Borg.

The Body of God: An Ecological Theology, by Sallie McFague

All you need to know about this selection can be found in this post. If you want to know my opinion of the broader project of the book, rather than the problems I have with the 17 or so pages that seek to define "sin," see the first part of the post. This is simply the most creative re-interpretations of Incarnation that I've seen, and it really helped me come to terms with what I mean when I say that God is made incarnate. Because I certainly don't mean that you should confuse the person of Jesus of Nazareth with the Godhead.

I guess, then, what Borg and McFague have in common is that they have helped me understand incarnation absent the belief that God literally became a human being; a belief that I consider both logically and physically impossible. But, neither of them did it in a negative way. Neither of them came out swinging at the traditional concept of Incarnation. Rather, they each creatively explored the non-literal implications of a classic Christian teaching.

Theologie im Aufbruch, by Hans Kung (published in English as Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumenical View)

This could be the magnum opus of postmodern Christian theology, and deserves a better treatment than the cursory overview I'll give it here. It is, like all good Kung books, a cross between systematic theology and critical history. Kung sees history and theology as tied to each other, with our theological ideas as both shaping and shaped by history.

That is, theological ideas are both products of their historical settings, and shapers of future historical settings. They are then both historical and trans-historical, and Kung often devotes a great deal of time and energy exploring both.

This particular work is almost a reinterpretation of systematic Christian theology for a postmodern setting. It looks at historical developments, theological problems, and the historical development of theological problems and conflicts, and watches a new kind of Christianity emerge. To say more would risk butchering Kung. It is the most ambitious read on the list.


Do No Harm: Social Sin and Christian Responsibility, by Stephen G. Ray, Jr.

While Ray taught at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary just before I arrived there for my first tour of duty (my ill-fated stint as an M.Div. student) I have never met him, and don't know anything about him except that he wrote this excellent exploration of Christian social ethics. It looks at the moral value of speaking about sin, an issue that had never occurred to me. Ray argues that our concepts of sin and the language that we couch them in have moral value in and of themselves, and have often been used to do a great deal of harm. He then takes the reader on a brief jaunt through a brief selected history of the language of sin, before then trying to redeem "sin-talk."

The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, by Jonathan Sacks

I first wrote about this book, a past winner of the Grawmeyer Award, here, and then gave the book a more full treatment here. I don't have much to add to what I wrote about it in December of 2005. Rabbi Sacks wrote a powerful, and powerfully conservative, treatment of how Jews can be faithful to their own tradition while still honoring the traditions of others. It is the perfect antidote to the hostility which so often characterizes what has come to be known as the "clash of civilizations." It is also the easiest read on the list, and highly recommended to general audiences.

Ending Auschwitz: The Future of Jewish and Christian Life, by Marc H. Ellis

This is another book that has already made its way into my blog, here and here. Both posts concern Columbus Day, which is not a surprise given that Ellis links 1492 with Auschwitz. However, his linking the two is not just a metaphor for Christian domination, imperialism, oppression, and anti-Semitism, though, of course, those figure into his work. Rather, he primarily uses this link as a path to Jewish-Christian solidarity, arguing that most Christians are, like Jews, victims of Christian oppression and imperialism. That is because Christianity is growing fastest in the lands of Christian conquest.

It is now a mistake to see the face of Christianity as that of a white European or European-American. Most Christians can now be found in the developing world - an area that has been exploited, oppressed, and colonized by the "Christian" world. As such, most Christians are literally the victims of Christian imperialism and expansionism, and as such have a great deal in common with Jews through history.

Ahh... Now it’s all over but the tagging. So, who do I want to tag? Let's see...

Brian Cubbage, if you're still out there somewhere in the blogosphere, I'm calling you out. (And, if not I'll just have to drop by your house and extract your answer from you in person.)

In addition to Brian, I'm also tagging:

Amy, PamBG, and Crystal.

You're it!


crystal said...

Interesting choices. I've got to at least try the book by McFague - I like her panentheism slant.

Wasn't Borg one of the Jesus Seminar Fellows?

Thanks for the tag :-)

Sandalstraps said...


Yes, Borg was part of the Jesus Seminar. He is probably best known, as you might guess, for his books on Jesus. However, as I've said here before, Borg is not just interested in the historical Jesus. He sees both what he calls the pre-Easter Jesus (Jesus as a fully human, historical figure) and the post-Easter Jesus (Jesus as the Christ, the resurrected revealer of the nature of God) as valuable for believers. And, of course, he himself is a believer. He does, however, make a sharp distinction between historical and theological claims.

I'm looking forward to seeing your choices.

Brian said...

I'm no longer in the blogosphere, except as an occasional commentator at other people's blogs. I will get back to you on the meme, though. I really don't know all that much theology, so it might take me some time to think of my answers.

Amy said...

Done! That was really fun!

Brian said...

OK, I've thought about this a lot, and I've finally thought of something. As I said before, I don't read a lot of theology, and what I do read is more philosophical theology than, say, systematic or biblical theology. This is to explain my choices:

1) The Existence of God, by Richard Swinburne
2) Arius: Heresy and Tradition, by Rowan Williams
3) Beyond God the Father, by Mary Daly

If you're not familiar with these books, they're worth getting familiar with-- take a look!

Sandalstraps said...


As I said at your post, I loved seeing your choices, especially the selection from Cone. Inspired.


Thanks for playing along. I've read Swinburne's Is There a God?, and found it a creative if not entirely persuasive case for the probability of a deity much like the traditional theistic God. And, of course, almost everyone knows and admires Williams. But I've never heard of Mary Daly. You'll have to educate me. I like the sound of her title.

Amy said...

I'm shocked you didn't know who Mary Daly was. Good choice Brian (should have thought of her myself) - (It's also encouraging to see other memers stretching the boundaries when it comes to chronology ;) ) "Beyond God The Father" was written in 1973, and was one of the first works of feminist theology. Daly classifies herself as a "post-Christian" feminist, rejecting the Christian paradigm as inherently patriarchal. Her work has come to influence other writers such as Rosemary Radford Ruether (Sexism and God-Talk) or Elizabeth Johnson (She Who Is), who borrow her critique of the ties between patriarchal models in the church and the imagery used in the language of worship, prayer, and theology. However, they managed to incorporate that criticism without abandoning Christianity altogether. As such, Daly certainly needs to be included as the predecessor for the continuing prophetic voice of women within the church.

Sandalstraps said...


Thanks for the education. You should never be surprised by some of the gaping holes in my learning, as thus far I am almost completely self-educated, especially when it comes to theology. One of the ten thousand reasons I'm looking forward to starting school again. You can only go so far when you have only your curiosity to guide you.