I was recently asked by the Moderator of Riviera UCC for a few book recommendations that could be studied and discussed in their weekly adult seminar. As I compiled a short list of a few of the books that have often kept me awake at night, whose words and contents hung with me long after their covers were closed, I thought some of you might be interested, so here you go! Enjoy!
“A History of God” – Karen Armstrong. Armstrong presents what may possibly be one of the most detailed socio-historical analyses of the conceptions of divinity, specifically as it pertains to the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. She traces the development of the idea of “God,” the traditions that surround the notion and the various reformations and reorientations that have occurred in all three faiths. Armstrong begins with Near Eastern myth and follows through all the way to modern skepticism. There is plenty to chew on and discover and is written in such a way that one need not be a scholar to grasp the text.
Likewise, “The Evolution of God,” by Robert Wright, similarly constructs a thorough anthropological investigation into the cultural constructs of god/gods, their place within the grounding of a civilization, and their societal usages. He goes from the hunter-gatherer societies of the Stone Age and moves systematically through to the Information Age. The work is challenging conceptually but is not a challenge to comprehend. He also introduces aspects of Game Theory to his appraisal I.e. showing how some religious conceptions are zero-sum while others are non-zero sum, knowledge of this theory is not necessary to read as Wright does a good job of explaining and applying it lucidly.
“Liberating the Gospels” – John Shelby Spong. I recommend anything by Spong, though he is not counted among the renowned Jesus scholars I find him to be just as insightful and inspiring. In this particular book Spong in some ways seeks to continue the work of New Testament scholar Michael Goulder, in the presentation and treatment of the Gosepl chorpus as a classic example of Midrash, that is a Jewish homiletic methodology of biblical exegesis. Here the writer of Midrash is not seeking to convey history nor the simple conveyance of facts or teachings but, is rather deeply interpretive. Thus, Spong’s suggestion is that the Gospel writers were not attempting to document the facts or history of the life and teachings of Jesus, but, were rather participating in the long Jewish tradition of Midrash. Spong goes through each of the gospels in immense detail, leaving nearly no gospel text un-turned, highlighting the imagery and instances that point to the midrashic genre. One does not need to be familiar with either Goulder’s work or Midrash to garner Spong’s thesis, as his target audience is specifically the laity.
“God: A Biography” by Jack Miles, this is an intriguing book I’m currently reading that examines “God” as a literary character as presented in the Hebrew Bible. I’m not done with it yet but it has been captivating as Miles explores many of the subtleties and nuances of the story as well as those aspects of the narrative that often are glossed over or explained away. As you can imagine the image that emerges is one that dramatically challenges and often opposes the description of the “God” character that many suppose the text supports revealing a literature that often views the deity in an unfavorable light.
“Joseph’s Bones” by Jerome Segal. This is another book I’m currently reading. Segal approach is very similar to that of Jack Miles’ book listed above. He seeks to deeply engage with the Hexateuch i.e. Genesis-Joshua, via literary criticism. He treats these first six books of the Hebrew Bible as though they were a single, unified, book of literature, that is as if these six books were one book in and of themselves, a “novel” if you will. It’s not that Segal is seeking to dissuade the use historical criticism or source criticism, he certainly references these but he is attempting to momentarily suspend our knowledge of these, phenomenologically bracketing out everything we know of the text and anything we may have previously attached to prior readings, be they religious or otherwise. Here, he asks the reader to approach the text experientially as if it were a book fresh from shelves and being read for the first time blocking out all religious and historical influences upon it and simply straightforwardly reading it. I haven’t finished this one either but, overall Segal’s style and method are captivating and insightful.
Last but certainly not least, “Insurrection” by Peter Rollins. I’ve been a long time fan and long time follower of Peter Rollins. Rollins may be the one of the most progressive and possibly one of the most radical theological voices speaking to religion, and specifically Christianity, today. Rollins, a self-proclaimed Christian Atheist (see why I like him!), has his PhD. in Post-Structural Analysis and thus is steeped in post-modern thought. In this bold work, Rollins pulls equally from theology (Dietrich Bonhoeffer), the mystics (Meister Eckhart), psychoanalysis (Freud and Jacques Lacan), and even social criticism (Marx and Slavoj Zizek) to offer an incendiary and critical look into the contemporary Church that he poignantly calls “pyro-theology.” The reader is not required to know anything about any of the fields or thinkers that Rollins conjures. His writing is readily accessible yet deeply challenging sometimes to the point of discomfort. Rollins would say that that is precisely the point, to have more questions than answers and to embrace doubt above belief. The book is simply a must read.