Sunday, April 24, 2011

Favorite Books & Authors About Christianity

I limit this list to authors who lived during my lifetime (Maurice Nicoll just makes it) and who wrote about Christianity. The list has no particular order other than I started with more recent authors I’ve read (or listened to) and then I looked around my study. The list is much longer than I intended, but I can vouch for all of these books.

Mark Johnston, Saving God: Religion After Idolatry. I’ve said a lot about this book, so I won’t say more here except to say that there’s a lot more that I could write.

Karen Armstrong, A History of God and The Case for God. I have said of History that I think that every Christian, Jew, and Muslim should read it. As to The Case for God (which I will review soon), I say simply that everyone should read it. Monotheist, Eastern religious practitioners, non-believers: everyone who wants to understand the religious traditions. This makes the “Christian” list here because it focuses on Christianity more than any other one religion, but it is broadly comprehensive.

Northrop Frye, The Double Vision. See my recent review. In addition, his two books on the Bible, The Great Code and Words with Power are the longer works behind The Double Vision that are most worthwhile. By the way, Professor Frye, one of the great literary critics of the 20th century, was also Rev. Frye, an ordained minister of the United Church of Canada.

Gerald May, Will and Spirit. I have several of his books, and they are all worthwhile. Like most of the authors on this list, he relies heavily on the mystical tradition of Christianity for his inspiration. In addition, he was a practicing psychiatrist.

Helen Luke, From Dark Wood to While Rose. Helen Luke was grounded in the Jungian tradition, and this book of hers on Dante’s Divine Comedy is a superb guide for beginners and those who want to contemplate some of the choicest morsels of this great work (not just the sensational punishments of hell that seem to attract so many readers). A truly lovely book.

Garry Wills. Here it’s hard to pick. I’ll start with one of the two first books by Wills that I read: Bare Ruined Choirs about the (then) contemporary Catholic Church. It’s Wills at his journalistic (as well as philosophic) best. Since then, I’ll pick out only two more titles: Heads and Hearts: American Christianities about the history of Christianity in America and What Jesus Meant, his take on the significance of the life, death, and teaching of Jesus. Very short, but quite worthwhile. (See also his What Paul Meant and What the Gospels Meant.

Jacob Needleman, Lost Christianity and What Is God? The former is his investigation, reflection, and fantasy of the possibilities of Christianity from his perspective, and his perspective is greatly influenced by the tradition of Gurdjieff. His more recent (2010) book, What is God? is an autobiography of his struggle with the idea and practice of God. As always with Needleman, he writes for a general audience, not trained philosophers, and he always incorporates his personal experiences and those of his students.

William Johnston, The Mirror Mind: Spirituality and Transformation. This, and other works by Jesuit William Johnston reflect his time in Japan and his encounter with Zen practice there. In a theme that will run throughout this list, I believe one of the truly fertile encounters in the 20th century has occurred when Buddhists and Christians have shared perspectives. Although Thomas Merton doesn’t have a work on this list, he is certainly among the most well known person in this dialogue, but Johnston, I believe, along with others, has added a great deal in this and several other books.

Kenneth Leech, True Prayer: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality. This book, by an Anglican minister, takes the reader into the world of the earliest Church Fathers to find some essential insights.

Anthony De Mello, Awareness. Like his fellow Jesuit William Johnston, De Mello published a number of books. De Mello spent time in India, and so his perspective is flavored more by his Hindu and Moslem milieu. However, De Mello is a delight to read. I think several years after his death and after the publication of this book, someone at the Vatican decided that De Mello was too far out and put some kind mark against his book. Yeah, it’s that good.

Alan Watts, Myth and Ritual in Christianity and Behold the Spirit. Alan Watts, when he wrote both of these books, I believe, was an Anglican (Episcopalian) priest. This eventually proved too confining for the free-spirited Watts, but these two books delve deeply into the tradition. Already heavily influenced by his reading of Eastern traditions, these books shed great light on the Christian tradition. If you want to understand what’s going on in the Trivium, read Myth and Ritual.

Stephen Mitchell, The Gospel According to Jesus. By now, Mitchell, a poet and translator, has translated and commented upon just about every major spiritual classic from around the world. His take on Jesus is sensitive and well considered. He, too, is greatly influenced in his reading by Eastern perspectives.

Polly Berends, Whole Child/Whole Parent and Coming Home. In both books, Berends is first and foremost a mom. She studied under the tutelage of European émigré Thomas Hora, who brought to Berends a unique blend of psychotherapy, existentialism, and scriptural understanding. Throw in Berends very down to earth experiences of parenting, and you receive a unique and enlightening spiritual perspective.

Dom Aelred Graham, Zen Catholicism. After our friend Hedecki stayed with us, I started reading about Buddhism, and I began through books by Roman Catholics. Graham’s book was one of the first, if not the first, that I read about Buddhism. (Actually, Huston Smith’s chapter in his book, The World’s Religions was the first book that I turned to.) This Benedictine shared an insightful perspective on the two traditions that I’ve always found very useful.

James W. Jones, In the Middle of This Road We Call Our Life and The Mirror of God: Christian Faith as a Spiritual Process—Lessons from Buddhism and Psychotherapy. Although we might call these psychology books (too literate for self-help), their perspectives are deeply informed by Christianity and other traditions. If a spiritual practice doesn’t touch our daily life, what’s the point? Jones brings this perspective to light with clinical accounts.

Dorothy Sayers, Dante’s Divine Comedy: Translation and Commentary and The Mind of the Maker. This woman, most famous as an English detective novelist, provided a fine translation and a first-rate commendatory on Dante, among the greatest of poets. To understand his Christian masterpiece, you would be hard-pressed to find a better commentary and notes to guide through a reading. The Mind of the Maker is a series of very literate essays.

Maurice Nicoll, The New Man. Nicoll died in 1953, so he just made it to the wire. This book is deeply influenced by the perspectives of Jung and Gurdjieff that Nicoll made his own. Nicoll attempts to make sense of the Gospels as a guide to real metanoia (change of mind/heart). Very interesting and thought provoking. See also his book The Mark.

Andrew Greeley. Unsecular Man and No Bigger than Necessary. Greeley was a prolific writer, not all of it top quality, I think. However, these two books proved to have a lot to inform me. Unsecular Man is about the abiding human quality of religious expression and ties. Remember, Greeley is a professional sociologist (UC trained, I believe), as well as a born writer. As to No Bigger, it’s a defense and promotion of Catholic social and political thought, which I found quite persuasive. As a guide to economic, social, and political arrangements, Greeley argues the Catholic tradition has a lot to offer. I found it quite eye opening back when I read it around 1980.

Robert Short, The Gospel According to Peanuts and The Parables of Peanuts. The first book (Gospel) I received from someone named “C” for Christmas, 1970, and the second one is inscribed to “Spook” from this same “C” July 1971. (Isn’t wonderful to have girlfriends who buy you books.) This books were fun in one sense because they were filled with Charles Schulz’s Peanuts cartoons, but strange and wonderful because they spoke of Karl Barth, Kierkegaard, Elliott, Luther, Bonheoffer, and Camus, among many others (and innumerable Biblical references). This theology was deeply rooted in the Protestant tradition of the mid-20th century. Heavy and serious stuff, lightened with wonderful cartoons. High and popular culture complimenting each other.

Rene Girard. I will just share his name here, as I’ve read many shorter pieces by him about Christianity and his unique take upon the significance of Christianity. (See earlier posts.) I haven’t carefully read his Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, his big work on Christianity. I should. Beat me to it and you’ll be the better off for it.

Chris Hedges, I Don’t Believe in Atheists. Hedges is a modern day prophet. He thunders against war and oppression, American fascist religion, and he scoffs in this book at the “New Atheists” for their naiveté as much as anything. (Johnston calls them—Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris—the “undergraduate atheists” because they base their arguments on texts read as undergraduates and have skipped crucial texts that would have come in graduate school). In any event, Hedges pulls no punches on any topic, and he does confront you, even as he goes after the subject of his book or article. He is a modern prophet, and you don’t think that you’ll read him for casual consideration. Sometimes I find him too much a downer, almost too cynical, but maybe that’s how prophets have to be.

Jack Miles, Christ. The former Jesuit brings his erudition, following his Pulitzer prize-winning God: A Biography, to the Gospels. Mile presents a compelling consideration of the Gospel message and its meaning.

Reinhold Niebuhr. Moral Man and Immoral Society and most else of what he wrote. You thought I was going to forget Niebuhr? I think that he is in some sense the 20th century reincarnation of St. Augustine. His perspectives of politics and society are unparalleled for their insights. He, too, is not easy in the sense you can step away from reading him feeling smug and self-satisfied. I don’t know if Niebuhr’s voice would be heard today, as he’s too unwilling to suffer the foolishness of both the Right and the Left. Always highly recommended.

Special Addendum:
Two Buddhist get a special shout out:
1. Thich Nhat Hahn, Living Buddhist, Living Christ. This Vietnamese Buddhist monk, who now lives in France, I believe, but who travels and teaches throughout the world is a wonderful voice of love, compassion, and mindfulness. In this book, he displays those traits in comparing the traditions of Buddha and Jesus. A wonderful work.
2. Alan Wallace, Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity. Wallace is a former Tibetan Buddhist monk who also has studied physics and holds a Ph.D. from Stanford in Religious Studies. He is among the foremost Buddhist scholar-practitioners around. He wrote this book with his stepdaughter, who’d been raised and practiced as a Christian. He undertook this book to show the intersection of these three traditions (as well as some philosophy) to show how all can contribute to a deeper interior life.

Okay, enough now. Go read a book.