As I reflect on ten years of ministry at Covenant Church, I return to a favorite question that I have put to many of you over and over again: What are you reading? I call to mind the wheelbarrows full of books I’ve read, the ideas they put forth, the discussions that ensued, and, most importantly, the ways they changed my living.
The great Unitarian ethicist James Luther Adams is reported to have quipped that he believed in salvation by bibliography. Sometimes I feel like that. (If you’re ever looking for me and can’t find me, try, in order: my home library, my office library, Brazos Bookstore, the Fondren Library, the Montrose library, Half Price Books…) I have spent a good deal of my life with the writings and ideas of others, joining in a great company of theologians, storytellers, and poets sharing their questions and observations. So just for fun, I thought I’d offer my top ten books of these ten years of ministry. Each of these books has been something I’ve read and reread, and a few of the authors have become my teachers and friends. Here goes:
A Case for God by Karen Armstrong – This book strikes me as a perfect example of scholarship in the service of compassion. Reading the book was like taking a divinity school course; finishing it, I was left with the persistent question of the real effects of my religious practice.
A Feminist Ethic of Risk by Sharon Welch – Welch’s move from an ethic of control to an ethic of risk (and its constituent elements of storytelling, playfulness, witness, and resilience) strikes a deeper chord with me than any work of ethics I have ever read. This book is foundational to my theology.
A Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places by Gary Nabhan and Stephen Trimble – This book shaped my thinking on children’s need for time outdoors; it also evoked many memories of my own early relationships with the non-human world (Kailua Bay, the Koolau range, and my backyard).
In the beginning…Creativity by Gordon Kaufman – A dense but extraordinary text written near the end of Kaufman’s theological career. The Prologue, “The Word ‘God,'” is worth the price of admission, offering both an historical survey and a number of relevant options for the present moment, each one informed by an evolutionary view of the cosmos and the natural world.
Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh – An open-hearted appreciation of two great teachers and traditions, encouraging mindful, compassionate living in the here and now. I think I read this book once a year.
The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America by Louis Menand – A vibrant intellectual history of American pragmatism. Though there are dozens of excellent volumes on theological pragmatism, Menand’s blending of ideas, history, and personal narrative is irresistible.
Moby Dick: or, The Whale by Herman Melville – What can I say? I love Melville so much that I read big chunks of his prose aloud to anyone who will listen. There are too many themes to mention, too many characters to name, but above all Melville deals with the deep ambiguity of existence. We talked about this book for an entire weekend at the men’s retreat. But we were just getting started…
Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker – The book reminds us that all theology must answer to lived experience. Brock and Parker share from their stories and the experiences of women with whom they have worked, critiquing the ways that religion still supports and sanctions unspeakable violence. This may be the only work of theology that has ever made me weep.
The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough – This book is something of a sacred text to religious naturalists. Goodenough’s combination of hard science (she is a cellular biologist at Washington University in St. Louis) and personal meditation is deeply affecting. While Goodenough is a nontheist, her brand of religious naturalism leaves room for many; she’s more Mary Oliver than Richard Dawkins.
The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative by Thomas King – In the wry voice of indigenous wisdom, King raises deep questions about how we tell stories and why. His prose is painful and prophetic, and his primary concern, offered in the form of a call and response, still haunts me. “Need a different ethic?” he asks. “Tell a different story.”
My question this week, then, is the same as always: What are you reading? What books have most influenced your thinking and living over the past few years?
With a bow to readers and writers everywhere. And with aloha,