A Year of Books

During 2013 I read a lot. That is, really, the whole point of this blog—to force me to read and reflect. Of the books I read last year, here are my top five favorites:

1) David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God.

Reviewers agree that this is David Hart’s best book since Beauty of the Infinite. Hart’s erudition, unique and sometimes difficult writing style, and sure grasp of metaphysics combine to produce a singular reading experience. For some readers it may actually evoke an experience of the divine. Others may well end up cursing my name for recommending it to them. I understand. Hart is an acquired taste. One does not attain a love for a fine single malt overnight.

2) Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait.

I have always thought that St Thomas Aquinas, along with all of his fellow scholastics, was “beyond my sympathies,” as Tolkien might say. Eight years ago I spent a few months trying to read his Summa Theologiae (in Timothy McDermott’s paraphrase, no less), and found it exceptionally hard slogging. I finally gave up. What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?

Turner’s introduction to the life and thought of Aquinas has given me a totally different perspective on the Dominican preacher. Modern caricatures picture Aquinas as an academic who was more interested in philosophical precision than the life of faith. How very wrong these caricatures are. I do not know if I will ever return to the Summa Theologiae; but I am grateful to have been introduced to this great theologian who is also a saint. I have discovered that while Aquinas lies well beyond my intellectual capacity he is not beyond my sympathies. “The holiness of Thomas,” writes Turner, “is a theologian’s holiness, the holy teacher invisible otherwise than in the holy teaching itself.”

3) Christopher A. Beeley, Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God.

When I began my blog, I decided that I would spend many months reading, and re-reading, the orations of St Gregory the Theologian. Beeley’s book became my indispensable companion in this task. Although Gregory is confessed as one of the great doctors of the Church, modern scholarship has not paid him much attention over the past century, and what attention it has given him has been restricted to his Five Theological Orations. Thanks to the work of Beeley and John McGuckin that is finally changing. Beeley takes us into the heart of St Gregory’s trinitarian theology and thus into the heart of the patristic Church.

4) Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology.

My favorite introduction to Eastern Orthodoxy is Met Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Way. When I am asked for a book recommendation about Orthodoxy, this is the title to which I direct the inquirer. Louth, an eminent patristics scholar and theologian in his own right, has now written a little book that will take its place alongside The Orthodox Way. Orthodoxy’s distinctiveness is found, argues Louth, “in the way in which the traditional faith of Christians is upheld among the Orthodox. For Orthodoxy sees its faith as expressed, and tested, in prayer and worship.” Whether he is talking about the doctrines of creation, Trinity, or eschatology, the formative power of the lex orandi is apparent. I also like how Louth spells words like Athanasios and Nazianzos. The “o” looks so much more elegant than the “u.” I may well have to start imitating this (British?) usage.

5) John Kronen and Eric Reitan, God’s Final Victory.

This would not be the first book I would put in the hands of someone interested in exploring the controversial topic of universal salvation. Kronen and Reitan are philosophers, and the audience for their book are philosophers (or at least those who are patient of philosophical analysis). We often think that the debate about universal salvation can be resolved through biblical and patristic exegesis; but this has to be wrong-headed. Underlying the debate are philosophical and theological presuppositions that we rarely think about but which govern how we read the essential texts. What is freedom? What is justice? What is love? How does one read Scripture? The book is only 200 pages long, but the argumentation is tight and sophisticated. Anyone who thinks that universalism is grounded in unreflective sentimentalism will be quickly disabused of his prejudice by God’s Final Victory, and anyone who wants to advance a vigorous opinion on the question had better read it.

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19 Responses to A Year of Books

  1. I just ordered some pretty good works by both Orthodox and Catholic theologians myself. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Hilarion Alfeyev, Bulgakov, Killistos Ware, and Alexander Renault are the Orthodox writers I ordered. The Catholic authors include Pope John Paul II, Thomist scholars such as F.C. Copleston and Etienne Gilson, Raymond Brown and St. Anselm.

    I must say, the scholastic developments of the atonement often times drive me nuts but after looking at St. Thomas’s understanding of what constitutes as punishment, I have a whole new respect for St. Anselm.

    Oh, and cats getting in your way as you work on your computer is fairly annoying.

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    • whitefrozen says:

      Hart argued (in an essay I found but have not been able to read, sadly) that Anselm can be read in a much more Eastern way. I had a discussion once about such a topic, but I don’t remember how it was developed away from the typical penal-substitution understanding. Anselm gets a lot of flack, wrongly so a lot of the time IMO.

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      • Greg says:

        The reading of Anselm you are thinking of is in the Beauty of the Infinite, I think somewhere around page 334 (that may be off, its been years since I read the book). While creative, I don’t know anyone that finds it convincing. I would be surprised if Hart does either at this point, but who knows.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        For Hart on Anselm, also see “A Gift Exceeding Every Debt.”

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  2. whitefrozen says:

    I also tried going through the Summa, and gave up reading it that way. It’s definitely a reference, not something to be read through like a normal book. I do find Aquinas, philosophically, to be one of the most helpful thinkers from history.

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  3. The best place to dive into Aquinas is actually his Scripture commentaries — Colossians is probably the best one to begin with, being both short and substantive. The works on Hebrews and Job are quite good. The commentary on John is excellent, but it’s a big commitment (the commentary on John 1:1 alone goes on for pages and pages).

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  4. John burnett says:

    The ‘o’ in ‘nazianzos’ is not british, but greek. Since st gregory was a greek (sorta) and anyway spoke in greek and wrote in greek and we have his works in greek, and nazianzos was a greek town, it seems only fair to call it and him as he’d call himself. So, no more ‘nazianzus’— or ‘chrysostomus’, or ‘moschus’ any more! Though it’s kinda hard to go all the way and say klimakos, even if climacos can’t possibly be right. Personally i’ve always like ‘nazianzen’, which i suppose would be an english way of saying ‘nazianzenos’. It sounds kinda ‘zen’, whereas ‘nazianzene’ sounds like petrol.

    Happy new year!

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      To write Athanasios or Nazianzos sounds frightening and radical; but I guess I could give it a try. 🙂

      And HNY to you, too, John.

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  5. John burnett says:

    no it will prove you’re a *true* Orthodox!

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  6. orthodoxchristian2 says:

    Athanasios is a great defender of the Orthodox Faith against the heretic Arians. He is a must read for all Orthodox Christians.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      If you are interested in St Athanasios, you may find this series of articles of interest, beginning with “Theologian of the Cross.”

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      • orthodoxchristian2 says:

        Thank you for the post. It is very much eye-opening. I have read the writings of Athanasios translated by Peter Schaff, in Nicene Fathers. I read it both in English and in a Russian translation of it so I could understand it more. Theology has a lot to do with understanding God, though many modern Christians will deny that fact. We do, after all, have to have the right idea about God. That is one of the reasons the East-West schism happened, after all! Because the Westerners certainly did not understand how the Trinity worked, especially the procession of the Holy Spirit. They seemed to divide Him in two, and make the Holy Spirit less than that of the Son, when all are equal, and the Holy Spirit only proceeds once.

        St Photios in his Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit, describes this issue very well.

        That book sounds interesting. Is it written by Athanasios, or by a modern writer?

        And let God and the Theotokos bless you, holy Fr Aidan. I hope your ministry goes well, and that you bring many people to the faith, especially the Westerners. They do not understand Orthodox Christianity very well, and need to be taught properly. All their knowledge of Church history is mainly Western, if any, at all!

        Let your faith grow, your deification proceed smoothly, as well as your redemption and growth in God. Let both your wills work together for everything God wishes for you to achieve, and let your piety and holiness become well-known, as well as a guiding light and a lesson for the people in goodness.

        I offer my respect to you, holy father Aidan, as well as to God, who I fear and tremble at.

        Amen.

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  7. Adam DeVille says:

    You might also be interested in this longer list, looking back at significant publications in Eastern Christianity in 2013: http://easternchristianbooks.blogspot.com/2013/12/for-bibliophile-on-your-christmas-list.html

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  8. brian says:

    Fr Aidan,

    Well, I already spent way too much on theological books this Christmas. Now, thanks to you, I have to add Denys Turner’s book and Kronen and Reitan’s book. I really think you should look at W. Norris Clarke’s book , Person and Being. It has the advantage of being short, lucid, and it presents a Thomistically-inspired metaphysics that I think is both profound and fairly painless to digest.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Brian, I know too well the sin of book-buying. I guess it comes under gluttony. Thanks for the Clarke recommendation.

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