“Of making many books there is no end”: Which one to read first?

“Which book should I read first if I want to read [name of theologian]?” Good question. I’ve noticed that it not infrequently gets asked on Twitter. So I thought I’d share my suggestions for some of my favorite theologians (no particular order).

1) Alexander Schmemann. This one is easy: For the Life of the World. A classic.

2) Thomas F. Torrance. Again, an easy choice: The Trinitarian Faith. The only problem is the ungodly price. I hate paying $50 for a paperback, but the book is worth every penny.

3) Robert W. Jenson. This is difficult, as there is a marked difference between the early Jenson (writing very much as a Lutheran theologian) and the later Jenson (writing as an ecumenical theologian). But given the fundamental continuity of the two Jensons, I’m going to recommend one of his early works, just recently reprinted: Story and Promise.

4) Sergius Bulgakov. Impossible choice but here it goes: The Burning Bush. This will either hook you (as it did me), or it will drive you away screaming “Idolater!” At least you will then know whether you will want to read more Bulgakov. You may also find that your love for the Theotokos has deepened immeasurably.

5) Hans Urs von Balthasar. I shouldn’t even have an opinion—his multi-volume Theo-Drama sitting unread in my bookshelf for years—but I will still offer a recommendation: Love Alone is Credible.

6) Joseph Ratzinger. Introduction to Christianity. I know most people, including God, will disagree; but I wish Ratzinger had remained an academic and thus had had time to write a systematic theology.

7) Herbert McCabe. God, Christ and Us—a collection of homilies that will surprise you. You probably would not have guessed that a Thomist could be so … evangelical.

8) David B. Hart. I’m going to go with The Experience of God. The second half of the book (on consciousness) is opaque to me, but the first half on Being is illuminating and will invite you to rethink what you think the word “God” means. If you don’t like this book, no need to look at any of Hart’s other books, including, I suspect, his magnum opus, The Beauty of the Infinite.

9) N. T. Wright. How many books has Wright written? How can one choose just one “first book”? But here it goes: Simply Christian.

10) John Zizioulas. The essay is Zizioulas’s medium of choice, but fortunately Douglas Knight has pulled together material from a series of lectures to form a coherent introduction to Zizioulas’s theology: Lectures in Christian Dogmatics.

Which first books do you recommend for your favorite theologians?

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30 Responses to “Of making many books there is no end”: Which one to read first?

  1. brian says:

    D.B. Hart — The Beauty of the Infinite Difficult, over the top, still my favorite.
    Hans Urs von Balthasar — The Glory of the Lord Vol. 1 If I really had to choose, I would read the Theo-Drama, but this first volume changed my life.
    Sergius Bulgakov — Bride of the Lamb Mind-bending eschatology.
    Pavel Florensky — The Pillar and Ground of the Truth
    Joseph Ratzinger — Eschatology
    John Zizioulas — Being as Communion
    Norris Clarke — Person and Being More philosophy than theology, but it will improve your theology.
    Josef Pieper — Only the Lover Sings Also more philosophy, but sweet, lucid, and again, you will become a better theologian.
    George Macdonald — Unspoken Sermons
    Rowan Williams — Edge of Words
    C. S. Lewis — The Great Divorce The Imagination is key to a full-blooded theology
    Fyodor Dostoevsky — The Brothers Karamazov
    Charles Peguy — The Portal of the Mystery of Hope
    Charles Williams — Descent of the Dove
    Christos Yannaras — Variations on the Song of Songs
    William Desmond — The William Desmond Reader He’s expensive. The best contemporary philosophy that helps one think well theologically.
    John Milbank — The Word Made Strange
    Catherine Pickstock — Repetition and Identity Most think After Writing the more substantial work, but I like this later one.
    NT Wright — The New Testament and the People of God The first hundred pages or so are a brilliant brief for narrative theology.

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  2. Jonathan says:

    I have to heartily second all of these suggested by brian:

    The Beauty of the Infinite (over The Experience of God)

    The Pillar and Ground of the Truth (most fun I’ve ever had reading theology)
    Unspoken Sermons
    Brothers K
    Repetition and Identity

    For Charles Williams, as an alternative to Descent of the Dove I would suggest The Figure of Beatrice

    Something by A J Heschel. Not a Christian, obviously, but The Sabbath (nice and slim) or his twinned volumes Man Is Not Alone and God in Search of Man are essential reading for anyone in any of the Judeo-Christian traditions.

    Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations came up on here recently. It’s uncategorizable. I can’t think of a more luminous work of theological reflection and inspiration.

    Annie Dillard — For the Time Being; or Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
    George Steiner — Real Presences. More of a prolegomena toward a renewal of the possibility of theological thinking for people educated in the post-structuralist humanities.
    Kierkegaard — Practice in Christianity combined with Works of Love

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Haha, so you and Brian would have us jump to the Mt Everest of Hart’s Beauty of the Infinite, rather than begin with the foothill of The Experience of God? Hmmm. 😉

      Remember: this isn’t a favorite theological books list but rather recommendations of a title to recommend as an entry point to a given (multi-book) theologian.

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    • Jonathan says:

      And a few more now that I think about it:

      John Henry Newman — Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent
      Miguel de Unamuno — The Agony of Christianity.
      Theodor Haecker — Journal in the Night
      Simone Weil — Gravity and Grace
      Gabriel Marcel — The Mystery of Being. But Homo Viator is also good and his essays on music almost stick with me more (collected in a volume called Music and Philosophy from Marquette)
      Jean Grenier — Les Îles. More like lyric philosophy. I can only say that it is very beautiful, and it primed me at a certain point in my life for more theological thinking.
      Paul Claudel — various poetry and plays. caveat: only if you have good French. Claudel is mostly unavailable in English anyway, and he sounds bad in English. But in French he’s wonderful. Imagine a devout Catholic Walt Whitman with a strong sense of the dramatic.

      I guess my idea of what constitutes written “theology” is not very academic.

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      • brian says:

        Oh, I love Marcel. Man Against Mass Society was the first serious book I ever read.
        My French isn’t good, but I like Claudel even in English. Balthasar was very fond of The Satin Slipper.
        Should have really put Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations on the list. Would have made an even twenty.
        Isak Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast, too. A great film adaptation as well.
        It’s not great literature, perhaps, but I like G.K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse and The Man Who Was Thursday.
        I also like Evelyn Waugh, but I’m not sure he really qualifies for this category outside of Brideshead Revisited. I like the early, anarchic works, besides.

        This really could go on quite a while . . .

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    • Jonathan says:

      Father, good point about entry-level books. You’re right The Beauty of the Infinite is not that. I wasn’t all that pleased with The Experience of God, but felt D B Hart deserved to have an entry in the lists. I hope my other suggestions are accessible enough; at any rate, they have all been works of access for me, and I’m hardly expert in anything.

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  3. Jonathan says:

    Anybody for Nikolai Berdyaev? I feel like I should have listed a book by him, but I can’t think which one.

    I’d like to know how to easily and swiftly break into Dumitru Staniloae, but I have a feeling the answer is to read the whole 6-volume Experience of God.

    We’re definitely pushing the envelope in terms of artistic works that have more or less explicit philosophical-theological value. Depending on how one views the arts, theology merges fairly seamlessly into aesthetics, and vice versa. But there are certain modern literary writers whom, I think, one can usefully label as spiritual or religious, but since they are writers they aren’t likely to be dogmatically pure (Claudel is an exception), and often not even adherents of an established tradition. I think of people as diverse as Nikos Kazantzakis (Report to Greco might be the best entry) and Wendell Berry (try the essays collected in Standing by Words). There’s a cadre of mid-20th century novelists, including Waugh whom Brian just mentioned, who are famous for being the last generation of potent recognizably Catholic writers: Graham Greene (The Power and the Glory), Walker Percy (The Moviegoer), Flannery O’Connor (everything she wrote is excellent), Bernanos, Mauriac. . . I feel like Robert Byron’s The Byzantine Achievement and his book on Mt Athos deserve mention. This Byron wrote gorgeous prose, and even though he wasn’t a believer, few have appreciated eastern Christian civilization as enthusiastically. Back to straight-up litrachur: everyone already knows about Tolkien and Lewis, of course, and Fr Aidan has written on Charles Williams’ novels and George MacDonald’s. I will add to the fantasy/scifi “theologians” the incomparably weird and genius work of the Catholic R A Lafferty. Hard to pick a single title to start with: maybe try Fourth Mansions or Past Master. Also there is Gene Wolfe, another Catholic. Plenty of theology in most of what he wrote, but his best is probably The Book of the New Sun. And let’s not forget the incredibly bizarre but compelling gnosticism (so says Harold Bloom, at any rate) of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus.

    Hope this isn’t too derailing. I’m done now, I swear, though as Brian says the list, expanded to include “theoliterature” or however you want to style it, could go on for a while.

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    • Jonathan says:

      Good grief! Staniloae wrote The Experience of *God*, not The Experience of Go. The latter sounds like a history of Nascar or some sort of wretched self-help book. Forgiveness, please.

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    • brian says:

      Jonathan,

      Great lists of works. I just started Wolfe’s New Sun series. I like The Fifth Head of Cerberus. Even Lewis thought A Voyage to Arcturus metaphysically perverse. Lindsay cannot write, but his vision is compelling nonetheless. You should read Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy (well, the first two) if you haven’t. Flannery O’Connor’s collected letters are worth reading. For Berdyeav, I like The Destiny of Man and The Meaning of the Creative Act. Balthasar’s work on Bernanos is excellent. I also like Leon Bloy. The French are great for quotes.

      “Disenchantment is a sign of stupidity” — Bernanos.

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    • ivstinianvs says:

      Berdiaev: Slavery & Freedom.

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  4. Mike H says:

    I’m nowhere near as well read as all of you but here are a few of mine:

    CS Lewis – The Great Divorce. Brian made a great point above, and this one is short enough that you can read it in one sitting.

    George MacDonald – Unspoken Sermons. Either this one, or Michael Phillips edited compilations (Discovering the Character of God / Knowing the Heart of God) that combine his fiction, poetry, and expository writing. Also, Johanssen puts out some really cool Vintage looking George MacDonald books.

    Thomas Merton – New Seeds of Contemplation. The chapter the “The Moral Theology of the Devil” had a huge impact on me.

    Dallas Willard – The Divine Conspiracy. I’m not the Dallas Willard junkie that I once was, but the Divine Conspiracy and his ideas about “Gospels of Sin Management” were an eye opener for me.

    Brian Zahnd – Beauty Will Save the World. This wouldn’t qualify as hard core theology – it’s more pastoral – but below the surface is immense theological depth. An appreciation for those who came before me (going beyond a non specific lip service to the “fathers”) started with this book.

    Walter Brueggemann – The Bible Makes Sense. I haven’t read a ton by him, but his thinking has influenced many other theologians that I have read.

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  5. Isaac says:

    Not a theologian Father, but to repeat my earlier request I would love to get your take on Rene Girard’s mimetic theory and how it corresponds with scripture and Christianity. His more recent “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning” is a great place to start and is actually a fairly brief book. There is also a great series on him on Canada’s version of NPR.
    http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2011/02/28/the-scapgoat-rene-girards-anthropology-of-violence-and-religion/

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Isaac, feel free to repeat your requests. 🙂 I’m afraid that I have not read Girard and probably will not do so anytime in the near future. I just have too many books on my must-read list.

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  6. AR says:

    Fr. Kimel, some friends and I are trying to do some in-depth study on the theology of gender and sexuality. We are sticking to Orthodox or, rarely, Catholic sources for now. We basically want to feel that we’ve covered all the important points, are more or less “caught up,” and are set up to do some thinking on the subject. We don’t want to bother with unimportant books that are rehashes of whatever has been said by the thinkers; but at the same time we are eager to find out-of-the-way gems. We want to finish in a year. Right now all we’ve got is Evdokimov and a list of stuff we found on Amazon and are uncertain about. And we are not just looking for someone to confirm what we already believed.

    Can you recommend any books and/or articles?

    Thanks!

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  7. Jonathan says:

    AR and Fr Aidan, Please forgive my jumping in here. Just in case no one else does, I wanted to bring to your attention, AR, a short and good, if somewhat dry and dense book by Philip Sherrard, called Christianity and Eros. Sherrard was an English convert to Orthodoxy, a layman married twice. He died in the 90s. Christianity and Eros is from the mid-70s, I think. Today, Sherrard is probably best known in literary circles, as a translator of modern Greek poetry. He lived (in very simple conditions) in Greece for most of his adult life. His books are available from the publisher Denise Harvey, his second wife. I’m not sure, but I think Christianity and Eros might qualify as an “out-of-the-way gem.” It may have came up on Amazon if you were looking at Evdokimov titles there. Good luck in your researches.

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  8. AR says:

    Thank you, Jonathan, your suggestion is a welcome one!

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    • Jonathan says:

      AR, I’ve thought of one more book you might be interested in: Vladimir Solovyov’s The Meaning of Love. This book, like Sherrard’s, is short and dense and very brilliant (Sherrard might even mention Solovyov, I can’t recall). There’s a somewhat overpriced edition from (I believe) Lindisfarne Books, with an introduction by Owen Barfield, an eccentric, mythopoetic genius of C S Lewis’ generation. I find The Meaning of Love very rewarding. But you should know that Solovyov was not exactly what you could call an orthodox Orthodox, viz. especially his potent brand of Sophiology. Solovyov was a charismatic philosopher of immense erudition and originality, as well as something of a guru. He was an inspiration to Dostoevsky (himself quite capable of getting in trouble with the Church authorities of his time), and in general both a catalyst of, and influenced by, the frenzied intellectual, religious and social turmoil of Silver Age Russia. Quite possibly Solovyov is not to our taste in the contemporary US and western Europe, but he’s worth checking out all the same, in my opinion. I think The Meaning of Love also qualifies as both out-of-the-way and gem-like.

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      • AR says:

        What a coincidence, I’ve been working on a series of articles for my blog spinning off of Barfield’s ‘Poetic Diction.’ Very interesting fellow, though not a Christian thinker per se.

        Anyway, thanks! Will add this to the list.

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  9. brian says:

    Hi AR,

    Jonathan and I have very similar tastes. In addition to Sherrard and Solovyov, I think you should look over Christos Yannaras’ Variations on the Song of Songs.

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  10. tryphonas says:

    I have to plug _The Meaning of Reality_ by Yannaras here. It’s a collection of essays and excerpts from his books from throughout his career. I feel it gives a nice overview of his thought.

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