My 2008 Reading List (so far)

With every new year comes new lists of things we all would like to accomplish, take for instance the reading list. How many of you have compiled, if not physically, at least a mental list of all the books, authors and ideas you’d like to read about in 2008? What are the ones you’re most excited about? After seeing Josh’s list I thought I’d make my own.

I’ve got quite a list working already:

Books Leftover from Last Year

Books I’ve Already Read (at least most of)

Books I know I am excited to read in the coming year

As you can see my overwhelming interests for the year will be in culture studies, which reflects the majority of the work I am doing in the next couple quarters. It will be interesting to look back on this in ten months and see if this is the path I followed.

Are there any I should add to my list? How about you, what are you looking forward to reading?

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Wess the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

10 thoughts on “My 2008 Reading List (so far)”

  1. The stein book is good so far, I’ve read only a couple chapters of it. But it’s a great little primer on phenomenology and it’s really interesting to see him put to use his own methodology in the form of a biography. ‘Puppet’ was really interesting. I like Zizek’s stuff and thought it was easier in some parts then other stuff of his I’ve read, and more complex in other parts. His stuff on Christianity is really intense, and I’m not completely sure how to make sense of it all, so I am in the process of reading backwards into some of his influences so I can gain a better understanding. Have you read much of his stuff? Anything you particularly liked?

  2. nice list, cuz. my additions:

    charles taylor, a secular age

    hauerwas and rom coles, christianity, democracy, and the radical ordinary

    john milbank, proposing theology

    oh, and you should take that quakie stuff off and read more menno.

    what did you think of bevans? i perused “models” a couple days back and thought it was kinda wack.

  3. well, i don’t have ‘Models’ in front of me anymore, so I’m going to have to rely on my notes, which are sketchy in places. but i can identify a couple things i didn’t like:

    (1) the idea of “contextual theology” annoys me a bit in general. yes, theology should pay lots more explicit attention to context. but, as bevans himself does a good job showing, all theology is already contextual. it’s not as if there’s any non-contextual theology. there’s just bad theology that pretends context doesn’t matter or is insensitive to context; even this, however, is contextual. so when he rejects “classical theology” (which, incidentally, he had already told us is highly contextual), he’s really just rejecting what he takes to be bad theology. let’s not propose a new school of thought that is by definition tautological (as all theology is contextual), but just do good theology.

    (2) Bevans’s definition of contextual theology involves an endorsement of Kant’s definition of the subject as constructing reality through his or her own experience (pg 2). A critique of the role of the Kantian subject in Bevans’s work would, I imagine, collapse his whole project. I don’t really have time to think this through right now, but let me suggest that if human experience is important only because we as individuals create reality through experience, then we have a problem. For starters, I can think of no good reason why, if I create reality as such, my personal experience should benefit that of the rest of humanity. You, my friend, are just a smear on my optical lens, and I shall have no problem wiping you off (or out) for the sake of “humanity,” which, as you no doubt have guessed, is really me. I realize this is an inadequate account of Kantian subjectivity, but I do think it points to some real–as in practical, political–problems with the theory.

    (3) Of his five models, Bevans seems to endorse the praxis model as found in a lot of liberation and political theologies (and which is taken up by most practical theologians, not just Bevans). True, he finds validity in the other models (admittedly, my notes are sketchy here and I’m pulling from memory as to what he likes and doesn’t like); but the “praxis-first” model seems to carry the day for him. I think there’s a lot of validity to this model, and as a corrective for the “translation model” (practice is “translated” directly from propositions) it’s undoubtedly important. But we cannot reduce theory out of practice; practice is “always already” theorized (to use a Milbankian phrase). Most liberation, political, and practical theologians I read talk about how praxis is reflection on action, and then think you can somehow downgrade theory. But the theory-practice circle has to be just that–a circle. You can enter on either side, and really entering one side is entering the other. I would argue from a hermeneutical perspective that you don’t really understand theory until you are practicing it, and you don’t really engage in meaningful practice until you have some theoretical understanding of it (however simple or complex).

    Milbank makes similar arguments against the praxis model near the end of his chapter on liberation theology in Theology and Social Theory. The only practical theologian I’ve read that seems to get this is Duncan Forrester, in his book Truthful Action.

    (4) In discussing the role of the theologian, Bevans writes, “when theology is conceived as expressing one’s present experience in terms of one’s faith, the question arises whether ordinary people, people who are in touch with everyday life, who suffer under the burden of anxiety and oppression and understand the joys of work and married love, are not the real theologians–with trained professionals serving in an auxiliary role.”

    There are two major problems with this paragraph:

    First, I hope to God that theology is not “expressing my experience in terms of my faith.” Of course my experience plays a role and is worthy of rigorous reflection. My basic problem with Bevans’s formulation is that I believe in revelation, I think theology is also reflection on the ways in which God has revealed God’s self to us. Yes, God reveals God’s self within our experience, but that does not amount to a unilateral privileging of our experience. There are other problems with this definition of theology, but I will stop here.

    Second, this is a hopelessly romantic view of “ordinary people” as the “real” theologians. Last time I checked, “trained professional” theologians suffer anxiety and oppression and “understand the joys of work and and married love.” Rebecca S. Chopp, in a wonderful essay entitled “Practical Theology and Liberation” (printed in Mudge and Poling’s Formation and Reflection), berates practical theologians for romanticizing the congregation. She writes,

    “I applaud theologians being involved in the congregation, and theology does not make much sense without a relation to religious witness. But theologians will find no gnostic formulas [i.e., secret insights] in the congregation, indeed the questions and experiences of most congregations parallel, in a rather frightening way, the questions and experiences of liberal-revisionist theologians” (124).

    She goes on to suggest that both theologians like Bevans and their congregations “are manifestations of their culture, twin manifestations that disclose the constitution of Christianity in bourgeois society as individualistc [sic], existentialistic, and private” (125).

    The point here is that identifying the “ordinary” members of the congregation as the “real” theologians doesn’t really get us any closer to liberating praxis than remaining with the elite professional class of theologians. Though Chopp suffers from the praxis problem I outlined above, she alerts us that congregations have no magic bullets to slay the specter of a disconnected academic theology. Again, we are faced with the problem of doing good theology, not coming up with gimmicks and flashy rhetoric to cover over a lack of ideas.

    If you’ve made it this far…

    Keith Graber Miller, Wise as Serpents, Innocent as Doves: American Mennonites Engage Washington.
    Interesting not just for politicos, but for reflection on the meaning of mission/witness, etc.

    Thomas Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology.
    Perpetuates the “Yoder is a reductionist” interpretation, and is fairly evangelical, but good otherwise.

    Any articles you can find by Alain Epp Weaver, who works in Palestine and writes some interesting theology (mostly in the Mennonite journals, but he’s written a book with Peter Dula, one of Hauerwas’s PhD students, called Borders and Bridges: Mennonite Witness in a Religiously Diverse World, that I haven’t read).

    A couple I haven’t read yet, but want to, are: James A. Reimer, Mennonites and Classical Theology: Dogmatic Foundations for Christian Ethics and J. Denny Weaver, Keeping Salvation Ethical.

  4. Jamie, like I said earlier thanks for the comment, it’s helpful on a number of levels. I am currently working on a paper where I am trying to use some of Bevan’s models to create map out a sort of ‘post-christendom theology of culture and witness’ but that’s all real fancy for just saying I’m using Bevans, McClendon and Craig Carter and kind of summarizing their works and connecting some dots and nothing more. It’s actually a very uninteresting paper, even for the author.

    Anyways, Bevans is someone we typically respect on the side of missiology. I think part of what is to be liked about him is that his models are actually helpful, albeit not perfect as in any typology system. But his other work ‘Constants in Context,’ as far as missiology goes, is really outstanding work. He maps out missionaries movements (as they pertain to these various models) within church history. It also helps that he’s a catholic inasmuch as he is interested in fidelity to a tradition, while also maintaing a more pluralistic view of culture/s. So from my standpoint he’s helpful because he’s MacIntyrean in his emphasis on tradition or the ‘constants’ that he argues for in the book. Funny thing is ‘Models’ overlooks this idea of tradition, except for the countercultural method and translation models, and even in these two examples doesn’t build on it well enough.

    But that may all be beside the point. I agree with your #1, I am not sure Bevans would take issue with you either, I think you have to put the book in its context as well. It was published in 1992 when this idea of contextual theology was still a fairly radical idea. In fact, it still is a radical idea to many. We’re reading this in Ryan’s class right now and there is more than just one or two students who didn’t appreciate these first couple chapters in Bevans. So in defense of his book, I completely agree on the need for ‘compelling theology’ but also see that these super basic conversations are still needed and I think he does explain it nicely.

    I can’t say I know enough of Kant to know for sure how Bevans may fall into the critique, but re-reading his point here I do see what you are getting at. I don’t think he is clear enough on such a complex issue, and his quote from Kraft doesn’t amount to much more than just repeating what he already stated. I wish he would have remained with (at least) the perspective that we as subjects are bound to our cultures without moving into saying “it is the source of reality.” I think that’s the part that throws, the rest about culturally embeddedness and the impossibility of a value-free stance I don’t have a problem with. It is interesting that he does construct meaning around thought and culture yet doesn’t actually name what’s under culture, and I think here may be where he is tripping up. I lean more towards language as constructing meaning and I think that could have helped him here.

    On to 3, I looked over the Milbank critique of the idea of Praxis and agree with it, I also do find it interested that Bevan’s so called ‘critique’ of this position is really weak compared to the other positions and revolves around it being to Marxist, which isn’t necessarily a critique — why is being Marxist bad? That’s not something he answered. I do think at the end of the day, he is getting at the circular motion you are calling for, even his little picture in here is of circles or rather, loops. So I do think he agrees on that point at least, but on the deeper issues of context-embedded practices, and the ontology of difference within Marxism maybe a stronger point to push. Actually, that is a question I have, does Milbank state Marxism is built on an ontology of Difference or is that just in reference to Nietzsche? I couldn’t find it about Marx, but assumed it’s accurate.

    His definition of theology would lend itself towards his bias of the Praxis model it seems, and besides the problems already mentioned with Praxis, he does seem to suffer from an odd definition of theology. I do appreciate his desire to put it back into the hands of the ‘everyday person’ but I agree that there’s no easy non-gimicky way for the professional theologian to state this. In fact, I think professional theologians should refrain from defending their positions, it all seems way to self-interested and paternal, and this is exactly the same thing that happened with Bevans own move except it is reversed. Instead of defending, we are now in a position to ‘give it back,’ as if the ‘ordinary people’ ever thought it was really up to us anyway. This really does reflect a gap, maybe even the gap between professional theology and the church – like our conversation about Milbank. Who really cares at the end of the day? I know that’s a bit simplistic but it’s one of my myths I operate on. And this ‘hopelessly romantic view of ordinary people” is no different, in my mind, than the overly romantic view of “the other” in certain strands of continental philosophy, which is one of Zizek’s critiques. We overly romanticize the other to the point of “othering” them even more.

    But on the topic of theology, I do think Bevans makes a simple, yet invaluable point about the necessity to allow those outside your context (the nonparticipant) to participate in your ‘contextual theology.’ I think his reasoning is good, I think it stresses the importance and value of the ‘truth of the other’ and I think it’s helpful for you and I who are both implants into traditions who for various reasons may see us as ‘nonparticipants’ and I realize this is somewhat of a selfish reason but nonetheless it was (maybe) therapeutic to see theology as being affirmed from that direction.

    Thanks for the books, I’ll check them out, I have Finger’s already but haven’t checked out the others. interesting that you mention the Borders and Bridges book, Jennifer just preached on that last week. It sounds really good.

  5. Wess,

    Interesting take on Bevans, and very helpful to understand his place in missiology. And I fully agree with Bevans’s (and your) point about the congregation as theologian. My one variance with the Chopp quote I cited is her statement that there are “no gnostic formulas in the congregation.” I agree with this on the surface, but I do believe–in a way I doubt Chopp does–that theology has an epistemological preference for the congregation. That formulation is intentionally riffing on the liberationist “epistemological preference for the poor,” not because that is essentially wrong, but because it should be “for churches of the poor.” (We could perhaps draw a little hierarchy of “epistemological preferences,” with poor churches at the top, other churches just below, then the rest of the poor–but I’m making this up as I go along.) The whole congregation has noetic value for theology, because of the preeminent role of the church in history, the special presence of the Holy Spirit, the priesthood of all believers, etc. The priesthood of all believers allows a non-romanticized relationship between professionals and laity, in which each can correct the other’s “theory/praxis” (to use Milbank’s term). Anyway, I’m rambling, but the point is that I agree that Bevans’s aims are worth pursuing, even if I wouldn’t pursue them in the same way.

    On your mythological question of “who cares at the end of the day?”: I agree as far as this goes, but I worry that we dismiss too much when we hold to a “lowest-common denominator” kind of standard (perhaps I’m misunderstanding you here?). Milbank sure may be abstract and hard to read, but here we are caring and talking about him, convinced that he raises questions worthy of our intellectual energies, presumably because we believe they hold some transformative power for church practice. Obviously we are in the process of being professionalized, and hopefully we will write stuff that’s more accessible for the entire church; but I wonder if we need both the abstraction of Milbank and the concreteness of popular theology, and if one of the things wrong with theology is that these moments rarely meet. This is why I am proposing an “apostolic theology” in my dissertation, a theology that, like that by Paul and other apostles, is fully engaged with the problems of local congregations, but retains its theoretical, perhaps even “abstracting,” emphasis.

    Ahh, Jennifer’s preaching…I miss that!!

  6. Jamie – Yes I agree on the issue of the epistemological preference issue. I do think it is true there is something about the Kingdom of God that focuses on the weak, humble, and lowly – yet not we shouldn’t a)romanticize this and b) I don’ t think it can be read in terms of preference, as in priority over or that God favors one more than another. I think this might be the strength of Bevans binary as theology being either ‘redemptive-centered’ in nature or ‘creation-centered.’ I stress the ‘binary’ because I know it can be deconstructed and does not work as seamlessly as he makes it out to be, but the case may still stand. I know this would then get us into natural theology, something you and I have talked a lot about, but it may be one way to address the question of priority.

    And touche on the mythology thing. I know it doesn’t stand up well to critique, I hesitated writing it. So I whole heartedly agree with your notion of ‘apostolic theology’ I think it’s what we’re both after, and why were in school. May we be theologians of the gap (retaining both as you say)! I think my point is more confessional, if I error it will be on the side of the congregation (may be this is similar Ray Anderson styled theology) which is probably in large part to my own family narrative, but I don’t think we’re called to error or not do our absolute best at doing compelling theology for everyone (scholar and lay-person alike).

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