Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Open Question: What To Read Before Doctoral Work?

I've sent the following question to a handful of mentors, fellow students, and professors, and I thought I might extend it here as well:

I have approximately four months of class- and assignment-less freedom before dedicating at least half of the next decade to doctoral work in theology. If you were to recommend 3-5 books for me to read during that (precious interim) time as absolutely essential -- of whatever genre, in whatever discipline -- what would they be?


  1. For me, it depends on the scope of your studies...but you can never go wrong reading the likes of: Augustine, Aquinas, the Cappadocians, Nicholas of Cusa or Pseudosionysis

  2. Oh come on, you can do better than that. I can't read the great theologians in a summer -- I expect my program to take care of that, anyway. I mean the obscure, or sneaky helpful, or unheralded, or beloved novels or essays, etc. What has changed your life that would be worth my while in the next few months, i.e., that I won't have time for once my program starts?

  3. As for what you won't have time for once the program starts, I'm not sure I'm much help there. But these are things I wish I had taken with me into my program (homiletics and liturgics with a theology minor at Vanderbilt):

    1. Small Gods by Terry Pratchett (Side-splittingly funny)
    2. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Series by Douglas Adams (Funny; can't take ourselves too seriously!)
    3. The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology ed. by Kevin Vanhoozer (good overview of the current landscape, with names they'll assume you know already)
    4. On Christian Theology by Rowan Williams (or Wrestling with Angels, both are good example of how to relate with other scholars in critical charity)
    5. Symbol and Sacrament by Louis Marie Chauvet (will change the way you look at the sacraments while familiarizing you with Heidegger, speech act theory, et al)

  4. Now that is a great list. I've read Adams and Williams, but I don't know Pratchett or Chauvet, so I'll definitely look into them. I've flipped through the Vanhoozer volume; while I'm usually hesitant to actually buy those big "companions," I'll consider it now. Thanks for the recommendations!

  5. K. I'm in a roadtrip with only my I phone, so I'll respond accordingly when I get in front of my computer. Happy hunting

  6. The Wound of Knowledge by Rowan Williams, if you're going to read just one by him. Kelly Johnson's Fear of Beggars. Annie Dillard's Holy the Firm.

    But Holy the Firm if nothing else.

  7. Being in the same boat, I'll give you a selection from my list:

    1) The Intellectual Life, A.G. Sertillanges. Apparently a must-read for those heading into an academic profession (and perhaps into the intellectual life more broadly?).

    2) Secrets in the Dark, Frederick Buechner. A collection of his sermons; I'm hoping it might hold some clues for doing theology in a neo-Patristic sort of way.

    3) The Idiot, Dostoevsky. I have to space Dostoevsky's books out because he's so melodramatic, but this is next on my Dostoevsky list.

  8. The Idiot is excellent. I can't recommend The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Michael Chabon) emough. I've been on a Chabon binge for about five months, and he never disappoints.

  9. Kavalier and Clay is one of my favorite novels ever -- I actually just got my wife to start it this week.

    Ross, thanks for the self-shared rec's. I'll look into the Sertillanges and Buechner, especially -- I'll pass along a few of mine, too, so maybe we can discuss them as fellow newcomers this fall.

    Melissa, thanks for even more great suggestions. I've got Wound of Knowledge, and have a good friend who swears by it, so I'll be sure to add that to the list. I love Annie Dillard, and is Johnson the former student of Hauerwas? I listened to speak one time, and Hauerwas (by correspondence) heaps praises on her, so that's good to know.

  10. Dopo le droghe come Viagra e Cialis ha rivoluzionato il trattamento di disfunzione sessuale maschio verso la fine degli anni 90, un turbine di neve dei test clinici sono stati condotti in donne nelle speranze che le droghe potrebbero fare lo stessi per fare rivivere l'azionamento di sesso diminuente della donna.

  11. Brad,
    I think it might be interesting to prep by reading some non-theological work. I had a great time reading Hardt and Negri's Empire. I also find myself consistently returning to E. Said (Culture and Imperialism) and Foucault (Power/Knowledge). Some of the most enjoyable fiction I've read lately has been from Octavia Butler (science fiction; Seeds to Harvest is fantastic).

    You could also just pick up a few things you wish you had read more carefully (it's nice to have the time to read slowly); e.g., I wish I had time to go back and read Barth's Romerbrief slowly.

  12. My advice would be somewhat different: instead of reading a handful of worthwhile books, your time might be better spent apprenticing yourself to a single, genuinely wise thinker. Dwell on such a thinker long enough for his or her wisdom to rub off on you, in other words.

    Two examples of the sort of thinker I have in mind: Stanley Cavell and Iris Murdoch. You could start with Cavell's Little Did I Know, then Must We Mean What We Say? and The Claim of Reason, and then turn to his analyses of film and literature. Or start with Murdoch's Sovereignty of Good, then Existentialists and Mystics and Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, and then read some of her novels. Either would be doable over the course of a few months, and by the end you would see a lot more deeply into the things that matter. And that, I take it, is the best thing you could do to prepare for a PhD program.

    All best wishes for the transition.

  13. Tim: I have seriously considered just giving myself over to Wallace's fiction for the summer, which would be a worthwhile experience no matter what.

    Tim M.: Thanks for the rec's, esp. Butler, whom I don't know.

    Kevin: That's a really helpful suggestion. At least one theologian I'm doing that with is Tanner, since I'll be working with her -- I'm aiming to finish all her books, and (if time permits) many of her articles by the time classes begin. But I hadn't considered non-theological people, and Cavell and Murdoch are excellent ideas. Thanks for passing them along.

  14. Indeed, reading Cavell and Murdoch sounds like a fantastic way to spend a summer.

    For recent fiction, try Neal Stephenson's Anathem. It's a well-researched exploration of Platonism, parallel universes, and evolution, along with your typical love story between cloistered mathematicians in a secular monastery.

  15. For me the significant ones have been:

    Michael Polanyi: Personal Knowledge

    Rene Girard: Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World

    James Alison: The Joy of Being Wrong

    John Howard Yoder: The Royal Priesthood

    David Bentley Hart: The Beauty of the Infinite

    William Cavanaugh's essays

    McGill: Suffering

    Bernd Wannenwetsch: Political Worship

    Hauerwas: Hannah's Child

  16. A wide range of ideas:

    Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

    Harold Frederic, The Damnation of Theron Ware, or Illumination

    Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value

    Cormac McCarthy, The Sunset Limited

    Ullica Segerstralle, Defenders Of The Truth

    Arvin Vos, Aquinas Calvin and Contemporary Protestant Thought

    Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern

    Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity

    J-L Marion's God Without Being. More recent books by him if you've got the chops to slog through them.

    Jaron Lanier, You Are Not A Gadget

    Herbert McCabe, God Matters / God Still Matters

    Alexander Schmemann, For The Life Of The World

    Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

    Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love

    Philip Jenkins, Lost History of Christianity

    Geoffrey Wainwright, Doxology OR Eucharist and Eschatology

    Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology

    HUV Balthasar, The Theology Of Henri de Lubac

  17. I think that Prof Hector's comments are wise (especially given the tendency amongst many programs to teach figure courses less frequently). Given your Yoderian leanings, I think that a summer with Oliver O'Donovan would be well spent. You could couple a reading of Resurrection and Moral Order, Desire of the Nations, and Ways of Judgment with his applied work on Just War and the Crisis within the Anglican Communion.

  18. Josh: That's a good idea, one I hadn't given much thought to in the sense of focusing on someone I disagree with. I actually just finished O'Donovan's Church in Crisis and am in the middle of The Just War Revisited; maybe I'll get to the trilogy this summer.

    Thanks for the ideas, and congrats, by the way, on being ABD!

  19. Brad, you could even skip Resurrection and Moral Order. As he makes clear in the preface to Ways of Judgment, O'D thinks of Desire of the Nations and Ways of Judgment as companion works (which would still leave you with time for another figure or set of books).

    since the Warriors once again had no chance of the playoffs, go Spurs

  20. Elizabeth Clark, "History, Theory, Text."

    Jonathan Klawans, "Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism." (I never realized how problematic Girard was until I read this.)

  21. I'd second the O'Donovan recommendation, but I'd also try to do it with some other folks. For lots of folks he is incredibly elusive. That said, *Common Objects of Love* is straightforward and, it seems to me, really important.

    I'd also recommend throwing a frisbee in the sun as much as possible.

  22. "We have never been modern" latour
    "being consumed: economics and christian desire" cavanaugh
    "living the sabbath" wirzba
    "tree of life" h.j. massingham
    "suspicion and faith" westphal
    "in the beginning..." pope benedict
    "veil of isis" pierre hadot
    "bride of the lamb" sergei bulgakov
    "hope among the fragments: a broken church's engagement with scripture" ephraim radner
    "the end of the church: a pneumatology of christian division in the west" ephraim radner
    "for the life of the world" schmemann
    "love alone is credible" balthasar
    "crossing the postmodern divide" albert borgmann
    "religion, metaphysics, and postmodernism (caputo and william desmond)" christopher ben simpson
    "the doors of the sea" davd bentley hart
    "in the aftermath" david bentley hart
    "christianity and contemporary politics" bretherton

    to name a few...