Today, I’m taking a brief break from all of the modernity and postmodernity stuff I usually talk about to instead talk about good books. I’m taking my last comprehensive exam for my doctoral program tomorrow. This means I’ve completed all of the reading I need to do for coursework and exams, which allows me to step back and reflect on what the most influential books I read were. So, here’s my list of influential books I read for my PhD program (alphabetical by author; I thought about ranking, but that was too hard):
Bosch, David J. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991.
I like Bosch’s periodization of mission history and his interpretation of these periods as various paradigms of what it means to do mission. This periodization has influenced how I think about modernity, postmodern, and all that jazz.
Buell, Denise. Why This New Race?: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
Buell has a fascinating discussion in her introduction of race, ethnicity, and religion as categories of historical analysis. She argues for a large degree of overlap between the three. Even more interesting, though, is her defense of the legitimacy of using these categories of analysis, which are modern categories, to interpret the Greco-Roman world, a discussion she ties to contemporary ethical concerns. This discussion raises important questions about the ethics of historical scholarship and about our relation as contemporary scholars to our historical subjects.
Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1987.
Bynum’s use of gender as an interpretive framework in this book is amazing and powerful. Bynum uses food not just to uncover the ends and means of women’s devotion and theology; she uses it to point out the ways in which gender affects what counts as important religious symbols. Her discussion of the ways in which women and men in medieval Europe thought about not just these religious symbols but gender itself differently is fascinating, and I really appreciate the way in which she makes the feminine normative in her last chapter.
Campbell, James T. Songs of Zion: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and South Africa. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Campbell has one of the best discussions I’ve seen of how two groups (here the African-American AME and South African independent black churches) can use each other as mirrors to reflect upon their own experiences and situations. Campbell also captures well how such mirrored images are (like all images) multi-valent and capable of producing a myriad of various responses and plans of social action.
Clossey, Luke. Salvation and Globalization in the Early Jesuit Missions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Clossey’s use of globalization as a lens to interpret missions closely parallels what I hope to do in my own dissertation. To that end, his discussion in his first chapter of what it means to write a global history (as opposed to a collection or comparison of local or regional histories) was very useful.
Cusack, Carole M. Conversion among the Germanic Peoples (Cassell Religious Studies) London, UK Cassell, 1998.
Cusack includes a discussion of sociological, psychological, religious, and anthropological factors for conversion in which she examines and critiques each of these approaches. I found this a helpful analysis of these varying approaches.
Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580. 2nd Ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005.
Duffy’s book was my introduction to revisionist historiography of the Reformation. The book therefore taught me that no matter how much discontinuity there is in a historical transition, there is also continuity. Duffy’s also a good writer, which I appreciate.
Edwards, Mark U., Jr. Printing, Propaganda, and Martin Luther. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1994.
The thing I appreciate most about Edwards’ historiography is his explicitly stated warning that historians should not read back later events or conclusions into the understanding of participants of events as they were unfolding. While there are times when we should interpret the past in light of what came later to understand the flow of history, Edwards’ warning is a reminder that to understand our historical subjects, we must view their situations as they did, that is, without knowing what would happen next.
Fletcher, Richard. The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity. New York : H. Holt and Co., 1998.
Fletcher’s book represents a style of magisterial history that I don’t aspire to, but I did enjoy reading. Fletcher’s writing makes you feel like you’re sitting in a big armchair next to a fire in a study in England listening to him talk. I also appreciate this book as a demonstration of the fact that Europe was a mission field once, too.
Fulton, Rachel. From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200. New York : H. Holt and Co., 1998.
Fulton’s powerful and personal declaration at the start of the book of the importance of having empathy for our historical subjects is deeply challenging to how we think about our task as historians and our relationship to our historical subjects. While this principle of empathy may seem to stand in contrast to some of the other writers here who emphasize moral proclamation in history, it reminds us that we historians also have a moral obligation to our subjects not to objectify them, but to understand them.
Jolly, Karen Louise. Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
How can you not like a book about elf charms? Jolly’s description of popular religion is persuasive for me: not something that set over against something else called elite religion, but as a collection of beliefs and habits shared by all, elite and non-elite.
Mack, Phyllis. Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Mack’s book is great for two reasons. First, she really understands religious agency and gets that such an understanding of agency is different than secular understandings of agency, but still a legitimate form of understanding agency. Second, her treatment of gender is well-done. She depicts how men and women in early British Methodism set about the same task (fashioning an appropriate sense of agency) and had to undertake similar work in that task (engaging the emotions), but did so in different ways with different results.
Marks, Robert. The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Ecological Narrative from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-First Century. Lanham : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007.
I enjoyed Marks’ book for several reasons. First, it was my introduction to global history. Second, the environment is a major character in it, and Marks shows concern for the environment. Third, I appreciate the Sino-centric telling of the story; it’s a good reminder to Westerners that the West is not the prime mover and turning point of all history.
Robert, Dana L. Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
I think my adviser is an amazing person and scholar, and I couldn’t be happier or more honored to be studying with her. (And I say that not just because she might read this.) I also think this book is amazing – extremely knowledgeable and well-informed, but so accessible. I hope my writing can equally well-informed and equally accessible.
Sensbach, Jon F. Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2005.
Sensbach’s book is great because it gives blacks not only a central place in creating their own Christianity in the Atlantic world (the Caribbean, North America, Europe, and Western Africa), but a significant role in creating Christianity period in the Atlantic world. This book is a great example of a story where indigenous initiative in spreading Christianity is put front and center.
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other. New York : Harper & Row, 1984.
Todorov’s history of the Spanish conquest of the America isn’t just a history; it’s a powerful philosophical meditation on power, ethics, and how we relate to the other. This book is a great example of history as philosophy (or is it the other way around?).
Walls, Andrew F. The Missionary Movement in Christian History. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002.
This book contains numerous incredibly powerful interpretive ideas and well-crafted analogies for thinking about Christianity, culture, and missions. The two I think most deserve attention are 1) Walls’ identification of the “pilgrim principle” and the “homing principle” as both impulses inherent to Christianity, creating a dialectical tension in the faith; and 2) Walls’ meditations on what is common to Christianity across the ages and cultures. (His answer: Jesus, the Bible, baptism, and communion.)
Wigger, John. American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Not only is Wigger’s book a really enjoyable read, and not only did it make me love Francis Asbury, but Wigger’s book is also one of the best examples I’ve seen of how to do good history through the medium of biography. Wigger doesn’t describe Asbury’s context so that we can understand Asbury, as many historical biographers do. Instead, he describes Asbury so that we can understand his context, a much rarer and more difficult task.
Wacker, Grant. Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
I really like Wacker’s attempt to capture “kitchen table conversations”. It’s a great example of paying attention to the everyday to discover the grand significance of a movement. His discussion of Pentecostal agency is also interesting – believing that the Spirit did everything and humans nothing gave Pentecostals great freedom which translated into great action. Wacker’s thematic approach has also been influential in planning my dissertation.