A reader, responding to this morning’s post about religious truth and religious tradition, writes:
I realize, reading your post, that I know basically nothing of the subject. Where should one start?
She’s talking in this context about basic Christian theology. I was going to answer her privately, and will do so, but I wanted to put the question to you all in the readership. If you could think of up to three (but no more than three!) books to provide a basic familiarity with Christian theological concepts for an open-minded, educated reader who knows nothing of the subject, which titles would you choose, and why?
It’s not as easy a question as it seems at first. For example, I can easily think of books I would recommend to someone wanting to learn about Orthodox Christianity, and I can easily think of books for someone wanting to learn about Roman Catholic Christianity. But I know comparatively little about Protestant Christianity and its variations.
What’s more, it really won’t do to give a nonreligious person eager to add to her knowledge for the sake of understanding the mind of Christians a book purporting to inform the reader about Christianity, but one that ignores either Protestantism or Catholicism. I will concede that although I’m an Orthodox Christian and recognize it as one of the three great branches of historical Christianity, it is not as important for an American who writes about politics, economics, and culture for a living (as my correspondent, a journalist, does) to have more than a surface knowledge of Orthodoxy. If my correspondent were inquiring for the sake of possible conversion, that would be a different story. But you can understand enough about Christianity to help you grasp the way Christianity informs the world in which Americans live if you restrict yourself to Protestantism and Catholicism. That’s my view anyway; yours may differ.
So, what’s your reading list? List them in order of preference. No more than three.
Because I’m always interested in learning more about religion, I’ll put the question to my non-Christian religious readers as well: Which book or books (no more than three) would you recommend to a general reader wanting to learn more about your tradition, but not necessarily for the sake of conversion — and why?
In fact, I would ask all of you to disincline yourselves from choosing books seeking to convert others, simply because I know that if I were given a book about, say, Hinduism, or Islam, that openly sought to convert me, I would tend to discount the reliability of the information it presented, because I would assume that the author had an agenda. I don’t want to disallow apologetic work entirely from this list, simply because C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity” provides an excellent introduction to the basic Christian mindset, though it is fairly apologetic.
So, what’s your Religious Literacy 101 Reading List? To restate the rules:
1. No more than three books on the list.
2. List them in order of preference.
3. Keep them restricted to a single religion (i.e., no volumes comparing the various major religions; Stephen Prothero’s “God Is Not One” is good, but not appropriate for this list).
4. A single *religion*, folks, not subdivisions within religions. Christianity in general, not three books about Catholicism. Islam in general, not three books about Sunni Islam. Etc.
UPDATE.2: Thanks for the enthusiastic response. Let me remind you to give a reason, or reasons, for your choices. This is not just a matter of polling you for your three favorite Intro to Christianity books. I really am writing to ask on behalf of this reader. She is far more likely to buy a particular book or books if you give reasons to, instead of simply listing them. So are others reading this list.
By popular demand, I’ll expand the scope of this inquiry by saying you can list one to three books to teach people about your specific tradition or church within a broader tradition (e.g., Orthodox Judaism within Judaism), but only if you’ve provided three titles for the general question. Don’t forget that you are giving real advice to a real person who wants to know enough basic information to make sense of the theological dimension of contemporary debates.