Where to Begin: Books

LibrarymoiFor me, everything begins with books. It always has. I always loved to read, like both my parents, and the believers I grew up with took their Bible study very seriously, churning out numerous aids in the shape of books and magazines used in the five meetings per week, most of which were "classes" with the exception of one public lecture a week. I still have my gigantic library of reference and study aids, some of it now on CD; the Bible encyclopedias they published were particularly useful. But only a few of their study aids moved me or seemed, after I learned what good scholarship was, meaty enough. And, of course, there was no mention of controversies or disagreements among scholars. We were all in accord, though the worlds of relgious and Biblical scholarship are pretty contentious. The arguments about the Dead Sea Scrolls alone have filled multiple volumes.

I spent much of my twenties reading feminist theory as it came out (no women's studies departments in my day), some of which had to do with women and organized religion, especially medieval monasticism. In my thirties, I started reading more and more outside the prescribed literature of my own faith, reading church history both feminist and mainstream, reading about other people's searches for a spiritual path, and other spiritual paths in general, especially Buddhism. I've long been fascinated by Zen and meditation in general, so a lot of my recent reading is in that direction. Likewise, I've always been interested in Christian church history, as a former medievalist, and fascinated by monasticism, church architecture and sacred music. Many of Bach's church organ compositions are my favorite pieces of music and the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers has been known to make me weep. But I digress. As powerful as music is, it's only ever an adjunct to knowledge for me, and that comes from the written word. Exegesis is in my blood.

Some of the books I've been reading recently are over in the sidebar, but others I read in the past were more scholarly tomes. I thought I'd list some of them here. This is by no means an exhaustive list and it's very idiosyncratic and somewhat dated in places. I'll be the first to admit I haven't kept up on the scholarship, A few people in the field I can highly recommend: Elaine Pagels (read everything she's written), Peter Brown, and Kathleen Norris. It's been a while since I did an annotated bibliography, so bear with me. It won't be standard MLA or CMS style and these are in no particular order, not even alphabetical. Thanks to the magic of hyperlinks, it doesn't really need to be. Please, if you've got other recommendations, add 'em in the comments! I'm always interested to see what other people are reading.

  1. Holy Anorexia, by Rudolph M. Bell.  This was one of the first I read about women in the Church and it was a fascinating study of women exerting control and exercising the only power they had in the medieval church, control over their own bodies, as a way of connecting to God. Sheds some interesting light on contemporary eating disorders too.
  2. Adam, Eve and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity, by Elaine Pagels. Pagels is one of the foremost experts on the early church, especially what the mainstream now thinks of as its heretical elements like Gnosticism. She's made something of a specialty of lost texts, from the Gospel of Thomas to the Gospel of Judas. This, by contrast, is a study of how the mainstream church came to find sexual desire and activity sinful in its early centuries.
  3. Eunuchs For the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality, and the Catholic Church, by Uta Ranke-Heinemann covers similar ground but follows it into the present. A little heavy going, but definitely worth the read.
  4. On a similar theme, but much more controversial was Yale scholar John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. That and his Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe are landmark studies.
  5. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman, is a great study of the copyists and translators of the Bible and their political and religious agendas throughout the centuries. Ehrman, Chair of the Dept. of Religious Studies at Chapel Hill, is not well liked by the fundamentalists, needless to say. There are a slew of books contradicting him too, but I haven't read those. I find his research and arguments pretty convincing.
  6. Alistair McGrath's In the Beginning: The story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture provide a great example of what Ehrman is talking about, and dovetails nicely with his book.
  7. Heavier going but worth the effort is James L. Kugel's The Bible As It Was, which is similar to Misquoting Jesus, but with the emphasis on the Old Testament and not the New this time.
  8. I'm always drawn to those limnal spaces where one thing becomes another, so I particularly liked Robin Lane Fox's Pagans and Christians: Religious and the Religious Life from the Second to the Fourth Century AD, when the Gods of Olympus Lost Their Dominion and Christianity, with the Conversion of Constantine, Triumphed in the Mediterranean World. That subtitle sort of says it all. You'll be surprised where many of those saints and festivals and traditions in the Church came from.
  9. Ditto in Richard Fletcher's The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity. Appalling how many of those symbols and holidays are not really all that Christian. Like, oh, Christmas? Easter?

I also read a lot of books about spiritual journeys of one sort or another, not all of which were particularly interesting or relevant. In addition to Eat Pray Love and Escape over in the sidebar, there are these three that moved me.

  1. The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris. Written by a Presbyterian with a fascination for monastic life that mirrors my own, this is as much a meditation on community and faith as it is on monasticism. Really moving in places and very smart, as well as beautifully written.
  2. The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong. She's considered kind of an outsider scholar, one whose work is less rigorous than academics usually are, but that's part of her virtue. This book is more personal, but no less important. Armstrong spent many unhappy years in a convent and this chronicles her return or embrace of the secular world. Smart, sad, and fascinating.
  3. Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, by Martha Beck. In a completely different way, this is just as harrowing as Escape (see sidebar), though this is mainstream Mormonism and not the fundamentalist, polygamist type. This makes clear the literal second-class citizenship of Mormon women in their own church and how demoralizing it is wherever it's practiced.

And there are a few books about the intersections of science and religion that I think are worth considering too:

  1. The Dalai Lama's The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, which is mostly about quantum physics but also touches on neuroscience and how similar the explanations of relevant theories in those fields parallel the philosophies of Buddhism. Hmmmmm. . . I like the Dalai Lama's easy acceptance of "what is" and lack of desire to make it fit what ought to be according to his own belief structure.
  2. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould's Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. Gould got more than the usual flack for this book, but like most of his writing, I find it pretty balanced. It manages to avoid the "There can be only one" mindset and contempt that so many religion-hating scientists and science-hating religious have for each other. He also offers, I think, the only logical solution to the problem.
  3. The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion, by Ken Wilbur, who alternately irritates and impresses me. Sometimes he's a little too flaky for my taste (unlike pie crust, which can never be too flaky), sometimes he seems right on the money. Sometimes he's also a little too full of himself; but then, aren't we all at times? Definitely worth the read, especially on this subject.

I'll probably be working my way through this subject area for a while yet, so I'll keep you posted in the sidebar.

There were also magazines like Shambala Sun, Tricycle, and Buddahdharma. I've been doing a lot of reading about Buddhisms, lately and it's as instructive to read the letters to the editor as it is the main articles and book reviews. Each one definitely has a different focus and is more and less geared for the non-practitioner. Start with Shambala Sun, if you're a newbie like me. If you're interested in myth and religion, Parabola is also pretty cool. I don't read it that often, but I'm never sorry when I do.

Please keep in mind that these are just books I've read on my own journey. You many not find them either interesting or relevant.