I’ve often told people who aspire to graduate school in Biblical studies or theology that an English major might just serve them better than a Bachelor’s degree in ministry. Most undergrads roundly ignore me, but recently three of my own students, Peyton and Johnathan and Seth, two English majors and an English minor, have told me that they’re seminary-bound. In our conversations about such things, Seth recently asked if I could recommend fifty books that he could read before he starts seminary (he plans to work for a year or two before he starts up graduate school). Since I told him I would do so, and since there might be other humanities-types out there who have also considered the formal study of divinity, I decided to post that list here.
The philosophy that governs this list is that seminary ought to be a place that pushes against your strongest ideas, and without some strong ideas going in, that’s harder to do. These texts should provide a seminarian with a vocabulary of stories and claims and visions of reality that will make the critical intellectual work of seminary far more valuable than a trip to seminary where one hears of Plato for the first time from a twentieth-century book criticizing “Platonism.”
I encourage readers to suggest books that I’ve omitted, accuse me of overrating this or that book, and otherwise to interact. The way I figure it, posting the list here actually offers these two and future students even more fodder for thought. Let’s set this rule down just for fun, though: for every book you would add to this list, you have to suggest one of my selections to take off. The cumulative effect will be not only a longer list than fifty (because you won’t actually erase my list) but also a conversation about what’s more important and less important for those seeking to study theology.
I’ve blocked the titles into categories for the sake of my own thought process, and of course readers can suggest entire categories that I’ve neglected. And because some of these books are titles that I teach in my own English and philosophy classes, some of them are already on the shelves of the students named above. And as my students and Christian Humanist readers alike will no doubt predict, my selections tend towards the old rather than the new.
But to elude further delay, here they are: fifty books I’d recommend to an aspiring seminarian. The hyperlinks lead to good critical editions of each text:
- Homer, The Iliad
It’s hard to imagine a liberal-arts education that doesn’t begin with Homer. This Greek text taught ancient Athens how to do rhetoric, tragedy, and ethics. Its clashes of gods and mortals still stand unmatched. And everyone from Boethius to the Coen Brothers pull on its episodes (and the Odyssey‘s, to be fair) to tell modern stories.
- Vergil, The Aeneid
What does storytelling look like after four centuries of philosophical speculation on gods, morals, and the nature of humanity? Vergil and Ovid provide two answers. They don’t enjoy Homer’s esteem among literary critics, but these two Roman storytellers stand to be gold for seminarians because they’re practicing the kind of post-critical imagination that twenty-first-century intellectual life, especially in the Church, must partake in. Vergil’s Aeneas exhibits an awareness of his place in cosmic schemes that’s unimaginable for Achilles or Hector or even Odysseus, yet he retains the strong sense of heroic courage that made those Achaeans so memorable.
- Ovid, Metamorphoses
Where Vergil presents a legendary mortal exhibiting philosophically-sophisticated virtues, Ovid goes the other direction, taking Plato’s criticisms of the old gods and making badly-behaved gods the center of this subversive epic. Jupiter’s libido and Juno’s petulant wrath aren’t the only shows in town, though: Ovid knows how to take an old myth and find the philosophical gold in it, and he does so over and over.
Beowulf pushes the imagination in a different direction from the Romans: this tale has moments where the narrator and even the characters are aware of the Christian Bible, yet most of the time the characters (and sometimes the narrator) operate in a world more geared towards a polytheistic warrior-culture. The result is a main character who’s at the same time a deliverer and a force of chaos; kings who are good so long as they’re strong but occasionally realize there’s something beyond; and monsters who are mythical, Biblical, and on occasion fire-breathing.
- Dante, The Comedy (all three parts–Inferno, Purgagorio, Paradiso)
The thing about Dante is that, in my experience anyway, he’s such a great poet that he reads differently before seminary and after, and each time I revisit the Comedy, I find something new on which to focus. This complex poem has so much going for it that it’s become one of my perennial intellectual challenges–I never go through it without something new to contemplate.
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
A common thread in these narratives is the complex character of story-telling. Very rare is the story in which one can detect only one stream of cultural influence, and Sir Gawain is no exception. Mixing faerie-traditions and a strong sense of confession as the core of Christian piety, this poem follows Gawain, a proud but rash knight of Arthur’s court, as he faces his own inability to maintain honor (in all of its chivalric complexity) in the face of impending death. The volume to which I link here also has some of the works that appear below.
- Milton, Paradise Lost
This was one of the books that served as a cornerstone of my dissertation, and an aspiring seminarian should have some awareness of its construction of God and Satan in narrative terms; its influence on English-speaking people’s conceptions of Heaven and Hell; and just because it’s a wonderfully constructed epic poem.
- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Read this one after you read Milton–the dynamics between Father, Satan, and Adam on one hand and Victor and the Creature on the other are all sorts of fun for meditating on the ways that we tell stories of creation and of responsibility.
- Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Second to Friedrich Nietzsche, the most convincing atheist I’ve read is a fictional character, Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov. Beyond that, this story sets forth moral quandries that baffle the ethical faculties, explodes the notion of childhood innocence, and makes most readers wonder whether one the main characters is really human. I’ll let each reader decide which main character.
- Updike, In the Beauty of the Lilies
Updike’s tale of the Wilmots, an American family on a journey with God and with the movies, is one of the best American novels I can think of for a seminarian. The sins of the father and of the mother and of the grandfather are always with all of the characters here, and the shape of those sins is good for meditation.
Collections of Short Poems, Short Stories, and Essays
- Plato, The Trial of Socrates
These are the dialogues that establish Socrates as a legendary figure in philosophy and Plato as a master of accessible but challenging philosophical text. A familiarity with these four texts will inocculate all but the dullest against simple-minded claims about “Greek thought” as a monolith.
- Garbaty, ed. Medieval English Literature
This volume, linked above, contains not only Sir Gawain but also Pearl, one of the great English theological poems; but also Lanval and Sir Orfeo, two great medieval adventure tales; and some Middle English dramatic texts. Beyond the merit of those texts, staying familiar with Middle English helps one to “see” the oddities and the structure of one’s own modern English better.
- Luther, Basic Theological Writings
Agree with him or disagree with him (and I do some of both), Luther is a powerhouse in the history of Christian theology, and this collection will give you a good sample of those works which established that fact. Especially important in this volume are Luther’s commentary on Galatians and his “On Christian Liberty,” his manifesto for a new kind of Christian ethics.
- Herbert, Collected English Works
George Herbert has been a constant companion for me, someone whose poems shape the language of my prayers and sharpened my tendencies to view critically and still to love the best worship music that comes down the pike. Dipping into The Temple has been a devotional practice of mine for years, and not once has the well gone dry.
- O’Connor, Collected Stories
Flannery O’Connor is probably on the reading list of every Christian English teacher in North America, and she deserves to be. She writes with an unwavering moral vision that suspects those like herself more than those alien; with a sense of human frailty and (even worse) human confidence that makes her characters impossible to forget; and with a sense of plot that makes just about every story a winner.
- Aristophanes, Lysistrata
Part anti-war satire, part comedy of genders, and entirely made of dirty jokes, this mother of all comedy is one that will, if nothing else, cure you of any tendency to regard the past as the “good old days” of morality, as opposed to our generation’s depravity. More than that, though, Aristophanes provides an occasion to think about what comedy might do for a community that takes itself entirely too seriously.
- Euripides, Hippolytus
Eurpides, I think, laid the egg that Plato hatched. Or something like that. The Hyppolytus presents a picture of the gods that had to influence the ways that Plato and Aristotle re-imagined divinity. They’re arbitrary, amoral, and so powerful that human beings have no choice but to be squashed like bugs.
- Seneca, Troades
This play, along with Seneca’s Thyestes (in the same volume) are, for my money, the great revenge-ghost stories, the ones that got English-Renaissance tragedy going and gave modern cinema its vocabulary for action-revenge flicks. A really compelling revenge story can’t end with violence against an unnamed and faceless enemy; the really good ones put before the avenger the genuinely tragic moral choice between honoring the desire for revenge in behalf of the dead and the desire for peace on the part of the living.
- Marlowe, The Jew of Malta
Not as well-known as Doctor Faustus or even as Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta is the work of an ethical renegade who came dangerously early on the world stage. This play’s cynical take on Christians, Muslims, and Jews leaves the reader gasping for air, just the sort of thing that one should start rehearsing before one shows up for seminary classes.
- Shakespeare, King Lear
It’s nearly impossible to pick just one Shakespeare play (that’s why the link leads to a volume containing all of ’em), but this one exhibits a wonderful tension between “the gods” who play with people’s lives (like wanton boys, yes) and a sense of divine love that’s far more monotheistic. After you’ve read Lear, read some more as well, of course.
- Miller, All My Sons
Death of a Salesman and The Crucible are better known (all three are in the linked volume), but this play, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the great tragic meditations on life in the industrial age. If Hippolytus gets torn between celibacy and marriage, Joe Keller gets crushed between duties to his family, duty to his neighbors, and duty to his country. Arthur Miller is without a doubt a modern Euripides, tracing the contours of the “gods” that squash us moderns.
- Kushner, Angels in America
I recommend this play because of its boldness of vision, even as I question its craftsmanship in parts and roll my eyes at the more preachy passages. Set in the early days of the AIDS crisis of the eighties, Angels follows a cast of characters, conservative and liberal, gay and straight and pretending-to-be-straight, into the moral chaos surrounding HIV and links their stories with a crisis in Heaven as the angels lose sight of how to deal with the chaotic historical moment.
Long-Form Philosophy Texts
- Plato, Symposium
In my view, this is one of those texts that gets the Western tradition’s long conversation about ethics rolling. Set in an aristocratic Athenian drinking party (and crashed by one of the participants’ old boyfriends), this long conversation on the nature of eros raises questions of whether sexual attraction inhibits or enhances friendship; what it means to desire another human being; and how desire and education relate to each other. Its questions remain with us.
- Plato, Republic
This is the right cross of Plato’s ethical one-two punch. Those who have read ABOUT Republic will likely tell tales of censorship, fascism, and an allegorical cave. Those who have read (and by read I mean “read carefully”) know Republic as a masterful book-length allegory about education and what it should do for the human soul. Again, this is a book that has started many philosophical wheels turning.
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
What does one have disciples for, if not to take the master’s work and turn it on its head? A conservative to Plato’s radicalism, Aristotle lays out a vision of the good life that reaches for the same unity of soul that Plato proposes but goes about it not by dismantling everything and starting over but by learning from the ways that we already talk about goodness and synthesizing a more articulate ethics from that.
- Aristotle, Rhetoric
Aristotle’s response to Plato’s Gorgias (also in the linked volume) explores the potential and the limitations of rhetoric as an art that points towards goodness as well as being effective in public settings. Starting with the assertion that rhetoric is a dance-partner for philosophy, a power of seeing what is true about the subject matter at hand, Aristotle goes on to explore the implications of audience awareness, attention to the structure of a speech, and other matters as he sets forth the contours of rhetorical study for millennia to come.
- Augustine, Confessions
I place this with philosophy rather than theology because theology as a separate discipline wasn’t really on the horizon yet. Augustine’s explorations of memory, time, sin, and other theological realities take place in the context of an extended prayer, pairing form and content in a way that most theology books do not manage.
- Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy
Part of the fun of this book is having conversations with other people who have read it–we never seem to have read the same book. And that might just be the point. Boethius begins with a treatise on the ethics of living as a philosopher in a tumultuous world and finishes up on topics related to that ethics, namely the nature of good and evil and the relationships between prayer, free will, and divine foreknowledge.
- Hume, Treatise on Human Nature
David Hume is the modern philosopher par excellence. Treatise on Human Nature lays out an account of moral life that requires no reference to historical tradition, divine revelation, or anything other than reasoned deliberation. Whether or not the Enlightenment project was a success or a great disaster for humanity remains debatable; that Hume was at the center of that movement is not.
- Hegel, Philosophy of History
If you were going to grad school in philosophy, I might recommend Phenomenology of Spirit instead, but for someone who’s going to be engaging critical theory and its relationships with Christian theology, this book is just as handy. Departing from much Enlightenment thought, which de-values history and attempts to construct airtight logical systems, Hegel in some sense returns to the medieval project of exploring the contradictions of reality, going so far as to say that contradiction itself drives history to be not a mere succession of uniform moments but a dynamic process of development. Hegel will show you what it means to be “progressive.”
- Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Nietzsche said of himself, in his last book, that he is no man, but dynamite. Whether or not he overstated, his aspirations to explosion come through loud and clear in this book, probably the most powerful of his arguments for an entirely anti-Christian ethical system. Again, whether or not he succeeded in opposing Christianity (or whether, as some argue, his bullet ended up hitting Western liberalism rather than Christianity more broadly) is up for debate, but the influence of this book on subsequent philosophy and literary criticism is undeniable.
- Marcuse, Reason and Revolution
Perhaps I should have selected an actual Marx text, but for an introduction to Continental post-Hegelian thought, Marcuse is a good place to start. His genius is actually showing what contradiction, dialectic, and other such philosophical terms would mean in actual social and political contexts.
- Augustine, On Christian TeachingAlthough one could reasonably assign this treatise to a course on rhetoric or on Christian thinking more generally, the reason it’s in this list is because its extended case for allegorical reading of the Bible is like nothing else you’re going to encounter in most 21st-century seminaries, and as will become a theme here, I’d much rather read the texts that people demonize rather than take the word of those who made careers demonizing them.
- Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel
This is a book that every intro-to-Bible class in seminary is going to mention but very few will assign as required reading. Rather than take the hero-worship or the demonization on somebody else’s word, why not read it for yourself? What nobody will deny is that Wellhausen is an absolute giant in terms of how strongly he continues to influence the ways we study the Bible.
- Barth, Commentary on Romans
As with Wellhausen, many talk about this book but few assign it. Where Wellhausen is the godfather of modern historical-critical Biblical scholarship, Barth’s commentary on the Romans signaled a strong theological turn in Biblical studies and a return to Biblical interpretation as central to academic theology.
- Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination
This one might actually get assigned, but two readings of this book are worth the time. Imagination, for Brueggemann, is at the core of the Bible’s role among the faithful: where the world and its empires would situate us in certain kinds of stories and speak certain kinds of words to us, the prophets (up to and including Jesus) speak another world into our imaginations, saying “liberation” when the empires speak “order” and “justice” when the nations say “power.”
- Wright, The Challenge of Jesus
N.T. Wright, who is sometimes a bishop and other times not, combines a genuine love for the Church with a lively mind for the questions of our historical moment and a world-class historian’s mind to produce some of the genuinely memorable Christian books of the last couple decades. This one is a short, accessible entry into his work that explores the implications of taking Jesus seriously as a first-century Palestinian Jew whose career led to the formation of early Christianity. With those aims in place, he writes things about Jesus such that one walks away wondering how anyone could have thought otherwise.
- Aquinas, The Shorter Summa
Thomas started this book late in his life and never finished, but even the part he did write stands as a great introduction to theology as a genuine academic inquiry. As with reading Plato, I always recommend reading Thomas not because he’s uniformly right but because the way he poses wrong answers is so interesting and demands such hard thought to oppose him.
- Erasmus and Luther, On the Freedom of the Will and On the Bondage of the Will
This pair of books was at the theological core of my dissertation, so they hold a special place in my heart, but beyond my own research, these books lay out, with polemical ferocity, the contours of the core battle that would distinguish the Magesterial Reformation from all comers. Erasmus’s philosophical case for genuinely contingent existence and Luther’s for genuinely comprehensive divine sovereignty are the two sides of Boethius’s paradox, spelled out in a grand battle that will shake a reader as hard as Boethius shakes.
- Saint John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul
I’m not sure whether this belongs in the theology category, strictly speaking, but here it is. Many have heard various versions of this book’s central poem (Lorena McKennett’s is my favorite), but the real treasure here is the medieval-style commentary on the poem, in which Juan describes the long desert wanderings that follow the great sweetness of one’s early Christian existence. Read this, and know that much of your seminary career you’re going to spend in the desert. It’s supposed to be that way, and going dry means you’re doing something right, not wrong. And be sure to read to the end–there’s promised land on the other side of the wilderness.
- Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel
Returning to the theme of the Biblical-studies list, this is one of those books that everyone comments on and almost nobody reads. Rauschenbusch, to put things simply, proposes what life in a republic might look like if Jesus actually meant what he said about the poor. And as with most such books, it’s a perfectly reasonable book taken on its own terms. The trick, of course, is dealing with so many books with so many radically different sets of terms.
- J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism
Largely a response to modern liberal theologians, Machen’s book contends that Enlightenment-style liberal theology actually represents an entirely different religion from Christianity and that the modern choice is precisely between Christianity and liberalism.
- Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom
This book is a brief, clear introduction to post-liberal Christian theology, a response to the influence of Niebuhr and other 20th-century liberal theology. In its place Hauerwas proposes an ethics that gives priority to Church, Scripture, and confession and invites the world to join the adventure rather than assuming that the world is where the action already is.
- Bosch, Transforming Mission
David Bosch, a South African missiologist, lays out possibly the most ambitious theory of Christian missions I’ve ever read in this book. Combining Church history with Biblical exegesis and speculative theology, it approaches the question of mission from inside of three major seminary disciplines and comes to a core conviction that any theology that does not see the sending of God as central might not really be Christian theology.
- Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy
My hope is that, as you progress through seminary, you read some of the primary texts of Radical Orthodoxy, but in order to understand Milbank’s and Pickstock’s and Ward’s and Hart’s heavyweight tomes, you really need more background than an undergrad has. That said, James K.A. Smith lays out a map to their thought in this (much more accessible) volume, and reading it will let you see one of the real intellectual alternatives available to a 21st-century theologian.
- Hart, Atheist Delusions
David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite is a book to take on after you’ve finished seminary; I needed Paul Oxley’s help to understand much of it. But this little book is Hart for the people, and it’s terribly fun. Starting with the propositions that history is an inherently rhetorical enterprise and that people who pretend otherwise deserve a sound mocking, Hart lays out a vision of Western Christian history that skewers conventional atheist tropes and leaves one ready to research an entirely new set of primary texts.
- McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity
This book is on the list not because it gets so many things right (it doesn’t) but because it’s as good an artifact as any of some streams of 21st-century Christianity. My 2010 posts on McLaren’s book (search on this site to find them) spell out my reservations about the book, but an aspiring seminarian should read it mainly to get a feel for some of the popular-level post-evangelical moves that one will no doubt encounter as one studies theology in the early 21st century.
Others that Don’t Fit the Above Categories
- Herodotus, Histories
I didn’t want to create a separate category for history books, so here’s where this one goes. Herodotus is worth reading not only to see a strong alternate view of the ancient world from what the Bible gives (the number of characters and people-groups that overlap is wonderful) but also because Herodotus offers a reader a very different mode of Greek reasoning from Plato’s and Aristotle’s, which if nothing else gives the lie to the oft-repeated assumption that there is a singular “Hellenic worldview” that a theologian can accept or reject.
- Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers
Heilbroner set out to write an economics textbook for humanities students, and the resulting book is an engaging and accessible introduction for those whose undergrad education didn’t leave room for this fascinating philosophical discipline. He digs into the big names up to his own day, including but not limited to Smith, Ricardo, Marx, and Keynes, and his style is such that no prior expertise in economics is necessary to make sense of it.
- Fleming, Arts and Ideas
DO NOT BUY THE MOST RECENT EDITION OF THIS ONE. It’s prohibitively and immorally expensive. Instead, look around for a used copy of a previous edition. (I’ve linked to the 1994 edition, which was my textbook as an undergrad.) Fleming’s art history sets the architecture and painting and sculpture of Europe and America, according to standard historical-period divisions, alongside discussions of the philosophy and theology and music and literature and other cultural phenomena that make the history of visual arts more interesting. This book has been immensely valuable for me, largely to remind me that the seemingly abstract arguments of any period’s theologians always happen within the life of culture more broadly.