09 January 2014

A Religion Reading List

We recommend reading from a variety of religious traditions to shake loose our prejudices gain a deeper understanding of our faith. Therefore we provide this list, to be read or not in the order that the spirit moves you.

Bible Translations

The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible, NRSV version. The best of Protestant scholarship in translation and footnotes. The KJV in modern idiom. Woody recommends using the HarperCollins Study Bible (another NRSV translation) alongside for its valuable reference material.

The New Jerusalem Bible, Regular Edition, 1985. The best of Catholic scholarship in translation and footnotes. Probably represents the Hebrew Bible more accurately than the NRSV or the KJV.

The Jewish Study Bible, JPS translation of the Masoretic text with scholarly annotations. Draws upon 2300 years of Jewish Bible translation and commentary, gives insights that you just don't get from the other translations listed here. This is more like the Bible that Jesus knew.

The Holy Bible, King James Version. The most beautiful translation when read aloud, the one we all quote from, but the one easiest to misunderstand. The English is that spoken just after Shakespeare's time.

The Message: New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs, Eugene H. Peterson, ed. A vigorous paraphrase from the vernacular of the past into the vernacular of the present. Recommended by Woody. There are also Message paraphrases of the Old Testament.


Man is not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The grounding of faith in existential awe and wonder. By far the best non-scriptural book on religion VCBC's site maintenance person has ever read.

God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Written in 1955, a somewhat disappointing sequel to Man is Not Alone. Rather than a comprehensive philosophy of Judaism, it is a philosophy of fulfilling the mitzvot, the commandments, which is at the heart of observant Jewish religious life. While he makes a good case for being observant if you are a Jew, he shies away from dealing head-on with the Holocaust. He ignores the question of whether to resort to violence against evil, as well as perhaps the most urgent question posed by post-Holocaust Jews: "The personal, interfering God, who cares about what happens to me, died in the concentration camps," a relative once told me. Here Heschel is silent, and lets Hitler have his victory.

This is my God, Herman Wouk. Probably the best short introduction to Judaism in English. If you weren't raised Jewish, read this before delving into major works of Judaica, or before attending your first Seder.

Zohar Anotated and Explained, Daniel C. Matt. Brief and "lite" introduction to Kabbalist (Kabbalah is a branch of Jewish mysticism) thought in the Sefer ha Zohar (Book of Radiance) written by Moses de Leon, a Spanish Jew, around A.D. 1280. In Kabbalist thought (believed to have originated in 12th century Provence) the single God is envisioned as a dynamic interplay among 10 components or emanations called Sefirot. And you thought the triune God of Christianity was complicated.

Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, Frederick Buechner. Pathos and humor in the Bible for those who didn't know it was there.

The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Defines the Christian ideal largely fallen short of in the 20th century.

Dynamics of Faith, Paul Tillich. Existentialist Christian definition of faith and its varieties. Tillich defines faith as a state of ultimate concern — whereas Heschel defines faith as a human response to God's concern for us. Read both and let the two tango.

The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich. Existentialist Christianity defined and explored. Too thick for most readers, but very worthwhile for others.

A History of Christian Thought, Paul Tillich. A readable history of how church dogma evolved. Marx and Hegel deserved his discussion of socialism and theology. Should perhaps be read alongside Paul Johnson's A History of Christianity.

Survival in Aushwitz, Primo Levi. What good men do to survive bad situations. No moral philosopher writing after 1960 deserves to be taken seriously if he or she has not read this book.

The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi. More thoughts on what good men do to survive bad situations. No moral philosopher writing after 1990 deserves to be taken seriously if he or she has not read this book. Should be required reading before assuming positions of spiritual leadership, such as the papacy.

The Eclipse of God, Martin Buber. What the modern age has done to religious consciousness, and why this need not (and must not) be.

Who Wrote the Bible, Richard Elliot Friedman. The JEDPR (Jahwist-Elohist-Deuteronomist-Priest-Redactor) theory of the history and politics surrounding the construction of the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses in the Old Testament) explained.

The Book of J, Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg. The J (Jahwist) part extracted and meditated upon. Bloom thinks J was a woman in King Solomon's court.

Who Tampered with the Bible, Patricia Eddy. The politics and history surrounding the construction of the New Testament. Eddy was a professional intelligence analyst, rather than a theologian, historian or a literary critic. However, the skills from her previous career serve her and the reader well in sleuthing out the various influences that came to bear on producing the NT canon.

The Apocryphal Old Testament, H. F. D. Sparks. The definitive collection and translation into English of writings from the Old Testament period that never made it into the Old Testament canon. Some of these works were known to and supported by early church Fathers, such as Origen, and others are referred to in canonical Old Testament passages. But they never won over most of their Jewish or Christian readers.

The Apocryphal New Testament, M. R. James, translator. The definitive collection and translation into English of writings about Jesus and the Apostles that never made it into the New Testament canon. Once you read a few of them, the reasons for their rejection will become clear. They simply convey no profound spiritual meaning that one might teach or preach from. They are uninspiring, and therefore presumably uninspired.

The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Geza Vermes. Some of Jesus' statements in the NT seem to be targeted against or derivative from the beliefs and practices of the Essenes, an ascetic Jewish cult that left its literature in caves above Qumran. Vermes seems to provide the most authoritative translation into English.

The Nag Hammadi Library in English, James M. Robinson, editor. Translations of early pre-Christian and Christian Gnostic writings. Had the Gnostics survived, Christianity would be a lot more like Zen Buddhism that it is now. Notable is the "Gospel of Thomas," a non-narrative collection of sayings of Jesus.

The Talmud: Selected Writings, translated by Ben Zion Bokser. The fast track through the spirituality in the great written commentary by which Rabbinic Judaism emerged from the destruction of the ancient Temple Cult. Indicates cross-pollination of emerging modern Judaism and early Christianity.

Confessions, St. Augustine. Essential reading if you want to understand St. Paul, or anyone else who has had the "Born Again" experience. Lest however, you become too enamored of the Augustine, you might also check out City of God. Valuable for its insights into Sin, it also contains Augustine's arguments against the existence of the antipodes. More than any single person, Augustine was responsible for Western Civilization forgetting that the world is round.

People of the Lie: Hope for Healing Human Evil, M. Scott Peck. A psychiatrist's view of evil as a spiritual disease. Nice discussion of individual and group evil, including My Lai Massacre. See also The Road Less Travelled about psychoanalysis as a form of confession, and A World Waiting to Be Born: Civility Rediscovered, a practical guide to loving one's neighbors as oneself.

The Origin of Satan, Elaine Pagels. Development of the Christian idea of Satan as the early church struggled against its enemies. Nice account of how St. Augustine used politics and power to further his ideas. Pagels, a Princeton professor of Religion, is generally excellent. See also The Gnostic Gospels, and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent.

The Death of Satan, Andrew Delbanco. Development of the American idea of Satan, and its demise as America loses its moral compass. Beautifully written, yet very scholarly.

The American Religion, Harold Bloom & William Golding. A good companion/background volume to Delbanco's book.

Dirt, Greed and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and their Implications for Today, William Countryman. Makes it clear that none of Jesus' contemporaries considered him to represent "Family Values."

The Sexuality of Jesus, William E. Phipps, 1996. An exploration of the tradition of celibacy, the Palestinian views of women & marriage, & the historical Jesus. Captivating remarks about the effects of the "celibate Jesus" myth upon the West. Recommended by Jonathan Hoyt Harwell.

A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, John P. Meier, in four volumes, with a fifth in progress. This is a massive review and commentary on the field of research into what we can know of the historical Jesus. Meier's careful and exhaustive scholarship make this currently the definitive introduction to Jesus research for both the scholar and the layman. For a review click here.

The Divine Comedy, Dante. The cosmology is way off, but the taxonomy of Sin and Salvation is unmatched. John Ciardi's translation is the most readable and poetic one generally accessible, although it departs rather widely in places from the original Italian. Jeremy Shomer's is breathtaking but hard to get.

Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis. An easy introduction to non-Fundamentalist Christianity for beginners.

The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis. A "lite" 20th century revision of Dante's journey. Notable for its interpretation of lust as a perversion of the desire for God.

L'Attente de Dieu, Simone Weil. English translation Waiting for God. Recommended by Matthew Smith.

The Anti-Christ, Frederick Nietsche. A Lutheran pastor's son explains what is wrong with Christians. A must read for anyone who professes the faith.

The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine. Patriot, deist, and skeptic, Paine skewers the preposterous in popular Christian belief — e.g., why Milton's Paradise Lost is such a groaner.

The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus. Famous French Existentialist demonstrates comvincingly that life without reference to God is absurd. Brilliant.

The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James. Explores the different ways Born Agains, Saints, and others say they have experienced God.

Sadhana: A Way to God, Anthony de Mello. Christian prayer exercises in Eastern form.

The Cloud of Unknowing, Anonymous. Advice from a Medieval Christian spiritual guide on how to meditate. A little book, but a great classic.

The Wounded Healer (a guide to personal ministry) and Life of the Beloved:Spiritual Living in a Secular World, by Henri Nouwen. Recommended by Woody.

Young Man Luther, Erik H. Erikson. A psychiatrist's insights into the personality of Martin Luther. One can gain an appreciation of how deeply Protestantism has been assimilated by its cultural milieu when one realizes that Martin Luther would never be accepted as a pastor in any contemporary Protestant church.

Martin — God's Court Jester: Luther in Retrospect, Eric W. Gritsch. A retrospective look at Luther's life and work, his "neuralgic heritage," and his theological legacy. Gritsch surveys Luther with eyes open to his positive and negative contributions to Christian life and thought, from his celebrated 95 theses to his anti-Semitism, from his doctrine of "salvation by Grace through Faith," and his assertion of the primacy of Scripture to his creation of a schism that has lasted more than five centuries.

The Book of Concord: Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Theodore G. Tappert, ed. The foundational documents of the Reformation, this somewhat dry and lengthy collection of writings defines the original Protestant theology (to which VCBC's Pooper Scooper adheres).

Science and Religion: Historical and Contemporary Issues, Ian G. Barbour, a now retired professor of physics and of religion. Valuable for its history of the encounter between Christianity and Science during the last 300 years or so, but not for its version of Process Theology. For a review click here.

Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity, John Polkinghorne. Much shorter and more readable than Barbour's book above. Polkinghorne, a physicist turned priest, is more traditional in his thinking about God, and more personal in stating his beliefs than Barbour. In a phrase, less history, less philosophy, more faith. A good, short read.

The Language of God, Francis S. Collins. The head of the Human Genome Project and an Evangelical Christian, Collins lays out how he reconciles science and faith. After reviewing his evidence for Divine Providence in Nature, he lays out four options: Atheism/Agnosticism (when Science trumps Faith), Creationism (when Faith trumps Science), Intelligent Design (when Science needs Divine help), and his option, Biologos (Science and Faith in harmony).

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. A Baptist missionary takes his family in 1959 to a remote village in the then Belgian Congo. Recommended by Woody.

A Black Theology of Liberation, by James H. Cone. An oldie, but goodie. A sourcebook for the ideas that have informed politically black Christian rhetoric in America since the 1960s.

Born Again and Again and Again: A Bible-Based View of Reincarnation, by James A/ Reid, Sr. I haven't read this one yet, but Jim wrote and asked me to post it here. Reviews, anyone?

The Probability of God, by Stephen D. Unwin. Unwin uses Bayes' Rule to calculate the probability that God exists given one's prior beliefs about the Universe. He provides an enlightening discussion of probability and statistics, and the Anthropic Cosmological Principle along the way. It's not theologically deep, nor is it a "proof" of God's existence, but it is a way to calculate how consistent the idea of God is with a combination of other things that you either know or believe to be true.

Islamic and Sufic

The Holy Qur'an, translated with parallel Arabic text and footnotes by Maulana Muhammad Ali. The translation has a detectable modernist and Amadhi bias ("Namlites" should be rendered as "ants," for example). But the notes are useful to Westerners. Al-Qur'an, a contemporary translation by Ahmed Ali is much more readable, but lacks the copious notes. Another version with copious notes is The Holy Qur'an translated by S. V. Mir Ahmed Ali.

A Manual of Hadith, translated by Maulana Muhammad Ali. The early Muslims observed everything the Prophet did and said, and wrote them down. Here is a basic set that enables you to begin living a life in imitation of the Prophet.

The Way of the Sufi, Idries Shah. A glimpse into the mystical Zen-like tradition in Islam.

The Conference of the Birds, Fahrid ud-Din Attar. The Sufi version of The Cloud of Unknowing, i.e., the stages of prayer/meditation.

The Essential Rumi, translated by Colin Barks. Astounding, breathtaking, religious poetry. WOW!

Rubaiyat, Omar Khayyam. Idries Shah claims Omar was a Sufi. Read Edward Fitzgerald's classic translation and judge for yourself.

The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran. Sufism Lite, but very pretty.

Europe and Islam, Hichem Djait. The historical roots of the present culture clash.

The Battle for God, Karen Armstrong. The history of religious Fundamentalisms in Judaisim, Christianity, and Islam.

Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1982), by Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul. A glimpse inside Islamic societies from an outsider. See also his Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples (1999).

The Heart of Islam, by Seyyen Hossain Nasr. See also Forty Hadiths, by Imam An-Nawawi, Understanding Islam, by Frithjof Schuon, and Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, by Martin Lings. Recommended by Ahmed Monib.

And now for the Dark Side. There are strong currents in modern Islam that tend toward paranoia and narcissism. Like a person with borderline personality disorder, those who are absorbed in these cultural currents make everyone else pay for their own problems. See "Li'l Johnnie's Jihad Page" for a list of links and readings in this area. Apologies to Muslims, if we offend here, but not all truths are pleasant.

Asian Religions (Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist)

The Three Pillars of Zen, Roshi Philip Kapleau. Your basic what is Zen, with first-hand accounts of Kensho, the initial Enlightenment experience.

Zen Buddhism, Daisetz T. Suziki. Your basic what is Zen, with a discussion of Zen and Japanese culture. Neglects to point out that Zen took hold in Japan because its emphasis on "suddenness" appealed to the Samurai.

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, edited by Paul Reps. Early Zen writings and koans.

The Diamond Sutra, and the Sutra of Hui Neng translated by A. F. Price and Wong Mou-Lam. Just when you think you understand one, the other tells you to try again. The brilliant core of the Zen branch of Buddhism by its founder.

Bhagavad Gita As It Is, translation and commentary by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. This is a ponderous rendition, intended for serious students and contemplatives, of a very short section of the much longer Mahabharata, that deals with the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. See also translations by Juan Mascaro, Barbara Stoller Miller, and Eknath Easwaran. It is well worth reading all three of these short translations.

Upanisads, translated by Patrick Olivelle. A very readable translations with helpful, but unobtrusive notes. The Upanishads were composed during the transition from the ancient ritualism of the Vedas to the era of epic Hindu poetry that produced the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Provides crucial background for understanding the imagery of the Bhagavad Gita.

The Rig Veda, 108 hyms selected, translated, and annotated by Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty. The key to the Upanisads, above. Since the Gita is most accessible to modern readers, I recommend starting with one of the shorter Gita translations, and then working backward through some of the Upanisads, and then trying some of the Vedic hymns. In this way ever more subtle shades of meaning unfold for the reader. Then go back to the ACBSP's Gita translation for a real good look.

Te-Tao Ching, Lao Tzu, translated by Robert G. Henricks. The best English translation. Right relations and right conduct, briefly stated.

I Ching, translated into German by Richard Wilhelm and thence into English by Cary F. Baynes, Princeton University Press. Not useful for predicting the future, but useful stimulating oneself to think more deeply about the present. More on Chinese concepts of right conduct and behavior.

Being Peace, Thich Nhat Hanh. Exactly what its title says.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, translated by W. Y. Evans-Wentz. Very esoteric hard to read description of the after-life experience. To be compared with the Christian doctrine of the Resurrection the Body.

thoughts without a thinker: psychotherapy from a Buddhist perspective, Mark Epstein, MD. Explains Buddhism to psychotherapists and psychotherapy to Buddhists. A good cross-cultural translation book, like the Fritjof Capra's Tao of Physics which explains Taoism to physicists and physics to Taoists.

The Cosmic Revelation, Bede Griffiths. Another cross-cultural translation book. This one explains Vedic Hinduism and Christianity to each other. Good background reading for the Bhagavad Gita.

Ghandi's Truth, Erik H. Erikson. A psychiatrist's insights into the origins of militant non-violent confrontation.

Other Traditions

Black Elk Speaks, Black Elk and Richard Niemark. Native American religion from the mouth of a Ghost-Dancer. Perhaps someday Native Americans will help mend the hoop of our nation. Black Elk converted to Christianity later in his life.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by N. K. Sandars. A Sumerian version of the Flood story that predates Genesis by hundreds of years. Beautiful account of friendship and the quest for eternal life.

The Transcendent Unity of Religions, by Frithjof Schuon. Recommended by Ahmed Monib.

Essential Sacred Writings from Around the World, by Mircea Eliade.