books theology

3 Books that Changed My Theology

There are so many books that have changed my ideas, but three in particular have shaped the arc of my theological reflection. I’ve listed them here in the order I read them:

  1. A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutierrez. I read this during my first or second year of seminary. Up to that point, I thought there was one, objective story the Christian Bible presented and I believed that the point of theology was to uncover this one, objective story. Gutierrez showed me that there are many stories one can produce from the Bible and that these stories are constructed purposes or goals. One can have the goal of liberating people from oppression. Or, one can have a goal of keeping the oppressive systems in place. Each of these goals will produce different different stories, different theologies, and different reading strategies. The real key to producing good theology is to identify and embody a good purpose or goal.
  2. Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership by Andro Linklater. There are two types of land ownership: private property and yet-to-be private property. That’s what I had assumed before I read Owning the Earth. Linklater showed me that the ways humans have related to the land has changed widely and diversely through the ages. He also showed me that something I regarded as a tautology–property is always private and has an owner–is actually a choice. Humans can and have chosen to relate to land differently. This caused me to understand that everything about human life and culture is a choice and we have the ability to make different choices.
  3. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Lorde showed me that we cannot use the same reading strategies and constructive approaches that were used to produce hierarchical theologies of exclusion to unwind this hierarchy and replace it with a better theology. We need new tools, new questions, and new ways of approaching Scripture. ¬†If we keep using the same hermeneutics that brought us here, we will end up in the same place where we began.
hope theology

Maintaining Hope

Cynicism is the great mask of the disappointed and betrayed heart.

–bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions

bell hooks Photo credit: Monica Almeida/The New York

I meet a lot of people who have given up on organized religious life. Each person has their own reasons for this, many of which I feel myself.

bell hooks identifies two of the most common reasons I’ve encountered: disappointment and betrayal. Disappointment that institutional religious life is uninteresting or irrelevant for contemporary life, couldn’t provide a sense of identity or life direction that is fulfilling, and/or is actively foster abusive beliefs and ethical systems.

Other folks have been betrayed by religious figures or institutions as they have seen or experienced emotional, financial, and sexual abuse.

I think there are very legitimate reasons for walking away from a religious community or institution. I’ve done it on a couple of occasions. In these¬†times it has been difficult for me to maintain hope that theological visions of life could make the world a better place and that religious institutions have a beneficial role in fostering them.

bell hooks, along with a few other writers and friends, have helped keep alive my hope that theology done with skill, care and love can fill our lives with meaning, joy, and world-improving action.

If you are feeling cynical or burnt out on religious life, you’re not alone. I’ve been there too. I hope that my writing in this space and in my books can bring you some hope.

In my constellation of ideas, hope is the foundation of theological reflection and communal religious practice. I’m not sure they are possible without it.

bell hooks alludes to one of the keys to maintaining hope: being open and honest about our disappointments and betrayals.

We can easily mask our hurts through cynicism. We can try to suppress pain through avoidance. But doing theology is an emotional endeavor. When folks have tried to disconnect their emotional lives from it, and portrayed theology as a purely rational exercise, they’ve run into serious problems and dragged other people down with them.

That’s one of the reasons why I wrote my newest book, A Human-Shaped God. Theology is an embodied practice. To do it well includes, as far as well are able, keeping the entirety of our person in a state of well-being. That includes actively cultivating a sense of hope.