Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Robinson Crusoe Needs Bifocals, Pt. 2

To Recap: My post last week explored the question: What books would you take with you to the proverbial "desert island"? I explored an approach inspired by Eugene Peterson: Choose 50 or so close companions for your spiritual and intellectual journey, but try to do so with an informed awareness of the "classics." This strategy, by the way, coheres well with the basic spiritual pedagogy of the Renovaré group, based on the vision of Richard Foster, Dallas Willard and others, with whom Peterson collaborated in a major annotated study Bible. There is power in this basic vision, but today I want explore an alternate strategy for the desert bibliography.

If memory serves me, I recall that Hans Frei (in The Identity of Jesus Christ, perhaps?) wrote he would like to retire to a desert island with a copy of Immanuel Kant's Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793). Now this is not Oprah's Book-of-the-Month Club material, to be sure, but it seems a sensible choice in this case, given Frei's proclivities and interests.

If the Petersonian approach aims at a sort of comprehensiveness, then Frei's comment suggests a more intensive, focused engagement with a classic text centered upon some set of central questions or concerns. So what if one took, say, ten key works by classic Christian thinkers and put them into conversation with each other about the basic issues of the faith? The problem with this exercise, for me, is that I tend to get too ambitious and broad. What I get is yet another list -- another castle in the air -- rather than a doable project.

But how about if the bibliography were very short, say, only four or five books -- really good ones? One of Frei's pupils, Kathryn Tanner, wrote the title essay for the edited volume Why Are We Here? Everyday Questions and the Christian Life (edited by William Placher and Ronald Thiemann). This is a fine volume, not too long, that would be useful for a parish adult Christian ed class, or perhaps even a college course. (Perhaps I will review it here some day.)

When I read essays such as these, I love to go to the "recommended reading" section. At the end of her piece, Tanner lists four books that might be especially helpful for sorting out the basic questions of existence from a Christian perspective, though she also notes that such a list is illustrative only: Any number of theological texts might well be included. This is her list:

  • Augustine. The Confessions.
  • Pascal. Pensees.
  • Schleiermacher. The Christian Faith.
  • Kierkegaard. Training in Christianity.
This list offers a breadth of perspectives -- though it wouldn't be broad enough for some, to be sure -- while focusing on texts that get to the heart of the matter. One could through these books in one's backpack, along with a couple of composition notebooks, and have an interesting and fruitful spiritual retreat.

So what books would I take to a desert island -- or perhaps a wilderness retreat, if I wanted to wrestle afresh with the meaning of life and the nature of faith? Here they are:

  • Augustine. The Confessions.
  • Luther. Galatians (1535).
  • Edwards. The Religious Affections.
  • Schleiermacher. The Christian Faith.
  • Barth. The Epistle to the Romans.
What books would you take?


  1. Barth and Edwards not Reformed enough for you? Very well: What would you recommend? The Institutes seem a little longish, no?

    And now I'm realizing I probably meant to list Schleiermacher's Speeches and not the CF, though I admit I've never really warmed up to the former work that much, despite all the hoopla.

  2. Did I miss something that said it had to be sort works?

  3. I guess not. The Luther isn't short, but he says the same things over and over again (not that I mind so much). Shall we throw in the Summa and the Dogmatics, then? This desert island is starting to resemble a seminary library. But this is the problem I have with listomania: My lists end up growing into full bibliographies and reading projects that are virtually as fanciful as the desert island conceit itself.

  4. I just figure that if you're on a desert island, you're going to be there for a while. So you might as well bring some long stuff to read.

  5. Okay, Calvin's in. But you have to agree to come give a guest lecture.