Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Some Theological Memoirs

I like to read autobiographies of interesting people.  Since I’m a nerd, that doesn’t just include celebrities (seldom written well), sports figures (seldom interesting or written well–stick to your sport), or politicians.  No, I also like to read autobiographical material by (gasp!) intellectuals. (“The horror! The horror!”)  And, since my academic training is mostly in theology, philosophy and related disciplines (political analysis is just a hobby! 🙂 ), I have a special fondness for theological memoirs, the intellectual autobiographies of theologians and scholars in related fields.  My nerdish fondness for this form of literature is not at all restricted to authors  whose theological perspective I largely share.  On the contrary, I often find the memoirs of those with whom I have large disagreements to be particularly fascinating. (So THAT’s what led X to come to conclusion Y or to specialize in area Z! Aha!) 

Maybe it’s my Baptist church context (we like personal testimony as a homegrown liturgy), but I often feel that I understand a particular theologian (biblical scholar, ethicist, etc.) better after I have read said scholar’s memoir.  I find myself re-reading some of that scholar’s works with new eyes.  Sometimes a particular memoir is so enlightening, that I have recommended it as a place to begin in understanding a particular theologian, especially if I believe many have misunderstood that scholar by starting in the wrong place.

Theological memoirs are a classic Christian genre, dating at least as far back as Augustine’s Confessions.

Here are some of my favorite theological memoirs to date (in no particular order):

F. F. Bruce, In Retrospect:  Remembrance of Things Past. Posthumous edition. Baker, 1980, 1993.  Bruce (1910-1990) was a British  evangelical New Testament scholar.  He was conservative in most of his critical conclusions, but liberal in spirit. I found his memoir full of pastoral  wisdom. Bruce came from the Open Brethren movement which has no ordained clergy.  Trained in Classics, he became a Neutestamentler and taught at the universities of Edinburgh, Leeds,  and Sheffield, before succeeding the great T. W. Manson as Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester.  He simultaneously led in the church life of local Brethren assemblies.  I loved Bruce’s open spirit:  he repeatedly rejoiced that his academic career was spent in secular universities rather than confessional seminaries.

Lesslie Newbigin, Unfinished Agenda:  An Autobiography(Eerdmans, 1985).  Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) was a Church of Scotland, missionary, ecumenist, bishop in the ecumenical Church of South India, pioneer in interfaith dialogue, and trend-setting missiologist.  Interestingly, he attended a Quaker boarding school as a child, something probably not many Presbyterian ministers ever say!  In his memoir, he communicates strikingly the way in which his missionary service made him thoroughly ecumenical (divisions between Christian denominations seem less important in the face of the sharp contrast between the Christian minority and the majority of other faiths).  After his return to the UK, he saw the post-Christian West not as a secular society with no gods, but as a pagan society with false gods. So, he tried to stress the need for Western churches to find new ways to take the gospel to the post-Christian Western culture.  In many ways, Newbigin pioneered the post-liberal critique of the Enlightenment myth of objectivist knowledge in which facts and values are rigidly separated.  All of this comes out in interesting and compelling prose.

Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Living of These Days: An Autobiography. Harper & Row, 1967.  Fosdick (1878-1969), a Baptist minister, was the champion and popularizer of classic  theological liberalism and a strong opponent of the Fundamentalist Movement of the 1920s.  He was also a popular hymnwriter and the title of his memoir is taken from a line in the 2nd verse of his most famous hymn, “God of Grace and God of Glory.” (This was a favorite hymn of the late Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder, who was one of my mentors. As such, it was sung at John’s funeral. I attended and loved this because John’s good friend, then-Methodist Stanley Hauerwas, a fierce critic of all things liberal, had to sing this quintessentially liberal hymn.  The irony was not lost on Stanley who took it good naturedly.)  This was the first theological memoir I read and it really helped me understand the context out of which the liberal theological movement grew.  I will never share Fosdick’s liberal convictions,  but I find myself glad for the impact he had on American Christianity.

I found equally fascinating, a memoir by someone QUITE different from Fosdick, Carl F. H. Henry (1913-2003), founder of Christianity Today, one of the founding professors at Fuller Theological Seminary, and a major mover and shaker of post-WWII American evangelicalism.  His evangelical rationalism has never been my cup of theological tea, but I have recognized  his importance as a dialogue partner.  His memoir, Confessions of a Theologian: An Autobiography (Word, 1985) is fascinating, and revealing, though I still find myself unimpressed with his exegetical skills and find his rationalism sterile and lifeless.

Very different is James H. Cone’s black liberation theology. I prefer the work of J. Deotis Roberts, but, to date, Roberts has not written a memoir and Cone has.  White Christians, especially those with little experience of the Black Church, have a very hard time understanding black liberation theology.  Look at the extreme overreaction to 30 seconds of one sermon by Rev. Wright.  So, I always tell white folks thinking of reading Cone, NOT to start with Black Theology and Black Power (written in the wake of the killings of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.) or A Black Theology of Liberation, but with his memoir.  Otherwise, they find it very hard to get past the angry tone of Cone’s early works to understand his perspective.  They quickly dismiss his anger as “hate,” or “reverse racism,” because that is easier than dealing with his actual thought–and his accusations about white American Christianity.  But if you start with My Soul Looks Back (Orbis, 1985), it’s much easier to understand Cone, the Black Church, and black liberation theology.

Just As I Am(Abingdon, 1983) by the Harvard theologian, Harvey G. Cox is fascinating.  Here is a famed liberal with a surprisingly evangelical background and spirit.  The adventures teaching in East Germany are worth the price if you can find this out of print gem in a used bookstore.

I haven’t seen too many theological memoirs from women (could I just be missing them?), but I highly recommend Dorothy Day’s classic, The Long Loneliness.  This spiritual autobiography from the founding spirit of the Catholic Worker movement is amazing.

I have reviewed Henlee Barnette’s A Pilgrimage of Faith: My Story (Mercer University Press, 2004) on this blog earlier and won’t repeat the review.  But it’s a great book.

These are a few good theological memoirs.  I invite others to share their favorites–I can always use more suggestions for reading! 🙂


April 5, 2009 - Posted by | books


  1. I reviewed one, Altizer’s ‘Living the Death of God’ here: http://subrationedei.com/?p=508. Can’t say I was that impressed.

    I’ve not read many but have heard Moltmann’s is pretty good.

    Comment by Richard | April 5, 2009

  2. Since Moltmann is a huge influence, could you give me the title, Richard?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 5, 2009

  3. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



    Comment by Sarah | April 6, 2009

  4. Welcome, Sarah. Have you any theological or spiritual memoirs to recommend?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 6, 2009

  5. Michael,

    Carter Heyward, part of the first group of women to be “irregularly” ordained as Episcopalian priests, is the only female theologian that I am aware of who has written an autobiography. I found Betty Friedan’s biography, however, to be much more informative in terms of getting a grasp on the historical-cultural context that spawned the modern women’s movement and, subsequently, feminist theology. (For what it’s worth, I thought the movie _Mona Lisa Smile_ captured the essence of the dilemma women of Friedan’s era faced as described in her book the _Feminist Mystique_ and would recommend viewing that movie in conjunction with reading Friedan’s biography.)

    Some of my favorites (apart from Cone and Fosdick, which you already mentioned) are (1) Bruce Shelley’s biography of Vernon Grounds, former president of Denver Seminary, which is framed in the broader history of the emergence of the post-WWII neo-evangelical movement and the shift away from fundamentalism.

    (2) The autobiographies of Troy Perry (founder of the Metropolitan Churches) and Mel White (founder of Soul Force), especially the latter, have proven immensely helpful in understanding the HUMAN dimension of the GLBT debate that is destroying so many of our churches and denominations and should be required reading regardless of where one ultimately stands on the issue.

    (3) Christopher Evan’s biography of Walter Rauschenbusch is a great introduction to the historical context that birthed the social gospel movement.

    (4) In my undergraduate theology classes, I require my students to read the biography of Maria Tula (similiar to Honduran Elvia Alvarado’s _Don’t Be Afraid Gringo_), a Salvadoran Catholic and human rights activist who was active in the CO-Madres group that worked closely with Archbishop Oscar Romero in advocating for family members who were “disappeared” by Salvadoran death squads. Since my students generally have little or no knowledge of Latin American history and politics, I have found that this book is a good starting point for discussing Latin American liberation theology (Similiarly, I use James Cone’s autobiography to introduce black theology).

    I could mention others, but these are the highlights from my reading list over the past few years.

    Comment by haitianministries | April 6, 2009

  6. Daniel, thanks. If I had included biographies, instead of just autobiographies, boy would my list have been MUCH longer. 🙂

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 6, 2009

  7. Almost an autobiography–I enjoyed Karl Barth’s biography by Eberhard Busch full of self-deprecating remarks.


    I too have enjoyed the autobiographies and biographies of theologians. I suppose the only autobiography I listed was #
    Jurgen Moltmann: A Broad Place: An Autobiography

    Comment by Andy Rowell | April 6, 2009

  8. Scot McKnight has a similar post asking people for recommendations on memoirs and autobiographies.

    Comment by Andy Rowell | April 7, 2009

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