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! 🙂
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