Yesterday I started a short series on “must reads” in theology. In other words, who are the the theologians that you simply must read if you are going to study theology seriously. And, to be very clear, I’m not trying to address the question of whether these are must-reads for all Christians (they’re not), but only what it means to say that someone is a must-read for students of theology. (Whether they are also must-reads for people involved in biblical studies is something that I’ll leave for someone else to answer.)
Yesterday’s post focused on the clearest kind of must-read: those theologians with such historical significance that you really can’t understand entire theological traditions, or at least significant theological eras/movements, without understanding these theologians to some degree.
Today, I want to explore a different kind of must-read: people you consider to be a must-read because of the inherent value of their theology. This is to use “must” in a very different sense from yesterday’s post. People in this category really aren’t necessary for studying theology seriously. So, from one perspective, they are not must-reads. But, there are some theologians you think are important enough that you want to identify them as must-reads for any serious student of theology anyway.
Understanding the category in this way, of course, means that this kind of must-read is necessarily more subject that the former category. For the most part, those theologians who qualify as historical must-reads is really not debatable. Like most attempts to categorize people, there will always be questions at the margin. But it’s usually not that difficult to identify people who defined an entire theological tradition. To say that someone is a must-read for their inherent theological value, though, is entirely different.
I can think of three reasons that you might want to identify someone as a must-read in this more subjective sense. First, you might find their theology so personally compelling that you think any serious student of theology simply must be exposed to their way of thinking. This is generally what I think people mean when they say that Williams, Hauerwas, Jenson, or Gutierrez is a must-read. As I argued yesterday, I don’t think you can argue definitively that any living theologian is a historical must-read. So, any of these would have to be must-reads in the latter sense.
A second possibility is to say that someone is a must-read in this sense because you anticipate that they will eventually become a historical must-read. This is a tricky endeavor because it requires predicting which contemporary theologians you think will have “staying power” and will go on to become one of the great theologians that future generations will continue studying. I accidentally broke my crystal ball while using it to scare aware the neighbor’s cat, so I don’t make these kinds of predictions anymore. But, if you think you’re onto something, by all means call someone a must-read in this futurist sense.
And, the third option would be to say that someone is a must-read because they are shaping contemporary theological dialog to such a degree that the serious theological student simply must know about them regardless of whether you find them personally compelling or as having future significance. This one’s tough because you’d basically be saying that people need to study someone even though you think they have no inherent or lasting value. I can think of other ways that I’d rather spend my time. But, sometimes you have the bite the bullet if you really want to know your field.
So, I think that the label “must read” can be used meaningfully even in this more subjective sense. We probably should change this to “should read,” but it loses a lot of its rhetorical impact. Maybe “otta read” would work better.