Koi, a student majoring in theology at a Catholic university, posted the following message in response to several requests that she tell us what books she considered good scholarly works on Christianity. Where possible, we've linked book titles to the page on the book at Amazon.com (whose prices may be different than the prices listed in the article).
72191 6-APR 13:44 Books and Media: Pagan Serious Christian/Catholic Resources From: KOIMICHRA To: ALL
A couple people have asked me privately for book/research recommendations with respect to Christianity or Catholicism, so I thought I'd post my top suggestions for anyone who's curious. (Randall, if you think this is useful, feel free to life it and put it where-ever).
I know this is a weird topic to post on a Pagan board, but I've found Pagans are often far more interested than Christians in reading serious religious scholarship! This is by no means a definitive list, or even a "best books" list, but these are good books to begin with that I have found particularly useful. So, with the following books, you can effectively arm yourself against many fundamentalists.
The definitive book is Catholicism by Richard McBrien. It's expensive ($36 US), but you can also find it in a lot of public libraries. He goes through just about every area of theology you can imagine, gives a summary of the background of the discussion (with relevant Biblical texts and theological references), gives the current direction of thought, any current arguments, the underlying principles, etc. It's very even-handed, and doesn't duck controversies. It's about 1300 pages long, but the index is extensive, so you can pick your topic ("Biblical interpretation," "Ordination, women," "Homosexuality") and go read your couple of pages on it.
Catechism of the Catholic Church -- $9.95 U.S., also at most libraries. The "pocket guide to Catholic theology." It's reasonably conversational in tone -- I wouldn't read it all at once, but you could read a couple of sections a month. The index isn't great, but you can usually find what you're looking for. Plus, it's "official."
On Popes, Lives of the Popes again by McBrien, is a great resource. Probably not a read-through book (the actual lives of the Popes, especially the early ones, are inanely repetitive) but very thorough and interesting, particularly where it picks the best, worst, and historically important Popes. In hardback, it costs about the same as your regular hardback fiction book.
A popular introductory text book is Understanding the Bible by Stephen Harris. Harris's personal slant is a very historical one -- he's not really taking a theological position at all (more like an anti-theological position) which makes his book irritating to some theologians. Excellent index, glossary, reccommended reading lists. He goes through book-by-book and tells you the traditional, historical, and major theological points regarding each book. He also covers things like why Protestants, Jews, and Catholics have different books in different orders. It's very readable. I think it's about $35, and I'm not sure if local libraries would carry it.
The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology by Bruce Malina is excellent. Malina is a leader in the field of New Testament scholarship, and after you read this book, you'll never read the Bible the same way again. He describes Jesus's culture extensively, puts a lot of Gospel stories into cultural context, which makes you go, "Oh! I get it!" It's a little book, but from an academic press, so it'll cost more than a regular paperback. The book's a slightly tougher read than the others I've mentioned -- straight sociology/anthropology -- but worth the work. And his bibliographies are basically a who's-who of Biblical scholarship, so you could find many more excellent books.
First of all, there's no excuse to have only one translation. I doubt that we can make a definitive judgment about which translation is "best." The two I'm currently using are the New American Bible (popular with Catholics) and the New Revised Standard Version (popular with Protestants).
The Catholic Study Bible is NAB translation, with really good footnotes and reading guides. It does have a Catholic slant (pretty middle-of-the-road) but can be very useful if you're doing something theological with the Bible. The footnotes tend to give theological explanations of passages, rather than just definitions of words and things (although it does that too).
The New Oxford Annotated Bible is NRSV and my favorite for textual criticism. In addition to extensive footnotes, it separately footnotes translation issues, noting "meaning of Hebrew unclear" or "this text shows this, that one shows that" or "could be translated as 'X'" The footnotes are less theological and more straightforward than the Catholic Study Bible.
Both of these Bibles are very big and fairly expensive (probably $40). Catholic Bibles tend to have more commentary and the lectionary in the back; Protestant Bibles tend to have a concordance, which is SO useful.
If you're Bible-shopping, there are a couple of quick ways to check out the theological slant of your Bible. Most Bibles have a little introduction to each book. By reading these, you can get a good idea of whether you've got an evangelical, touchy-feely, scholarly, or whatever Bible. The following are a couple of things I look for:
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