To help us launch the Political Theology Network, we asked scholars working at the intersection of religion and politics to share five books that inspired them. The “Books We Love” series offers a fun way to introduce readers of Political Theology Today to books that have influenced their favorite authors. It also features book recommendations from important thinkers whose work may not be familiar to the blog’s regular visitors.
We’re honored to share the first installment of “Books We Love” below. Future installments will come each week until the end of the month.
Roberto D. Sirvent is Associate Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University. He is the co-author with Duncan Reyburn of God, Gods, and Throwing Like a Girl: A Political Theology of Sport (Cascade Publications, forthcoming) under contract) and Embracing Vulnerability: Human and Divine (Pickwick Publications, 2014).
“Five Books I Love”
By Ula Taylor
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
Race, religion, and politics continue to shape our world. Baldwin’s two essays provide insight, compassion, and hope. Moreover, I simply love his prose.
Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought
I love short stories and reading primary documents and this anthology allows me to do both. It’s a reminder that sometimes historians need to get out of the way of our subjects and let them speak on their own terms.
Malcolm X with Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X
I’ve learned so much about American history via Malcolm’s experiences. He is the historical figure that I would have loved to be a bird on his shoulder as he moved throughout the world. Every time I read this book I see something that I missed.
Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol
This book is so important not only for given us the complexity of Sojourner Truth’s life but Painter’s archival methods and visual readings are masterful.
Marcus Garvey, The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey
All I can say is race first, race first, and race first! Garvey gave us an analytical language to better understand why people of African descent must unite.
Ula Y. Taylor is professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She earned her doctorate in American History from UC Santa Barbara. Taylor is the co-author of Panther: The Illustrated History of the Black Panther Movement and the Story Behind the Film. She is also author of the forthcoming book, The Promise of Patriarchy: Women and the Nation of Islam (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).
“Five Books that I Re-read Often”
By Emilie M. Townes
Katie Geneva Cannon, Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community
From one of founders of womanist thought in religion, this books gives me a template and reminder of what excellent critical and analytical writing looks like and reads like.
Nikki Finney, Head Off and Split: Poems
Touches the core of who we are and who we can be. A tour de force of passion, intimacy, anger, the erotic, the political.
Every time I pick it up, I see something new; learn something new. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.
Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination
Powerful insights and just a plain magnificent read to get my wheels turning about how race and color often hold us in a demonic watusi with our efforts at humanity.
Simply the best of West.
Emilie M. Townes is the Dean and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. She was the first Black woman to serve as President of the American Academy of Religion (2008) and she recently completed a term as President of the Society for the Study of Black Religion (2013-2016). She is a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
“Five of My Favorite Books on Religion and Race in America”
By Kathryn Gin Lum
Sylvester Johnson, African American Religions, 1500-2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom
I learned a lot from Johnson’s first book, The Myth of Ham, so was very excited to read his new opus. It does not disappoint: I was floored by the magisterial scope and theoretical interventions of African American Religions, whose insights on race, religion, and colonialism I have since cited in every conference paper I have given in the past year.
Weisenfeld’s work brilliantly captures the religio-racial decisions made by members of the Moorish Science Temple, Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement, the Nation of Islam, and Ethiopian Hebrew congregations. Using creative sources like draft cards and census records, she explores everything from the ways in which they conceived of history to their clothing and dietary choices. I have found both her elegant structure and concept of religio-racial identity very helpful in conceptualizing and explaining my own research.
Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race
This book bowled me over with its evocative account of the theological origins of racial imagining. Jennings explains how the logic of supersessionism—in which Christians see themselves as God’s new chosen people—set in motion colonizing attitudes toward other people’s land and lives. Jennings’ insights are not facilely anti-Christian but thoughtfully historical, theological, and even personal, and indispensable for any study of race and religion in the Americas.
Wenger masterfully uses the 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy to expose the ways in which American religious freedom relies on a White Protestant understanding of “religion” as voluntary, individualistic, and belief-based. Her argument about the gains and losses Pueblos faced in arguing for the protections of the First Amendment unfolds over a beautifully written and theoretically informed narrative that also carefully assesses the implications of the 1920s controversy on contemporary issues.
Joshua Paddison, American Heathens: Religion, Race, and Reconstruction in California
Paddison vastly expands our understanding of Reconstruction by reminding us that it wasn’t just North-South or Black-White: it was also East-West and involved Native Americans and Chinese. In California, the question of citizenship rights was closely bound up with the question of who was thought to be capable of conversion. American Heathens is extensively researched and includes the voices of Chinese and Native Americans, missionaries and locals. It’s a gem of a book.
Kathryn Gin Lum is Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies Department at Stanford University. She is the author of the book Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2014) and is currently co-editing (with Paul Harvey) The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Race in American History (forthcoming, Oxford University Press, 2018).
“Five Books that Shaped my Understanding of Racial Justice and Human Rights”
By Asha Noor
Allah, The Holy Quran
This sacred text made my list because it informs much of my understanding around racial justice and human rights from an early age. Throughout the Quran the Prophet Muhammad PBUH speaks about the virtues of equity, togetherness, and interdependence. It preaches that the value of people is based on inward traits such as faith, charity, and good character. The Quran also discusses themes of workers compensation, just pay, income inequality, just war, nonviolence, gender equity and more.
Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X
This book changed my life as a young person. I was taught in school that Malcolm X was the antithesis of MLK, and that he was the bad leader of the civil rights movement. As a young black Muslim I hated that the Black Muslim leader of the civil rights era was demonized. It wasn’t until I read this book, and what my parents shared about the true nature of Malcolm X, that I understood what historical revision, demonization, and upholding the status quo looked like. This book truly made me fall back in love with my faith, my identity, my love for community building and fighting for justice.
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
If you don’t understand how slavery has only been extended and not abolished in this country, then I suggest you read this book. It is one of the most eye opening reads on mass incarceration, what Alexander calls the new jim crow.
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger
I read this book in graduate school while studying structural and systemic violence. It allowed for me to look at income inequality in a different way, and as a driver for conflict. It also gave me a better understanding of economic injustice and how it informs many social ills within our society. It is based on 3o years of research and is a first of its kind in this field.
This book is compiled of articles and lectures written by scholar activist Angela Davis. It is a very timely read considering the transformations we see occurring in this country and around the world. It is a phenomenal read to better understand the connectivity of systems of oppression, and to have a better global context of these systems.
Asha Noor is a racial justice and human rights advocate who served her community, and other marginalized groups for the last ten years. Noor currently is the Programming and Outreach Director at CAIR-MI for Safe Spaces, the largest Muslim civil rights organization. She worked both domestically and abroad in conflict zones with marginalized communities, including women, afro-indigenous groups, refugees, religious minorities and trauma victims. She holds a MS in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and BA in Political Science from Michigan State University.
“Five Books that Fill My Heart”
By Natalie Avalos
Vine Deloria, The World We Used to Live In
In this book, Deloria’s final text, he pairs first hand accounts of the seemingly miraculous powers of medicine men with his own commentary on their human/planetary significance. It acts as a perfect distillation of Deloria’s thoughts on Native religious life.
Suzanne Crawford O’Brien (ed.), Religion and Healing in Native America: Pathways for Renewal
This anthology is packed with brilliant insights on contemporary Native religious life. The chapters in unity reveal a larger narrative about resistance, survival, self-determination, and healing as interconnected processes.
Taiaiake Alfred, Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom
Wasáse is a powerhouse. One part political manifesto and one part community testimonial to regenerating Native lifeways. By the end, you’re convinced a better life is possible for all of us.
Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands
When I read this book in my teens, it transformed the way I think about my purpose in the greater cosmos. Every time I re-read it, I find a new profound insight that speaks to that moment in my life. I often refer to Borderlands as the Chicano/a/x Studies bible.
bell hooks, all about love
This book is a salve for your heart. hooks lays out a road map for understanding how and why love may elude us. It ends with a Buddhist inspired invocation to living with integrity, in love and all things.
Natalie Avalos is an ethnographer of religion whose research and teaching focus on Native American and Indigenous religions in diaspora, healing historical trauma, decolonization, and social justice. She received her Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of California at Santa Barbara in September 2015 and is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Connecticut College. She is a Chicana of Nahua/Apache descent, born and raised in the Bay Area.
“Five Books I Want All My Students to Read”
By Pamela Lightsey
I loved reading this book, a compilation of speeches that reads as transcripts. Relevant for the times we are facing.
Why all these court cases about voting and gerrymandering? I can’t imagine anyone interested in the answer to that question not benefitting from this work. Such good teaching!
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction
Because I think conversations about sexuality are more political than theological, whenever I teach Queer Theology this book is required reading. I also find it a helpful lead-in for subsequent sessions on the history of LGBTQ human rights campaigns.
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
An excellent read on sociopolitical power, colonialism and the tough work of resistance by oppressed people. Such a rich analysis on rage and violence!
Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge
I read this seminal work as an undergrad. It comes to mind each time I write about “social constructs” “categories of identification” and yes, epistemology. This book laid the foundation for the work I now do in Queer Theology.
Dr. Pamela R. Lightsey is Associate Dean and Clinical Assistant Professor at Boston University School of Theology. She is the author of Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology and a member of the Workgroup on Constructive Theology.
“5 books I Assign to Make the Strange Familiar and the Familiar, Strange”
By Janet McIntosh
I’m a cultural and linguistic anthropologist. Here are five books I assign to undergraduates to destabilize their assumptions about human nature and how society ought to be. These books humanize the unthinkable, shed light on how social structures shape human possibility, and force readers to look at themselves through fresh and critical eyes.
A classic ethnography of a southern African hunter-gatherer society that reflects widespread elements of pre-agricultural human life. It turns out that, when not relegated to marginal lands, Ju/’Hoansi lives were not nasty, brutish or short; rather, they enjoyed excellent nutrition with ample leisure time, a restorative ritual life, and a well-developed sense of irony. Their system of reciprocity ensured limits to accumulation and destitution, and they showed a keen sense of humor when a member of the community started loving themselves a little too much. The harder part of the story concerns their struggle with the bigger forces of the last century—capitalism, possessive individualism, colonialism, state control. For those who wish to meet a vivid personality from the same society, see Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, by Marjorie Shostak (1981).
Western Apache have reason to be bitter about their history of oppression at the hands of Anglo-Americans. As of a few decades ago, they had a well-developed genre of joking imitations of whites, whom they read as socially and emotionally immature. This book lays bare what is effectively an Apache ethnography of Anglo-American buffoonery, and it compels us to rethink our assumptions about what it means to be good to others.
Why would an elderly man in Amazonia wistfully request that his body be dismembered and placed in a cooking pot before burial? Because until Catholic and state powers banned the practice, the Wari’ consumed their deceased in-laws in what was considered a supreme act of tenderness, a duty of compassion to the living (it helped to erase painful memories of their blood relations) and to the dead as well, allowing them to move into the underworld and be reincarnated as wild pigs who could then offer themselves up to nourish the living. The practice emerges from such mutuality and such a reassuring cosmology, this book provides one of many ethnographic reminders that so-called civilizing forces haven’t often understood or appreciated what they condemn.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil
Scheper-Hughes follows three generations of women in Northeast Brazil’s plantation-based society, documenting their struggle for survival at the bottom of the class hierarchy. Her claim: because sickness, hunger, and death are commonplace, women divide their babies, triage-style, into those destined to thrive and those without the will to live, withholding resources from the latter. Conventional experiences of “mother love,” she argues, are a luxury these women cannot afford unless and until a given child has shown the strength to survive. The sheer pliability of emotion in response to circumstances may disturb readers, but in the shock one realizes human sentiments are less natural than we tend to assume.
Philippe Bourgois, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio
Bourgois’ work is based on fieldwork in Spanish Harlem in the late 1980s, when the rise of the American service economy meant that those from low income minority communities faced new disadvantages at the hands of the white managerial class. Without sanitizing, Bourgois demonstrates that drug dealing and violence shouldn’t be explained through the patronizing rhetoric of “poor choices,” for they emerge from the dysfunctions of wider economic structures and systemic discrimination—a context in which, in spite of their destructiveness, they feel to some like the most dignified options.
Janet McIntosh is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Brandeis University. She is the author of The Edge of Islam: Power, Personhood, and Ethnoreligious Boundaries on the Kenya Coast (Duke University Press, 2009) and Unsettled: Denial and Belonging among White Kenyans (University of California Press, 2016).
“Five Books that My Students and I Love”
By Mashal Saif
Michael Sells, Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations
Students love the accessibility of Sells’ writing. However, once they’re pushed to reflect on Sells translations, they quickly grow to appreciate the complexity of the Qur’an. Coupling the book with other translations and a variety of exegetical texts makes for a great class exercise.
I especially enjoy teaching Chapters 1 and 2. These chapters’ soft introduction to theory and methods in the study of religion through a conversation about Islam is one that students keep coming back to over the course of the semester. We start and finish the Introduction to Islam course with sections of this book.
Wael Hallaq, An Introduction to Islamic Law
“Tough love” would be the best way to describe freshmen’s appraisal of this book. Exhilarating, yet challenging, the book generates rich conversation. I find that discussions of the book are best initiated after viewing short segments of the documentary Justice à Agadez.
Bruce Lawrence, (ed.), Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden
Which young American doesn’t jump at the chance of reading OBL’s speeches? My students preconceived notions about OBL’s arguments were quickly shattered as they delved into OBL’s works. The editor’s fact checking and footnotes add an additional layer of complexity to the text; they push students to grapple with uncomfortable aspects of American foreign policy that they have often previously not encountered.
Daniel Dubuisson, The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge and Ideology
My Theories and Methods class spent weeks combing through this book. They were enamored by some sections and frustrated by others. This perfect balance allowed students the space to elaborate their own theories about religion without using Dubuisson’s arguments as a crutch.
Mashal Saif is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Clemson University. Her research interests include Islam in South Asia; Muslim political theology; traditional Muslim scholars and religious seminaries; postcolonial theory; and the anthropology of the state. Select publications include articles in the journals Fieldwork in Religion and The Journal of Shi’a Islamic Studies.
“Five Books That Are Hard to Read—But Totally Worth It”
By Andrew Prevot
I have a weakness for dense books that investigate the subtle crosshatchings of mysticism and politics. I am drawn to authors who employ language not merely as an instrument of clarity but as a window into the abyss. These are five of my favorites.
Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation
This meditation on opacity from the Afro-Caribbean postcolonial milieu is a must read. It articulates a politics, not of recognition, but of hiddenness. Yet this is for Glissant always a very particular hiddenness belonging to each relation, each language, each body, each history, each impossible and unbearable memory.
Jean-Luc Marion, The Idol and Distance: Five Studies
What happens when one situates Martin Heidegger’s theory of ontological difference, as anticipated by Friedrich Hölderlin and Friedrich Nietzsche and as thoroughly revised by Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, in the illuminating shadow of Dionysius the Areopagite? Read this book to find out. The consequences are far-reaching.
Postmodernity seems to be a way of reading, a hermeneutics. Hollywood’s studies of Georges Bataille, Simone de Beauvoir, Jacques Lacan, and Luce Irigaray in this text demonstrate that it is more precisely a way of reading women mystics and their bodily experiences of divine excess.
Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account
Immanuel Kant’s racial anthropology finds a decisive refutation in this stunning interpretation of early Christian theologians in harmony with modern Afro-Christian scholars and witnesses. This is a book about how the theological affirmation of the incarnate Word ought to challenge and reconfigure any discourse of identity.
Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable, Volume 1: The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
This book is less a straightforward history of early modern mysticism and more a mystically styled performance of the very work of history, that is, a desire to make space in a text for the alterity of the past. It treats mysticism not primarily as a given but as a fiction, an act of speech, a “fable”—which signifies at once that which is beyond the structures of language and society and that which nevertheless only takes place within them, as a symbol of their vulnerability.
Andrew Prevot is Assistant Professor of Theology at Boston College. He is the author of Thinking Prayer: Theology and Spirituality amid the Crises of Modernity.
“Five (okay, Six) Books that I consider Foundational in Caribbean Theology Today”
By Anna Perkins
This is a foundational document of Caribbean Theology. It, however, needs to be read in tandem with In Search of New Perspectives and Out of the Depths to provide a rounded vision of the early process of indigenising theology in a region much misshapen by the missionary enterprise. The authors outline the terrain that will be traversed time and again as Caribbean theologians, pastors, activists, and educators seek to make sense of their Carib-being and their Christian faith.
Patricia Sheerattan-Bisnauth (ed.), Righting Her-Story: Caribbean Women Encounter the Bible Story
An exciting collection of Bible studies, poetry, liturgical resources and stories of Caribbean women, who struggled and survived in spite of the odds faced in Church, the family and society. The collection challenges ways of continuing to read the Bible that are less than liberating and presents refreshing readings from Caribbean women. It is also beautifully designed and an attractive read and eminently practical for healing and celebration through liturgy. By Caribbean women for Caribbean women. Too few female voices are present in the seminal texts of Caribbean Theology.
Howard Gregory (ed.), Caribbean Theology: Preparing for the Challenges Ahead
In the tradition of other anthologies like Troubling of the Waters and Out of the Depths, this was a seminal collection reflecting specifically on theological education in the Caribbean. It grew out of a conference on theological education in the Caribbean held at the United Theological College of the West Indies, Jamaica. Catholic theologian Sister Theresa Lowe Ching was the sole female voice included.
I was introduced to this book by Canon Graham Kings (now Bishop), while a student at Cambridge University in the 1990s. It is an eloquent reflection on the theological enterprise in the Caribbean as unfinished business using the language and idiom of the region and capturing the playfulness of the sun and the people. The project of Emancipation is still unfolding. Noel Erskine’s Decolonising Theology makes a good companion read.
Lewin Williams, Caribbean Theology
In this masterful tome Williams attempts to pull together the multiple strands that make up the tapestry that is Caribbean Theology and assesses its progress since its beginnings in the 1970s. He tousles with issues raised from a new indigenisation and its prospects for success in dealing with the call for self-actualisation facing Caribbean people anew.
Caribbean Quarterly Vol 37, No. 1 (March 1991): The Social Teaching of the Church in the Caribbean. My copy of this journal is much dog eared and falling to pieces. It is a “go to” collection for a sense of breadth of the Caribbean Church’s social action of in the realm of the political, education, gender issues, and also includes a reflection on Haiti. As with most Caribbean theology collections, the breadth of the Church is represented with Baptists (Burchell Taylor), Roman Catholics (Jean Bertrand Aristide, Sr Bernadette Little), Evangelical (Garnett Roper), Methodists (Allan Kirton), among others.
Anna Kasafi Perkins is a Roman Catholic theologian who works in quality assurance at the University of the West Indies.
“Five Exhilarating Books on the Politics of Religious Practice and Evangelization
in Latin America”
By David Tavárez
Among other stellar accomplishments, López Austin’s book provides an exacting treatment of two issues: an historical and political interpretation of narratives about the most celebrated “human-god” in Mesoamerica, Quetzalcoatl of Tula, and an examination of how Mesoamerican leaders were memorialized as demigods in preconquest accounts.
Louise M. Burkhart, The Slippery Earth: Nahua-Christian Moral Dialogue in Sixteenth-Century Mexico.
This is an influential account of how Franciscan missionaries became “missionized” themselves, as they deployed important terms and cultural understandings drawn from Nahua history and cosmology in their translation of Christian catechesis and theological thought into the Nahuatl language. It defines in pointed terms the many compromises Franciscans made in their quest to render Christianity into Nahuatl.
Sabine MacCormack, Religion in the Andes: Vision and Imagination in Early Colonial Peru
In this work, MacCormack addresses concepts and categories drawn from early modern understandings of the culture and deities of classical antiquity that served as a filter and as a point of reference for Spanish authors as they sought to understand Inca religion and society. An admirable intellectual history of religious and theological thought in colonial Peru.
This masterful work draws an exhaustive portrayal of priests and parish life in eighteenth-century New Spain. It provides an authoritative analysis of local religious practices and political and social life, ranging from alliances to conflict, catechesis to idolatry, and spiritual to financial concerns. An erudite work that interprets a staggering amount of primary sources about everyday religion and politics in colonial Mexico.
This vibrant work is an ambitious study of Afro-Brazilian religious practices as they and their promoters moved back and forth from West Africa to Brazil between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. Through a multidisciplinary approach to historical narrative, this volume upends received thinking about the flow of beliefs, goods, people, and ideologies across the vast Black Atlantic realm.
David Tavárez is Professor of Anthropology at Vassar College. He is the author of The Invisible War: Indigenous Devotions, Discipline, and Dissent in Colonial Mexico, (2011; paperback edition, 2013), and a co-editor of Chimalpahin’s Conquest: A Nahua Historian’s Rewriting of Francisco López de Gómara’s La conquista de México (2010), both with Stanford University Press.