It has been well documented that reading, particularly from a book, as opposed to electronic media, is becoming a lost art and pastime. However, that in in way reduces its value. To the contrary, in a culture that overwhelms us with noise and images, reading enables us to enter into dimensions connected to yet removed from our times. And so, it seems fitting as a New Year beckons to share some book recommendations on topics I have published and spoken on.
I have concentrated on titles from the Liturgical Press for three reasons:
1) They have not published me, so I don’t have any conflict of interest issues.
2) I probably have more books in my library published by TLP than any other press.
3) They have both popular and academic titles, and some in between, and therefore in doing a review I can cover a substantial amount of ground.
I will be discussing these on an upcoming Relevant Radio program, which I will disclose whenever it is finalized.
Because everyone is busy at this time of year, I’ll keep my comments brief and to the point.
Although it is unfair to compare books on different subject, it is also helpful to proportionately rate titles. Accordingly, I’ll start with my favorite of the titles I reviewed, and explain why, and then go in descending order. That does not mean that the last title is deficient. It just may be that it is on a topic where there are a ton of good books, and it is very difficult to stand out.
All of these titles are available from The Liturgical Press. Their website is www.litpress.org. Their phone number is 1-800-858-5450. If you decide to purchase these books, please buy them direct from Liturgical Press or your local bookstore, rather than online. Online vendors are helping put bookstores out of business, and they also cut greatly into author’s royalties.
1) Scripture in the Church: The Synod on the Word of God (James Chukwuma Okoye, Cssp)
This is an accessible yet erudite book on a very important topic. It is always best to go to the source on a subject, and what better sources for contemporary Church teaching on Scripture than a synod and an apostolic exhortation?
The author also provides a condensed overview of late twentieth century developments in Catholic biblical scholarship. This is very helpful for understanding the context for the Synod and the Pope’s synthesis. By the way, the latter is very long and detailed, yet quite readable. Hey, were you expecting a summary, superficial treatment from a former German theological professor?
I must caution that both the book and subject are not amenable to speed reading. You are going to need to take your time with this book, as it is packed with helpful information which will require digestion. Because of the timeliness of the topic and the competence of the treatment, this gets my number one rating.
2) Lectio Divina: The Medieval Experience of Reading (Duncan Robertson)
I have written ten books on this subject, yet I found this very fresh, deep, and thoughtful. This is not a rehashing of previously published material. This is not for the beginner, however. Any person who has practiced lectio divina, read at least one or two books on the subject, and who is interested in the medieval roots of the subject, set against contemporary academic thought, will find this extraordinarily helpful.
Again, this book draws from the original sources and shows their relevance to today. An excellent book quite suited to a serious reader and devotee of the subject. It is refreshing to see such a seminal book published in a market where the breezy and superficial so often garners attention. The author has worked with the leading authorities and resources on the subject, and articulated them in a very comprehensible and coherent manner. Nothing less than a must read for serious students of lectio divina.
3) The Faith of the Early Fathers, 3 volumes by William A. Jurgens
Patristics, the study of the teaching of the early church fathers, experienced a renaissance in Catholic theology in the mid-twentieth century, and has continued to regain its prominence. Of course, it never went away, but great thinkers (e.g. Henri de Lubac, Jean Danielou, etc.) came along and helped us rediscover it.
This book is an excellent source for learning both about the early Church fathers and what they taught. Assembled chronologically in three volumes, this contains a wealth of insightful and reflection-inspiring excerpts from ancient but also timeless writings. Though perhaps a bit advanced for an absolute beginner, it has much to offer for both scholar and layman. An outstanding resource on an important but oft-overlooked subject. For good reason this has remained in print for over forty years. That alone speaks volumes.
4) Desert Banquet: A year of Wisdom from the Desert Mothers and Fathers by David G. R. Keller
I loved this book! Eminently readable and thoughtfully put together. It follows quotes from the Desert mothers and fathers with explanations and applications. This is well-written survey of desert wisdom with modern relevance. The author has good psychological insights and pastoral sense.
For personal growth value, I would take this book over contemporary self-help titles any day. I also found it enjoyable to read, though you have to take your time with it. The author, an Episcopal priest, tackles very practical issues and provides substantive food for thought that will need to be processed deliberately. A good source for lectio divina as well.
5) By What Authority? A Primer on Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful by Richard R. Gaillardetz
This is an accessible, not overly academic treatment of important, inter-related, but oft-overlooked subjects. If you teach the Bible, and want to go deeper in your understanding of its role in the Church, this is ideal. However, I see this as being an excellent text for graduate theology courses. It goes a bit beyond popular questions and explores areas of ambiguity in contemporary thought. As with the Bible, everything the Church teaches can’t be abundantly clear, as life certainly isn’t.
This is a well-reasoned, readable book by a very competent thinker on the subject. highly recommended.
6) I would like to highlight two series published by the Liturgical Press. First, the New Collegeville Bible Commentary. Actually, this is the third edition of this series. The first was published in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The second in the mid-1980s. Both were excellent, among the finest popular commentary series available, and my review of early titles of this series indicates that the tradition of excellence will continue. To quote a popular expression, “this is what they do”: The Liturgical Press publishes excellent popular resources on the Bible by outstanding and widely respected scholars.
Containing the newly published and episcopally approved English translation of the Bible, this is an excellent resource for Bible study/sharing groups and introductory classes on the Bible. The tradition continues! Very highly recommended.
Second, Berit Olam, an academic commentary series on the Hebrew Bible. For the reader with an intermediate or advanced understanding of the Bible, this series is a must read. Combining outstanding scholarship with literary excellence, and reflecting a variety of traditions, I see it as a more focused and accessible Catholic equivalent of the superb Anchor Bible series. Focusing on the literary dimensions of the text, rather than obscure source-critical questions (hypothesized developments of the text over time), this serves a valuable purpose in contemporary biblical studies, bridging academia and popular studies of the Bible. Its goals are aesthetic as well as intellectual and formational, suiting precisely the texts it explores. The endeavor is ambitious but well conceived and executed.
A worthy companion to the outstanding New Testament series published in the early 1990s and continuing into the new millennium.
Let’s end our review on a light and practical note. The Liturgical Press has long been known for their outstanding inventory reduction sales. I always got a kick out of the pictures of the publisher that would accompany the catalog. And the deals were great. Coming out in the spring, there are always excellent titles available, and often at below-wholesale prices. Remember that a book’s sales numbers are not necessarily indicative of its value.
If you are not on the Liturgical Press’ mailing list, contact them and get on it. Their catalogues are well organized, descriptive, and colorful. They have long been a premier Catholic publisher, and remain so despite earthquake-like upheavals in the industry. From my vantage point, unlike many presses, quality has not slipped, and superficial popular trends have been avoided. For Bible, spirituality, theological, and liturgical titles, they truly excel, and are worth keeping track of.
If you have any questions, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or submit a posting for the blog.