A guide to Christian theology?
February 4, 2013 2:25 PM   Subscribe

I grew up in an atheist household and have never read the Bible. I would like to tackle that beast and start wandering through various branches of Christian theology, with my main goal to start in on Barth's complete works. Can you recommend a good Academic primer or companion to the Bible and general theology that doesn't try to convert me? I am interested in the topic in a scholarly/philosophic sense. I do have a good understanding of the Old World and its various empires and wars, but I am still in the shallow end as far as biblical knowledge is concerned.
posted by Think_Long to Religion & Philosophy (24 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: There's a series of scholarly translations of the Old Testament by Robert Alter starting with Genesis. They're a fantastic companion to some of the more esoteric parts, and includes plenty of historical context for Old Testament-era civilization.
posted by griphus at 2:29 PM on February 4, 2013

Best answer: I grew up in a non-religious household and am currently an inconsistently practicing Buddhist. I found How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Now and Then absolutely fascinating. I read a KJV paragraph Bible along with the book.
posted by xyzzy at 2:39 PM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I found Yale's RLST 152: Introduction to the New Testament History and Literature course to be nice introduction, and videos of all of the lectures are available online.
posted by kiltedtaco at 2:40 PM on February 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: For eastern Christianity:

Orthodox Dogmatic Theology
The Orthodox Way

If you want to get into source materials on biblical commentary, the homilies of St. John Chrysostom.

By the way, I do not recommend that you sit down with the Bible like a novel and begin with Genesis, Chapter 1. Start with Mark, then Matthew and Luke, and then John. There are lots of bible reading plans out there that can give guidelines for how to go about it, which will generally have a lot of jumping around instead of cover to cover.
posted by Tanizaki at 2:45 PM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Are you more interested in Christian interpretation of the Bible or in the history of theological concepts that are not found in the Bible in the form they later developed, like the doctrine of the Trinity or the doctrines at issue during the Reformation (e.g., the sacraments, justification)? There's a lot of overlap, obviously, but different resources might be good for different things. If you're starting from zero it's hard to get a sense of where the major issues come up just reading the bible, particularly if you're not starting with the perspective that the text is true or authoritative in some way.

Religious academics can weigh in on whether it's any good, but you might consider Jaroslav Pelikan's five volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. Also I think a lot of academic courses use the Oxford Annotated Bible.
posted by rustcellar at 2:53 PM on February 4, 2013

Best answer: You might find the works of Karen Armstrong helpful, especially The Bible: A Biography and A History of God, which is a comparative history of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
posted by rtha at 2:55 PM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Asimov's Guide to the Bible is an interesting approach.

It was there I learned that the first few words of Genesis, in the original Hebrew, are:

"In the beginning the gods created heaven and earth."
posted by megatherium at 2:55 PM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I really enjoyed Asimov's Guide to the Bible.
posted by komara at 2:56 PM on February 4, 2013

Best answer: Robert M. Price, an ex-Baptist-minister atheist bible scholar, puts out two podcasts that may be of interest: The Human Bible (more accessible to the laity) and The Bible Geek.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 3:05 PM on February 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: A Doubter's Guide to the Bible is good. I'd also recommend Barth's Dogmatics in Outline.
posted by 4ster at 4:31 PM on February 4, 2013

Best answer: The PBS Frontline documentary From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians. Is a fascinating look at contemporary scholarship around Jesus and the writing and editing of The Bible.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:04 PM on February 4, 2013

Best answer: You can sign up to get a bit of the bible sent to you each day by email - there are a bunch of services like this one. I get a daily reading from an Orthodox Church which includes saints and commentary, but isn't a complete bible reading, more highlighted parts, but it has become a part of my day to read it and then dive into google to look for more reading on the section.

I have the Asimov too and it's a helpful reference to have especially because he's writing as a secular jewish commentator, not from a catholic/orthodox/protestant perspective - he treats the book as a collection of historical documents. A Very Short Introduction to the Bible is an excellent fast overview that will tell you where you want to get started.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:47 PM on February 4, 2013

Best answer: Why not just read the thing and see what you think of it? I'm a big fan of unmediated reading; I think commentaries, criticism and history add to one's experience but are never required before you dive into the text.

For basic Christian theology, I really like the works of C.S. Lewis, especially Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, and Miracles. He's easy to read yet very learned, and presents a very standard portrait of Christianity. This is particularly useful as some important chunks of theology either aren't in the Bible, or are only vaguely and briefly alluded to there, notably the Trinity and many aspects of Christology. Note that he's a Christian himself, so though he's trying to make things understandable to outsiders, he certainly doesn't have a critical attitude toward the religion itself. (He can be plenty hard on its adherants.)

For a really interesting reading of the Old Testament, there's Jack Miles's God: A Biography. It's mostly reactions to reading the OT in the Jewish order, without many preconceptions-- though it also gets into the history of the text a bit. I liked it for its irreverence; it's not afraid to call God out on his dysfunctional behavior.

I found Bart Ehrman's Lost Christianities a fascinating introduction to the many competing versions of Christianity in the first two centuries, which is important context for the NT as we inherited it.

The Bible Unearthed, by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, relates the OT to what we know of archeology-- and shows that a surprising bit of the OT is completely unreliable as history.
posted by zompist at 8:00 PM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: trying to read the whole bible is not an easy thing to do even for those of us who are bible nerds. what i would suggest you not do is try to read it straight through from genesis to revelation. many, many people give up if they first try slogging through the entire old testament. this looks like it has good suggestions as to how to start reading the bible. i.e. start with a few books in the new testament, then genesis, exodus, the psalms are cool and they and proverbs can be read anytime.

first off, don't read any old bible you or a friend may have lying around. i'd suggest getting a study bible as that will have all sorts of explanatory info. in study bibles there is an overview of each book of the bible that will discuss major themes, people, etc. and notes on the individual verses to help understand what the text is saying.

a couple more academic study bibles are the harper collins study bible (excerpt here) and the new oxford annotated bible (excerpt here). i've looked through the harper collins one before and it looks really good. be sure to buy a hardback rather than a paperback bible as a paperback will not hold up. these two also come in a translation that is generally considered for more serious study. you can read about translations here. just know you don't want to read the king james version or the new king james version as they are not for serious study.

as far as buying companion books to the bible or books on specific theologies just know that whatever is recommended to you will have a particular theological or denominational slant (e.g. liberal, conservative, reformed, evangelical, catholic, etc.). that goes for the study bibles i've recommended as well and they fall into the protestant, academic category.

if you want to understand a bit about biblical interpretation a book i like is how to read the bible for all it's worth by gordon fee & douglas stuart. the reason there are so many different denominations is because people approach the bible so many different ways. fee is an evangelical scholar who believes women can preach and is a bit on the charismatic side e.g. God still speaks to us personally and even heals diseases. he's an academic. douglas is an old testament scholar at an evangelical university. so, this book is taking the approach that the bible is true but needs to be interpreted in context.

something else you might want to consider is taking a bible as literature course.
posted by wildflower at 8:16 PM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've found the Oxford Companions useful entry points to fields that I'm unfamiliar with. They're basically encyclopedia-style books that try to provide a comprehensive (though necessarily shallow) summary of a given field. I have not read the Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, but I suspect it may be helpful.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:11 PM on February 4, 2013

the reason there are so many different denominations is because people approach the bible so many different ways

I would argue that the reason there are so many denominations has a lot more to do with the sociopolitical and economic situations in post-medieval Europe than it does with how people approach the Bible.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:16 PM on February 4, 2013

Best answer: NT Wright's stuff is terrific.

For philosophical theology, check out Tom Morris' Our Idea of God.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 11:47 PM on February 4, 2013

Best answer: This doesn't quite jibe with your scholarly/philosophic approach, but as a non-Christian I found Bart Ehrman's New Testament course from The Teaching Company really useful in approaching the Bible as historical literature. [I don't know about his other books, and I'm pretty sure some people will tell you that he's completely wrong.]
posted by benito.strauss at 11:58 PM on February 4, 2013

Best answer: I'm intrigued by your question. If I gauge it aright, you have three interrelated concerns, primary of which is getting to grips with actually reading the Christian Bible, and secondarily getting an orientation to Christian theology, with the ultimate goal of reading Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics. In some ways what you're attempting is what an undergraduate degree in theology might cover, though not many would involve much in-depth reading of Barth except towards the end (third year).

Here are a few suggestions that might help.

Regarding the Bible, others have suggested some very helpful good resources. Given your minimal acquaintance with the biblical text, I'd suggest some of the Oxford Very Short Introductions that give good brief orientations and which provide guidance for further reading: Michael Coogan, The Old Testament; Luke Timothy Johnson, The New Testament; Kyle Keefer, The New Testament as Literature; Richard Bauckham, Jesus.

Regarding general theology, a very solid and helpful one-volume starting-point is Alister McGrath's Christian Theology: An Introduction.

On Barth, I'd suggest John Webster's volume in the Outstanding Christian Thinkers series, Karl Barth. There's a new study edition of Barth's Church Dogmatics (I've linked to first volume) which makes the prospect of reading large chunks of his work rather less forbidding, as it translates the Latin and Greek quotations that the earlier edition simply confronts one with.

Hope this helps.
posted by davemack at 1:58 AM on February 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks y'all, these are exactly the recs I was looking for.
posted by Think_Long at 6:44 AM on February 5, 2013

Speaking as a person who grew up Catholic with a Catholic education (and so a lot of education in the things you are searching for now) -- but also as a lover of literature -- I sincerely wish you good luck on this. It's a hell of a collection of writing, and the good bits have so many ties to Western thought & art that it will add a lot lot other works you already know.

Whether it changes your spirituality is, as they say, an exercise for the reader. :7)
posted by wenestvedt at 7:13 AM on February 5, 2013

I just want to pop in and say if you have time (housecleaning is my personal fave) a good way to read the bible (if you want to) is to audiobook it. you'd have to reference the crap out of it later as audiobooking doesn't seem to ground the knowledge as much as reading does for me, but it's a LONG DRY book, and it wasn't a horrible audiobook.
posted by euphoria066 at 7:28 AM on February 5, 2013

I'm an atheist. I enjoy reading the Bible. I like Asimov's effort.

Anyhow, I like to read one book at a time, then deal with it according to whatever I find intriguing (for me, most times it's historical context, not whether the story is "true"). In perspective, it's about the storytellers as much as the story. Religious commentary is only one way to appropriate a resonant context.

KJV rocks, once you get used to the language. I really enjoy the OT for the absolute power in the translation--gives me chicken skin sometimes. The NT, not so much, except that I found high humor in the confusion of Jesus' disciples, and their thick-headedness. Makes me wonder if that wasn't a point in the original tale (however it actually evolved). Social insights are as interesting as Jesus' philosophical notions. If the OT is about willful transgression, the NT is about simple folly, and both focus on results. In my view, various modern versions of these messages have to do with power management, and the gift of afterlife is both the carrot and the stick. But applying any religious overview to the Bible isn't necessary to becoming infatuated with the stories that are in it.

When your eyes get adjusted to the light, check out the Apocrophia and "banned books" for added flavor.
posted by mule98J at 10:46 AM on February 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Can I suggest two good ones.

Michael Horton's The Christian Faith


The Oxford Handbook Of Systematic Theology edited by John Webster et al. (Although disclaimer J Webster is my Dad)
posted by u17tw at 5:21 AM on February 6, 2013

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