The Ultimate Theology Christmas Guide: 12 Books Every Theologian should get for Christmas

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by Will Deatherage, Executive Director

Happy Advent, everyone! As families and friends begin compiling Christmas wish-lists, I figured that many aspiring theologians and curious Catholics could use some book recommendations. As a Masters student in Theology, I have had the great pleasure of reading some fantastic books that I am excited to recommend. This list is for both amateurs and seasoned theological veterans from a variety of interests. Without further ado, here are twelve books I suggest that every theologian should consider getting for Christmas

12. Introduction to the Spiritual Life

By Louis Bouyer
Subject: Sacramental Theology
Recommended Audience: Aspiring prayer warriors who want to better understand the purpose of prayer
Difficulty: Intermediate (some familiarity with basic Theological terms is recommended)
Price: $20

Louis Bouyer claims that modern problems with prayer, which he believes has become too self-centric, can be amended by restoring its connection to the Sacraments and the Liturgy. Responding to a hyper-individualism fueled by modern existentialism, Bouyer argues that authentic prayer can only be achieved by renouncing one’s own ego and embracing a spiritual life centered on objectivity, which the Eucharist provides. This book is ideal for Catholics who are interested in connecting the Mass to their own prayer lives, and I can confidently say that it greatly changed the way I approach both prayer and the Liturgy.
Buy it Here

11. Introducing Religion: Readings from the Classic Theorists

Edited by Daniel Pals
Subject: Religious Studies
Recommended Audience: Those who are interested in what makes something a Religion 
Difficulty: Intermediate (a willingness to learn complex interdisciplinary terms is required)
Price: $60

Daniel Pals presents an excellent collection of commentaries on the nature of religion, from the psychology of religion by William James and Sigmund Freud, to the sociology of religion by Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, to the economics of religion by Karl Marx. This collage of diverse perspectives is incredibly valuable to those discerning the driving forces behind and impacts of religion. It is a great collection for anyone who wants to understand how religion can be defined.
Buy it Here

10. A Short History of Modern Philosophy 

By Roger Scruton
Subject: Philosophy
Recommended Audience: Amateur philosophers looking for a concise yet in-depth overview of modern philosophy
Difficulty: Intermediate (some basic prior knowledge of historical trends in philosophy is recommended)
Price: $23

Granted, this book is not a theological work, but every science, both natural and supernatural, is dependent on philosophical interpretations. Logical positivism, New Atheism, self-esteem movements, and gender theory all have their roots in modern ways of understanding the world, and Scruton excellently summarizes the past few hundred years of philosophy from Ockham to Wittgenstein (though I was admittedly disappointed in his treatment of Heidegger).
Buy it Here

9. Introduction to Phenomenology

By Msgr. Robert Sokolowski
Subject: Philosophy
Recommended Audience: Seasoned philosophers looking to explore a complex school of thought
Difficulty: Expert (advanced knowledge of Thomism and Kantian Idealism is required, some Greek and German may help)
Price: $25

Phenomenology is an immensely important modern philosophical movement which found a Catholic purpose in Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. A still largely unexplored field, phenomenology studies the relation between the world we perceive and the world as it really is, and Msgr. Sokolowski (who generously provided me with a copy of his book) impressively fits it into the Catholic-Thomistic framework. Phenomenology changed the way I understand theology, and while it is a difficult subject to approach, it is one that any advanced theologian should become familiar with.
Buy it Here

8. The Early History of God: Yahweh and Other Deities in Ancient Israel

By Mark Smith
Subject: Biblical Theology
Recommended Audience: Seasoned Biblical Scholars looking for a premier guide on Ancient Israelite monotheism
Difficulty: Expert (Advanced knowledge of Historical-Critical methods is required, knowledge of ancient Semitic cultures is recommended, some Hebrew may help)
Price: $24

The Church recognizes that the Bible is not a historical textbook, though its compilation and redaction over centuries reveals snippets of how Israel developed both spiritually and temporally. Mark Smith, a master Biblical historian and linguist, explores Judaism’s origins as an offshoot of Canaanite culture which gradually adopted a more monotheistic understanding of God over time. This book is incredibly dense and difficult (some pages have more footnotes than content), and it focuses entirely on history, rather than theology. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in taking a deep-dive into early Israelite history.
Buy it Here

7. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus

By Fr. John Meier
Subject: Biblical Theology
Recommended Audience: Seasoned Biblical Scholars seeking to address objections to a historical Jesus
Difficulty: Intermediate (some knowledge of Historical-Critical methods is required, a basic understanding of the New Testament is recommended)
Price: $9

Historical Jesus studies are not usually associated with Catholicism, so Fr. John Meier’s status as a leading historian in the field makes his work invaluable to theologians. Volume one of his acclaimed series excellently addresses basic concerns about the existence of a historical Jesus, as well as the historicity of Gospel events. In a similar vain to Smith’s Early History of God, Meier avoids drawing theological conclusions from his findings, though he excellently refutes arguments that many scholars make against a historical Jesus as the Son of God.
Buy it Here

6. The Bible as it Was

By James Kugel
Subject: Biblical Theology
Recommended Audience: Bible enthusiasts of all skill ranges who are curious about mysteries and discrepancies in the Bible
Difficulty: Beginner (Basic knowledge of the events from Genesis to Deuteronomy is recommended)
Price: $27

James Kugel takes on the mountainous task of reconstructing how Ancient Israelites would have understood the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Bible. He consults apocryphal works that contain explanations, many of which are quite entertaining, for the Bible’s more mysterious or cryptic stories. A fun read for Bible enthusiasts of all backgrounds, if you enjoy theories of how Moses got his speech impediment (it involves the Pharaoh, an angel, and hot coals) or how Moses grew horns on Mount Sinai, then you will surely enjoy this book!
Buy it Here

5. The Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church: A History

By Joseph Kelly
Subject: Historical Theology
Recommended Audience: Church history enthusiasts and beginner Theologians who seek familiarity with each Church Council
Difficulty: Beginner (some knowledge of Systematic Theology would aid in reading but is not required)
Price: $22

Volumes have been written on every Ecumenical Council, so Joseph Kelly’s condensation of each of them into one accessible book is quite impressive. While Kelly might put a disproportionate focus on Vatican II, Vatican I, and Trent, their depth does not detract from the content of his other chapters. Kelly offers strikingly honest accounts of each council’s purposes and backgrounds, so any Catholic who wants a brief and unbiased history of each council should consider reading this.
Buy it Here

4. The Papal Primacy

By Fr. Klaus Schatz, SJ
Subject: Historical Theology
Recommended Audience: Papal history enthusiasts and those who question papal authority
Difficulty: Beginner (some knowledge of Western history would aid in reading but is not required)
Price: $21

Papal authority represents a doctrinal development that lasted nearly two millennia, and each page of Schatz’s incredibly concise summary drips with history and theology. For a dogma so complex, Schatz masterfully illustrates how the pursuit of unity and the protection of the Church’s theological integrity against secularism were the driving forces behind the expansion of papal power. Anyone who is curious about how Christ’s charge for St. Peter to be the rock of His Church developed into Vatican I’s declaration on Papal Infallibility should give this a read.
Buy it Here

3. The Soul’s Upward Yearning: Clues to our Transcendent Nature from Experience and Reason

By Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ
Subject: Religious Studies
Recommended Audience: Those who struggle with God’s existence and those who want to see God in nature
Difficulty: Intermediate (a willingness to learn interdisciplinary terms is required, an open mind to the transcendent’s influence in the physical world is required)
Price: $18

A hallmark of the Catholic Faith is our confidence in reason’s ability to inform us about God. Father Robert Spitzer, SJ, former host of Father Spitzer’s Universe, presents a diverse collection of empirical evidence that suggests a transcendent dimension beyond human experience. He cites shared cultural encounters with the supernatural, near death experiences, the relationship between deterministic animals and human consciousness, and new developments in quantum physics as hints of transcendent elements that operate in the universe. I highly recommend this book for those who are interested in evidence for God’s existence outside the religious context.
Buy it Here

2. Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church

By Fr. Francis Sullivan, SJ
Subject: Systematic Theology
Recommended Audience: Amateur and professional Theologians who want to learn about levels of doctrine and dogma
Difficulty: Beginner (a willingness to learn new theological terms is required, though no formal theological training is required)
Price: $28

This is THE quintessential work of systematic theology that I believe all theologians should read (it was recommended to me by the Dean of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America). Sullivan articulates a coherent epistemology that clarifies the purpose of doctrine and the Church’s relation to truth. It is accessible to beginners and refreshing for theological veterans, and I insist that one cannot consider themselves a theologian without having read this concise, yet informative, work.
Buy it Here

1. The Paulist Press Biblical Commentary

By Various Authors
Subject: Biblical Theology
Recommended Audience: Bible study enthusiasts, particularly those concerned with the history of the Bible (this is your Holy Grail!!!)
Difficulty: Beginner (a willingness to understand the Bible in new ways is required)
Price: $88

What might perhaps be the most impressive Biblical commentary ever assembled features contributions from different professors for each book of the Bible. It is over twice the size of a standard bible because of its incredible depth, and it provides the historical contexts, authorships, literary characteristics, and theological functions of each book. It is worth its weight in gold (and pounds; it is a heavy book), and I would pay double or even triple its current price for it.
Buy it Here

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