In the spirit of the centennial, we’ve compiled the ultimate reading list: Instead of asking faculty members what they’re currently reading, we challenged them to nominate titles to a list of the top 100 books from the past century. Some chose to stick with theology and some drifted far afield, but all chose books that were meaningful—either to them personally, to the academy, or to all.

The Theology of the New Testament

Rudolf Bultmann’s The Theology of the New Testament received nods from Steven J. Kraftchick, professor in the practice of New Testament interpretation, and Luke Timothy Johnson, R.W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins. Johnson said the book’s importance in the field of New Testament studies would be “difficult to overestimate,” while Kraftchick claimed the work “defined the question of how the New Testament’s fundamental conceptions of human beings before God could be understood in the modern age.”

Why We Can't Wait

Robert M. Franklin, Jr., James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor in Moral Leadership, added Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr. “The essence of King’s many brilliant sermons and numerous published books are all found here, crisply and digestibly rendered,” he said of the 1963 essay, which is found in King’s 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait. “It is a modern classic that reminds me that pastors and theologians should think and speak and act on the large issues of life and avoid the distractions of cultural and ecclesial shallowness.”

E.L. Sukenik

Drawing on her personal experience with the Dead Sea Scrolls, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Old Testament Carol Newsom chose E.L. Sukenik’s The Dead Sea Scrolls of the Hebrew University, published in 1955. “The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls transformed our understanding of the religious and cultural context from which early Christianity and early Judaism emerged,” she said. “Sukenik was the scholar who purchased the first scrolls from the Bedouin, and the photographs, transcriptions, and notes that he published remain crucial to scholarship on the Scrolls.”

The Plague

Ellen Ott Marshall, associate professor of Christian ethics and conflict transformation, cast her vote for The Plague, by Albert Camus. In the 1947 novel, the protagonist finds that there are more things to admire than to despise in people based on their actions during an epidemic. “I treasure this novel because it so perfectly captures the truth that ‘joy is always imperiled’ and stubbornly insists on hope, love, friendship, and the human responsibility ‘not to join forces with pestilences,’” she said.

The Epistle to the Romans

Ian A. McFarland, associate dean of faculty and academic affairs and Bishop Mack B. and Rose Y. Stokes Professor of Theology, said that “within theology, Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans would have to make the list,” a point seconded by Luke Timothy Johnson. According to McFarland, “It would be difficult to argue that any book of theology has had more impact on the way that the discipline is done,” while Johnson called Barth “unquestionably the most influential theologian of the twentieth century.”

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Associate Professor in the Practice of Practical Theology David Jenkins suggested Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. Published in Brazil in 1968, the book is about Freire’s experience implementing literacy programs in rural Brazil. “Though the writing is a bit dull, this book has transformed many disciplines, including education, community and international development, and leadership,” said Jenkins. “No longer do experts impose agendas or methods on marginalized communities, but rather, those with expertise become collaborators to provoke transformation.”

The Great Divorce

Brent Strawn, professor of Old Testament, singled out The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, a childhood favorite that he tries to reread each year. The book describes a bus trip from hell to heaven, casting insight on the problems of human nature and sin along the way. Surprisingly—or perhaps not—one traveler was a bishop in his earthly life. How did he descend so low? He fell more in love with his telling of God than with God, eventually becoming interested only in his own reputation. “I worry that I have observed this myself, in real life; I worry that I have observed this in myself, in real life!” admits Strawn. “So I am at pains that it doesn’t take root in me or my students. The Great Divorce motivates me to that end."

The Living

Annie Dillard’s 1992 novel The Living got Associate Professor of New Testament Susan Hylen’s vote. “This novel first caught my attention because it brings to life the early settlement of the Pacific Northwest, my native land,” Hylen said. “Dillard creates a vivid world infused with the beautiful and often stark realities of human and natural life. Watching over her shoulder as she puts each living creature under a microscope, the reader enters a contemplative mode that few of us remember how to achieve in this digital age.”


Assistant Professor of Religion and Human Difference Nichole Phillips could not contain herself to one: She provided a long list of books that have influenced her, including these masterworks of African American literature: Beloved by Toni Morrison, Black Boy by Richard Wright, Invisible Man by Ralph Waldo Ellison, The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, and The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, among many others.

Always and Forever

Steve Tipton

Some were daunted by the task of choosing just one book for this list. Others were stumped by the 100-year time limit. Not Steve Tipton. He raised the ante and suggested one book as his top choice of all time.

The top books of the past 100 years? How about an all-time pick? Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution (2011) shows how religious truth is incarnated in cultural, social, personal, and bodily forms that unfold in history, and cannot be grasped outside it. 

Religion in Human EvolutionSince religion reveals the gospel truth and enacts the sacred rites of all human cultures, Bellah argues, the whole of the history of religion is our own. We remain deeply embedded in it, from tribal peoples to the present. This includes the early modern Protestant patterning of American modernity, grounded in the covenant of our constitution and the sacred souls of our sovereign selves. It holds true even when we think of religion in peculiarly modern Western terms, as primarily private beliefs held by individuals in voluntary associations made up of like-minded believers. Religion is a dimension of the whole of life and its grounding.

"Nothing is ever lost" in the whole of religious evolution, Bellah finds, as he traces its expression in human consciousness through the stages of our development. By asking what our deep past can tell us about the kind of life human beings have imagined was worth living, Bellah illuminates the implicit religious worldviews we hold and contest in the modern world. He points toward the critical reappropriation of their underlying dimensions in an ongoing dialogue with our theoretical understanding to find common ground on questions such as the future of the environment, the justice of the economy, and the possibilities for peace in the world we share.

— Steven M. Tipton, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Sociology of Religion