Liberation theology reading list: first pass

This is my first attempt at a reading list that meets two requirements: (1) it gives students whole books instead of scattered essays; and (2) it does not seem to me to be suicide-inducing in the context of one quarter. (How do suicides due to excessive reading loads factor into teaching evaluations, I wonder?) I wanted to hit at least Latin American, black, feminist, and Korean stuff, and I thought that a somewhat unconventional syllabus might work well with an intro-level undergrad course, where the point is to get them “into” your topic. Anyway:

Gutierrez, On Job
Sobrino, No Salvation Outside the Poor
Dussel, Twenty Theses on Politics
Cone, God of the Oppressed
West, Prophesy Deliverance!
Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk
Terrell, Power in the Blood?
Park, The Wounded Heart of God

The Gutierrez Job thing is admittedly a daring choice, but it has the benefit of giving me some actual scripture stuff. The Dussel might be a stretch in a lot of ways — I thought it would be helpful to have something really contemporary (that’s the rationale for the Sobrino I chose, too), but it may not be theological enough. Delores Williams would probably be a more obvious choice for womanist, but Sisters in the Wilderness is way too long and Joanne Terrell was one of my professors. Enough with anticipating the faults you’ll find in the list, though — and on to suggestions! Which should endeavor not to produce a significant net gain in pagecount!

67 thoughts on “Liberation theology reading list: first pass

  1. Will you require students to read the entire books? Not that they don’t all sound very interesting – but that’s a lot of reading at ~1600 pages for an undergrad intro class.

  2. “(How do suicides due to excessive reading loads factor into teaching evaluations, I wonder?)”

    It removes some of your bad reviews, pushing the average up.

  3. For what it is worth, I think On Job is one of the best works of theological method written in the twentieth-century. I think it is an excellent choice. Will you begin the course with this text?

  4. Colin, It is a lot — but actually if you leave out notes, etc., I’m looking at around 1400.

    Michael, They might work better. I shied away from Ethics and Community because it seemed too expensive, but maybe it’s a better choice.

    Nate, Yes, I would plan to start the class with it.

  5. You know I wasn’t even allowed to assign 50 pages of reading a week to a final year class. I don’t often say this online, but, Jesus Christ, do I miss American universities. While English humanists seem to have conceded that their areas aren’t worth the time it takes to do the degree, Americans demand our own kind of rigour.

    For what it is worth Karen Kilby, who teaches Liberation Theology here at Nottingham, assigns On Job for the course.

  6. Two suggestions:

    1) Maria Pilar Aquino, Our Cry for Life (perhaps a substitute for Dussell, even though it adds 40pp)
    2) Something by Dorothee Soelle, possibly in place of Ruether

    One question: Honestly, do you think anyone will actually read whole books in an intro class?

  7. Speaking for my own philosophy of education I think assigning whole books is important and even assigning too many of them. Of course as an instructor you know that the majority of the students are not going to read all of them, but most of them can learn to skim the majority of the books to get an understanding of them and the best and brightest in the class will be me more likely to read and benefit from all the books. Even just the act of getting kids to own books as educated human beings seems good to me.

  8. I never expect my first year students to read. A few will. Those who don’t likely won’t make it to third year anyway. I’ll usually assign about two chapters per week for them. In upper year classes, three to four chapters/articles or a book is not unreasonable. Cost is the major problem. Exegesis and textual analysis demands far less. No point in assigning Leviathan or the Second Treatise if you are only going to make it through ten pages.

    The other approach is to assign one article/chapter as required and provide two to four recommended articles. The interested students will read the extra, the rest will at least have a baseline to follow along.

    Rules, however, should be established: if you haven’t read, then you aren’t allowed to speak, especially when the lecture is close to the text. Even clarifying questions. If you are going to take this approach, I recommend kicking out the non-readers after a poll during the first few classes: if you aren’t going to do the reading, don’t waste my–or your–time.

    I had my highest evaluations ever (around 4.7/5 or some such nonsense) taking variation of this approach the previous two semesters.

  9. Background: I’m teaching at what is by all accounts a pretty high-powered liberal arts school next year, and the syllabi I’ve seen from other profs indicate that this amount of reading isn’t outside the norm.

    jb: I love Soelle, but I’m not sure what I’d assign. Christ the Representative would be my preference, but it’s out of print. What would you recommend specifically?

  10. You may want to also consider some sort of liberation theology related to people with disabilities — Nancy Eiesland’s “The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability” comes to mind.

    Also, Boff & Boff have a handy primer on liberation theology — handy in that it is quite short and more likely to be read by intro-level undergrads.

  11. I don’t know enough about all these books (I’ve not even read half of them, sadly), or the subject material to talk about most of this. However, on the broader questions:

    (1) Books that are too expensive I usually provide online. That’s an issue if you want to encourage students to own books, and also an issue because in some ways it will decrease the random readers. But I couldn’t in good conscience make my students buy particularly expensive books. Especially this last year, when the university was squeezing every student for every dime they could.

    (2) Reading works in toto seems particularly important to me. My students always wanted more excerpts, but I’ve always been resistant. Essays are fine, but I’ve never been able to figure out what part of works aren’t important.

    (3) A part of that had to do, no doubt, with my going to a small liberal arts that seriously expected whole work reading. Also, this seems on the high end of page amounts for an intro course, but wouldn’t have been unheard of in my undergrad.

    (4) I learned as an undergrad by professors just assigning me absurd books for an undergrad to read. I took a course my second semester of college where a professor assigned Bataille’s The Accursed Share, several lectures from Lacan’s Ecrites (the older english translation), and D&G’s Anti-Oedipus. Admittedly, it wasn’t an intro course, but I am sure it made me become a philosopher. What this absurd self-indulgent point is for is never be afraid to assign your students what you think is the best book for the concept of the course. Except the students to live up to that ideal and several always will.

  12. Adam,
    The Boff/Boff book is great primer on liberation theology as a whole, and quite an easy/quick read. Could be something useful to assign at the outset.

    And one more thing that may useful is Mario Aguliar’s ‘The History and Politics of Latin American Theology’. He has a few volumes now, but for certain figures it could be useful to photocopy sections to use as readings.

  13. Adam,

    Out of curiosity why are you assigning Gutierrez’s On Job over his Theology of Liberation? I haven’t read the latter, but I’ve heard it’s the best text on liberation theology. Perhaps, I read On Job too soon after reading Jung’s obscure critique, but I was frustrated that Gutierrez never bothered to analyze the implications the story of Job has on our understanding of God. In my opinion, Gutierrez bypassed all the difficult questions about God’s justice, mercy, and power. While I understand his primary focus was an analysis of those who suffer, it just seemed incomplete.

    Also for the record I found the Boff/Boff book a tad lacking as a primer.

  14. Brad:

    I haven’t read Against the Day. Could you give me a brief rationale for how it works in a class like this?

  15. A creative, and fine, list, though the Dussel text seems unnecessary. I think Moltmann, or Schillebeeckx, or, hell, Herbert McCabe would be a fun, and curiously diverse, substitute. Perhaps some supplementary readings from contemporary critics (William Cavanaugh, Daniel Bell, J. Kameron Carter) would be helpful in situating liberation theologies today, but I guess this really is only a first year class.

    Regardless, as it stands, I would’ve been happy to have those books as a first year student.

  16. Substituting Schillebeeckx would be crazy the more I think about it. Though, Herbert McCabe is a hell of a lot of fun to read, and fitting.

  17. Nathan:

    Yes, McCabe is great. But what would you read? I can’t imagine a text of his that would be appropriate as a substitute for any of the texts above in a introductory liberation theology course. But there may be something out there I’m not aware of.

  18. As I undergrad, that looks like it’s a good bit of reading, but it’s doable if you are actually committing to working hard for the class. Two years ago, in my sophomore year, I had a Political Theory class with a similar amount of reading (probably a little less), and while the course was tons of work, I gained a lot out of it.

    From an undergrad, for whatever it’s worth, that looks like a fun course to be a part of. I greatly prefer reading entire books to short snippets. This fall, my philosophy professor is teaching a course that hasn’t been taught in a long time at my school, and we’re actually using 5-6 entire books. In all other classes I’ve had him for, we’ve used anthologies/handouts.

  19. In other news, the fact that this thread got so many responses so quickly reassures me that I wasn’t the only one who thought, “Oh good, a holiday weekend — that’ll really give me time to think about academic matters.”

  20. McCabe did some good anti-capitalist work and is obviously a brilliant writer, but he isn’t a liberation theologian as such. For a liberation theology course, assigning him seems out of place.

    If you are really going it, you could assign Joesph Ratzinger’s condemnations and ask your students to respond. My undergrad friend here wrote a brilliant essay along these lines.

  21. I think assigning Bell for this class would be a courageous choice, particularly if you want to give them another side of the issue. As for Romero’s tears, his Voice of the Voiceless is a lot more ambiguous than a Boff or a Sobrino. He’s a lot more nuanced and less ideological than most LT, if you can call Romero LT (which I wouldn’t).

  22. Myles, you might be interested to read Ivan Petrella’s critique of Bell and other RadOx-Hauerwasian critiques of Liberation Theology. That said, I’m not sure an intro class should be introduce these debates. You have to know the field before you can really start looking at the critiques intelligently, though certainly including a “further reading” section on a syllabus pointing interested students towards them isn’t out of the question. I would make that an annotated list though as I’m not of the opinion education needs to be more like American media and there obsessive and destructive desire to be “neutral”.

  23. Myles, You have a perverse idea of what courage looks like.

    Alex, I have actually been kicking around the idea of an assignment like you suggest with Ratzinger’s condemnation.

  24. Kotsko: ‘Courageous’ might be a bit strong for introducing Bell, but I think it might be an intriguing end-piece for the course, after you’ve introduced the issues surrounding LT and some of its better expositors.

    Anthony: I’ll check out Patrella. And I think once the ground has been set for the debates, it’s not a bad idea to introduce some contested aspects of the debate, i.e. Ratzinger or Bell. Yes, you first must set the terms of the debate, but after that, I say open up the conversation, with the prof guiding the class back to the terms whenever the conversation gets too off-course.

  25. I’m most happy about past book purchases for classes when they’ve included reading lists such as this. The professor most likely to assign a reading list such as this, however, seemed to befuddle even the other undergraduates with me whom I considered really really smart (but they kept taking his classes with me!). I haven’t come across a good radox-hauerwasian response to lib theo yet (and the responses to Moltmann are mind boggling atrocious – do recommend at least a significant chunk of lecture or a photocopy of the first chapter of Theology of Hope), but I think having some conflictual element (like the Ratzinger assigment) is a terrific way to learn. As for setting up the course in a helpful way, I found in the into to philosophy course I taught at Liberty that historicizing in lectures and order of course readings allowed me to get away with shoving a ton of primary readings their way without very much complaint. And I actually made them read the material at least three hours every week in order to pass the class. They hated the idea and actually ended up quite thankful. Primary readings are primary reading for a reason. They’re generally so much more well written than secondary stuff.

  26. Myles,
    The Romero comment was kind of a joke, hence, the tears from heaven part. Also, no idea how Bell’s voice is the ‘other side of the issue’. The way in which he frames his work places him outside any ‘side’ in the tradition of liberation theology. If anything, it’s a far too disconected intervention from outside.

  27. Michael: thanks for the clarification. But I think Romero gets read this way uncritically. Sure, he’s interacting with CELAM and the encyclicals like others in Latin America, but he makes more room for the Vatican having something normative to say on the issue even if they’re not part of the immediate circumstances of El Salvador. Just my 2 cents.

    Kotsko: Fair enough on Ratzinger vs. Bell. If given the choice between the two for the course, I’d pick Ratzinger as the interlocutor, though one could make the same argument against Ratzinger–that he’s an outsider to the tradition of LT, etc.

  28. I’d also say that Ratzinger is connected to the Liberation Theologians much more directly than Bell, given his position in the power structure of the ecclesiastical bureaucracy with which they were affiliated, which educated them, etc. Bell is just “some guy” by comparison. “Okay, class, now we’re going to hear from some guy who says that liberation theology would’ve been a lot better if it were more orthodox or something.” Not a great use of my time when I can be saying, “Okay, class, now here’s the current pope attempting to bitch-slap these people because they were viewed as a threat.”

  29. In the choice between Ratzinger vs. Bell, I think Ratzinger is a clear winner.

    Though, I have a different but related question, how do you teach people you fundamentally disagree with? I guess, how do you teach those people, stay honest to the level of critical analysis you want to bear down for your students, while at the same time practice the level of generous reading that I, at least, always try to practice with any author I am teaching? I guess my question is really how do you teach someone like Ratzinger without just using him as a foil? And is it fair to your students or to the text to do that?

    I really just ask because of frequent problems I have whenever I do that with pro-flesh eaters in my The Animal and the Ethical.

  30. The problem I have with Radox is not that I disagree, but that I think they consistently put forth dishonest arguments. I would be doing my students a disservice by assigning it, insofar as requiring them to read something encourages them to take it seriously.

  31. I haven’t read the Ratzinger document in a long time, so I can’t remember if it’s as bad — but I imagine that my students will be sufficiently skeptical of the pope going in.

  32. Re: McCabe. I am too liberally defining “liberation theologies.” Scratch McCabe, and replace him with Metz or Soelle or something.

    Re: Bell. It was just a suggestion as a supplement. It wasn’t an attempt to give legitimacy to Bell or radical orthodoxy over liberation theologies. I’m much more partial to the latter.

    With that said, statements by Ratzinger or Reagan would be far more interesting supplements than anything out of Duke Divinity School.

  33. I’m almost positive there was reference to Reagan’s statements in Robert M. Brown’s intro. to liberation theology. I know for a fact there is reference to Reagan’s statements in Phillip Berryman’s Liberation Theology. Enrique Dussel points to it as well in his essay “Theology of Liberation and Marxism” in the Mysterium Liberationis volume.

    This is the Reagan (administration) text itself:

  34. Oh, I wouldn’t assign him either, in this class. I would be interested in what you think sets off Cavanaugh’s work from Bell’s here, though.

  35. Nathan:

    I’d still be interested in hearing which McCabe works you think would be most relevant to this discussion.

  36. Adam,

    You could maybe (this is probably corny) setup a kind of debate in class about whether or not Ratzinger is right – ie setup his charges against liberation theology, then have people respond to them from a liberationist perspective. A good starter would be ‘did the liberationists call for violent revolution?’.

  37. Here’s what I’m thinking for assignments:

    1. A paper on Ratzinger (or Reagan, really need to track that document down) asking them to assess the critique, etc.

    2. A paper on either Ruether and the Latin Americans or Terrell and the African-Americans, asking what they owe to their respective predecessors and the ways they try to push them further.

    3. Reading summaries every day (twice a week, over about 50-75 pages) — including salient quotes, a response, and questions for discussion.

  38. I think the assignments sound good; the crossover between the Latin Americans and Reuther is a nice exercise. The question on the Ratzinger assignment: will the class cover Catholic social teaching as well? It seems like Ratzinger’s critiques won’t make sense unless they know something about distributive justice, etc etc.

  39. Ratzinger’s critique mentions distributive justice? I just reread it last night, and it seems like he talks a lot about how Marxism is an atheistic system and you can’t dip in and take little bits without being obliged to take the atheism, etc., etc. As for Catholic social teaching, the liberation theologians themselves discuss it in sufficient detail, I’d think.

  40. I think that a reading of the encyclical issued after the condemnation, whose name escapes me, might be interesting and provide another question. Theory is from scholars of CST that Ratzinger was forced to be a lot more hardcore about his claims there by liberation theology in an attempt to absorb its teachings and nullify it. For example, that the proper ends of a business must always be the welfare of the workers, regardless of profit.

  41. re: distributive justice. Just threw that out as an example of how ‘justice’ in the social teaching tradition colors how they’re going to read the whole question of ‘justice’ in the LT movement. Unless you know where Ratzinger’s coming from in that vein, it won’t make sense. Also, maybe looking at some of the other encyclicals on Marxism from around 1900 on might be helpful (if not for class reading, then by way of introducing the Ratzinger piece to show that this isn’t a one-off from the Pope, but a decades old argument between Marxists and Catholics).

  42. I’ve got not stake in whether the Vatican was right or not in its critique of LT. But I think there is some value in giving some of the backdrop of Catholicism and Marxism so that the whole conversation has more texture, and so that Ratzinger doesn’t come off looking like a total neocon unnecessarily. I just think it would do your students a service if nothing else.

  43. Just thought of this. The thing that often seems to help white people with a church background to get liberation theology is stuff on principalities and powers. I’d have to look again, but I think Yoder’s chapter on this is relatively self contained from the Politics of Jesus. If assigning a whole book, of course, Wink’s stuff is most popular. Have never read through the literature enough to come up with what I think would be the best for an intro to lib theo class.

  44. Wink’s stuff is awful. Just terrible. Yoder addresses powers all over the place, but the most discrete place is in Politics, but it’s not much better than Wink.

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