Monday, June 25, 2012

How to Write a Theology Book #1: Getting Started

Here's how to write a theology book.  Or rather, here's what has gone into the writing of a book under contract that I've been developing for the last three years and is soon in the publisher's hands.  I'll get to the book in a few posts but I want to lay down some maxims that summarize my experience.  I'm writing this to share the process but also to reflect on it for myself.

MAXIM #1:  To write theology, you read theology.

Just as any painter has studied other paintings and a musician listened to other music, to write theology, you've got to read it.

I don't know where I'd be without reading theology.  I would lack a handle on things, I wouldn't know my way around, I wouldn't have a sense that I don't have to reinvent the hypostatic union.  I might disagree with multitudes of my predecessors and peers but I am part of this community and hold each of them in esteem.

I've developed several habits to stay on top of what's going on in theology.  I don't really keep up with the trends since I'm usually trying to read backwards into the past, especially into the stuff that's not part of my years in graduate school and seminary.  For instance, I've been re-reading and reading a lot of Karl Rahner lately.  And Peter Brunner.

By consensus, a bibliography is an exacting account of books referred to by the author in the book.  A writer does not "pad" bibliography.  My bibliography is currently at about 150 items.  If I included all the books that I read to get to this point, the bibliography would exceed my research library.

I think I can generally tell if a book is written largely in terms of a particular school by its range of reference.  There are certain neighborhoods of theology, if you will, to which individual works belong.   Books get better, I think, the more wide-ranging they are.  This is why the most recent great works of systematic theology, such as those by Wolfhart Pannenberg or Robert W. Jenson are so great.  Though they have their scholastic limitations as well.

MAXIM #2:  Learn and use languages.  Especially German and French.

A theologian is a careful reader.  And careful readers need to tend to the books and things they read as thoroughly as possible.  The humanities scholar calls it "establishing the text."  For me, since I don't work in archival manuscripts (though I did for my dissertation) I don't muck around with some of the hard-core academic work anymore.  Not every non-English writer needs to be read in the original but Martin Heidegger does.  And certainly a word-smith like Jacques Derrida does.  Jean-Luc Marion sort of does.  And so on.

Next:

MAXIM #3:  Have a problem.

MAXIM #4:  Convince others that they should have that problem, too.