It's been a very busy past few weeks, including taking (and passing!) a doctoral general exam, moving, and starting the school year. The following list is the top 5 fun books that were on my history exam book list:
1. The Making of the Magdalen by Katherine Jansen. This is a great read, accessible for an educated audience, but a sophisticated piece of history that relies on popular sources (the sermon texts of Franciscans and Dominicans, primarily) from the late middle ages. Jansen uses the images of Mary Magdalen popular at the time as a lens into the issues and concerns of the Catholic at the time. Magdalen served as patron for mendicant preachers, prostitutes, penitents, and the royal house of Anjou among others.
2. The History of Black Catholics in the United States by Cyprian Davis. Like Jansen, Davis relies on a variety of primary and secondary sources, which allows for a complex telling of black Catholics in the United States. Davis also has a regional focus on the southeast, and linguistically includes Spanish-speaking blacks as well as English. Well-written and clear, Davis, a Benedictine, provides a rich picture of black Catholics in the United States, seeing them as spiritually connected to African Christianity.
3. The Refashioning of Catholicism, 1450-1700 by Robert Bireley. This book is a retelling of the historical time period conventionally (that is, in the Protestant meta-narrative) entitled the "Counter-Reformation." Bireley's later periodization encompasses various developments of the time (population growth, the missionary movement to America and beyond) and reads the Catholicism of this time period as in continuity with what came before it. Bireley, a Jesuit, describes the Jesuits, for example, as a development in response to the needs of the Church at the time (not necessarily just because of the Counter-Reformation), especially the needs of education and evangeliation.
4. Awash in a Sea of Faith by Jon Butler. This telling of U.S. religious history is unique in that Butler proposes a Christianization of the U.S., in opposition to the conventional narrative of Christianity's decline in the U.S. Butler takes Europe as his starting point and describes the growth of Christianity in the U.S. in relation to this European heritage. This certainly challenges the romanticization of early Christianity in the United States. And, like all of the above, it's also a fun read.
5. Byzantine Theology by John Meyendorff. For someone who has never studied the theology of the East, I found Meyendorff's account fascinating. It is clear and easy to read, with numerous comparisons to Western theology. Meyendorff does an excellent job providing a sort of intellectual history to the development of the important concepts of byzantine theology.
I'd recommend any of these books as casual/fun reads, even to those who are not theologians. Studying for this past exam has made me continually more sympathetic to the claim of Doktoropa that historical theology is the only kind of theology there is.