Desert Island Theology : Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Recently, I returned to a book that I had not read in its entirety in a bit over forty years. I considered this to be odd as through that same period of forty years I had bought literally dozens of copies to give to others. The book is ‘A Grief Observed’ by C. S. Lewis. Many of you may know this book. It consists of a journal kept by Lewis after the death of his wife, Joy, from cancer. The journal documents Lewis coming to terms with her death and the question of every grieving survivor, “Why did God let this happen?”. The particular copy that I was reading has a Foreword by my old friend, Madeleine l’Engle, which is superb, especially as she reflects on the death of her husband.
I had first read the book in 1980. Later that year, my wife and I were in London, during which time we stayed with her great-Aunt, Janet. “Aunt Danny”, as she was known in the family, had known Lewis and Tolkien and the other writers in that circle. She had also known Joy. In fact, she told us that the common joke in Oxford was about whether Lewis’ book, ‘Surprised by Joy’ was about his faith or about meeting his wife! She had witnessed Lewis’ despair after her prolonged illness and death. When ‘A Grief Observed’ appeared in 1961 (originally published under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk to shield Lewis’ identity) she told us it was published owing to the urging of T.S Eliot who found the book not only moving, but possibly a Christian classic.
As I reread the book, I was reminded of those late night conversations some four decades ago, and I began to think about what makes a particular Christian offering a “Christian classic”. It seems to me that it must be something that one can return to frequently and, at each return, gain new insights. As I began to turn this over in my mind, I started an exercise that I’m calling ‘Desert Island Theology’, loosely based upon the old program ‘Desert Island Discs’ in which you had to choose ten albums you would take to a desert island. For Desert Island Theology, it is ten books that are theological or devotional in their orientation. I have, however, allowed an additional allowance for a Bible and, if you are in a particular tradition, a prayer book.
In assembling my own list, certain things were quickly apparent. For instance, I had to have certain books that while theological, pertained to the more academic side of the matter. This is simply part of who I am. Additionally, biography and autobiography take up almost a third of the list. It might be because I strongly believe that God shows himself in the entirety of a person’s life as well as in particular moments of that life. I also noticed the absence of what one might consider “modern theology”, although I would make the argument that Augustine, Bonhoeffer and Merton are strikingly contemporary! That being said, while I read a good bit of modern theological reflections, for the most part they fail, at least in me, to engender passion.
Your list will obviously be different, as it should be. If, however, you undertake the exercise, you may be surprised at what it says about you.