In the past few years, I have made a point to keep track of introductory books primarily because, from time to time, people ask about books to read. And with future prospects for teaching, I pay even more attention to introductory books — particularly on topics that seem to rather misunderstood, like political theology.
Now, I’ve noticed a few different trends in how to introduce a subject. One way is to do something like a reader. The famous Blackwell Companion to Political Theology edited by Peter Scott and William Cavanaugh follows this route and function at times like a reference volume. There are obvious perks to this method: each chapter is written by a specialist and highly informative concerning its focus — be it person, topic, or movement. However, at times, such an introduction sometimes seems to miss conveying that a conversation is at hand and how different schools of thought interact, build off each other, etc. Also, introductions like Blackwell’s are very long, and for some, can be difficult to read through period, much less feel like one has a grip on the scholarly conversation. Simply put, the point of an introduction is to get the big picture and encyclopedic introductions do not always meet this need.
Now, there is another way: something like an informed conversation-lecture. This kind of introduction is incredibly difficult to do well: one must balance space, intellectual depth, readability — all the while conveying accurately the complex and multiple conversations, concerns, and stories. Until recently, I had felt that the contemporary discussion in political theology lacked such a volume. That is until I ran into Michael Kirwan’s Political Theology: An Introduction released last year.
Kirwan has written an excellent book. I have considered going back through his book to outline it here and list those who are given a voice, so as to show you how much ground he really covers, but this has proved more difficult that it appears. Crucial to writing such an excellent book is interweaving a multiplicity of voices, and this he does so from page one. To do him justice in summary, I simply do not have the time — he has covered much ground — and nor do I think I could faithfully convey the tone of the book. The way he engages material reminded me of the better conversations I have with professors in their offices: I had the feeling that I was in Kirwan’s office listening to him explain the field. His engagement with material was as if he pulling books from his shelves, showed me his worn copy, and talked about what was inside, all the while gesturing to books he already mentioned now piled on his desk, or ones we would get to still on the shelves.
Any teacher looking to touch on political theology should include this book in their class. Anyone looking for a reading list -– who they should read next or at least be aware of — should read this book. And just as important, those looking for why to read someone included in the book should read this book as well. As Kirwan makes connections between thinkers, he invariably provides answers to “Why” questions: primarily “Why should I care about so-and-so when I am concerned with this other conversation?” So not only does this book simply broaden one’s horizons, but challenges the reader to stretch themselves in the future — to read someone who initially seemed beyond their interests. This everyone needs, no matter how old they are.
I do not believe that the Blackwell Companion removes the need for Kirwan’s book, and vice versa. These two books together would set the interested reader on a strong path. But people already know about Blackwell’s Companion. So the conclusion here? Go read Kirwan’s book. You will not be disappointed.
If I were Kirwan’s Jesuit superior, I would lock him in an office all day long and order him to write many more introductions like this. This, among many other reasons, is probably why I am not his Jesuit superior. The University of London is lucky to have him.