The Most Embarrassing Book Meme (a guest post from Russ McCutcheon)

[The indispensable Russell T. McCutcheon has sent us his own version of the Embarrassing Book Meme. It’s a long one — brace yourself. Russ’s text and photos follow, verbatim. — Ed.]

When I got Craig Martin’s invitation to contribute to “The Most Embarrassing Books Meme,” I felt somewhat like the characters of David’s Lodge’s wonderful novel, Changing Places, who are invited to play the party game, Humiliation, in which English professors must admit to the novels they’ve never read. Because admitting to the books on my shelves that I’ve never read would exceed the number of .jpgs that Craig would likely be willing to resize and post, I decided to come up with a few other criteria for humiliation.

#1 Abducted

Consider me coming across Susan Clancy’s fun little Abducted—a book that takes alien abduction narratives seriously as data and tries to explain why people would even tell such stories. I now recall thinking this might be a nice model for scholarship on so-called religious experiences—scholarship that, for the most part, fails to try to theorize these claims. The embarrassing part is that, until I flipped through the book and found some of my own notes in the margins, I had no recollection of ever reading it, let alone buying it.

Abducted, by Clancy

#2 Authentic Spirituality

Like a lot of books on my shelves (such as all those world religions textbooks I almost photographed), Barry Callen’s Authentic Spirituality: Moving Beyond Mere Religion, is there as data. What’s sad is that the argument of this spiritual self-help book pretty much sums up where much so-called serious scholarship on religion is at: “religion” names an external, social thing and should not be confused with the timeless inner motivation, which goes by such names as meaning, faith, belief, spirituality, what have you. Wilfred Cantwell Smith has not yet left our building (and yes, a few of his have a home on my shelves).

#3 The Idea of the Holy

Yes, this classic is on my shelves, much as ethnographies line the shelves of anthropologists. But the embarrassing part is that this is just one of two copies that I have (I used to have a third!). My logic? I use this paperback edition in my classes so that I can keep the second edition hard copy in good shape.  They tell me that it’s worth more in the wrapper, so that the ideas haven’t lost any of their potency.

#4 The Sociology of Philosophies

Bought this as part of a graduate student reading group I organized when I worked in Springfield, Missouri; cool idea: explain systems of thought as sociological products. But selecting a book that’s over 1,000 dense pages to discuss over beer and food weekly?—bad idea. Very bad idea.

#5 Evil and the God of Love

Yes, I once thought that the problem of evil was where the action was; likely, it was thinking seriously about this issue that helped me begin to see that studying why people talked about evil was far more interesting than talking about evil. So I guess I have this liberal British theologian to thank for helping to start my disenchantment. Only if you know this story is it ok for you to see this book still on my shelf.

#6 Process and Reality

Yes, from John Hick I made the (embarrassingly predictable) move to Alfred North Whitehead. I read pretty much everything Whitehead wrote, apart from the Principia. He once proudly remarked how he sold his entire theology library out of disillusionment; when I realized that terms of his like “actual occasion” weren’t anything more than just words I too sold some books: a fairly large collection of process philosophy and theology books (including Barthes’ complete Church Dogmatics)—keeping only a biography of Whitehead and this one book of his, which forever remind me of the nice mountain bike that I bought for my wife with what I earned off that sale.

#7 Thesis

Mix one part Hick with equal parts Whitehead and disillusionment from a Master of Divinity degree I did not enjoy and what do you get? My Master of Theology thesis. It was the culmination of what proved to be a bit of an intellectual dead end.

#8 Tempting Texas Treasure

Yes, I have romance novels scattered throughout my office book shelves. Who knows how many. Two students, some years ago, snuck in and shelved them. I discover them every now and then—properly shelved by author’s surname, mind you.

#9 What a Young Wife Ought to Know

Picked up this little gem from the turn of the century, and the matching volume for young husbands, in Salt Lake City, in a used bookstore, while attending the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Dr. Drake’s eyes follow me wherever I go in the office. You need a good sense of irony to appreciate this volume on the office shelf.


And last but not least by any measure, are the various foreign language volumes that other scholars have so kindly given to me over the years—volumes that sometimes contain my own meanings, I’m told, but in translation. Given that I don’t read Japanese or Bulgarian or modern Greek, I take their word for it. That the gift givers all speak my language as well as their own (and in some cases several others too) is somewhat embarrassing but mostly humbling.

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