I recently did an interview for spring issue of the North Carolina Writers’ Network’s newsletter The Writers’ Network News (Spring, 2021). If you are interested in learning more about their organization, this is their website: www.ncwriters.org.
Some of the questions in the interview were about my most recent book Heaven and Hell, others were on my approach to writing. Eight questions overall, with brief answers. The issue was published just yesterday, so I have permission now to post it here as well on the blog.
Many thanks to Charles Fiore from the NCWN, who set up and conducted the interview.
Q&A for NCWN Writers
- Literary portrayals of the afterlife are full of spectacle. For example, who can forget the circles in Dante’s “Inferno”? (“Purgatorio” was unnerving enough…) Are we somehow drawn to terrible spectacle, even though we also fear it?
The first chapter of my book Heaven and Hell deals with early Christian tours of the afterlife. These are the earliest forerunners of Dante, and he was familiar with one of them. Unlike the Divine Comedy, some of these are ancient Near Death Experiences. They are absolutely terrific accounts and were historically significant back in the day: one of them, The Apocalypse of Peter, almost made it into the New Testament.
These books are indeed “spectacular” accounts. But one of the most interesting things about them – just about all of them – is that their descriptions of heaven tend to be rather banal and uninteresting. Once an author has mentioned the pleasant surroundings, sights, and smells, and indicated that it is a pleasant and joyful world without end, there is evidently not much more to say about it. The saints are blessed and happy forever. Good for them. But it’s not exactly a page-turner.
The descriptions of hell, on the other hand, are detailed, graphic, and creative. This is where the authors’ imaginative juices start to flow. Just think of all the cruel torments you can invent. That is where the real spectacle happens, with fierce demons, insatiable worms, rivers of fire, hot pokers, racks, frozen landscapes, and suffering that goes on forever despite the pathetic pleas of the tormented.
Hell is the main attraction for the reader of these texts. The same is true of Dante, of course. Most casual readers head straight for the Inferno; the Purgatorio is (for them) an afterthought and the Paradiso is out of sight, out of mind. But the early Christians were drawn to the portraits of hell for an additional, more practical reason. They wanted to describe afterlife realities to those outside the church, and these narratives were, in part, meant to scare the hell into them.
- You describe Aristophanes’ humorous play, The Frogs, as having a “very serious undertone.” The same can be said for your book, Heaven and Hell. Despite the incredible depth of your research, your writing style is very accessible and often funny. Do you have an ideal reader in mind when writing your books?
Like a lot of people, I usually get bored with relentlessly serious non-fiction – even if it’s an inherently interesting topic. And so, I always appreciate some flashes of wit and humor, both to break the monotony and to help me see the author’s intelligence. The world is a serious enough place on its own terms; as a rule, we need to lighten up a bit.
My ideal reader is interested in thoughtfully exploring big issues rather than settling for mindless entertainment; open to deepening their understanding; willing to change their minds after seeing the evidence; appreciative of expertise; and not afraid to see the light side even of dark topics.
- Some of the information in your book may come as a surprise to—or even offend—some readers. How important is tone? Is the tone of Heaven and Hell a deliberate choice to soften the blow of its more controversial reveals?
A lot authors who write about religion are exceedingly pious and intent on comforting readers even if it means stretching the truth; others are antagonistic to all things religious. I myself believe in telling the truth as it has emerged from serious scholarship. On the other hand, I see no reason to beat readers over the head with a sledgehammer.
- If you had to spend eternity in a version of the afterlife, which would you choose?
I think this is one of the things the TV hit The Good Place got right: no matter how unbelievably amazing eternal bliss may be, eventually – say, in a trillion years or so — it surely must become incredibly boring and, so, its own kind of hell. If there is an afterlife, that’s the first thing the designers will have to work out.
- Your word combinations are epic-worthy. Do you spend a lot of time selecting the perfect adverbs and adjectives?
Thanks. One of my problems as a writer is that I love modifiers. The elusive trick is to skillfully use them without continually lapsing into way too many excessive hyperbolisms.
- As much as possible in a work of nonfiction like Heaven and Hell, you end each chapter with a kind of cliffhanger, or at least introduce a new intellectual conflict that needs resolution. How deliberate is your attention to transitions?
I constantly tell my students to pay attention to the transitions in their papers; they are essential to help readers see where the discussion has come from and where it is going. And hey, without transitions, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
7. Which comes first for you, the research or the idea?
The idea! I’ve never started a book without knowing pretty well what I want to say. That always changes in the course of my research and teaching. But without a clear idea of what I want to do and why it is interesting, I would have no direction or end goal for my research. For books I write for a general audience, I pick a topic I’m really interested in and that I’m pretty sure other people will be too. Sometimes that means writing the book to show why it is interesting; that was the case, for example, with my book Misquoting Jesus. Who knew that anyone would be interested in seeing how scribes changed their Greek manuscripts? Other times it means writing a book that everyone is interested in – say, “what happens to me when I die” – but to present a thesis that they will find a surprising. Thus my book Heaven and Hell.
But once the idea is in my head, it then takes years of research, even if I’ve read and thought about the topic already for years. For me, the idea is almost always relatively easy to come up with, and the research incredibly hard. The writing is the most stressful part. That’s one reason I write fast. Get it over with.
- In Heaven and Hell, you give equal weight to sources such as the Gospel of John; 1 Enoch; the Letter to Rheginus; and Plato’s Republic. That is, you seem to weigh canon and non-canonical, and even secular, works equally. Asking for a friend: is this ok?
More than OK! My book is not meant to be simply a survey of what the Bible says about the afterlife, or about the traditional views of Jews and Christians. Instead, I chose to deal with a question that struck me as even more interesting. In our country, today, roughly seven out of ten people believe in a literal heaven, about six in ten in a literal hell. That is, when you die your soul goes above for eternal reward or below for eternal punishment. It is generally assumed that this is the view taught in the Bible. The thesis of my book is that in fact it is found nowhere in the Old Testament and is not at all what the historical Jesus preached. So where did the idea come from?
Most will find the thesis itself surprising, and so I go to some lengths to show it. For that reason, much of the book is indeed on the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus and his earliest followers. But I deal with lots of other ancient sources and includes as well, especially views of ancient Greeks and Romans, because these were highly influential on later Christian thinking.
I should stress I am not saying that the views about the afterlife that so many people have today are wrong. My book is mainly interested in showing where the views came from. That seems like a useful task to me. Once you see how a view originated and developed, you are better equipped to decide whether you agree with it or not.