I have started drafting a prospectus for my next book on Christian charity, as I have discussed recently on the blog. At this early stage, I am giving it (at least in my head) the tentative title: The Invention of Charity: How Christianity Transformed the Western World. In this post I’ll show how I’m *thinking* about starting the prospectus (which will have no bearing on how I, later, start the book).
Before I do so, I should explain how the process works. My last three trade books have been with Simon & Schuster, and as a (standard) part of my contract with them, I’m obliged (and willing and eager) to to discuss with them what I’d like to do for the next book, to give them the opportunity to sign a contract with me for it, before, say, I propose the book to other publishers.
The first part of process is that I draft a prospectus that explains what the book is, why it is needed, and how I will approach the task . For this book that will take maybe 15-20 pages, maybe more. After an expansive overview and summary of what I have in mind, I will include an enumeration and description of the chapters as I’m imagining them at this point, and I will need to itemize other books that are already published available to the reading public. I float the prospectus by my agent, we talk about it, he suggests edits, I finalize it, and send it to my editor.
On the basis of that prospectus and discussions we have about it the press will decide whether they’d like to offer a contract and if so what the terms will be (length of the book; delivery date; marketing plan, royalties; and so on). We negotiate details and I either sign or decide at that point that I’d like to try a different publisher. All of this is in close coordination with my agent who takes care of negotiations and communications.
In previous posts I’ve laid out much of what I’m imagining will be in the prospectus: Greek and Roman views of wealth, why some philosophers thought that having wealth could be a “problem” (not a view widely shared among the non-philosophers!), what incentives they may have had for giving some (or all) of it away, and whom or what they gave it to once they did. I will then move to the Christian views of the same issues. These were quite different, in no small measure because they were rooted in the Jewish tradition, as found in the Hebrew Bible, especially as interpreted by Jesus himself. My book will work to explain why Christians (at least many of the Christian leaders) understood the problem of wealth differently, offered different incentives for giving it away, and insisted on a very different set of recipients. The overarching concern of the book will be to show how the shift to Christian perspectives and pratices had an enormous long term effect on Western society.
Here is the first (i.e. rough) draft of what I’m imagining I’ll be saying at the outset of the prospectus.
The Invention of Charity: How Christianity Transformed the Western World.
Bart D. Ehrman
It is easy to enumerate the negative, even horrific effects of Christianity on the course of Western history, beginning with the conversion of the Roman world in the fourth and fifth century (even though the roots of the problems were all were earlier): the fierce opposition, and then almost complete suppression (through legislation) of all other religious traditions and practices of antiquity, leading ultimately to the loss and even destruction of most of the great religious and cultural artifacts that ancient Greece and Rome had to offer; the vitriolic, internecine conflicts over alternative understandings of Christian “truth,” leading to ostracizations, heresy trials, and the Inquisition; the fervent rejection of Jews and Judaism, leading to anti-Jewish legislation, restriction of Jews’ civil rights, massacres, pogroms, violent anti-semitism, and, eventually, the Holocaust; the theological justifications for the Crusades, slaughter of indigenous populations, slavery, and … and it’s a very long list.
Recognizing such historical atrocities has sometimes made it difficult for outsiders to the faith to recognize the serious benefits accrued to Western culture from the Christian “conquest.” But no religious movement can be seen in purely Manichaean terms. The Christian church did indeed transform culture and society in salubrious ways, not just through the lives of individuals who adopted a Christian ethic of love and service to others (an ethic rarely endorsed in Roman antiquity), but in ideologies and institutions that became central to western culture. Most people do not realize that commonplace perspectives, practice, and organizations were not always part and parcel of what it meant to be a civilized society.
The book I am proposing, The Invention of Charity, will looking at one such Christian innovation that revolutionized our world to the great benefit of many (most?) of its inhabitants. The Christian tradition made a radical intervention in public rhetoric and social practice connected to the use of wealth, in particular to the question of how those with resources should help those without. Why and how should the rich assist the poor? This was not a question raised in the Roman environment out of which Christianity emerged.
It is not that Christians invented the idea of “charity”: they inherited a concern for the needy from their Jewish forebears. But they, not the Jews, converted the Roman world, and, in the end, universalized and, to some extent, institutionalized the imperatives, incentives, and practices of charity.. Prior to the Christian conquest of the Empire, the Western world knew of no such things as hospitals, orphanages, private charities, or governmental assistance to the poor. These are Christian innovations.
My book is designed to show how the transformation occurred.. There are several interdependent issues:: why having wealth can be a “problem”; what people should do with their resources; and why and how those living above subsistence level (not just the affluent) should treat those in need.
One of the surprises of the study is a well-documented phenomenon that certainly sounds like an apologist’s generalization: in the Roman world at large, those with wealth showed almost no concern for those in need, even desperate need. They had no compulsion, incentive, or reason to give to the poor, homeless, and hungry, and in fact they were urged by their fellow elites – including their moral philosophers – not to do so. As a result, in the world into which Christianity appeared, there was almost nothing that we would consider “charity” to the poor. In the emerging Christian tradition, on the contrary, the poor became a focus of religious, social, and economic discourse. My book will try to show how that transformation happened and explain what benefits accrued to society at large as a result.
The prospectus will go from there!