Last week I interrupted the thread I had been pursuing about why my unusual academic background prepared me to write books for general audiences in order to talk about my lecture in Odense, Denmark, at the University of Southern Denmark, on the relationship between the worship of the Roman emperor and the rise of Christian understandings of Christ as “Savior” and “Lord” and “God” (titles given to the emperor as well). There is more to be said about this latter topic, some of it very interesting – but I think I’ve said enough for now. I want to finish off the earlier thread.
And for a rather momentous (for me!) occasion. Two days ago, I finished my book manuscript The Triumph of Christianity and sent it off to my editor for her to work her magic with it. I am very excited about this process, more so (maybe a lot more so?) than normal. This will be the thirty-first book that I’ve published (some edited, most written). So I do this kind of thing a lot. But some times are more exciting than others, and this one is very exciting. I think the topic is unusually important. And I like what I’ve come up with so far. What I’ve sent in is a final draft. But it will be changed – maybe significantly – before it sees the light of published day. Let me here say something about both issues: the importance of the topic and the editorial process at this stage.
First, the topic. I’ve talked about it on the blog before, but want to revert to it here. Most of my academic friends and colleagues who write books simply write about whatever they happen to be most interested in. That makes huge sense. It’s what most people do. It’s what I did with my first several books: Didymus the Blind and the Text of the Gospels; The Text of the Fourth Gospel in the Writings of Origen (co-authored); The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.
With that third book I did start to do something different. I became interested in how the study of the manuscripts of the New Testament might be of significant for scholars who were doing things other than … studying the manuscripts of the New Testament! I wanted to show how scribes altered their texts when copying them, in order to demonstrate how the study of that phenomenon can help us better understand the social history of early Christianity, the rise of Christian theology (specifically Christology) in the second and third centuries, and, in particular, the effect of theological (Christological) debates on the scribes who were reproducing our texts. The data I had at my disposal might be interesting to scholars working on otherwise unrelated issues in other fields.
That book involved several years of very hard, rigorous work. But the approach I took got me (very) interested in writing books that had relevance for topics other than the technical ones that I and six other people in the world care about. I wanted to show why this kind of detailed textual work matters.
Something in my head clicked while writing that book. And I decided that I wanted not only to write technical scholarship for scholars, but books for people who don’t do the kind of technical scholarship that I was trained to do.
As a later development of that decision, I realized that the key to writing books was not simply to write about things that I myself am interested in (which is what virtually every other scholar on the planet typically does) but to write about things that *other* people are interested in. This is a completely different mentality from the one I started with and from the one that just about all my friends and colleagues have.
I started writing trade books – that is books written for a general audience. In doing so, in virtually every instance I have tried to choose topics that are not simply my own interests but topics that either are, or can be made to be, interesting to others. And so my books have dealt with such issues as who the historical Jesus really was; how the Bible is filled with contradictions, discrepancies, and historical errors; how the Bible addresses the question of how we suffer; how the early Christians came to believe that Jesus was not a mere mortal but was actually God.
All of these topics are, or can be made to be, interesting to scholars outside the fields of New Testament/Early Christianity. And so I wrote on them. And what I found was that as I pursued them, the topics became massively interesting to me as well. The trick was identifying a topic of interest and throwing myself into it and developing my own views about it.
It has always seemed a bit strange to me – though there is probably an underlying logic to it – that by far my bestselling book has been Misquoting Jesus. It’s strange because this is a book on a topic that no one could be expected to be interested in – the scribal changes of the texts of the New Testament. Who cares about Greek manuscripts??? But the underlying logic for the success of the book is that it showed people that it was an interesting topic when they had never ever thought of it before. And that it was a massively important topic.
The current book, The Triumph of Christianity, is in my opinion dealing with a far more important topic. In fact, you could argue it is the single most important topic in the history of religion. Yet it, again, is one that people have generally not given much thought to. It is the issue of how Christianity became the dominant religion of Western Civilization. Almost no one on the planet in his or her right mind could have predicted it at the outset.
The Christian faith started out with a handful of rag-tag, lower-class, illiterate Jews who thought their teacher had been raised from the dead. In the New Testament there are about twenty of these people. In less than three hundred years, they had made so many converts that there were some three million followers of Jesus, in an empire of sixty million. In another hundred years there were thirty million Christians. Christianity came to be the official religion of Rome. All of the centuries-old religious practices found everywhere in the Empire were eventually snuffed out. Christianity became the single most important institution in Western civilization – not just religiously, but also politically, economically, socially, and culturally.
How in the world did that happen? That’s a topic of massive, incredible importance. Not just to me, a lone scholar with particular scholarly interests, but for everyone who happens to be heir to the history and culture of the West. Just think of what we would not have culturally if Christianity had not succeeded (think art; think literature; think music; think philosophy; think law; think ethics; think … well, just think!). It’s mind boggling. And so that’s what the book is about. And that’s why I’m so excited about it.
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