From the academy, books that think (and a few that sell)

There are a few genuine public intellectuals among professors of religion, and Cornel West is chief among them. Here he is pictured, center, protesting against police brutality in New York City in 2015.There are a few genuine public intellectuals among professors of religion, and Cornel West is chief among them. Here he is pictured, center, protesting against police brutality in New York City in 2015.

Each year, 9,000 professors of religion and biblical studies attend the joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, held on the weekend before Thanksgiving. It is a major opportunity for book publishers to meet with potential authors and to market what is new to one of their core audiences. That is why I was there.

The guidebook for the sessions at A.A.R./S.B.L. in San Antonio last year was 496 pages long. It demonstrated, among other things, the highly specialized way in which academics are forced to make their reputations. Many professors still teach university, graduate school and seminary courses like “Introduction to the New Testament,” but for a professor to build a reputation beyond her institution (and, often, just to make tenure), she has to try to break new ground. Take two papers chosen at random from the hundreds presented during the November meetings: “Castration for the Kingdom and Avoiding the Aitia of Adultery: Matthew 19:10-12,” given by Robert Jarrett VanTine of the University of St. Andrews, and “Mary’s Transformative Potential: Marian Varieties of Women’s Rights Activism in the 19th Century,” given by Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez of Temple University. Not exactly riveting material for most of us.


Some of the papers stem from dissertations being written, or recently defended, and some of those dissertations will become books—the sort of books that we call “monographs,” which means “writing on a single subject.” The successful ones sell only about 500 copies, so one has to separate them from the rest of the offerings on the exhibit floor at A.A.R./S.B.L. (This is not to say that I didn’t find a few ultra-specialized volumes to suit my own idiosyncratic tastes, and that’s truly delicious.) Other important books are to be found there, and they point to ways in which religion and biblical scholarship can feed, inform and delight much larger swaths of people.

Very few professors become best-selling authors, but it happens. One thinks of Princeton’s Elaine Pagels from the recent past (Adam, Eve, and the Serpent; etc.), or Harvey Cox, whose 1965 best-seller The Secular City sold more than a million copies, making him wealthy even without his Harvard salary. At 87, Cox even has a new book, The Market as God(Harvard University Press, 2016), in which he argues that a new doctrine of God has emerged with The Market at its “celestial peak.” He explains in his opening chapter: “I will henceforth capitalize [The Market] to signify both the mystery that enshrouds it and the reverence it inspires in its adepts.” One quickly gathers the singular point being made, and reading further feels almost unnecessary. Cox still has an uncanny understanding of how religion influences culture, but in this new book he seems to have forgotten the importance of persuasion.

The Market as Godby Harvey Cox

Harvard University Press. 320p, $27

Interfaith Leadershipby Eboo Patel

Beacon. 208p, $14

The Mary Daly Readerby Mary Daly

NYU Press. 464p, $35

Writing on the historical Jesus and the origins of Christianity has proven to be headline-worthy for many decades now, since any new notion of who Jesus was, or is, is bound to offend a large group of potential readers somewhere. Publishers of these books tend to love publicity, no matter what kind. And so books by Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright were popular a generation ago and Bart D. Ehrman’s have been best-sellers in the past few years. Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (HarperOne, 2016) is Ehrman’s most recent foray. He knows how to talk about his specialty in ways that engage nonspecialists—and he knows how to kick up a storm.

There are a few genuine public intellectuals among professors of religion, and Cornel West is chief among them. He was at the conference, presiding over a plenary session titled “Love and Hate in American Religion.” Timely! Another public intellectual, employed as a scholar but not in a university, is Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of England. Sacks gave a talk in Texas on “Faith in the Future.” He is also the 2016 Templeton Prize Laureate; and, yes, he had a book to promote: Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (a paperback coming in February). Eboo Patel was there, too, but Patel does not teach or preach for a living, despite his Oxford Ph.D.; he is too busy running the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago, dedicated to “building a movement of people from all faiths and traditions who are working together to change the world.” Patel was promoting Interfaith Leadership: A Primer (Beacon Press, 2016).

Many America readers will remember the sometimes notorious Mary Daly, the Catholic theologian and provocateur, who was a public intellectual in the 1970s and ’80s, often . interviewed by national media and appearing on magazine covers. A university press is about to publish The Mary Daly Reader, edited by two of her former students (women, of course), who dedicate the book to “Mary Daly herSelf.” This is an interesting look back at one of the most controversial thinkers of the last century, a self-styled “radical lesbian feminist” who taught at Boston College for more than three decades and died in 2010. Scanning the contents, one is quickly reminded of Daly themes like “After the Death of God the Father” and the “Phallic Power of Absence.” The book is arranged chronologically, from a 1968 article on patriarchy to an autobiographical section of Daly’s final book, Amazon Grace, published in 2006,. One sentence from that excerpt is representative of all of Daly’s work and how it intrigues and frustrates simultaneously: “The Terrific Shock of encountering and Realizing Be-ing is utterly unlike the foreground shocks which keep us imprisoned and circling the masters’ mazes.”

Less controversial are books taking note of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, including some by familiar names like Martin Marty, whose October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day That Changed the World (Paraclete Press, 2016) is in its fourth printing, I am told. Bernard McGinn, like Marty a retired University of Chicago professor, is coming out with Mysticism in the Reformation 1500-1650, Part 1, the sixth volume in his “The Presence of God” series that began in 1991 with The Foundations of Mysticism. Not available until April, McGinn’s book nevertheless was the pride of his publisher’s booth. Also notable in this category is Diarmaid MacCulloch’s All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy, a collection of papers and lectures, full of riches for anyone with more than a passing interest in the 16th century. MacCulloch is excoriated by many Christians, mostly for his professed agnosticism (something he shares with Bart D. Ehrman), but he is admired for his scholarship and abilities as a writer by nearly everyone.

Among all the thousands of scholars of religion and Bible who met in Texas, many were debating topics that are now—and will surely remain—at the center of current events throughout our world: gender identity, the emergence of a moderate Islam, genomic science, justice and vengeance in the monotheistic traditions, and theologies of land and exile. We desperately need those conversations. Look for a handful of those professors to be on magazine covers—and the new century equivalents—in the years to come.

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