The Peril and the Promise
It was a Sunday night in mid-July in Houston, and it was raining. But more than 400 people packed historic Christ Church Cathedral to hear a Harvard Divinity School professor discuss Mary Magdalene.
"I see just a huge hunger and a fantastic interest for this material that really wasn't there 10 or 15 years ago," says Karen King, the speaker, whose The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Polebridge Press, 2003) has sold about 43,500 copies.
Religion is front and center now everywhere in the public consciousness, whether the topic is U.S. politics, same-sex marriage, embryonic stem-cell research, international strife, Dan Brown's fictional The Da Vinci Code or personal spirituality. Religion scholars like King who can combine academic credentials with the ability to write intelligently for nonexperts are scoring in the general book market.
"There's a moment now that seems more propitious for this kind of crossover work," says Stephen Prothero, an American religion historian at Boston University who wrote American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; cloth 2003; paper Sept. 2004).
Inspired by the Questions
King, Winn professor of ecclesiastical history,says she moved toward a general readership over several years as she was invited to speak about early Christianity to broader audiences in churches and other institutions, and found them "utterly fascinated" with her work on the ancient texts found since the late 1800s in Egypt. People would ask questions she couldn't answer, inspiring her to more research. "It began to have a very fruitful interplay with my academic work," she says.
King is on leave now working on three books. The Secret Book of John for Harvard University Press for fall 2005 will be the second in a trilogy. The first was What Is Gnosticism? (Belknap Press, cloth 2003; paper spring 2005). Her agent is also shopping to publishers a general interest book about early Christianity that King is calling How Seeking God Became a Religion. And she is writing an academic commentary, The Gospel of Mary Magdala, for Fortress Press's Hermeneia series in spring 2006. Communicating with a general audience is very different from teaching students, King says. In the classroom, the professor sets the agenda, but in the wider world it's essential to listen.
Something Important to Say
Prothero, chairman of Boston University's religion department, says, "We religion scholars have something to say to the general market, and they're interested in what we're doing." Could the public be any more interested in religion? he wonders, saying university presses are pushing scholars to branch out because those publishers are under pressure to sell and have moved away from the monograph tradition to a more commercial business model. "Always when you talk to university presses, they're thinking about marketing," Prothero notes. Like some of his colleagues, Prothero got tired of writing books for 100 people, so he started coming up with ideas that would interest a broad readership. Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America (University of California Press, 2001) was an intermediate step. He found his experiences freelancing for general media like Salon.com, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times helpful in framing these new projects. "I was actually surprised by how little I needed to change my writing for a trade audience." For American Jesus, he took to heart FSG senior editor Paul Elie's advice to talk about the subject and not about other scholars.
Prothero says, "The classroom is a lot like writing a trade book in that you need to respond to questions that smart people have instead of responding to some tradition in scholarship." More counsel he absorbed from Elie, who wrote The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (FSG, cloth 2003; paper Mar. 2004): Readers of books on religion are bright and curious, and scholars don't need to talk down to them.
Hitting a Nerve
Academic tradition is almost opposed to writing for a nonspecialized audience, says Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University. "It's as if, you write comprehensible English, you're doing something wrong."
Jenkins has published 18 books since 1979. His turning point came in 1996, when Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis (Oxford Univ. Press) was published. Looking back, he considers it too academic, but he says it did succeed in examining a topic of wide interest. He's continued reaching out beyond academia with broad-ranging books such as Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way (Oxford, cloth 2001; paper 2002); The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity (Oxford, cloth 2002; paper, 2003); The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice (Oxford, cloth 2003; paper Oct. 2004); and—published this September—Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality (Oxford).
Ellen Chodosh, v-p and publisher of Oxford's trade division, says The Next Christendom, for example, was positioned in both religion and current affairs categories because it addressed the newsworthy issues of clashing cultures and the roots of terrorism. "Jenkins was able to offer a somewhat different perspective than political commentators, so he was embraced by both the general and religious media." Now Jenkins is writing Darkening Vision: How America Retreated from the 1960s, expected out from Oxford in late 2005.
Once you've made this transition, you realize how little impact most academic books have," Jenkins says. But he adds that religion scholars who choose to address the wider world can have a huge effect, sometimes even on public policy, as more people realize they have to understand religion—especially Christianity—to comprehend American politics. One indicator authors can have that they've hit a major topic is if more people start screaming at them, Jenkins says: "It really does elevate the level of vituperation." It also helps if one's subject becomes newsworthy—for example, a scholar with a specialty in Islam can easily find work now. But with some areas, such as New Testament, there is always a market for new books.
Is the Onus Off?
Is academia more accepting these days of scholars writing for the mainstream? Jenkins doesn't think that has changed much, even as he notes some universities offering training for "public intellectuals." What he does believe is that the number of religion professors may have grown, with the same percentage writing for readers of intelligent nonfiction.
It's hard to find data for that, but regular membership in the American Academy of Religion (excluding students and retirees) is around 6,300—up 50% from 10 years ago, according to Carey Gifford, the AAR's director of academic relations. And Kent Harold Richards, professor of Old Testament at Emory University and executive director of the Society of Biblical Literature, estimates SBL membership over the past decade to have grown from about 5,000 to 8,000.
Another factor that can't be quantified, says Gifford, who has a doctoral degree in religion: "I think we're seeing a generation of scholars that have reached their maturity. And typically when scholars get to their mature period, they're able to write for the general public." That means they need not only maturity in their field, but job security—tenure. For tenure, promotion or advancement, academics don't get much credit for writing outside the academy, according to Gifford. "Also, many academics have a difficult time writing for the general public. Not many of them are willing to try and fewer of them are very good at it."
Almost everyone mentions Elaine Pagels, Harrington Spear Paine Professor of religion at Princeton University, and for good reason. Her The Gnostic Gospels (which Random House first published in 1979) won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, has sold more than 650,000 copies, is still a paperback bestseller and has strong sales in both the academic and trade markets.
Pagels, whose newest book is Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Random House 2003; Vintage paper May 2004), has the credibility of great scholarship, but writes accessibly and compellingly on topics of general interest to a range of readers, says Anne Messite, v-p and publisher of Random House's Vintage and Anchor imprints.
Messite says Beyond Belief had a substantial first paper printing, with a distribution of nearly 1,000 floor displays to major retail channels and extensive advertising in USA Today, the New York Times, on National Public Radio and the like. Reading groups have been targeted through a study guide, bookstores, and print and e-mail versions of the newsletter "Vintage Reads."
On tour, Messite says, Pagels was sent to "five cities, to bookstores, universities, major lecture events. She attracts very significant crowds of up to 800 people." Pagels has also been a guest on PBS and NPR, and been interviewed by the New York Times and other major media around the country.
Primarily because of the new book, but to some degree because of interest in The Da Vinci Code, sales for The Gnostic Gospels have more than doubled in the past 12 months, Messite says. "I think her style both in writing and in person is very accessible and very compelling, both what she has to say and how she says it," Messite adds.
Trusted "Go-To Person"
Another current star author is Marcus Borg, who holds the Hundere Chair in religion and culture at Oregon State University. Borg's Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith has sold more than 270,000 copies since Harper San Francisco released it in 1994. That book put him on the lecture circuit, and for the past seven years he has traveled 100,000 miles a year, speaking to audiences that are 90% church-related.
The Heart of Christianity (HSF cloth 2003; paper Sept. 2004) is his bestselling hardcover so far, with 50,000 copies sold—almost 50% better than any of his other books. "We're just thrilled with where he is now, to the point where we're doubling his hardcover print runs," says Mark Tauber, HSF associate publisher. He says Borg—like the venerable and still-publishing Huston Smith— has become a trusted go-to person, "the explainer, if you will, for modern, progressive, seeking Christians today."
The author of 12 books, mostly for Harper, Borg says his transition to a broader market came early, with the 1987 Jesus: A New Vision (HSF), which was a "dual-purpose book," written for general interest readers, but with enough scholarly details that his colleagues would take him seriously.
Says Borg, "I had to very deliberately get rid of the academic world looking over my shoulders." His current book projects include a heavy revision of Jesus: A New Vision, to be called An Emerging Jesus for an Emerging Christianity, which HSF will publish in fall 2005; a volume on the Gospel of Mark for Morehouse Publishing, planned for fall 2005, and, with John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week of Jesus's Life for HSF in 2006.
How do his cohorts take his crossover work? "I think, fine. That is, I've never had anybody disparage me as being a popularizer. That's one of the semi-nasty terms that can be used in the academic world." Borg says while it's rewarding to feel he influences the church and the larger culture beyond the academy, he values, reads and makes use of the work of scholars who do "the very technical, detailed studies that never reach a larger audience."
But he also points to religion scholars with books on bestseller lists and more invitations to speak than they can possibly accept. "I think the most important comment I have to make is, there is an enormous appetite within the church and in the larger reading public for serious works of scholarship that are very accessible," Borg says.
Religious historian Martin E. Marty, retired from the University of Chicago and the author of more than 50 books, has advocated for decades that academics to write for the public. But he acknowledges a certain amount of peril in this for young scholars, conditioned by their discipline and their advisers to specialize and to adopt academic conventions. "And without that, you can't produce scholars," he notes.
Marty isn't criticizing. But as soon as they've established their credentials, "fairly soon in the game," he wants them to get out there. Marty passes along these guidelines: Always picture that everybody in the room is as smart as you are, but about something different. And remember that, outside one's own field of expertise, most people read on the high school level.
Now that the general public has bought into the fact that religion and public life are intertwined in this country, Marty says, religion is the most controversial and exploitable issue in the United States. But this change has caught many academics off guard. They don't want to be seen by their colleagues as too commercial. As Marty points out, 10 years ago it seemed everyone was writing about angels.
But an author who is solid in his or her topic can escape the sell-out label. Elaine Pagels is well grounded in scholarship and languages, Marty says. The same is true of the biblical studies of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. "You can disagree with them violently, but you know that they know their stuff." And, Marty says, any Judaism scholar in America could see in American Judaism: A History (Yale University Press, 2004) the proficiency of Jonathan D. Sarna, who is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.
The Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago has a charter to work with dissertation writers "at the formative stage," Marty says. He is passionate about "public religion endeavors" because he thinks the general public has "arrested growth syndrome"—their religious education froze with Sunday school, Hebrew school or whatever their religious training was or wasn't. How much did Americans know about Islam at the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks? Religion scholars should make the effort to share what they know, Marty believes.