The Theologist / Margaret R. Miles / The Lively Classroom and the Scholarly Desk

The Theologist is your guide to all things writing and publishing in the fields of theology and biblical studies, from finding inspiration for your work to reading the best literature on writing, from overcoming writing obstacles to finding writing mentors, and more. In this newest installation of The Theologist, we interview Margaret R. Miles, Emerita Professor of Historical Theology at the Graduate Theological Union and author of many books, including Augustine and the Fundamentalist’s Daughter (Cascade, 2011) and a forthcoming volume with Cascade on Augustine and beautiful bodies.

What themes or topics have you gravitated towards throughout your writing career? Why do you think you’ve been prone to thinking and writing about these particular topics?

I have studied the writings of St. Augustine for over fifty-five years. I am very grateful that I was attracted to the study of Augustine’s Confessions when I was young. At that time I did not realize that Augustine was an author from whom I could learn in personal, as well as professional, ways for the rest of my life. My professional interest lies in two distinct but overlapping categories. The first was—and is—to understand Augustine’s thinking within the context of his own values and loyalties. My second interest is historiographical: to identify and maneuver the massive barriers of language, values, and assumptions informing texts from a culture and society vastly different from my own. For example: Contemporary academic historians think within an academic culture pervasively informed by Descartes’ dictum that thoughts are definitively separate from feeling: thought is considered integral to “I am,” whereas feelings are adventitious—at best interesting, but quite often feelings undermine the discursive clarity of thought. Augustine, who lived a thousand years before Descartes, considered feeling an essential and irreducible component of thought. However, in the last (approximately) two hundred years, Augustine scholars have largely ignored Augustine’s insistent attention to feeling, focusing rather on his ideas. I have wanted to interrupt that “silent thought” (Foucault’s phrase for an unexamined assumption), in the interest of a richer—and more accurate—picture of Augustine. 

How would you describe the emotions involved with the publishing process (submitting, copyediting, proofreading, having the book in your hands, etc.)? Do you have a favorite part and least favorite part of the process?

My least favorite part: Computer skills became important for a writer about midway through my academic career. I have not been willing to divert time from my study of Augustine to become skilled in computer use. Mea culpa. Thus I pay someone to format my manuscripts. My favorite part is thinking/writing, that rush of ideas, the parts of which suddenly align, forming a coherent perspective and a cohesive argument. A writer must prepare for this moment meticulously; then she must wait, alert for it.

What have you found helpful in handling criticisms of your work? How do you tend to respond to such criticisms?

I examine the criticism carefully to determine whether it is useful, or whether it simply comes from a different perspective. If it corrects a “silent thought” of mine, or a more resonant Latin translation, I am very grateful for it.  An early criticism came from an art historian who protested my incursion into a field—Art History—that the critic considered defined by analysis of the formal aspects of a painting, and unrelated to the religious and social communications of artworks. I thought it safe to ignore this criticism; the paintings I discussed were of religious subjects, usually located in churches, and (until the fifteenth century) commissioned and financed by prelates. My book made this argument; I did not respond.

Has writing ever posed any temptations for you (fame, reputation, careerism, etc.)? If so, how have you managed these?

No, I love the combination of a lively classroom and my solitary desk.

How do you go about organizing a book project? How do you, for instance, decide how to structure or outline your argument?

Before I begin to write on a subject that interests me, I read a great deal, both primary texts (preferably in original language; I have worked primarily in Latin text, but also in Greek text for my Plotinus book), and secondary work surrounding my topic. When I have occasionally become enthusiastic about an idea and begun to write before I have understood the facets that must be considered, I have had to revise—that is, delete and begin again—when I have understood my subject and its ramifications more thoroughly.  

How do you decide on titles for your books (and articles)? Do you have particular objectives in mind when you title a book?

Like every author, I try to identify a title that both intrigues potential readers and identifies my resource. For example, I originally titled my book (currently in production), Beautiful Bodies. Certainly a provocative title, but one that did not acknowledge that the book was about Augustine, not about showgirls in Las Vegas. The principle, “truth in advertising,” required the title, Augustine on Beautiful Bodies.

What role, if any, have your peer colleagues played in your book projects?

In retirement, I have been surprised to discover how much more difficult it is to think through a project when I lack the daily conversation that emerges from seminars, lunch table remarks and other casual and more structured discussions of my own and others’ projects.

What advice would you give to a writer working on their first book?

My advice would be: Don’t try to include everything you know in your first book. Write on a well-defined topic that you can deal with in depth. Also, remember that a doctoral dissertation is not yet a book. Certainly, a dissertation can provide the research for a book, but book readers will focus on whether your perspective is interesting and well documented. They are not likely to be interested in textual arguments with other scholars or exhaustive footnotes demonstrating that you have read and considered everything that even remotely contributes to your topic.

Who would you like to read your books and why?

Recently several articles of mine have been published in the specialist journal Augustinian Studies (with all quotations in Latin). I have enjoyed and valued greatly the conversations with Augustine scholars prompted by these articles. But more generally interested readers are dismayed by extensive Latin, and I have wanted also to challenge readers of contemporary religious journalism (I forbear to cite examples), who have presented Augustine as pessimistic, judgmental, and primarily interested in doctrine. I want to challenge that inaccurate picture; I have been given permission to publish these articles within a book (with English translations), focused primarily on the sermons of Augustine’s last decade, which reveal a different Augustine than either the brilliant thinker admired by scholars, or the Augustine presented in popular journals as the source of prohibitions that have “spoiled the fun” for generations in the dominantly Christian West, to our own time.

If you could have an unlimited supply of copies of one book to give out to people, what book would you choose, and why?

This is a question I find impossible to answer! One book?! No! Books are windows through which readers can briefly or lastingly entertain a perspective on the world. Each of us needs to see the worlds displayed by many books, corrected and nuanced by our experience.  

What books are you currently reading?

I am rereading several immensely rich books that earlier I read too rapidly, with my own projects too pressingly in mind.

Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo

John Burnaby, Amor Dei

Kevin Grove, Augustine on Memory

Carol Harrison, The Art of Listening in the Early Church

Frederic van der Meer, Augustine the Bishop

Do you have any projects you’re currently working on, or just finished?

My swan song: Augustine on Beautiful Bodies, currently in production at Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Margaret R. Miles is Emerita Professor of Historical Theology, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. Among her recent books are Augustine and the Fundamentalist’s Daughter (Cascade, 2011); The Long Goodbye: Dementia Diaries (Cascade, 2017); and Reading Augustine On Memory, Marriage, Tears, and Meditation (2021). 


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