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 Dru Johnson, author and editor of many books, including the Cascade Companion Scripture’s Knowing: A Companion to Biblical Epistemology (Cascade, 2015), Human Rites: The Power of Rituals, Habits, and Sacraments (2019), Biblical Philosophy: A Hebraic Approach to the Old and New Testaments (2021), The Biblical World of Gender: The Daily Lives of Ancient Women and Men (Cascade, 2022), and What Hath Darwin to Do with Scripture?: Comparing Conceptual Worlds of the Bible and Evolution (forthcoming, 2023).
What part(s) of writing and publishing do you enjoy most?
I look forward to SBL/AAR every year so I can bring my half-cooked ideas to editors and get them shredded apart. I’ve learned to trust editors (or maybe I’ve found ones I can trust) and not feel so curmudgeonly about the inevitable question: who’s the audience for this? The more I focus on the actual people, or types of people, that I want to hear me most clearly, the more I love the task and grind of writing and re-writing.
About my writing projects, I tell students that my PhD thesis wasn’t written in my office. Rather, I wrote it on the two-mile daily walks to and from the office. On the way home, I would review what I had read or written and thought about what I needed to say in light of it. In the morning, I thought about what I was going to write now that my mind had cleared some mental debris. Neuroscientists say that a major cognitive function of sleeping is forgetting most of the stimuli of the prior day and re-organizing what happened. I didn’t know that then, but I believe that I was letting my brain do a lot of work through walking and sleeping.
I enjoy that liminal period where I’m working out the idea every day, receiving insights as gifts (that often come while I’m in the shower).
Which parts do you least enjoy?
I despise my writing habits when I’m trapped in my words, when I cannot think of another way to say it. I also dislike that period between when I have mapped out what I need to say and physically tapping it out. It’s work, yes. But I also feel like I lose some of the untamed and grandiose sense of an idea when it gets locked into my particular way of saying it. Again, as archeological excavation is destruction, writing can be trapping. Or worse, being trapped.
How do you balance writing with your other professional and personal responsibilities?
I don’t. I block off massive amounts of time. I write in the breaks between semesters. Summers basically serve as ninety days of writing. Otherwise, my monographs have all been written on research leave or sabbaticals. I cannot do fresh research or writing during the semesters. My mind is not agile enough to balance teaching, meetings, and writing.
Who are the four faces on your theological Mt. Rushmore, and why these four?
Moses (from whom all proper theology descends) and Michael Polanyi, that’s it.
What role have academic disciplines (and sub-disciplines) played in your own thinking and writing? To what extent do you identify your own work according to the disciplinary lines drawn in the academy?
I am an interdisciplinary person by dint of my attention span and my inability to get past a dilettante understanding of anything. I cherish building skyways between the silos. But, it’s like taking a hill in combat (I suppose). If you can take the hill, you can see the whole battlefield in every direction. However, the enemy can also shoot you from every side.
I am an editor for an interdisciplinary monograph series and credibility-building seems to be the main problem we encounter with manuscripts. When I am working outside of my supposed expertise, I need to be engaging the best thinkers. My footnotes should be plumper in those sections. There’s an art to managing how much you show what you’ve read, which can look like dissertation-level anxiety-driven citing. I haven’t cracked the code on that, so I’m speaking as someone who wants to grow in my interdisciplinary writing skills.
I’m always thrilled when a Deuteronomy scholar tells me they loved my chapter on Deuteronomy, or when a ritual anthropologist says “amen” to my ritual work. I also try to include sober admissions in the body of my work (intros or conclusions) that admit that I couldn’t have possibly gotten this all correct. I like to invite others, explicitly in my books, with more expertise to correct me where I’m wrong or help me see how my thinking might be truer than I imagined.
Would you describe your writing as a whole as having a clear through line? To what extent do you try to maintain a unified whole to your broader project from book to book (and article to article)?
All of my writing has one goal: to show that the biblical authors have their own intellectual world and style of reasoning abstractly about reality. My books on epistemology do that overtly. My forthcoming book on Darwin attempts to show the intellectual world of “natural selection” in the biblical authors’ thinking. My books on ritual examine the unique role of rituals for the sake of knowing across Scripture. (Not many [possibly not any other] ancient writers connect ritual practice with “so that you will know.” Yet, it’s a regulative feature of Hebrew rituals.) It all stems from my frustration with my tradition’s constant fascinations with every theological thing but the biblical literature as a source of sophisticated reasoning.
What have you learned about yourself through your experiences writing and publishing?
That I have to process my thinking through writing, which means I often drag the reader along with me. And, that because I didn’t start reading in earnest until I was twenty-five years old, my writing suffers from all the ills of poor undergraduate writing. I have also learned that good writing will come to me when I put the work in and gather as much critique as possible.
What should first-time (academic) authors keep in mind when writing their manuscript?
They should practice translating their ideas to every kind of reader or listener possible and solicit critique along the way. For my first book, Robin Parry (a Cascade editor) said, “What would you say to students knowing what you now know?” Of course, I just wanted to re-use as much of my thesis/dissertation as possible. I wrongly thought that Robin was wanting me to “dumb it down.” I’ve since realized that he was trying to get me to translate my ideas, distilling and re-organizing them for someone in a different educational setting than myself or my peers.
I would say that new authors need to practice letting go of what they’ve already written. Count it as fuel in the tank for what they can now say. And, they need to think mostly about to whom they are writing with this new opportunity to share their hard work. They just have to translate their thinking into whatever works best for the audience. The hidden reward comes when we realize that we now understand the topic even better through the process of translation. Translation means we’ve been forced to ask different questions and generate new analogies that pushed the boundaries.
For most of us, high academic writing is the laziest kind of writing. Our audience already knows the terms and field of study and has compelling reasons to read on. It’s almost impossible to write well under those kinds of perverse incentives.
What should these same first-time authors be mindful of when choosing a publisher for their project?
Different publishers excel in different ways. Cascade (with whom I published my very first book) was able to take on a risky manuscript like mine because of their publishing model. It was a good fit for what I hoped that book could do and what Cascade was interested in.
Some authors need hands-on developmental editing and others just need suggestions. Different editors and publishers offer a range of editing. I once had a cut-throat developmental editor on a trade book (i.e., popular-level book). She would make me throw away entire chapters and start from scratch. I loved it! She said that she’s made authors cry. I couldn’t get enough because she focused on Dru-the-author, not just Dru-the-author-of-this-book.
It’s also worth noting that marketing varies widely by publisher, but it’s basically a given that the author must do most of the work in promoting a book. So, it’s wise to ask about marketing, but even better to ask how the publisher will support you in your marketing efforts.
As with jobs, rejection from publishers is not personal. It could be a great book, but if it doesn’t fit with their publishing profile, then it’s a “no.” When I get rejections, I lean in on their knowledge of the guild and ask for advice on what to do next. Sometimes, they’ll tell me to sharpen the proposal. Other times, they will give me a specific person at a publisher to talk to. I’ve been amazed at how generous and helpful publishers can be with newer authors. They want to see good books published, even if not under their imprint.
If you could have an unlimited supply of copies of three books to give out to people, what books would you choose, and why?
I don’t know. I can never answer these kinds of questions without months of thought.
What books are you currently reading?
I’m reading more than usual right now:
– Magisteria: The Entangled Histories of Science and Religion by Nicholas Spencer
– Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway
– Economics and the Empire in the Ancient Near East, edited by Matthew J. M. Coomber
– A dissertation that I’m preparing to examine
What are you working on next?
I’m writing a short classroom book for how to read biblical law. It’s a down ‘n’ dirty approach to prevent the most common mistakes and open up some new vistas in reading biblical law. I’m also including—for the first time ever—some historical fiction to help illustrate how law might have functioned in Iron Age Judah (hence, the Writing Fiction book I’m reading above).
Dru Johnson is visiting associate professor at Hope College in Holland, MI (was a professor at The King’s College in New York City), director of the Center for Hebraic Thought, editor at The Biblical Mind, host of The Biblical Mind podcast, and co-host of the OnScript Podcast. Before that, he was a high-school dropout, skinhead, punk rock drummer, combat veteran, IT supervisor, and pastor—all things that he hopes none of his children ever become.