The Theologist / James F. McGrath / Hanging onto Human Decency in the Theological Academy

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 James F. McGrath. Dr. McGrath is the author and editor of many books, including The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith (reprint ed., Wipf & Stock, 2024), The A to Z of the New Testament: Things Experts Know That Everyone Else Should Too (2023), What Jesus Learned from Women (Cascade, 2021), and Theology and Science Fiction (Cascade, 2016).

What locations do you typically write in? Are there particular locations you find conducive to the headspace required for writing? Locations you find particularly challenging to work in?

I write down ideas constantly, once upon a time carrying a notebook with me as a matter of course, but now using my phone to do so. In terms of concerted work on a book, there are three places that I tend to write, not all of them equally conducive. In many ways my office might seem the obvious place, but that doesn’t always work well, as it can be hard to believe that I won’t be interrupted, not to mention ignoring email and interrupting myself in other ways. Being able to genuinely immerse oneself in writing without interruption makes more of a difference than we sometimes realize. I do write in my office nonetheless. At home I find that if I wake up before my wife does I can sometimes get writing done in the morning, but that’s a limited window and only works when I have a project that’s well under way. The third and best place is to go to a library. It doesn’t necessarily matter which one, but if there are books relevant to my writing project that’s obviously ideal. When I have a major project I sometimes put blocks of time in my calendar and plan on spending them in the library at Christian Theological Seminary on Butler University’s south campus, and then I get a lot done.

Who is the best living writer in the religious studies academic guild? What about their writing makes them the best, in your view?

It is hard to single out one individual, not least since there are lots of different ways of defining “best” when it comes to writing. There are some writers I admire who do incredibly detailed and important work on very specific questions, and others who synthesize disparate information into a big picture, while still others are particularly gifted at communicating the conclusions in a field to a general audience. Rarely if ever are these the same people, since there is rarely time to develop all of these skills to a comparable level, never mind the time it takes to actually research and write these various kinds of books. If I try to think of scholars who write clearly enough that their work can reach a broad audience without in the process diminishing the evidential force of their scholarly arguments in they eyes of academic readers, then a select few spring to mind immediately, in particular Amy-Jill Levine, Elaine Pagels, Paula Fredriksen, and Helen Bond. Each has contributed to our understanding in multiple areas related to ancient Judaism and early Christianity, each is a pleasure to read, and each of them consistently offers in their publications some information and perspective from which I learn something new even in areas in which I would consider myself an expert.

Who has been the biggest influence on your own approach to writing and publishing? What shape would you say that person’s particular influence has taken on you with respect to writing and publishing?

When I am writing for a general audience, I try to channel my inner Rachel Held Evans, Pete Enns, and Bart Ehrman. When I’m writing something academic I hope to be as clear, organized, and well-argued as my doctoral supervisor Jimmy Dunn (aka James D. G. Dunn). I still remember when I applied for the PhD program at Durham University and got his feedback on my proposal. It started with “two points” then had those bulleted, after which was a section “to sum up” and finally “in conclusion.” I showed it to my wife and without missing a beat she quipped, “It’s just like Unity and Diversity in the New Testament.” Jimmy was clear and organized in a way that I certainly wasn’t at that point, but I hope some of his good habits and practices rubbed off on me.

What significant hangups in the writing and publishing process have you run into throughout your career? Any recurring snags you find yourself bumping up against? How have you managed these hangups?

I know for some academics the writing process is something they loathe and at most tolerate. I love it, but I grew up as the son of a newspaper columnist who was encouraged to read and write from an early age. That has advantages but also disadvantages. I distinctly recall the most discouraging compliment I ever received, from Jimmy Dunn towards the end of the first year of my doctorate. He said that I write well and then added, “perhaps too well for this early stage.” I asked him what he meant, and he explained that I could easily churn out a lot of pages that would contain decent prose and substance, but not yet have a clear thesis, a focus that unified everything and bumped it up to the next level. If there is a hangup I still have it is that I am good at ideas, coming up with new possibilities in a playful and experimental way. Those ideas need to be tested, implemented, and it may take me a while to figure out how to turn that possibility into a well-argued case. Along the way, some of those ideas turn out to not withstand scrutiny. That is as it should be, and if I think about it, I would never trade this for the reverse. While it can be a challenge to turn a “what if?” into a book-length study, I’d prefer to be good at coming up with new ideas than have a knack for detailed argument but fewer flashes of imagination. If (as it turns out) I have too many to ever explore myself, I can share them with others, including up-and-coming scholars who are looking for a book or article idea, who have the skills to make a case for whatever they decide to argue, and just need a suggestion that inspired them to dive in and explore it.

What motivates you to keep writing after you finish a book? In other words, what motivates you as you move from one large, difficult writing project to another?

I usually have more ideas for things that I think are worth exploring than I’ll ever have time to work on, and I love researching and writing. I do more of it than I am strictly required to by any constraints of my job. For instance, I recently finished a yearlong sabbatical working on a book about John the Baptist (actually two books, one for a general audience and the other an academic monograph). I was determined to just enjoy not having any specific book project to turn my attention to after that. Yet something grabbed my interest and I thought I’d float the idea, and the positive response led me to try writing a sample chapter, and before I knew it I’d written another book!

What notions around writing and publishing do you think young academics need to liberate their psyches from?

Impostor syndrome always gets mentioned and that is an important one. But I think academics at the very earliest stage of their career may be more prone to the opposite tendency, to think that we are going to come in and radically revolutionize the field, prove the best-known scholars in the field wrong, and do something of greatness on our first attempt. It probably takes that sort of hubris to write a PhD thesis, so I definitely don’t want to undermine that entirely! Nevertheless, knowing that it is to be expected and all but certain that your greatest contributions to your field will come later on can provide some much-needed humility. I remember reading a paper in which I challenged with quite a bit of gusto some of the conclusions of Alan Segal about the “two powers” heresy in rabbinic literature. It turned out that Alan Segal was in the audience! I was a bit flummoxed. I don’t think that when we are young scholars and challenge ideas we have read, we envisage ourselves in the near future being face-to-face with the real human being behind those arguments. Alan was a wonderful person as well as a scholar and he was very gracious towards this young upstart. We became friends and kept in touch for the remainder of his life, and I valued his friendship as well as the lesson that first encounter taught me. My advice is to find the balance between the two. Every established scholar was once a newcomer to the field and we know what you are going through, don’t expect you to have memorized every possible bit of linguistic or textual information, and genuinely look forward to you sharing new and fresh perspectives that challenge those of us who may have become complacent in certain respects. (If there are senior scholars who aren’t like this, they are the ones who need to apologize, not the newcomers who don’t meet unrealistic expectations.) But don’t give in to the temptation to emulate the worst examples in academia and to claim that with your first foray that you’ve decisively shown this or that established scholar is completely wrong and incompetent. Even if you’re right and someone else is wrong, academics often find better answers precisely because those who went ahead of us tried out others. Be appreciative even of those with whom you disagree, and respectful towards those upon whose foundation you build stronger and taller than they did, and you’ll make important contributions to the field without losing your human decency in the process.

What are some of the best pieces of advice you’ve heard in regards to writing and publishing?

Maybe the best is one I heard early: start with the best publisher/venue, as long as you can cope with rejection. Of course, as a result I sent some early grad school attempts at articles to journals for which they were not at all up to their standard. But the feedback and experience of the process was incredibly helpful. Another crucial thing that some scholars don’t know is that you can submit a book proposal (not a complete manuscript, but an outline and sample chapter or two) to multiple publishers. You don’t need to write the whole book and then start shopping it around one publisher at a time.

Have you dealt with any significant disappointments in your writing and publishing over the years? How did you navigate those?

There have been occasional ideas that haven’t panned out, but that is part of scholarship. If we’re not willing to brainstorm, experiment, and also discard then we won’t come up with the creative ideas worth writing about. Thus the only thing that I’d say was genuinely disappointing and frustrating was back when I assumed I needed to have a complete manuscript and then find a publisher, and put together a truly interdisciplinary volume on religion and science fiction that included people in religious studies, theology, history, literature, musicology, and anthropology. As a result, it would get sent out for peer review and depending on the discipline of the reader, one half of the chapters would seem strong and the other half week, with the second reader saying something similar but about precisely the other half of the chapters! Eventually I found my way to Wipf and Stock who published Religion and Science Fiction, my first edited volume and my first Wipf and Stock book. I think what got me through was actually saying at the submission phase “so, you’re going to send this out for review and here’s what is going to happen . . .”

I also had an instance when someone asked me to contribute to a volume, and so I wrote something specifically for that, only for them to communicate nothing for years and then, after an inquiry, tell me they had published the volume without my piece! My advice for navigating such situations is this: hang onto those things. Rarely if ever will you write something worthwhile and not be able to find a home for it. In this specific instance, I was approached just recently about contributing to a volume and was able to say, not only would I love to contribute, but I may have exactly what you’re looking for more or less already written!

What would you say has been the writing/publishing accomplishment you’re most proud of in your career?

While I have big hopes and excitement for the John the Baptist books coming out, the book that was most transformative for me personally, and that I think offers something truly distinctive and important, is What Jesus Learned from Women. There’s the chapter on the woman accused of adultery, in which I realized that we can know far more about her than previous articles and books have indicated. We simply hadn’t paid her the attention she deserved as a character in the story. There’s the chapter on Joanna/Junia that I didn’t expect to be part of the book until relatively late in the process when a merely interesting possibility—that the two might be the same person—turned out to explain a lot not only about this important Christian leader but also her relative Paul. Working on this also allowed me to really try to appreciate the human person Jesus in a way that both historians and theologians tend to shy away from.

How has the process of writing acted as a mirror for you? What have you learned about yourself over the years as you’ve negotiated your way in the world of academic writing and publishing?

I am a bit disappointed that you didn’t ask me what you asked Nijay Gupta, to describe my life as a writer as an animal! I’m something of a cat, suddenly distracted and chasing some bright shiny new topic. So many possibilities seem like a laser pointer that jumps in a new direction worth pursuing! I easily flit from topic to topic, and it has been relatively rare for something to keep my sustained attention over a long period of time, long enough to produce a monograph. Of course, being at a university where undergraduate teaching is prioritized also means that my professional responsibilities are not configured so as to encourage that. Having a short attention span and being intellectually curious may be two sides of the same coin. One thing that often surprises people is that I would say that, even if it doesn’t provide as much time for research as a senior position at a research university might, working at a place like Butler University is directly responsible for some of the things that I have done, which I would not and could not have at a different sort of institution. I had the freedom to branch out not just from the Gospel of John and Christology where I started but from early Christianity altogether into science fiction, the Mandaeans, and other subjects. At bigger institutions you may have more time to research and write but you are also expected to stay in your lane. The leading New Testament scholar at such a place may be free to shift from Gospels to Paul, for instance, but not to Doctor Who and to the Mandaeans.

This aspect of writing, the question of how it relates to institutional mission, support, and identity, is not really something I thought about earlier in my career, but being where I am has allowed me just the right balance of support and freedom so that I could pursue what interested me. Doing that has given me a chance to get to know myself as an academic in ways that I might not have elsewhere. I felt a degree of urgency prior to tenure, to be sure, but never felt obligated to publish something just because I need to in order to keep my job or be promoted.

For those who can relate to my jumping interest but wonder how to manage that as an academic, I’ve learned to try to have multiple projects to work on, none with a very near deadline, so that when I run out of ideas for one I can turn to another, cycling through them.

What book (or books) are you currently reading?

I have started and need to get back to J. Christopher Edwards’ book Crucified. I also have Holly Carey’s Women Who Do and Sandra Glahn’s Nobody’s Mother at the top of my pile, since I’ll be teaching a course on Women in Early Christianity next year. I also listen to a lot of audiobooks and that is how I make time for fiction as well as some nonfiction. I am currently listening to Cixin Liu’s Death’s End, Stephen Markley’s The Deluge, Michal Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind (I’ll be running a yearlong public lecture series and course next year on religion and the mind), and D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic. I should also mention that I am currently rereading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower again since I am teaching it.

What project are you working on next?

My next big research project is yet to be determined. One idea for a general audience book that I had recently will explore prayer and divine management of the world in connection with the history of how people have thought about the cosmos as having a celestial bureaucracy, and the fact that management and bureaucracy in the workplace and society are the things people often pray in frustration about. At the moment I suspect this might be one of those ideas that I tinker with a bit and then set aside.

I am also in the process of returning to a longer-term collaboration with my colleague in computer science Ankur Gupta to explore the intersection of AI with ethics and religion.

James F. McGrath is the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature. He has written groundbreaking works of scholarship as well as important works aimed at conveying scholarly conclusions to a general audience. Recent works published by Wipf and Stock include Theology and Science FictionWhat Jesus Learned from Women, and The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith.


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