Memory and history
Dale Allison spent most of a year reading everything he could about memory and how it works. That research changed the way he thinks and learns about Jesus. It also became the basis for his new book, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Baker Academic, Nov.).
"The book comes from two things: first is my disillusionment with how people typically go about finding out about Jesus. They take a phrase or action and try to prove its authenticity based on certain criterion," says Allison. "The second is the research on memory. What I learned about it unsettled me because I concluded that the preponderance of research shows human memory is much less exact than we think it is."
Allison, the Errett M. Grable professor of New Testament exegesis and early Christianity at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, had to ask himself what to do with this research as a historian of Jesus. "Instead of looking at a saying of Jesus, I'm looking at bunches of sayings and seeing what they have in common," he says. "I'm looking for patterns, taking a big-picture approach to the gospels."
He uses the example of a crash at a busy intersection. Many people see the crash, but each recalls different things or recalls the same thing differently, but they all remember the bigger incident of the crash.
"Once I discover a pattern, I ask myself what is the best way to explain it," says Allison, author of more than 20 books. One larger pattern, he says, is that Jesus foretold his death often. Another is that Jesus gave little sermons and discourses throughout his ministry. Jesus had a series of stock sermons, according to Allison, and the gospels are remnants of these discourses.
"I'm not trying to offer theological questions and explanations. I'm shelving the question of whether Jesus was God. This is an attempt to look at the gospel using modern historical methods. Memory hasn't been a traditional method, but it has to be now."
Allison's audience is his academic peers and interested laypeople. "My book takes as its context a critical academic skepticism," says Allison. "I'm not denying the accuracy of the details, but there is a more sensible place to start."—Ann Byle.
Scholar plumbs the dilemma of his youth
Growing up in Turkey, considered a secular Muslim country, young Timur Kuran was taught all about the virtues of secularism, as well as the vices of Islamic influence on society. "You learned in school that Islam was part of the problem, a glorious empire that had fallen behind," the Duke University professor of economics and Islamic studies recalls. Kuran wanted to explore that assumption, but the topic was off limits. "It is the puzzle that has been on my mind for decades," he says.
Kuran tabled his dilemma while he attended Princeton and then Stanford for his doctorate in economics. Years later, at the University of Southern California, where Kuran had his first postdoctoral teaching job, he came across several books by Islamists, who blamed the economic woes of Muslim countries on Muslims' own failures to practice their religion properly—exactly the opposite of what Kuran was taught in Turkey. Inspired, Kuran authored a brief essay critiquing the Islamists' view that only strict adherence to Islamic law would improve the lot of Muslims. With the surprise publication of the essay in 1983), Kuran was soon heralded as an expert on Islam's interplay with economics.
Kuran's scholarly work shifted to focus on that topic. Having completed what he calls "Phase One"—focusing on contemporary attempts to Islamize modern economies—Kuran, with his new book, The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East (Princeton, Dec.), enters "Phase Two," looking at the historical influence of Islamic law on economic development. Employing a team of research assistants, including American students, Kuran reviewed more than 7,500 pages of Ottoman records from Turkish government archives, covering court records and governmental edicts.
Kuran's thesis—that many Islamic practices, while appropriate in the golden age of Islamic culture (ninth–13th centuries ), held Muslim societies back in following centuries and continue to hamper development—is a new way to look at old questions. Kuran says that Bernard Lewis's influential argument that Muslims lacked curiosity is wrong: "There was plenty of curiosity. It wasn't conservative across the board. It was just conservative in certain areas." The argument that the application of Islamic law to Middle Eastern economies has held them back developmentally is Kuran's solution for the puzzle that has intrigued him, and many others, for decades. —Asma Hasan
Tracking the God-haters
On a flight from Tulsa to Chicago, Bernard Schweizer read these words by Denis Saurat: "A whole world of ideas need to be recovered behind the words ‘the Supreme evil, God.' May the critics begin." Then Schweizer made a discovery: multiple writers from different decades—including Mark Twain and Rebecca West—had a mutual hatred of God, yet continued to believe.
Now an associate professor of English at Long Island University, Schweizer lived the first half of his life in Switzerland. Despite his politically neutral upbringing, Schweizer says he always had an interest in rebels and dissenters. Perhaps this is what helped him maintain his focus on the dissenting hatred of God throughout the 10 years he worked on his latest book, Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism (Oxford, Nov.).
Schweizer calls this dissent from worship "misotheism" (Greek for "hatred of God"). In 2000, he Googled the word and received zero returns. He assumed he had coined a new term, only to read on a Wikipedia page in 2007 that the term had been used twice before. But previously when citations of misotheism had appeared, people dismissed it out of hand. "There seems to be this resistance or unwillingness to bother with this subject," he tells PW. "It may simply be too shocking to admit."
Schweizer found that hatred of God appears most often in literature, where anger finds a creative outlet. In Hating God, he quotes authors who used such names for God as "master criminal" and "road crusher on a cosmic scale."
But Schweizer says authors in the West no longer find the attitude shameful. Today if you Google "misotheism," you get more than 800,000 results. Schweizer hopes that through this book, readers who feel betrayed by God will realize they are not alone and can still be decent people, like Twain and West. Oxford plans to market the book to general readers as well as scholars. —Jackie Walker