Why a book on a vestige of Catholicism’s past from an author who is better known for nudging the church into the 21st century?

I said in my book Why I Am a Catholic (Houghton Mifflin, 2002) that I say the rosary every day and my editor Carolyn Carlson said, “That’s interesting. Why don’t you write and tell us why?” So I did. Since I say it every day, I reflect on these matters every day, so it was very simple to put down the kind of reflecting I do. I really didn’t do anything new for this book except some of the history of the rise of the practice.

You describe the rosary as more than a mechanical exercise—an aid to contemplation and meditation on the life of Christ. What is your personal history of the devotion? Has it ever been mechanical for you?

Oh sure, sometimes. When I started as a child, I thought of it in terms of getting an indulgence. Now, I don’t have that many prayers that I can afford to jettison one I’m familiar with. I never say it more than once a day. It could be anytime—anytime when I take a break—but mainly when I’m walking.

The book includes your own translations of the Christian scriptures. How long have you been doing these?

For a long time. Whenever I’ve written about them. I learned Greek in high school, my doctorate is in the classics, and I taught Greek for eight years, so I read the New Testament in Greek and I often read it at Mass. I understand the New Testament better because I read it in Greek. Most translations are pretty faulty for a lot of reasons. They’re too dignified. They also have weird accumulations of false traditions, like the translation of the Our Father.

Why did you choose the Renaissance artist Tintoretto’s paintings as illustrations and subjects of reflection for this book?

For years, we’ve gone to Venice every year, and I wrote a book on Venice (Venice,LionCity: The Religion of Empire, Simon & Schuster, 2001) which concentrates a great deal on Tintoretto. He’s always amazed me and awed me. I think he has more theological awareness, more profundity, than most painters.

Could readers use your book as an aid to praying the rosary?

As a preparation to praying it. I want to convince them it’s a worthwhile exercise and then they have to do the exercise on their own.

Can we expect more of this kind of writing from you?

I’ll be doing some of that, but I’ll have a big book on Henry Adams coming out later this year and two big projects following that. One is on the history of church-state relations in America. The other is going to be on the national security state, the whole growth of the permanent war state, so it’s a political book. The [four books in the] Augustine series (Confessions: Childhood, Memory, Sin, and Conversion) and this book are devotional books. Carolyn Carlson has an idea for me to do another one, which I’m considering, but I don’t want to say what it is yet.

This article originally appeared in the July 20, 2005 issue of Religion BookLine. For more information about Religion BookLine, including a sample and subscription information,click here»