Professors are known for writing books that readers call "hard" and "challenging," terms not known for fostering big sales. Yet as academic publishers show no signs of ratcheting down their involvement in trade books, and while trade houses are ever more interested in academic writers, professors are called upon to address for a popular audience not only timeless religious ideas and history but the most up-to-the-minute timely topics. The latter range across the intersection of religion with current affairs; the controversies sparked by pop novels and movies, like The Da Vinci Code and Mel Gibson's The Passion of theChrist; and the most highly charged of scientific issues, the relationship between evolution and religion.
The 9/11 Bump
In the sub-subcategory of publishing where scholars write trade books about religion, the hottest topics are taken from the headlines. Asked what subjects are of interest to themselves and to readers, publishers and booksellers alike rarely fail to mention 9/11.
At Chicago's Seminary Co-op Bookstore, manager Jack Cella says a big subject for his customers is anything remotely touching on the "clash of civilizations" thesis popularized by Harvard's Samuel Huntington. Over the past year or so, Cella's top seller among scholarly writers has been Karen Armstrong, the nun-turned-academic whose specialty is religious conflict (A History of God, The Battle for God, Islam: A Short History). Bernard Lewis is also a favorite (What Went Wrong, The Crisis of Islam, The Middle East), as is Tariq Ramadan (Western Muslims and the Future of Islam). Ramadan was in the news recently when the U.S., citing security concerns, revoked his visa to enter the country to teach.
Tom Rider, co-owner of Goerings Book Store in Gainesville, which serves the Florida State University community, agreed: "Karen Armstrong really dominates bestselling books in our religion section"—along with Princeton's Elaine Pagels and her latest celebration of gnosticism, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas.
Peter Ginna, editorial director of the trade division at Oxford University Press, calls it "blindingly obvious" that the terror attacks "heightened people's interests in hearing what scholars have to say." He responded in 2002 with Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam and What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam, both by John L. Esposito of Georgetown University.
Andrew Corbin, senior editor at Doubleday, calls 9/11 an "epic-shaping event intimately tied to religion." Yet his new list and that of a variety of other publishers may indicate the high tide of Muslim-related works has passed. Corbin's recently released books include Alan F. Segal's Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion (July) and Bruce Chilton's Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography (Aug.). Segal teaches religion at Barnard; Chilton, author of Rabbi Jesus, teaches at Bard College. The books had initial print runs of 7,000 and 18,000, respectively. Chilton's next work, also for Doubleday and due out next fall, is a biography of Mary Magdalene. "It's not going to be called Rabbi Mary," Corbin assures PW.
Pop Goes Religion
When academics cross over to trade, significance beyond the scholarly community is the name of the game. Winning the game is a safer bet if you are piggybacking on the success of a cultural phenomenon that has already proved fascinating outside academia.
Like, for instance, The Da Vinci Code, which has books about it already piled high on bookstore tables. (Secrets of the Code, The Truth Behind the Da Vinci Code and The Da Vinci Hoax are the current bestsellers on Amazon.) This season brings new entries from professional scholars, including Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code (Oxford, Nov.) by Bart D. Ehrman of the University of North Carolina and The Gospel Code (InterVarsity, Sept.) by Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary (see InProfile in this issue).
Why was Oxford eager to get into the Da Vinci competition? "Because we thought we could make a few bucks," says Peter Ginna, laughing "No, but really, the answer is not much more complicated than that. We're publishers. We're in the business of satisfying the public's curiosity. I guess we should have known there would be 20 other books" on the same subject. But Ehrman's slim tome "is worthy of the Oxford name, which we don't take lightly."
Another media phenomenon, Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ, is dealt with in four new books: Perspectives on The Passion of the Christ (Miramax, July), a collection with no credited editor that includes essays by academics and theologians; Jesus and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (Continuum, Aug.), edited by Kathleen E. Corley of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and Robert L. Webb, an independent scholar; and Re-Viewing the Passion: Mel Gibson's Film and Its Critics (Palgrave, Oct.). Of the most recently released of these, editor Amanda Johnson says Palgrave has printed 5,000 copies to begin with. About the writers collected in the book, she says, "Most of them are academics. We're calling them 'experts,' and they really are." Partly in response to Gibson's film, Doubleday will publish this writer's Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History (Mar. 2005), explaining and defending the traditional position of Jewish religious scholars, outlined in the Talmud, that Jewish authorities indeed were implicated in Jesus' death.
Faith and Science
Timeliness, however, need not always mean responding to current movies and bestselling pop novels. It can also mean scholars clarifying for readers outside the scholarly world the most up-to-date scientific matters as they pertain to faith—especially cosmology and evolution.
John Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest and Fellow of Queens' College, Cambridge, is a star in the growing field of scientists writing about the intersection of science and religion. Yale University published his Belief in God in an Age of Science (1998), which sold 12,000 copies in cloth and another 12,000 in paperback. His Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter with Reality came out from Yale in September and has sold about 3,000 copies so far.
If the new Polkinghorne volume "hasn't sold as well" as the 1998 one, says Yale's publishing director, Tina C. Weiner, that is because "it's a little narrower in scope." Reflecting on another book from Yale, God's Last Words: Reading the English Bible from the Reformation to Fundamentalism (2004) by David S. Katz of Tel Aviv University, Weiner notes that breadth of scope can mean the difference between a scholarly book that breaks out among non-professors and one that doesn't. "If it really delves into the subject, with a lot of footnotes, and it's not an overview, that can discourage some people," he adds.
Also capitalizing on the scholarly debate about evolution, InterVarsity has published The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design (2004) by Baylor University's William Dembski, a leading theorist in the study of intelligent design, an alternative to orthodox neo-Darwinism more amenable to religious faith. In a similar vein, Regnery Publishing offers The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery (2004) by Guillermo Gonzalez, Iowa State, and Jay Richards, of Seattle's Discovery Institute, showing that the earth itself gives evidence of design.
In a very different vein, Doubleday addresses the evolution question by using Darwinism to explain away religion as the effect of The God Gene (Sept.). The subject of an October 25 Time magazine cover story, the book by National Cancer Institute geneticist Dean Hamer has taken fire from fellow believers in Darwinian evolution. Scientific American pointed out that the only evidence for Hamer's claim comes from a study that Hamer himself has been conducting, but that he has not yet submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
The Human Condition
A book like The God Gene seems to do the opposite of what you expect of the classic religious book: namely, inspire the reader. But "inspiration" is a word at which professional academics may look askance. In the category of "trade religion books by scholars," apart from the timely works, there are books on more timeless themes. But these walk a fine line, seeking to avoid the opprobrium associated with pure spiritual uplift.
Reed Malcolm, religion editor at the University of California Press, explains, "We can't be too inspirational or religious because we're a secular press." It's also relevant, he says, that U.C. is a state institution: "We can't preach religion— we're a public university. We can't say pray to Jesus or you'll go to Hell."
Nevertheless, one of his books this year is on a subject where a detached, academic perspective might seem out of place: death. The book is On Our Way: The Final Passage Through Life and Death (May), by Robert Kastenbaum of Arizona State. The author writes not only of other people's "final passage" but his own—he had a near-death experience and survived to write a tome touching upon the topic. If that's not unacademic enough to draw the trade audience, he also invokes 9/11 in his introduction: "The terrorist attacks... stunned the survivors and much of the world. Even those in the immediate vicinity of the World Trade Center had difficulty believing their eyes." Comparing the book to Tuesdays with Morrie, Malcolm suggests a fine distinction for the academic-turned-trade author to keep in mind: "I would say if [On Our Way] isn't inspirational, it is enlightening, and that is comforting."
Speaking of enlightenment, at Oxford, editor Elda Rotor will bring out the next installment in the publisher's Seven Deadly Sins series. The latest is Anger (Nov.) by Columbia University Buddhism scholar Robert A.F. Thurman. Rotor, the book's editor, only acquires trade books for the press and says that in the religion area, "The trick for us is to find what are the enduring topics, the classic issues or questions." Anger, it is safe to say, fits that bill.
The Present Through the Past
Besides uplift, the other major traditional species of trade religious book is the historical genre. This, really, is the Old Faithful of trade-meets-academe in the religion field.
The past and present of exotic religious traditions are not ignored. At Columbia University Press, editorial director Jennifer Crewe says that for the Columbia Contemporary American Religion Series, the publisher surveyed college and high school librarians, asking what traditions their patrons had asked about and would be most interested in understanding better. "Sometimes it has to do with Muslims moving in next door," says Crewe, "sometimes it's a school project." The latest in the series, New Age and Neopagan Religions in America (July, 2004) by Sarah M. Pike (InProfile, this issue) of California State University, Chico, traces the development of "alternative spirituality" from the Salem witch trials to modern Wicca.
But in the history genre, Yale's Tina Weiner says early Christianity is the hot subject. While New Testament studies are getting a boost from the popularity of The Da Vinci Code and The Passion, she notes that Yale, like other presses, had been publishing heavily in the area "even before The Da Vinci Code." (Still, Yale's most notable trade title this year is American Judaism: A History, by Brandeis University's Jonathan Sarna.)
By coincidence, this year there are not one but four books about the apostle Paul: Bruce Chilton's is joined by one from Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, Paul: His Story (Oxford, June), In Search of Paul: How Jesus' Apostle Opposed Rome's Empire with God's Kingdom by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed (Harper San Francisco, Oct.) and The Gospel According to Paul: The Creative Genius Who Brought Jesus to the World by Robin Griffith-Jones (Harper San Francisco, Mar.). Meanwhile Chilton's biography of Mary Magdalene (cast as a heroine in The Da Vinci Code) was preceded by The Gospels of Mary: The Secret Tradition of Mary Magdalene, the Companion of Jesus by Marvin Meyer with Esther A. De Boer (Harper San Francisco, Apr.).
Moving up a millennium and a half after the New Testament period, the Reformation and its hero, Martin Luther, are receiving ample attention this year from Viking. The publisher has brought out The Reformation: A History (May) by Oxford University's Diarmaid MacCulloch and, in the Penguin Lives Series, Martin Luther (Feb. 2004) by the prolific Martin Marty, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
According to Viking associate publisher Paul Slovak, no less a figure than Susan Petersen Kennedy, president of the Penguin Group (USA), used editorial meetings and lunches to let subordinates know that "Americans are very keenly interested in religion and want to read serious books that have a lot of scholarship, but are not written in a private language that's hard to understand." Slovak took the directive to heart, also editing, besides the MacCulloch book, the forthcoming Whose Bible Is It?: A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages (Mar. 2005) by Yale's Jaroslav Pelikan.
As Petersen Kennedy may have had in mind, religion is in fact probably the academic field most susceptible to the transition to trade publishing. Unlike, say, law or history or physics, it arouses the most intense passions from all kinds of people. Nobody goes to war over opposing theories of jurisprudence or about differing philosophies of historiography. At the same time, religion involves the parsing of ancient, very difficult and cryptic texts, starting with the Bible. It really requires expertise—in a way that political "science" or literature simply do not. Put these two facts together—passions aroused, expertise required—and it's easy to see why publishers seek out scholars to address religious matters for the general public.