Futility is a specialization of those of us who consider ourselves fans of Ecclesiastes. Thus it is that the blog of an editor gets so little attention among academics. Since you’ve been kind enough to drop in, I’m going to share some secrets with you. Make sure the door is closed. Ready? I want to talk about academic publishing. If you, like me, have written academic monographs, you’ve probably figured out that we aren’t famous yet. What’s going on here? What happened to the day when “I wrote a book” meant something? Like all organisms, academic publishing evolves. Many academics want to write for a wider audience, but sometimes miss the bigger picture. Here are some tips to help out:
If you want to write for non-academics get to know some. A good first step is ditching the jargon. “Prosopography” wasn’t on many people’s SAT vocabulary flash cards. Even if you know how to use a thesaurus to find an archaic synonym to use, don’t assume your reader will do the same. Try reading a novel once in a while. They can teach academics quite a bit about how to communicate. Learning to speak the vernacular is only part of the battle, though. The larger part is learning what is of interest outside the academy. Some things, such as Ecclesiastes, aren’t. Oh, I know, I know! Five years of your life spent on some obscure topic should be worth publication. It probably is. A handful of people will read it (print run numbers would only make you weep). If you want to reach a wider readership, you have to go where people actually live. What’s of interest to them? Hoi polloi. They won’t bite. To write for a wider readership you need to learn what people find interesting and what they simply don’t.
An editor can be your friend here. You see, editors are measured by how well their books sell. We can usually tell at a glance if a topic is in the “less than 200 copy” camp or not. I know that you were taught in your doctoral program to find some abstruse subject never before addressed and research it from every possible angle. Write up your results and publish. A far better way to write for a wider readership is to begin a conversation with your editor. Are you thinking of a book on a specific topic? An editor can tell you if it’s likely to work or not. The idea of writing the book your colleagues said would be hot and then finding a publisher seldom works to everyone’s satisfaction. It’s all about communication. And you, dear readers, now know something most professors don’t.
Ecclesiastes, I used to tell my students, is one of the most unusual books of the Bible. And that’s saying something. When we think of the Good Book we think of pious thoughts and lofty feelings—you know, the white-shirt, evangelical sort. The Bible, however, isn’t what most people think it is. Ecclesiastes, nestled right there near the geographic center of the Protestant Bible (and there’s more to say about this) is a book unlike any other. It is philosophical, weighty, and somewhat gloomy. It is a book where God can’t be relied on to help you and the world may very well be against you. It honestly admits that things just aren’t as they should be. “The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouting of a ruler among fools,” it says, “Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one bungler destroys much good.” (That’s 9:17-18, in case you want to check me out.)
America used to be known around the world for its pragmatism. Now it’s being laughed at as the master of irrationality. I remember when elections were matters of gravitas and serious consideration of the issues. They’ve now become high school popularity contests, even including the locker-room talk. Trump insults his own party and they kiss up. We have a president more impressed by kid’s toys in Saudi Arabia than by the top-notch research universities in his own country. I turn to Ecclesiastes for consolation. It’s a good book to read when everything’s going wrong. “For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten.”
My white-shirted friends will surely object. I’m taking verses out of context—prooftexting, it’s called. But, my evangelical friends, you say Scripture is the word of God. Fully inspired and inerrant, is it not? How can you dismiss the wise, wonderful, woeful book of Ecclesiastes? The world is a complex place. Those who seek office as public servants should at least be able to distinguish the servant from the master. They lay their hand upon the Bible to take a sacred oath of office. Beneath that withered hand lies the book of Ecclesiastes, forsaken among its more cheerful siblings. Do not forget Ecclesiastes. It is the book that best makes sense of our day. “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning; the patient in spirit are better than the proud in spirit.” Herein lieth the truth.
Fate can be decidedly cruel sometimes. Accidental discoveries can be the most painful of all. As my regular readers know, I wrote a book on the Psalms (Weathering the Psalms, Wipf & Stock—on sale now!) while teaching at Nashotah House seminary. I sent the manuscript to Oxford University Press, and it was declined on the basis of one review. Subsequently, I met the reviewer at a conference reception and he is now working on a book proposal for me. Such are the ironies of life. I can let that go with a chuckle of existentialist bonhomie. The twist of fate comes in through helping a colleague with a question about the Psalms. I grabbed the nearest book at work that would help, the newly published Oxford Handbook of the Psalms. I’d glanced through it before, but this time it fell open to the contributor’s page and the words “Nashotah House” fell upon my eye.
During my years at the seminary, I published at least one academic article a year, as well as a book, and I attended and delivered papers at the major professional conference every year. No one ever approached me about contributing to a Handbook, apart from my advisor and friend Nick Wyatt. I labored at building an academic career for 14 years in obscurity. Now, the newly hired replacement (not the faculty member hired to replace me) gets invited to contribute to a major reference work. I do not know the man. He may be a perfectly personable chap. Some of us, however, can work our hardest and never get noticed. It seems as if the world of scholarship is really just a house of cards.
Perhaps in times of schlock and flaw, such as these, I should turn to Ecclesiastes for comfort, rather than Psalms. Yes, the Psalms say some pretty challenging things to God—not as challenging as Job or Jeremiah, but still. Ecclesiastes, however, is the one to calm the intellectual’s soul. There are those who claim that the Bible no longer has any utility in a post-Christian society. Wise Qohelet, I’m sure, might just agree, even as he disagrees. I tried, without benefit of sabbatical, and with additional administrative duties, to make an academic life for myself. I was, in reality, just shuffling the deck with old Solomon. We took turns building layer upon layer, he and I, both knowing that our house, like any built on sand, could never stand. It must be some of that sand in my eyes; otherwise I can’t explain why they are watering so.
Posted in Bible, Books, Higher Education, Memoirs, Posts, Psalms, Religious Violence
Tagged Ecclesiastes, Nashotah House, Nick Wyatt, Oxford Handbook of the Psalms, Oxford University Press, Psalms, Solomon, Weathering the Psalms
Barbara Brown Taylor is a name about which I wish to learn more. Although Time magazine predictably runs a religious-themed issue around Easter, the year’s cover story, “Finding God in the Dark,” hit some resonant chords immediately. A friend of mine writes a blog called Bleak Theology, and my own posts often linger in those nether regions where, if we’re honest, we don’t know what we might find. Barbara Brown Taylor has been exploring these themes for years on a spiritual journey that has her deciding, as many of us know, that the dark is not evil. Fear is a kind of spiritual elixir. I watch horror movies. I read gothic novels. I awake daily before the sun, and do my best thinking in the dark. The key, as I would humbly suggest, is to be honest about life. When I preached, the students who understood that would say they appreciated my honesty. After all, before the beginning, all was darkness.
The article on Taylor, by Elizabeth Dias, is moody but appreciative. Taylor has the experience of being an Episcopal priest, a professor, a preacher, and a recognized author as her journey has led her to appreciate the dark. Some of us understand that the biblical books that are the darkest—Ecclesiastes, Job, and Psalms—are also the most honest. These are books to read in the dark.
Nature has evolved us to trust our eyes for survival. Fear of the dark is not something instilled in humans by protective parents—it is a consequence of having to survive in a jungle where you too are prey. We can’t see well at night, so that is the time we close our eyes and make ourselves vulnerable to the nocturnal beasts. Those beasts are, of course, spiritual. Somewhere on our journey to shallow religions of the modern era, we’ve come to believe that religion is all about sunshine and light. Evangelicals often believe that feeling good is a sign of blessing and depression is from the devil. Religion, however, from the beginning, has not shied away from the heavier side of human existence. If all were clear and bright, what need would we have of religion? In our experience, however, life has a substantial amount of trials and difficulties. There’s a lot of fumbling in the dark. If we can learn, with Barbara Brown Taylor, that not seeing is true insight, we might indeed learn a lesson about life in a world that is dark, literally, half of the time.
Posted in Bible, Current Events, Mysticism, Posts, Psalms, Sects
Tagged Barbara Brown Taylor, bleak theology, Ecclesiastes, Elizabeth Dias, Episcopalians, evangelicalism, Finding God in the Dark, Job, Psalms, Time magazine