Describe your latest project.
Twenty-five years ago I taught a university course called "The Problem of Suffering in the Biblical Traditions." In it we looked at different biblical answers to why there is suffering in the world if there is a loving and all-powerful God in control of it. This is the basic question of what is called "theodicy" (= the problem of God's justice): if God is all loving, he doesn't want people to suffer, but to thrive; if he is all powerful, he is able to prevent suffering in all its forms; and yet there is suffering. How does one explain all three statements? How can they all be true at once? That's the question of theodicy, and it was the question that, in my class, we asked of a range of biblical authors and writings, from the Old Testament Prophets to the New Testament apostle Paul, from Job to Jesus, from Genesis to Revelation.
In the years since the course, I've continued to ponder, puzzle, wonder, and reflect on this problem. In those intervening years, largely because of these reflections, I moved from being a committed church-going Christian to become an agnostic. I no longer know whether God exists. But if he does exist, I'm convinced that he is not the God I was raised to believe in, a God who intervenes in history on behalf of his people to answer their prayers and to save them from their pain.
In God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question ? Why We Suffer, I tell the story of my spiritual journey in order to set up the big question: How does the Bible deal with the problem of suffering? What I show in the book is that different biblical authors had very different answers to the question. Some of these answers cannot be reconciled with one another (the prophets Amos with Daniel, Job or Ecclesiastes with Revelation; and so on). Still, all of them have been sources of hope and inspiration for believing people over the centuries, and continue to be so today.
This then is a very personal book for me, about the most important question that we as humans face, based on the most important set of religious texts in our civilization, and rooted in my own personal struggles over how to make sense of this world of pain and suffering that is ? according to the biblical authors ? under the control of a good and loving God.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I'll name two authors and two books, a classic and a modern novel. Charles Dickens, in my view, is the most amazing author of the nineteenth century; his characters (most of them caricatures, but brilliantly drawn) evoke passion, love, hate, inspiration, and longing. His best book, in my opinion, is David Copperfield (although it's hard to judge: I'm right now re-reading Bleak House, which is also amazing; as is Great Expectations; Our Mutual Friend; and... well and most of them). My second author is a modern writer, John Irving. His book A Prayer for Owen Meany is the most powerful novel of the twentieth century for me, a deeply spiritual and moving book, one that ? were I still a believer ? would embody the kind of faith I would seek to emulate.
How do you relax?
I watch a lot of sports on TV (just about everything) and in person (college basketball!). I work out three or four times a week. We love to go hiking, especially in Europe. I love to read, especially novels, every day. I love to sit in front of a fire listening to good music and getting lost in my thoughts.
What is your idea of absolute happiness?
Well, I'm pretty close to it these days. A fantastic job teaching at a top-level university with terrific graduate students and wonderful, attentive, and interesting undergraduates. A brilliant and beautiful wife who is not only the brains of the family but is also a dialogue partner without peer. She's also funny, caring, loving, and passionate about life. Two wonderful (now grown) kids who have become fantastic human beings (after being fantastic kids ? still human beings, though!). A new granddaughter who is, by all accounts, the most perfect human yet to appear on the face of the earth. The chance to write whatever books I want, saying whatever I want to say in them. Opportunities to give lectures around the country ? around the world ? and to appear on radio programs and TV talk shows. The ability ? and the will! ? to buy fine wine and good single malt scotch. Friends with whom to enjoy good food and good company. My absolute dream house. A flat in Wimbledon near my wife's family. And it just goes on and on. I don't think it gets much better than this.
What is your favorite indulgence, either wicked or benign?
I have two, actually. Top level single malt scotch (lots of brands: one year we hiked the West Highland Way in Scotland, for about ten days, and the three of us ? Sarah, her brother, and I ? each got a different single malt each night and sampled them all. Thirty in one expedition!); and very fine cigars (a nasty habit if you're simply in the room, but a good cigar is an amazing thing if you have the time and inclination to enjoy it).
Why do you write?
For me, this is asking, why do I breathe? Writing has become such an intrinsic part of my life that I can't imagine doing something else. My wife, a brilliant medievalist who teaches at cross-town rival Duke, and I sometimes joke that there are some scholars who read and some who write. She reads and I write. That's not exactly fair: she writes a lot, too (uncannily penetrating studies of medieval and early modern drama), and I read a lot. But she reads voraciously, more than anyone I've ever known. Ever. And she thinks that I write a ridiculous amount. She may be right. Actually, I like to write three kinds of books, and for three different reasons. Even though I've started writing popular books for the Barnes and Noble crowd, I continue to write serious scholarship for scholars. It's important, I think, not simply to be a popularizer of knowledge but to continue to press the limits of knowledge and to generate new knowledge. These are books that most people would never read, only those in my field of early Christian scholarship. I'm currently doing research on one about literary forgeries in early Christianity (some of which made it into the New Testament!). Second, I like to write college-level textbooks. I have a popular textbook on the New Testament, and am now working on a textbook on the entire Bible, Genesis to Revelation. I also have several anthologies of ancient texts that get used in college courses. I like doing this kind of book because at heart I'm a teacher, and there is little I enjoy more than making scholarship accessible to college students in their very formative years. And third, I like to write the tradebooks for normal human beings (as opposed, I suppose, to abnormal scholars). So far, my most popular one has been Misquoting Jesus, and the results of that book have been very instructive for me. Two years ago, when I published the book, I taught a class of 250 students in New Testament in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and the book sold, eventually, over 250,000 copies. So there is a comparison: I can reach 250 people with my teaching ? which is hugely important and what I have committed my professional career to doing! ? but I can also reach 250,000 people with my writing. That's one of the reasons I write. I think early Christianity is so amazingly important for our culture and society, and that people need to learn the true nature of the earliest stages of the religion. Through my writing, I can help make that happen.
Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
Cats. Three of them. All wonderful. But Tom and I have a special thing.
In the For-All-Eternity category, what will be your final thought?
"Oh boy, I hope I was right..."
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
The following are simply the five most important books to my life, books that have changed the way I have looked at the world or understood it and my relationship to it, books that have made me rethink who I am and who I want to be:
1. The Bible. The most important book in the history of our form of civilization, without peer.
2. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. I've read it at least ten times ? before the movies came out! ? and have always resonated with its theme of good ultimately triumphing over evil. (And wish/hope that it's right.)
3. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. A book that I simply resonate with personally, as in a sense telling my story.
4. Adam Bede by George Eliot. A book that gives characters (especially Adam) that I wish I could emulate in my life.
5. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. In my experience, the most powerful, spiritual, and moving book of the twentieth century.
A Bonus: My five all time favorite Jesus movies.
1. Jesus of Montreal. Tops by far. An amazing movie that isn't nearly as well known as it should be.
2. The Last Temptation of Christ. Gets better and more intriguing every time I see it.
3. Jesus Christ Superstar. Best soundtrack by far, and such a terrific period piece.
4. The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Directed by Passolini, a Marxist atheist, and dedicated to the Pope ? anyone who can figure that out has gone a long way to understanding the movie. Brilliantly executed.
5. The Life of Brian. How could I possibly leave it off the list?