Reflections of a Writer

 

 

I can’t account for my interest in writing.

In fact, I did not publish my first book until I was over 50 (Is the New Testament History?).

I was asked to write it – by Helen Harrison (who trained at Deaconess House) and who worked as an editor with Hodder and Stoughton.

I had, though, attempted to write a commentary on Second Corinthians for the Bible Speaks Today series, but my several drafts had been so heavily criticised I had virtually given up.  Then a new editor was appointed who took pity on me and it finally appeared.

Once again, though, I did not write the BST Second Corinthians commentary because I wanted to write per se, but because I had a mission to explain the message of that epistle, which I thought was rather obscure to many people, apart from the purple passages.

These chance events revealed a latent passion that has indeed become a passion.  Not always a healthy passion.

I am reminded of helping at my son David’s Garage Sale.
If you have never been involved in a Garage Sale, my advice to you is don’t.

When we left our Chatswood home we had a Garage Sale.  This was no mere Saturday Morning event.  Oh no.  It was a four-day saga, that began when the ad appeared on the previous Wednesday.  People hammering on the door at all hours of the day and night.  One man actually pushed past Anita into the house and had to be semi-forcefully ejected.  I have never met such a concentration of strange and weird people in such a short time.  My crowning folly was that I sold two china roosters an uncle had give Anita, for three dollars.  No wonder the dealer took off like a jumbo jet.  They were worth $1000.

At any rate, when I was helping my son at his Garage Sale, an early arrival was a  lady of Eastern European appearance.  She said to my son in heavy Russian accent, ‘I don’t know why I am here, I think it must be a sickness’.

I sometimes think that writing is a kind of a sickness.  I don’t exactly know why I do it.   It must be a sickness.

It isn’t exactly easy to know why you do it.  Books don’t stay in print for long and you certainly wouldn’t do it for the money.  Even books by great ones are superseded fairly soon.  When I studied theology the big names were people like C.H. Dodd and Rudolph Bultmann.  It is sobering to find that scholars who were huge figures in their day scarcely appear in footnotes today. To say nothing of Lightfoot and Westcott from an earlier generation.

One interesting exception is someone you may not have heard of.  He is Percy Gardner-Smith who, to my knowledge, only wrote one book.  It was a little book with a simple theme.  Gardner-Smith wrote near the outbreak of WW2.  It was a book about the Gospel of John.  His thesis was that John wrote independently of the other Gospels.  He simply compared the dozen or so incidents common to John and the Synoptics and demonstrated Johannine literary independence.

This was an achievement that has had huge implications for the historical authenticity of John and therefore of its significance for theology.  Gardner-Smith’s little book sat ticking away like a time bomb for many years before exploding in the 1960’s and became the basis of the so-called ‘New Look’ on the Fourth Gospel.

Of course, many – possibly a majority – continue to reject the independence thesis.  Some years ago a high level conference attended largely by doubters was devoted entirely to Garner-Smith and his thesis.  A huge volume of papers was published with article after article attacking Percy Gardner-Smith.  The irony is that his was just a little book, with few references or footnotes.  And he was himself a minor figure.  Yet his one little book is a kind of a classic.

I am a minor figure, infinitely more so than Gardner-Smith.  I would love to write just one book, one little book that would make its mark.  I would even change my name to Percy if that would help.

That is a pipedream.  So one writes in the sober realisation that your book into which you have poured so much of yourself will be in print for just a few years and then finish up – maybe – in a dusty second hand outlet for 50 cents.

Another equally impractical pipedream is to write a  fictionalised biography of Herod Antipas, the one Jesus called ‘that fox’.  I wrote a draft chapter to show my brilliantly educated daughter, Sarah to read.  She had one unforgettable word, ‘clunky.’  So I will probably stick to commentaries and NT histories.

So do books help people?  They do, indeed.  It is very gratifying to get feedback along that line.  Books – even books like mine – do help people.  And it is this more than anything else that keeps you at it.

Books have had a special place in God’s revelation of himself to the world.  Our Bible is a collection of sixty-six ‘books’ from dozens of writers.  The teachers and prophets under the Old Covenant felt impelled to write their words down for people to have them read to them.  Likewise, the disciples of the Lord quickly put his words and deeds into written form.  The opening lines of Luke’s Gospel make that clear.  That Gospel, like the other three, sees Jesus to be the God-given fulfilment of the promises of the Law and the Prophets.  Thus the writings of the apostles are connected with those of the prophets to become one volume, the Sacred Writings or Holy Scriptures.  About one thing, at least, the Qur’an is correct, Christians are ‘the people of the book’.

For Isaiah, then, as much as for St Paul, there was the challenge of the empty page staring them in the face.  Rather, I should say, the empty scroll.  In time the scroll gave way to the codex, individual pages, bound at one side.  The codex was in fact the book.  The early Christians needed texts for reading in the rapidly multiplying churches.  The scroll was cumbersome and must give way to the codex.  The codex was one of the great innovations of history and most likely arose or was popularised by the early Christians.  The codex was a great leap forward, enhanced hugely by the printing press.  It is to be doubted that the computer will ever eclipse the book.

The codex or ‘book’ became important for apologists and theologians, in those early post apostolic centuries, and it remains important today.  Dan Brown writes his subversive Da Vinci Code and Ben Witherington makes a reply.  Books will continue to be important in the propagation and defence of the Gospel.

But writing is hard work, even with word processors.  You write, re-write, re-write again, and again.  So many drafts and changes.  Struggling to get the right word and the right way of expressing your idea.  Mozart just wrote his music.  That was it, straight from heaven.  No re-drafts.  The Barchester Chronicles author Trollope had a day-time job (in the post office or something like that).  He had a large family to support and got up early to write to a fixed schedule of so many thousand words each morning.  Like Mozart he didn’t do any re-drafts.  But that is not me and it is not most authors.  This sickness is also hard work.

This author is self-taught.  His secondary schooling post WW2 was poor with returned soldiers with half finished degrees teaching him.  His matric results were mediocre, but this was no fault of theirs.  No BA for him on matriculation, with it exposure to fine literature and the critical study of history.  His one and only secular job was as a Quantity Surveyor in the Building Industry, a universe away from literature, writing and historiography.

In fact, it was the study of theology that opened up these areas.  Theology truly is the ‘queen of the sciences’.  What other discipline includes languages so diverse as Greek and Hebrew, the historical worlds of the ancient near east and of the Greeks and the Romans as well as the history of the world from the time of Jesus until today?  Is there another course of study that involves such diverse worlds of ideas and of close exegesis of texts of so many different literary forms as in this ‘queen of the sciences’?

One of the people of most help to me was my MA thesis supervisor Dr Dick Baumann (who was one of my teachers in ancient history at the University of Sydney).  I took these history studies after theology.  He told me that my writing was too technical.  ‘Put your technical stuff in footnotes’, he said.  Is your wife a historian?  ‘No’, I said, ‘very clever, but not a historian’.  ‘Then’, he said, ‘write your text for her’.

That has been my guiding rule ever since.  Even when I am writing something technical I do not write it technically with esoteric specialist language.  I always write as simply as I can.  That helps me to know what I am talking about, something that writing in technicalities can easily obscure.  Also, I see no point in writing to impress the academy.  I sense that many journalists write for fellow journalists just as many academics just write ‘in house’, as it were.  If I am to write it must be accessible to ordinary people.  So my simple rules are to use good words but known words and to write in short sentences, avoiding the passive voice where possible.

It has not been easy to sustain this passion.  It has always had to be fitted in, usually by very early rises in the morning.  Becoming an assistant bishop in this diocese would probably mean the end of the writing I had been able to do at Robert Menzies College.  Or so I thought.

No book was in prospect then either from publisher or within my head.  That was a matter of concern since I knew what is said of scholars who become academic deans in seminaries.  In the first year you stop writing.  In the second you stop reading.  In the third you stop thinking.  I knew that the Bishop’s job could do that to you too, though it hadn’t done that to Augustine, Westcott or Lightfoot.  But I was resigned to a future with no more books from my pen.

Then out of the blue Dr Gordon Fee the new editor of the New International NT commentary series asked me to do Second Corinthians.  This was a huge honour, which I politely and gratefully declined.  Then I told Anita I had said no.  She said, ‘Do it.  You will become dead boring if you don’t have some research to do’.  So I did it.  It took six years, mostly between 5 and 8 in the mornings still in pjamas.  One morning while it was still dark as I crept from bed, Anita opened one eye and said, ‘You are going to be with that Corinthian woman’.  I have often told people about that so forgive me if you have heard it before.  It was such a brilliant line.

At a personal level I have mixed feelings about writing.  Hopefully books I write are of some help.  Writing keeps your mind fresh and forces you to know what is happening in your field.  I have to say, though, that I don’t think writing always makes you better person.  Because it is so focused it tends to exclude other things, in particular it may shrink you as a relating being.  I suspect there is a particular form of suffering for spouses of writers.  The book of the moment becomes your world, as it must.  You suffer from the glazed eye syndrome; the mind is elsewhere.  Anita encourages me as a writer, but it is not easy for her.  ‘It’s like living with someone who has been doing a PhD for twenty years’, she said.

The answer I have sought (with mixed success) is to limit writing to particular times of the day and to days of the week, even to months of the year.  Self-discipline is critical.  You have to turn off the computer and switch your mind off from that book.  Dig the garden.  Read something else.  Get out and see the big game.  Go fishing.  Play with grandchildren.  Go to the movies.  But then switch on the computer and write a few more pages.  Above all, don’t just be thinking of finishing the book and the intermediate deadlines.  Enjoy the journey and don’t just be thinking about arriving.

 

 

Paul Barnett