“The Lives of Great Religious Books,” a promising new series from Princeton University Press, debuted this month with three titles—Martin E. Marty’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, Donald Lopez’s The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography, and Garry Wills’ Augustine’s Confessions. On March 24, I had the opportunity to discuss “The Lives of Great Religious Books” with Professor Marty, Professor Lopez, and Vanessa Ochs, another author in the series, who is currently working on a biography of the Passover Haggadah. Above all, our conversation centered on the metaphor of a text’s biography, its purchase and limitations. Just as we might think of a human biography as a series of contexts linked together by a single individual, so too is the biography of a text a series of contexts linked by the text itself. We also weighed the importance of the series to the changing disciplinary purview of Religious Studies. For many years, Religious Studies was defined as a hermeneutical discipline based upon great texts, but the typical disciplinary approach was to treat the texts as hermetic, self-contained wholes upon which the scholar expounds and expands. With this series, however, we are witnessing a new willingness on the part of scholars in Religious Studies to approach the dynamic relationship between theological treatises and their social environments, between texts and contexts, as it were.
One salutary way to approach a text’s biography is to distinguish among three types of context that texts inhabit—contexts of production, contexts of circulation, and contexts of consumption. This familiar threefold heuristic is especially pertinent because each of the authors in the series positions their chosen texts in relation to these three distinct contexts. First, contexts of production. When faced with great texts, it is deceptively easy to forget the material conditions in which they come into being. Our authors remind us that these material contexts of production are the neonatal moments of any text’s biography. Martin Marty, for instance, begins his biography of Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison with a deeply evocative description of the solitude of Bonhoeffer’s days in the Nazi prison at Tegel, the crucible in which his opus was forged. Reading his vivid account, I was reminded of the many other exceptional texts, both religious and secular, for which confinement and imprisonment were midwifes—Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones, and, from my own research context, the Kurdish-Turkish theologian Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’s Epistles of Light. In his biography of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Donald Lopez turns our attention to the surprising political and cultural contexts that oriented the formation of the text itself: the encounter of American Spiritualism and Theosophy with Tibetan scripture in the early twentieth century. Vanessa Ochs, for her part, reminds us that many great religious texts, including the Passover Haggadah, are inseparable from their relationships with other texts and scriptures—the Haggadah for instance, has its sources and precedents in the Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud. Finally, Garry Wills’s biography of Augustine’s Confessions underscores the fact that the very practices of articulation, inscription, and copying have varied vastly over history; Augustine himself probably never raised quill to papyrus, but rather voiced his confessions to a bevy of scribes responsible for capturing his reminiscences and arguments.
Second, contexts of circulation. Once a great text has achieved stability in written form, how does it migrate? This, in line with the metaphor of biography, is a text’s process of maturation, its childhood and adolescence. Here, too, our authors offer fascinating and instructive lessons. No text’s history of circulation can be entirely predicted by its conditions of production. Could Bonhoeffer have imagined the fame that his intimate letters from prison would achieve only shortly after his death? Similarly, could Augustine have predicted that his Confessions would inspire an entire genre of autobiographical literature, one that began to flourish in earnest over a millennium after his dictation of the text? And what are we to make of the fact that, for many American Jews, the Haggadah is inextricably linked to Maxwell House Coffee? (As Ochs notes, Maxwell House has distributed approximately 50 million individual Haggadot over the past several decades.) Finally, with the Tibetan Book of the Dead, contexts of production and circulation are difficult to distinguish, at least initially. As Lopez notes, the Book of the Dead only came into being through the occasional encounters between its shepherd, Walter Evans-Wentz, and Kazi Dawa Samdup, the Tibetan English teacher and translator of the rather mysterious and esoteric texts that Evan-Wentz had purchased from a British army officer.
Finally, contexts of consumption. How are texts consumed—that is to say, how are they interpreted, recited, criticized, praised, and occasionally worshiped or used in worship in different contexts? This is the moment in a text’s biography when it encounters the world, when it measures itself against the myriad expectations, desires, and knowledges of its readers and practitioners. Again, our authors offer us fascinating, suggestive anecdotes and analyses of the many ways in which their texts are consumed. Who might have expected, for instance, that Augustine’s Confessions would eventually become grist in the mill of Freudian psychoanalysis? Or that Bonhoeffer’s document of fortitude and spiritual striving, produced in a mid-century German prison, would offer inspiration to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa near the end of the century? Or that the curious textual relic that initially provided the seed for the Tibetan Book of the Dead would eventually achieve sanction and sanctification by Tibetan Buddhists themselves, to the extent that we can now read an authoritative Penguin Books translation with commentary by the Dali Lama? Finally, the Haggadah is a paramount example of a religious text that can hardly be said to exist separate from contexts of ritual consumption. As a ritual charter and liturgical object, the Haggadah makes little sense outside of the social and religious context of the Passover Seder itself.
With the distinctions and relationships among contexts of textual production, textual circulation, and textual consumption in mind, we confront a constellation of fascinating questions: What roles do these texts play (or refuse to play) in liturgical contexts? How do these texts these texts relate to their readers’ practices of worship? What is at stake in the separation of a text from ritual life, or, alternately, its integration within it? From a rather different vantage, how are we to understand intertextuality? Keeping with the metaphor of a textual biography, what other texts constitute a given text’s kin, acquaintances, intimates, and antagonists? In other words, what types of relationships do these texts maintain with other texts, both scriptural and secular, classic and quotidian? Finally, we might pose a reflexive question: how do academic interpretations of these great texts relate to the more explicitly religious contexts in which these texts are read, embodied, and understood? There are no singular answers to these questions, of course, but I am confident that the diligent reader of any of the titles in “The Lives of Great Religious Books” will find ample occasion to ponder them with a great text at hand.