Maggi Dawn's new book 'The Writing on the Wall: High Art, Popular Culture and the Bible' landed on my doormat this morning. I've been looking forward to it for some time, and now have my summer holiday reading sorted.
I was able to interview Maggi and ask her some questions about the book and how it came about, and her hopes for it. Her review is below, and you can meet Maggi when she is with us at Ridley Hall, Cambridge on Friday 3rd September, where she'll be sharing about her book with us (details here).
1. What was the inspiration for the book?
I work in Cambridge University, as Chaplain and Fellow in Theology at Robinson College. Chatting to students over lunch or coffee, I'm often asked questions about the Bible by people who are studying music, literature, art history or architecture. Despite being very bright and well-read, most students are completely Biblically illiterate. I've also been a bit stunned from time to time to see notes in art galleries or programme notes that make connections with the Bible but do so with huge inaccuracies.
The Bible isn't taught in schools any more, and most people don't go to church or sunday school, so it's no wonder the Bible is a closed book to so many. But when Dante and Chaucer were writing, they assumed that their readers would know the basics of the story of Adam and Eve. And when Shakespeare was writing the Bible had just been translated into English for the first time and he borrowed an enormous amount of its phraseology, as well as basing entire plays on Biblical themes. "Measure for measure" makes most people think of Shakespeare, but for his readers it would have automatically made them think of Jesus. Handel wrote his music because he was commissioned to do so, and yet it seems he had a spiritual epiphany while he was writing. Van Gogh painted farmers sowing seeds over and over again, but few people are aware of just how much of his inspiration was drawn from Jesus' parable of the Sower.
I can't count the hours I've sat talking about the connections between Genesis and the Canterbury Tales, the gospels and Caravaggio, or what parts of the Annunciation in art come from the Bible and how the Eastern and Western Churches paint it differently. Eventually I thought it would be good to put some of this down in a book, simply in the hope that more people would realise what a cultural treasure trove the Bible is.
2. What does this book mean to you?
I love art, literature and music as much as I love the Bible, and it was really good fun to write. I had the excuse to travel to quite a lot of art galleries to do research, and to draw a lot of material together that I've used over the years in lectures or sermons.
It's also a "first" for me - the first of my books to be published in hardback, which is a nice feeling!
3. How much of you is in the book?
I don't tell any personal stories about myself (those are coming in the next book!) but my passion for the subject is there, and it was a chance to tell lots of stories about the subject. I didn't want the book to be a hard slog to read - I wanted to connect it together with plenty of back stories about the artists, and make it as readable as possible.
I also set out to make the book very un-preachy - I was consciously writing to introduce the Bible without demanding a religious response, and that's a side of my work that I enjoy but don't get to write about often enough.
4. What was the process of writing the book like for you?
Mostly great fun, and interesting. I learned a lot, because connecting together the stuff I already knew I needed to do some more research. It was also a bit stressful at times. I write in my spare time (what spare time??) on top of a job and being a single mother, so I burned the midnight oil a lot. There are some sections of the book - the stuff on Genesis and the Gospels in particular - that I'm pretty happy with, but some bits I'd still like to rewrite. The trouble is, you could keep doing that forever, and there comes a point when you have to stop and hand it over to the printer.
I always send early drafts out to friends who read for me and tell me where it's working or point out where I've used technical theological language that the big wide world doesn't know. So every page gets written and re-written several times. There's also a big file of material that got cut out because it was way too long!
This is the first time I've written for a big publisher, and there are more people involved. Instead of the script just going back and forth between me and an editor, there was a commissioning editor, a copy editor, two proof readers and a collator all working on the script. So a more complicated and lengthy process, and it felt slightly less under my control than my previous books. But it's fantastic to have all those people taking what you write so seriously!
My only regret is that the book isn't illustrated - it would have been lovely to have pictures in it. But maybe next time...
5. How do you cope/process reviews of your writing?
Of course I hope for good reviews, although it does sometimes feel a bit like waiting for your exam results! I'm a very harsh critic of my own work; I always think what I've written is terrible, and beg the editor to shred it and let me start again. So I tend to imagine that reviews will be equally harsh! It seems to be the case that it's only when you've finished writing a book that you realise how you should have written it.
But I try to pay more attention to my editors (who of course know what the brief was!) and to friends who read early drafts. They tell me when it's good, and also when something is too obscure or boring, or where I've repeated myself. Once you've written and rewritten a draft four or five times it's hard to "see" clearly what you've written.
By the time reviews come out, of course, I'm already half way through writing the next book, so if it's not a glowing review I try to take any comments that are useful for future books and not take it too personally. The best reviewers, in my opinion, are people who have tried writing a book themselves, because they are more aware of the limits of a book.
6. What hopes and aspirations do you have for the book?
There are currently a number of outspoken critics of religion who themselves had the luxury of learning about the BIble as part of their education. In their zeal to wipe out religion perhaps they do not realise that the by product of their campaign is a whole generation of people growing up who are completely biblically illiterate. So I didn't write this to try to "sell" religion at all, but simply as an affectionate introduction to the Bible, for people who have grown up ignorant of it, and who have been prejudiced against it.
The Bible, though, doesn't read like a novel: with the best will in the world, if you pick it up and start reading from the beginning without any hints as to how it fits together or where it came from, it is a bit obscure. So if there's one thing I hope the book achieves, it's to introduce people to the Bible as a remarkable historical text, even if they have little interest in religion.
But in addition, I think it will probably be read and liked by people who do know the BIble as a religious text, but who have never explored it much as a log of human history, or the great variety of ways it has been interpreted. People are often amazed when they discover that some of the bible's stories date right back to the bronze age, or that they were written as reflections by prisoners of war who experienced brutality as shocking in its time as the holocaust, or that parts of it were re-written with a political as well as a religious agenda, perhaps five centuries BC.
I think it would be enormously sad if the Bible was shuffled off into a corner because in the intellectual world religion is scoffed at. So most of all I hope my book will serve to make people realise that the Bible is, quite simply, an endlessly interesting book.