guild books and bestsellers

In one of the prefaces to The Epistle to the Romans, Barth comments ruefully on having written a bestseller; and while the book is quite difficult in places, the energy and urgency of it — the passion and directness with which Barth engages Paul — make its bestseller status not wholly surprising. (And hey, Piketty’s Capital, a rather less urgent book, has been a bestseller too. These intellectual oddities turn up from time to time.)

After finishing Barth, I went on to John Barclay’s new book Paul and the Gift, and just in terms of the experience of reading, the contrast between the two books is pretty extreme. Aside from those prefaces (Barth wrote one for each edition of his book and the English translation contains them all), Barth simply plunges into Paul’s letter and provides the what he thinks to be the necessary context as he goes along. Barclay’s approach, conversely, reminds me of Carlyle’s famous pen-portrait of Coleridge: “You put some question to him, made some suggestive observation; instead of answering this, or decidedly setting out towards answer of it, he would accumulate formidable apparatus, logical swim-bladders, transcendental life-preservers and other precautionary and vehiculatory gear, for setting out; perhaps did at last get under way, —” …

So: Barclay’s topic is “Paul and the Gift,” but how can he write about that without first exploring the possible definitions of gift, based on the history of ideas and previous scholarship on the subject? (Seventy pages.) And how can he proceed without noting the copious history of biblical exegesis of Paul’s notion of grace? (One hundred and ten pages.) And how can he approach Paul’s writings without understanding the role of divine grace in Second Temple Judaism? (One hundred and twenty pages.) So eventually Barclay starts to tell us about Paul … on page 325. And then just a few pages after getting us into Galatians he goes back to summarizing other scholars, in this case four previous interpretations of the letter. Once he starts engaging Paul directly he does so vigorously, and certainly he offers a far stronger understanding of the Jewish and Palestinian contexts of Paul’s writing that Barth would ever deign to do; moreover, he is scrupulously fair to every other scholar he treats, even the ones he disagrees with … but to an outsider to the discipline Paul and the Gift can be a taxing read, because, unlike Barth’s commentary, Barclay’s is basically a guild book.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that: indeed, such books are necessary if a given guild is going to be corrected when it goes wrong and set on more profitable pathways. But it’s frequently a slog for the non-guild reader. At least for this one. YMMV. Still, I learned a great deal from Barclay and if I have time I’d like to juxtapose his reading of Romans 9-11 with Barth’s. (But I may not have time; a new semester is approaching and I have other reading to do.)

But let me make one more point. There’s an admirable humility to Barclay’s patient engagement with other scholars, his willingness to give them his time and attention — in a way, to share his readers’ attention with them — and this gets me thinking about a scholar with a very different approach: N. T. Wright. It’s not that Wright doesn’t cite other scholars, or is nasty to them; but he has limited time for them. Rhetorically he’s all about making his own case, in which he is absolutely confident, and as the momentum of his own reading of Paul sweeps him along, he expects us to be swept along too — and we often are. In that respect, though not in the substance or method of his interpretation, Wright is like Barth. That sublime self-confidence, often sliding into sheer arrogance, is a large part of what makes them compelling storytellers; that’s how they can write bestsellers. And they end up influencing their own guild powerfully, because most of the other members feel that they have to respond to these sweeping, powerful narratives. It makes me wonder whether, if a scholar really wants to shape his or her guild, writing a guild book is not the best way to do it. If you have the panache and chutzpah to make a bestseller, maybe you should do that.