When you arrived at the Institute you probably had a concrete idea or plan of what you would like to achieve during your stay. Were you able to pursue these plans? Did there emerge new, unforeseen directions?
I wanted to write a few chapters this year, but this didn’t happen. I realized soon enough that I needed to sharpen my focus, dig more deeply into the assumptions of my argument and their implications, and “stress-test” a few of my proposals. I’ve learned the hard way that you can write too early! But I think my patience was rewarded. Now the book has a more reliable argument and structure, and a generous serving of notes, all of which will guide the writing. The surprise this year was that I was inspired to design two new courses that I will teach when I return to my university. One of these, “The Stories Christians Told,” will become the basis of my next book.
More generally speaking, who or what influenced your work and research path the most?
It is an odd place to start, but I would say Origen of Alexandria’s Commentary on the Gospel of John (written in Alexandria in the early 220s). There Origen proposes that if people want to understand John’s gospel, then they need to conform their lives to the author’s: to know John they need to become like John. But then Origen catches himself and says (surprisingly, I think): no, actually their lives need to be like Jesus’. And how does he make this point? Origen directs his readers (even more surprisingly) to Jesus on the cross when he calls down to his mother and says “Look, your son,” referring to this very John. After Jesus died John was to become Mary’s new son - a new Jesus. So, Origen’s idea is that to understand John’s gospel, readers are to become like John, but since he was reimagined as another Jesus, then this is who they really need to become. I still remember reading this section of the commentary in grad school and thinking: how in the world could you possibly get that out of this text? And the immediate follow up: I want to figure out what is really going on here. So, this passage started me on the journey of researching early Christian engagements with their scriptures. As strange as it might sound, one of the best ways to discover what we can do with texts today is to examine scriptural practices in religious traditions. Here we find seemingly inexhaustible depths of attentiveness and innovation, a range of textual and personal transformations that surprise and can even inspire us.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention Pierre Hadot, Michael Pollan, and the experience of being a departmental chair. Each, in their own way, has opened me up to new ideas, concerns, and approaches.
To which debates or schools of thought do you see your research contributing?
I am most interested in the future of philology (texts and text-related practices), the place of the humanities within – and beyond – our universities, and am endlessly fascinated by the various guises of religion in modern society.
How do you see your field of research today? How is it evolving?
My field is certainly changing. From one perspective, it is disintegrating as the older regime, called “patristics,” is slowly losing its privileged grip on the sources. Its questions, its archive, its methods, and its audiences are no longer the only ones that matter. From another perspective, these changes are celebrated. This new field – “early Christian studies,” or something like this – accesses the sources from many disciplinary perspectives, with a view to shaping many conversations, not just those concerned with Christian theology. For my part, I want to be part of an inclusive and collaborative field that demonstrates the importance of early Christian sources for many audiences.
What’s next for you after IAS CEU Budapest (if we may ask)?
I head back to my university with a fresh gust of wind behind the sails. I will continue writing my book and teach a few new courses that I’ve developed here at the IAS. I am also looking forward to getting back on my bike!
If there were one book or film you could recommend to the reader, what would be that and why?
The film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011), because it matters how we do what we do.