On All Hallows Eve, I celebrate my 81st birthday. In addition to enjoying pumpkin pie, which is part of our family’s tradition for the day, I will be thinking about my writing projects for this next year. Two books I’ve read in recent weeks will serve as models.
The first is Bernard Lewis’s Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian. As I began reading this book, my first response was surprise that he was publishing this interesting volume when he was 95 years old. Although he has been retired for a quarter of a century, he has continued to be an active scholar, consultant, and writer. By his example, Lewis encourages all of us who are moving into the late decades of life to keep on doing the work that is important to us.
Lewis also provides a model for how to do our work. He calls it “closing down one’s files.” His most productive period of publishing books was after retirement. He could do this, he explained, because over the years he had kept files on various topics that interested him. Then, when he had control over his working schedule, he gathered these notes together, finished up research as needed, and new books were the result.
Although my files are much skimpier than Lewis’s must have been, I do have half a dozen half-finished projects, some of which I hope to complete. Among them are a history of the Consultation on Church Union, a history of First Christian Church in Portland, Oregon, and a book on bicycling past seventy.
Another file that needs to be closed is a memoir based on my career as a scholar and teacher in the field of Christian worship. Here Lewis provides a model that helps me think about the project. The key words in the title of his memoir are notes and reflections. Although he gives us a reasonably complete scenario of the major events in his life, the book is not an autobiography nor is it a recounting of his personal and family history.
Rather, Lewis provides an orderly account of how he came to be a middle east historian and then unfolds, in a systematic manner how his public career and scholarly investigations developed over a period of some eight decades. This account is interrupted from time to time by his reflections on specific issues, such as the character of historical research and the differences between Islam and Christianity.
This interaction of professional autobiography and interpretation will show me the way to improve and complete the theological memoir that now sits half-finished on my shelf.
The second book that is helping me think about my work during this next year is Ziauddin Sardar’s Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam. The book has 52 chapters, which signals its origin as a year-long series of weekly blogs published by a major news outlet in the United Kingdom. Since my blog is self-directed, without editorial oversight or the disciplines and incentives provided by a commissioned assignment, my writing on this blog won’t be so tightly focused.
I have other interests in addition to a systematic unfolding of how I understand the Christian faith in our time. For example, I plan to publish occasional research briefs based on other projects I’m engaged in, and I will continue to comment on current issues in the field of religious studies. I am intrigued, however, by the idea of explaining how I see things now in a continuing series of short, focused, and connected columns. When they come, I’ll call attention to what they are.
Will anybody care enough about what I think about these matters to read my blog? The realistic answer: maybe, but at best only a few.
I’ll do it anyway, because putting my thoughts down on paper with an “ink pen,” which is how many of my blogs begin, is still a satisfying experience, a way to think things through and to pray about them as I write. Transcribing them into digital form is much more satisfying than what I used to do, which was pile up these hand-written notes—stacks and stacks of half sheets of paper with unfinished thoughts—and then throw them away. Now I can push the “publish” button, and out they go into the wide world.
Every now and then someone comments online, by pen and ink or phone, and sometimes face-to-face. The conversation keeps us going in friendship and in life. It helps me follow the injunction at the close of Psalm 90:
“So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
Note: The photo at the top shows me on the day my life as a scholar began, my first day of school, September 7, 1937. A more recent photo below.