Wednesday, 8 February 2012

How Do They Do It?

How do they do it? It seems that individual authors are pumping out more and more books these days. Mark Noll is one of the best examples of this trend. For years he has consistently churned out such academic titles as Christians in the American Revolution (1977), one of my favorites, Princeton and the Republic (1989), Religion and American Politics (1989), A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (1992), his best-seller, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994), Turning Points (2001), The Princeton Theology, 1812-1921 (2001), The Old Religion in a New World (2001), the "magisterial" America's God (2002), The Rise of Evangelicalism (2004), Is the Reformation Over? (2005), God and Race in American Politics (2008), and The New Shape of World Christianity (2009). His Clouds of Witnesses came out in March 2011, and was quickly followed by Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind in July 2011, which came out only a few months before his Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction. I recall Bruce Hindmarsh quipping that he could not read as many books as Noll produced in a year!

Other examples abound. After publishing his PhD dissertation as The Protestant Interest in 2004, Thomas Kidd went on to write a series of impressive texts including, The Great Awakening (2007), American Christians and Islam (2008), God of Liberty (2010), and Patrick Henry (2011). He is on target to complete a biography of George Whitefield by 2014, the 300th anniversary of the Grand Itinerant's birthday. The list continues. The religious historian Paul Harvey, author of Freedom's Coming, has published Through the Storm, Through the Night as well as Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster in the Evangelical South in 2011. His fellow "blogmeister," Randall Stephens, published The Fire Spreads in 2008, and has co-authored the much-talked about The Anointed at the end of 2011. John Fea turned his dissertation into The Way of Improvement Leads Home in 2008, helped to edit Confessing History at the end of 2010, and only months later released Was America Founded As a Christian Nation? How do they do it?

In fairness, many of these books are offshoots of the research done on previous projects. But still, it is remarkable how efficient these scholarly are. Rick Sher once told me that it took him ten years to revise his Church and University in the Scottish Enlightenment (1985), and in the preface of his award-winning, The Enlightenment and the Book (2007), he states that he began research for the book in the early 1990s. I think John Wigger said something similar, that it took him about a decade to write American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists (2009).

What I find interesting is that some authors do not need to write multiple monographs to become leaders in their field. Rick Sher, John Wigger, and George Marsden serve as evidence of this fact. Sometimes, all that is needed is one ground-breaking book to catapult a person to literary stardom. Marsden's Fundamentalism and American Culture was a runaway success that permanently etched his name into the annals of Christian scholarship. A second example is Nathan Hatch's The Democratization of American Christianity, which has been cited as one of the best monographs on religious history in America. The lesson to me is: although it is impressive to produce multiple books in a decade, it only takes one seminal monograph to make a dramatic impact in the academy.

Jonathan Yeager