Friday, March 20, 2015

James J. O'Donnell's "Pagans"

James J. O'Donnell is a classicist who served for ten years as Provost of Georgetown University and is now University Librarian at Arizona State University. He is the author of several books including Augustine, The Ruin of the Roman Empire, and Avatars of the Word. He is the former president of the American Philological Association, a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, and the chair of the Board of Directors of the American Council of Learned Societies.

O'Donnell applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity, and reported the following:
Pagans is about traditional ancient religion and what became of it. By page 99, we’ve seen the ruler of the world butchering cows by moonlight and are into a time when upstarts had to be dealt with. A serene philosopher named Celsus writes: “If you shut your eyes to the world of sense and look up with the mind, if you turn away from the flesh and raise the eyes of the soul, only so will you see god. And if you look for some one to lead you along this path, you must flee from the deceivers and sorcerers who court phantoms.” The shammers and scammers he has in mind at that moment are the people who worshipped – we’re in the second century, in the reign of Marcus Aurelius – the petty and shabby new deity called Christ. His dismissal of Christ and his followers is well-informed, intelligent, and sounds an awful lot like the things Christians soon would be saying at great length about their opponents.

If you land in Pagans by helicopter, as it were, that’s a good place to catch your breath and look around. For I mean to make that old world Celsus lived in look and feel normal to the reader – because of course it was utterly normal to all who lived in it. I hope I can wrench readers’ expectations around to the point where they can see Christianity, when it looms up, with fresh eyes, untouched by any sense of inevitability, half-formed, hard to understand, full of inconsistencies. My ultimate question is “how normal was Christianity in that world?” – and then where was it abnormal and how did it get that way? In short, I want to mess with readers’ heads long enough to help them look at things we think are familiar and see them with real curiosity and surprise. I’ll tell a lot of curious and surprising stories along the way.
Learn more about Pagans at the publisher's website.

Writers Read: James J. O'Donnell.

--Marshal Zeringue