Sunday, April 24, 2011

Author Interview: Kristin Swenson on ‘Bible Babel’ and Her New Research Project

Kristin M. Swenson has been teaching in the School of World Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where she specializes in the history and literature of ancient Israel. On May 16, she takes up an appointment as visiting professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Kristin Swenson
Dr. Swenson is the author of Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked about Book of All Time, which was first published by HarperCollins in 2010 and came out as a Harper Perennial paperback in March of this year. She is also the author of Living through Pain: Psalms and the Search for Wholeness and co-author with Esther Nelson of What is Religious Studies?:  A Journey of Inquiry. Bible Babel is also scheduled to be published in translation in Brazil and South Korea in 2012.

I spoke to Swenson last month at the 2011 Virginia Festival of the Book, where she moderated a panel discussion entitled “Speaking of God” with authors David Baggett (Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality), Winn Collier (Let God: The Transforming Wisdom of Fenelon), Alex Joyner (Hard Times Come Again No More:  Suffering and Hope), and Clare Aukofer and J. Anderson "Andy" Thomson, Jr. (Why We Believe in God[s]: A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith).

She was pleased with the way the discussion turned out, she said.

“It was a terrific discussion in that it was civil. We had folks who believe that the Bible is the word of God and God is very much a living part of the world,” she explained, “and we had people who believe that religion is a completely human construct and brain moderated beliefs of god are nothing more than biology. So it was a lively group.”

The conversation among the authors and the audience was so lively, she said, that not only could it have continued an hour beyond the allotted time, but “we could have gone on 24 hours.”

In an earlier interview (at the 2010 Virginia Festival of the Book), Swenson described Bible Babel like this:

“The book is for general readers. It does not take a particular religious perspective. It’s also not dismissive of persons of faith but provides background information about the Bible: what is the Bible, where does it come from, [and] what’s in it, so that folks can make sense of the way the Bible shows up in contemporary culture.”

She said that the book has been well-received by reviewers and by readers.

“It’s gotten a nice reception so far, I’m happy to say. People both of faith perspectives and secular folks who feel they need to know more about the Bible are finding it very useful and fun reading, so I’m getting some nice responses.”

One such response was in a review by Michael Dirda in The Washington Post (February 18, 2010). Dirda wrote that “despite its sometimes overbright prose, this is a solid, readable work that doesn't shy away from the tough issues. For instance, Swenson lists and interprets the Bible texts that seem to comment on evolution and creation, homosexuality, abortion, whether God wants you to be rich, environmentalism and the care of the Earth, anti-Semitism, and the position of women.”

Similarly, Martin Sieff started off his review in The Washington Times (March 9, 2010) enthusiastically:

“Hats off to Kristin Swenson: She has done what I really thought was impossible. She has produced an accessible, freewheeling newcomers’ guide to the Bible aimed at attention-deficit-disordered teens, twenty-somethings and soccer moms that manages to avoid being lame.”

Swenson’s latest research project focuses on a more narrow, but no less interesting, topic.

She is looking into “a very fascinating man who is forgotten in history. I think of him as the “forgotten Messiah”: Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire.”

Cyrus, she said, was “instrumental in the development of the Bible and in the development of civilization, [yet] we know very little about him, especially in the West, though he is lionized in Iran today.”

In the Bible are “references to Cyrus as the anointed one that God chose to save the ancient Israelite people. He’s mentioned by name in the Book of Isaiah,” and those passages are often cited in the New Testament as references to Jesus as the Messiah (a word that means “anointed one.”)

Cyrus, Swenson noted is, “also sometimes referred to as the author of the first declaration of human rights,” based on “an inscription called the Cyrus Cylinder, in which he articulates some of what we think of as basic human rights.”

Asked if the admiration for Cyrus in modern-day Iran causes a conflict with that country’s Muslim theocracy, Swenson replied:

“That’s an interesting question. There does seem to be a distinction that some of the population make between Arab Islam and Iranian Persia.”

Many Muslim Iranians, she explained, “identify with Cyrus as a great leader who pre-dates Islam, someone [whom] they can all share and admire.”

She then added that “it’s interesting that we can admire Cyrus as well, so in Cyrus there is room for Americans to agree with Iranians.”

Swenson is unsure when her book on Cyrus of Persia will be published, since she is still in the research stage. Her agent, however, has a proposal in hand and the book will develop over “the next couple of years.”

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