Should we write for the public?

On a chat thread on PTG, there is a very interesting post about academic writing v. public writing with some references to recently published pieces on the subject in SBL and Chronicle of Higher Education. Since the thread would not let me directly respond tonight and also because I think that this is an issue for all of us to consider as a community of scholars, I am posting my response here on my blog.

The points raised in this thread are a real concern of mine. I decided to write The Thirteenth Apostle as a trade book, not my normal academic prose for a tiny audience of my colleagues. Why? Because I am tired of sitting by and witnessing the public being given bad information (for whatever reasons).

I started out of the classroom, realizing how ill-informed my students were about religious studies and Christianity in particular. I began venturing into adult public audiences and saw immediately that the misinformation was even worse there. And the response and feedback I started getting when I took the time to actually begin sorting things out with them was tremendous. My audiences were so happy and sincerely grateful to finally hear straight talk from a historian without a theological agenda.

So I decided about a year ago that the best way to get the word out to as many people as possible was by beginning to write trade books. My vision for my general public writing is not the dissemination of the agreed upon knowledge of my field. My vision is to write for the public what I have learned from my own research, to take my academic publications and make them accessible to anyone who cares about the subject.

There is no reason that scholarship should continue to be locked down, to be accessible to a few. If scholars are going to change the face of knowledge, it has to go beyond the corridors of the Academy. Why is it that biblical scholarship hasn't gone into the churches when ministers are trained in seminary to be biblical scholars? Because very few are taking the information to the public, probably for fear of the reaction of those who might not want to hear what biblical scholars have to say. Herein lies the apology of our field. Are we going to continue to leave public education on religion to the churches, to the evangelists, and to the journalists? I say, no, the time is here for scholars to step up to the plate and begin to care about public knowledge (or lack thereof).

That is not to say, however, that there is not a place for academic writing. By no means! Academic writing is necessary for us to work out the problem effectively and in the kind of detail that most general audiences would not be interested in. But that detailed professional work has to come first, it has to come before the general audience book on the subject.

This is how I wrote The Thirteenth Apostle. I first wrote a long academic paper, working out all the problems and details. I delivered a version of the paper to an academic audience at a conference and got all kinds of feedback. Then I went home and reworked the academic paper for publication in an academic volume. Then I went to public audiences and began lecturing on the subject. And only then did I sit down and write the general audience book.

This has implications for the untenured professor who is learning to write and participate in the guild. He or she must at this stage in the career be focused on academic writing and figuring out the field for him- or herself. In other words, there is a stage in the career where the profession is apprenticed. And during this period, general audience writing should be put on hold. After the scholar has written and published in the Academy and knows what he or she wants to say, then the time will come to make that accessible to the public, preferably after tenure when academic freedom is more secure.

It is my opinion that we are obligated to make our work accessible to the public. As I wrote in The Thirteenth Apostle, I didn't want to write that book. My friends were the people on the NG team. Going public means that you are putting your reputation on the line in a really big way with whatever you say. But, even with this awareness, I felt that the public had been so misinformed about the Gospel of Judas that I thought it would be unethical for me not to say something and correct the mistakes publically. So I really was compelled to sit down and, in the end, just write it.