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Working Together on a Common Task

By Canon Theologian Morwenna Ludlow

I’ve just flown back from an academic conference in Denver, Colorado, the ‘mile high city’. We arrived in snow but woke up the next day to breath-taking clear blue skies with the Rocky Mountains in the distance. Of course, I was not there for the view. For four days I went in and out of seminars, updating myself on debates relating both to my research and my teaching. I dipped my toes into new areas and supported colleagues presenting their work. And I met up with US-based colleagues, exchanging news and thinking about how we work.

We often use the word ‘workshop’ to mean a meeting for the exchange of knowledge and the generation of new ideas. The term has been overused, but that is what an academic conference is – or should be: experts sharing their knowledge, exposing their ideas to constructive criticism; new ideas generated by conversations in the seminars and afterwards over a coffee or a beer. Younger colleagues learn and receive encouragement from those who are more experienced; but the latter (if they are sensible) have their perspectives challenged. Of course –alas – it doesn’t always work this way, but ideally members of a conference should be bound together by a shared sense of purpose and a willingness to engage with integrity in the experimentation and adaptation of ideas so that in the end something new and good emerges.

I was in Denver to engage in this kind of interchange about my latest book, Art, Craft and Theology. In it I suggest that we need to think of early Christian writers as members of the kind of community that I have just described. They really paid attention to the art of writing, carefully crafting works which were – to borrow a phrase from William Morris – both useful and beautiful. They use language which suggests they saw themselves as craftsmen who worked with words, rather than with clay or paint or marble. And, crucially, these wordsmiths worked together to exchange ideas, refine arguments to defend Christianity against sceptics, and adapt vivid images both from the Bible and from Greek and Latin cultures. 

We have inherited a notion of the great writer as a lone genius, sitting alone in a study, striving for independent creativity and originality. Such an idea makes little sense in antiquity. Many, if not most, writers dictated their works to a scribe (take a look at Galatians 6:11!). The ‘publication’ of works required secretaries to copy them. Sermons were preached to a gathered community; there was an understanding that personal letters (like Paul’s) would be circulated beyond the original addressee; even philosophical treatises were frequently read out loud to a group. Although scholars have been trained to trace a thinker’s ideas back to their sources (just as we can see Paul quoting from his scriptures, our Old Testament), my argument is that they were at least as influenced by the ‘workshop’ of people around them. 

This is not to deny the crucial influence of a Paul or an Augustine. But it is to pay more attention to those around them. We need to remember, for example, the ‘co-workers’ Paul thanks at the end of his letters (e.g. in Romans 16) or Augustine’s friends, fellow-bishops and even (perhaps especially) his mother. 

Header image by Giovanni Boccaccio via The British Library.