It is all too easy to think that other people find it easier to write, and to get published, than you do. They journey from initial thoughts to first drafts to finished product seems to run smoothly for them, without any of the stops and starts, the confusions, the reversals and dead ends that you experience yourself. And even when they do complain of the difficulties and delays, a shiny new publication often seems to pop into existence shortly thereafter, making it hard to believe that their experience is really the same as yours. The real labour, and real difficulty, of other people’s writing is mostly hidden from us.
One of the most encouraging things I have done in my academic career is to spend a considerable length of time working on a theologian for whom writing was intensely difficult, and whose struggles to get his thoughts down on the page, and then from the page into print, were intense and unending. In fact, only now, nearly thirty years after his death, are some of his writings appearing in public.
Hans Frei (1922–88) was a German-born American theologian who was based at Yale. Regarded as one of the founders of ‘postliberal theology’ (along with his close colleague, George Lindbeck), he had a deep and lasting influence on a whole generation of North American and British theologians, but that influence was not based on a large number of publications. Only two books were published during his lifetime: The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (Yale, 1974) and The Identity of Jesus Christ (Fortress, 1975), though two more collections were published after his death: Theology and Narrative (Oxford, 1993) and Types of Christian Theology (Yale, 1992). Over the years, he started on several other projects, but found progress extraordinarily difficult, so that the archive of his papers held at Yale Divinity School is full of drafts and redrafts, false starts and abandoned attempts.
The Canadian theologian Mark Alan Bowald and I have been working over the past few years to bring some of this rich material to publication, and the second volume of our collection has finally hit the shelves. Hans Frei, Reading Faithfully: Writings from the Archives, volume 2: Frei’s Theological Background, came out last month; the earlier volume: Theology and Hermeneutics was based last year. This second volume covers Frei’s writings on the history of modern theology, from Lessing to Barth and beyond. The earlier volume included materials that clarified Frei’s approach to biblical narrative, to the nature of reference in the Gospels, and to the political implications of his theological investigations. It may not all be perfectly polished material, but it is fascinating and thought-provoking, and helps fill out the details in Frei’s theological project.
We hope that Frei, who would no doubt have laboured through many more drafts of these materials, and taken them in directions that we can’t now reconstruct, would not be too embarrassed to see them in print.
Mike Higton is Professor of Theology and Ministry in the Department of Theology and Religion.