What’s one to do for an encore after writing a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of God? For Jack Miles, the next step is to tackle another ambitious topic: Islam and the Middle East.
Miles, who recently joined UCI as Distinguished Professor of English and Religious Studies, will start his tenure here by teaching classes on the Bible, American religious poetry and, next year, a lecture series on the Qur’an.
“This is a somewhat risky venture for me,” Miles says. “I want to talk about the scripture of Islam as well as the scriptures of Christianity and Judaism, so it will be a three-way conversation.”
This is Miles’s first academic position in decades, but he brings extensive experience in publishing and literature. He was an editor at Doubleday, executive editor at the University of California Press, and literary editor and editorial board member at the Los Angeles Times.
He almost took a much different path – joining the Jesuits after high school but leaving before becoming an ordained Catholic priest. He eventually combined his interests in religion, politics and literature.
“After I made a career in publishing, I found a way to take this knowledge of religion, [and] employ it in a literary way and write about the Bible as a work of literature rather than as a source of authority.”
Translated into 16 languages, his book God: A Biography won the 1996 Pulitzer, which brought Miles both fame and confusion.
“It led to some strange invitations. It seemed to create a kind of availability for anything that touched religion,” he says. “I certainly never expected it. But what to do? How to react to the award? It was a puzzle. It was a somewhat disorienting success.”
In 2001, he published a sequel titled Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God. However, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, which coincided with the book’s publication, sharpened his focus.
“After 9/11, I felt it was important to try to deepen the level of understanding that our country brings to international relations that involve religions of other people and cultures,” he says.
His next book, tentatively titled God, Again: The Qur’an in Scriptural Context, will introduce Jews and Christians to the Qur’an through their own scriptures. He’s also leading a project to complete the Norton Anthology of World Religions and works as a senior fellow for religious affairs for the West Coast branch of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Miles enjoys venturing into new subjects, where he must be learner rather than teacher.
“If I’m writing about something new, I don’t mind if others check it. You learn from having your mistakes corrected, even in public,” he says. “You have to prove that you have done the work. You have to pass the test.”