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Creatively Speaking: J. Michael Matkin

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idiots.jpg Our Creatively Speaking series of interviews continues this week with J. Michael Matkin, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Gnostic Gospels, and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Early Christianity, just published last month. I found it very well written and full of information I never knew before.Tomorrow, we'll be giving away a free copy of J. Michael's latest book, so be sure to tune in for the giveaway contest. Meanwhile, below, check out the interview about the book, as well as J. Michael's advice for pitching your own Idiot's Guide book. (Come on, admit it: you know you've got an idea for one, too!)

DI: In your book you state: "Christianity has been growing by leaps and bounds in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. By 2050, if present trends continue, only one out of five Christians will be wealthy, white suburbanites. .. The last time Christianity looked like this was during those formative three centuries we will examine together in this book..." To what do you attribute these new believers, these new followers of Christianity?

JMM: A friend of mine once commented to me that Christians had made a pretty shrewd marketing move by making a crucified man their symbol. That was his tongue-in-cheek way of pointing out that Christianity has a special attraction to those who are suffering, to the marginalized, to the oppressed. On the off chance that someone hadn't noticed, that tends to be a rather large chunk of the world's population these days. The Jesus story resonates with many in postcolonial Asia, Africa and Latin America in ways that it has ceased to for the majority of Europe and Canada, and increasingly so for the United States.

Lamin Sanneh, a scholar at Yale, has pointed out that one genius of Christianity is that it translates into different cultures well. We've seen a lot of that happening as Christianity has been spreading so rapidly.

Around the world, Christians are creating indigenous (as in, local) theologies. They're telling the Jesus story in new ways, in ways that speak to their own circumstances, rather than just accepting Western forms of worship and theology. It's this ability to leapfrog from one cultural setting to another that makes Christianity such a nimble faith.

DI: In researching the book, were there one or two facts you stumbled upon that were particularly interesting or surprising, even to you?

JMM: I think the thing that always impresses me when I spend time immersed in those first few centuries of Christian history is the incredibly small size of that early Christian community. Even in the largest cities of the Roman Empire the Christian population rarely numbered more than a few hundred and usually much less until well into the second century or beyond.

The entire first-century Christian community probably wouldn't have filled Madison Square Garden. These days, you can find individual congregations that are larger than that.

That makes it really surprising when, for example, you read Paul's letter to the Christians in the city of Corinth. He talks about the church as if it's the center of God's activity in the world, and uses all of this cosmic language that really makes the Christians sound so important. And then you realize that he's writing to a group of about one hundred people. To go from that to today, where Christianity is the largest religion in the world, can give you a bit of historical vertigo. It blows your sense of scale right out of the water, and that's fun for me.

DI: Of course, you address this in some detail in the book, but for our readers: When were the Gospels written and by whom?

JMM: Scholars love to fight over precisely this question, and with good reason. The answers will determine whether or not you think that the New Testament gospels present an authoritative version of the Jesus story or whether they are just the most successful of several competing interpretations. The conclusions that different biblical scholars have reached, and their reasoning for doing so, diverge widely. It's hard to cover briefly, but I'll give it a shot.

Generally speaking, the majority of scholars believe that the New Testament Gospels were written somewhere between AD 50 and 100, with Mark believed to have been the first written and John the last. As to who actually wrote the four Gospels, that's a bit trickier, since nobody just comes right out and says, "I, Luke, wrote this gospel". Nevertheless, as far as we can tell, none of the New Testament gospels ever circulated without a title, and when you think about it that stands to reason. As soon as you had more than one gospel in circulation you would need some way of distinguishing, say, Mark's gospel from Luke's.

So pretty early on, if not right away, the Christian community believed that somebody named Matthew wrote Matthew's gospel, or had it written under his authority. Is that the same Matthew that appears in the gospels as one of Jesus' disciples? I mean, maybe it was Matthew the hairdresser, right?

The early Christian community spread rapidly and organically, and even the New Testament demonstrates that there wasn't a rigidly controlled hierarchy and membership, but was there any structure? Were there certain people who were recognized as authorized tellers of the Jesus story? If that's true, the Christian communities were unlikely to accept a gospel written by just any old Matthew. He'd have to have some kind of authority in the community, and only one guy we know of fits that bill. The same would be true for the other three.

So we seem to be on pretty decent ground for assuming that recognizable individuals were responsible for the four gospels, people that early Christians would have acknowledged as genuine authorities on the subject of Jesus. And that means that the authors of the gospels may really have been the apostle Matthew, Mark the companion of Simon Peter, Luke the companion of Paul and the apostle John. Unfortunately, there's just no way to prove it conclusively.

DI: I found the chapter on God's Daughters particularly interesting. Can you talk a little bit about the new research that's revealing a more appreciative look at the role women played in the early days of Christianity?

JMM: That was actually one of my favorite chapters to write, and I'm only sorry that I couldn't have gone on longer about the role of women in the earliest Christian communities, because it was extensive and critical to the success of Christianity in the ancient world.

When we think about going to church, most of us tend to picture some kind of public building somewhere. For its first three hundred years, however, Christians met primarily in private homes, and in the ancient world (as it is for much of human society still)the home was the province of women. As scholars have paid more attention to the impact of home gatherings on shape of the early Christian communities, the role and authority of women has increasingly been recognized as central to the growth of Christianity in its earliest years.

Some of the really interesting new evidence comes in the form of what scholars call "˜epigraphical data'. That's a catch-all term for things like epitaphs, graffiti, common documents like letters and receipts, all the bits and pieces of daily existence that can briefly illuminate the life of an otherwise unknown person. And it's in these often-overlooked pieces of the historical puzzle that we find numerous references to women operating in leadership roles throughout the early Christian community. There are some 30,000 inscriptions of various kinds that date from the earliest centuries of Christian history, and only a few have been analyzed, so we expect to see more of these results emerging in the coming years.

Along with all the neat new archaeology that's been done, a great deal of the credit for recognizing the importance of women in the early history of Christianity has to go to the feminist theological movement, and especially to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and her landmark book In Memory of Her. It was Schüssler Fiorenza who reminded a whole generation of scholars that just because the "˜official' story says that women weren't involved in leadership doesn't make it so. I know that sounds pretty obvious, but you would be amazed at how much we were missing just because we had convinced ourselves that what we were seeing "“ for example, a woman in Paul's letter to the Romans who is called an "˜apostle' - was impossible. Once we decided to actually believe our eyes, a much more accurate picture of women in the early Christian community began appearing. It's like looking at one of those hidden 3D pictures; the image is there the whole time, you just have to learn how to look at it differently before you can see it.

DI: Slaves were a very big part of life around the time Christianity was born. What is the original Christian take on slavery, and, if it's changed over the years, how has it?

JMM: That's going to be an increasingly important question in the coming years as the center of gravity for the Christian faith keeps shifting to parts of the world where slavery is more of a daily reality for some people than it is here in the West.

Early Christian views of slavery are complex. On the one hand, there doesn't seem to have been any kind of widespread rejection of the institution of slavery. You don't see Christians rising up to overthrow the slave economy in the Roman Empire, for example.

On the other hand, Christianity had a way of redefining relationships, especially social relationships, from the inside out. Witness Paul's letter to his friend Philemon, where the apostle returns a runaway slave to Philemon but then reminds his friend that the young slave is now a Christian as well, and that this brotherly connection between the two is more important than the fact that they are master and slave. So Christianity didn't attack the institution of slavery so much as it set out to undermine the mindset that makes slavery possible in the first place.

Of course, I need to point out that Roman slavery wasn't racially based; slavery in the West has been. In Rome, a slave was looked down upon because of his status, not because of his race. That's a crucial difference between the kind of slavery that early Christians experienced (many of them were slaves themselves) and the way that slavery has evolved in Western history.

DI: Changing gears, I'm betting a lot of our readers have at least one Idiot's Guides on their shelves. It's an amazingly successful brand. I'm also sure some of our readers have, at one time or another, thought: Hey, I should write the Idiot's Guide to X. What's the process like? Did you pitch them or did they seek you out?

JMM: The editorial staff at Alpha Press, the publishers who put out the Idiot's Guide line, are pretty aggressive in seeking out new and relevant topics for their brand. I've had the good fortune to write two Idiot's Guides, and in both cases it was the acquisitions editors who took the lead in selecting the topic and soliciting my input.

As you can easily see from the first moment that you pick up an Idiot's Guide, the format and style are pretty specific. That is actually quite helpful, especially for a first-time writer, because you know what your editors are looking for and how to meet those expectations. If anything, I think it's the deadlines that can be difficult, but that's the case in any kind of publishing.

DI: I think there are around 500 different Idiot's Guides. Be honest: Other than the two you've penned, which do you own?

JMM: I have this perverse desire to buy The Complete Idiot's Guide to Starting and Running a Bar just to have it on my shelf. What I actually do have are copies of the Complete Idiot's Guides to Mary Magdalene, Digital Photography and Playing the Guitar.

DI: What's your next book?

JMM: I've always been fascinated by the monastic communities that formed in the deserts of Egypt during the early Christian era. Through the centuries, this "˜desert spirituality' developed new forms and practices and it moved out into the larger Christian world. In my next book I'm going to highlight examples of the ways that Christians have tried to live out that kind of ideal community in the past two thousand years. For readers who are seeking silence and spirituality in the midst of a community, this book will be like a travelogue of the places where that's been tried.

Browse through past Creatively Speaking posts here >>

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Creatively Speaking: MeetingBoy
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Read on to win a new Meeting Boy wall calendar!

We have a nice interview/contest today with someone you need to know about if you don't already. PC World named him one of the 10 Funniest People On Twitter. Like Racer X, no one really knows who MeetingBoy is, but whoever is behind this madness is one hilarious, talented fella. Tweeting out quips and one-liners, he's amassed close to 80,000 followers on Twitter as @MeetingBoy. I first got to know him (well, as much as you can know a masked-man) after he re-tweeted a Twaggie (illustrated tweet) we did off one of his tweets over on my start-up, www.twaggies.com.

Then one day, MeetingBoy asked me if I'd like to give away one of his new MeetingBoy wall calendars in a contest. I said sure, under one condition: he do the following interview. So read the interview and follow the contest rules at the bottom of this post. We'll pick one tweet/comment at random and send you the calendar in time for Christmas! Good luck!

DI: First of all, where do you take your meetings? Tell us about your day job.

MB: I work in a glass & steel high rise in New York with lots of lazy idiots. The managers spout buzzwords to impress each other, and my boss is a clueless, bullying hypocrite more concerned with covering his own ass than getting things done. Does that narrow it down?

I am stuck in 3-5 meetings a day, so if there’s a way to waste someone’s time, I’ve seen it. And I’m sick of it. I must have really bad karma to deserve this. I must have been something truly awful in a former life, like maybe a manager or CEO.

@MeetingBoy: 125 PowerPoint slides? Well, I hope you're not presenting a case for how efficient our department is.

@MeetingBoy: Definition of insanity: holding the same meeting with the same people every week and expecting different results.

@MeetingBoy: Four meetings today. And then later, no doubt, a meeting with my boss about how I'm not getting anything done.

@MeetingBoy: I'm confused by this article about Bernie Madoff. I thought "white collar prison" was just a euphemism for my office.

@MeetingBoy: 7 hour conference call, though my lawyer says I'll be paroled in 6 with good behavior.

DI: How’d all this Meeting Boy stuff get started? Walk us through the early days.

MB: Since my biggest pet peeve in meetings is people who ramble on and on, Twitter was the right place for me to vent. The forced brevity was just right. If only I could force the people who write PowerPoint presentations to stick to 140 characters instead of 140 slides!

I’d been on Twitter before, but mentions of work had become a problem once people knew I was tweeting and started following me in the office. After I got a new boss last year, I created the MeetingBoy account so I would stop hearing about it. Since then I only tweet under my own name after hours.

@MeetingBoy: I'm married to my job. I don't love it. It was a shotgun wedding; I had knocked up my credit cards with all sorts of debt.

Early on as MeetingBoy, I was getting positive responses. People identified with my complaints-- in fact the most common response to MeetingBoy is “do you work at my company?”

Of course I hate buzzwords, and so many of my rants result from sitting through an hour of them. The word I hate the most is “robust”:

@MeetingBoy: At the end of the day I think we can all agree how tired the phrase "at the end of the day" is.

@MeetingBoy: When the revolution comes, I'm shooting everyone who says "robust". Well, except the coffee roasters.

DI: When did your first little break happen?

MB: Last October, PC World named me as one of the 10 Funniest People On Twitter. My following increased dramatically as a result. This was a huge surprise to me. I had no idea I had broken out of the Favstar community of internet jokers. After that my friends who weren’t on Twitter insisted I start cross-posting my material to Facebook and MeetingBoy.com so they could follow along too.

DI: And then your big break?

MB: Earlier this year someone at Twitter added me to their Suggested Users - Funny list. I was pretty excited; after all, as my friend said, “It sure beats being on the Suggested Users - Not Funny list.”

Though some people would say my “big break” was when I got a boss that didn’t get my sense of humor, forcing me to put more of it on the internet. Speaking of my boss:

@MeetingBoy: We have high expectations for him - he got his MBA in business jargon from Wharton.

@MeetingBoy: You're right. It was wrong of me to question how another layer of paperwork would speed up the process. I apologize.

@MeetingBoy: Hey, everybody! My boss is running a special on poorly thought out, unworkable ideas today. The discount code is YESSIR.

@MeetingBoy: "Dumb it down. Remember, you're presenting it to management."

@MeetingBoy: "I didn't read the executive summary you sent. Can you just put the idea in a few quick sentences and send it to me? Thanks."

@MeetingBoy: New line on my job description: "maintain high morale". Told HR I could do it, but not if my boss keeps trying to motivate me.

@MeetingBoy: My boss is very susceptible to food poisoning. Apparently this occurs when he stays out late drinking.

@MeetingBoy: The boss sent an email at 11:30 "reminding" everyone that he's working from home today. He sent it from his Blackberry.

DI: Did you set out to achieve Internet fame or did the idea sort of take over by itself?

MB: I set out to vent about work in an amusing way, in part because I was so annoyed at how people in the office reacted to my being on Twitter. I certainly had no idea how to get people to write about me or who at Twitter to sweet-talk to get them to recommend me.

Being famous and anonymous is a little odd though. None of the benefits of fame have come my way. I’m not getting a better table at Sparks or celebrity gift bags at the Oscars. And no matter how many followers I have, I’m still stuck in the same meetings every day.

I would like to see a MeetingBoy calendar make an appearance on The Office. Seems like something Jim Halpert would have (though since he gave up his office, I’m not sure where he’d put it). Or maybe Michael Scott because he’s a “cool boss” and none of it applies to him..

DI: Talk about the tweets themselves. Mostly they are things you think up in these meetings every day?

MB: They are responses to things that happen in meetings. Or things I wish I could say. In a few cases I’ve actually said these things. Of course the names have been removed to protect the boring, the rude, the jargon-spewing types, the lazy, the bullies, and the people with “bad grammer”.

@MeetingBoy: I know, I know, but if your idea is so good, why hasn't some VP passed it off as their own yet?

@MeetingBoy: Sorry, I have to leave your meeting. I have something I need to do. I need to not be bored to death.

@MeetingBoy: This PowerPoint needs an art director? Wow! I never thought I'd say this to you, lady, but you're overthinking this.

@MeetingBoy: That email you claim I never sent you? Here it is. Along with your REPLY TO IT.

@MeetingBoy: No, I wasn't playing Devil's Advocate. I really think your idea is stupid.

@MeetingBoy: You are mean, incompetent, and ignorant. Life did not hand you lemons; life handed you CONSEQUENCES.

DI: But other times I see you attributing the tweets to other authors/publishers. How does that work?

MB: Sometimes I see a tweet that I wish I wrote. Other times my followers send me one I missed. Either way, if it’s something I think my audience would appreciate, I share it. After all, I don’t want to be like that guy in my office who thinks the only good ideas are the ones he thinks of.

For example, some of my favorite tweets that someone else wrote are:

@swimparallel: I've recovered from my death sickness. Now I'm back in the office. It feels like a lateral move.

@summersumz: Evaluating data, making conclusions. LIVING THE DREAM!

@kerissmithJA: Your cc list doesn’t scare me. I still refuse to respond to your email.

DI: So now you have this cool wall calendar. How’d that come about?

MB: A friend makes up a calendar with photos of his family, which I dutifully hang in my cube. I thought it would be cool to have a MeetingBoy calendar. I’d hoped to make a 365-page-a-day calendar, which I think would really work for my short quips, but I couldn’t find a way to publish it. So I went with a wall calendar, and asked for illustrators among my followers.

Of course once I had printed the calendar, I realized I couldn’t possibly put the calendar on my desk. I can’t have my boss or coworkers know that I’m MeetingBoy, and it’s probably better if they don’t even know he exists. Clearly I hadn’t thought this through.

I think the calendar makes a great Secret Santa gift. I think coworkers across the English-speaking world would love to get one.

Calendar available for sale online at http://meetingboy.com/calendar

DI: Have you learned any profound lessons going through the self-publishing process?

MB: I’ve learned that self-publishing isn’t very profitable. I’ve been very happy with all the illustrations I got, though paying for them before I sell the calendar has made money tight.

I was going to try to sell them directly myself over the internet, but I couldn’t be sure that my secret identity would be safe. Luckily one of the illustrators owns a comic shop and they agreed to carry it for internet sales.

And I’d still like to make a 365-page-a-day calendar if anyone knows how to go about that.

DI: What’s next for you and what’s your ultimate goal?

MB: Next up I’m starting to do regular illustrated tweets on MeetingBoy.com. Of course I can’t draw, so I’m using some of the same illustrators from the calendar, and any new ones I pick up along the way.

My ultimate goal is to be the boss on The Office after Steve Carrell leaves at the end of this season. Though I would also accept President Obama declaring my birthday, June 23rd, to be a national holiday, maybe National Out-of-the-Office Day. Write your congressman to make it happen.

DI: Will you always hide your true identity Meeting Boy? Or will we one day find out you’re actually Racer X’s older brother?

MB: I can’t reveal my identity without losing my job and potentially risking never working again. After all, who would hire MeetingBoy? A surly, sarcastic person who will mock your every shortcoming on the internet to tens of thousands of people. Even I might balk at hiring that guy. He kind of sounds like a loose cannon.

Okay, contest time! Of all the tweets mentioned in this post, by MeetingBoy or someone else, which would you like to see illustrated on Twaggies.com? RT it with the hashtag #twaggies and we'll pick one of you at random to get the calender. If you're not on Twitter, leave your vote in the comments below. The tweet with the most RTs will also get twagged on twaggies, too!

For my interviews with Jason Alexander, Monty Hall, Mitch Albom, xkcd and more, browse through past Creatively Speaking archives here >>

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A chat with Jeff Garlin
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Jeff Garlin co-stars and executive produces the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. The unique comedy, which is one of the rare television shows to become part of the national zeitgeist, stars Seinfeld creator Larry David, with Garlin portraying his loyal manager. Born and raised in Chicago and then South Florida, Garlin studied filmmaking and began performing stand-up comedy while at the University of Miami. He has toured the country as a stand-up comedian, is an alumnus of Chicago's Second City Theatre, and has written and starred in three critically acclaimed solo shows. I was fortunate enough to get this interview with him when he spoke at an event a charity I work with produced.

DI: Which do you prefer: writing, directing, or producing?

JG: I prefer to direct what I write.

DI: If you were to retire, what would you do with your time?

JG: Nap and eat puddin'.

DI: What's your favorite food?

JG: Puddin'.

DI: Of all the comedians and actors you've worked with over the years, who has been the most enjoyable.

JG: Larry David.

DI: Is Larry David as obnoxious in real life as he is on the show?

JG: See my answer above.

DI: What's the biggest difference between Chicago and L.A.?

JG: Human contact. In Chicago you get it on a regular basis.

DI: What's one of your favorite films?

JG: Sullivan's Travels by Preston Sturges.

DI: If you could have lunch with anyone deceased, who would it be?

JG: My grandfather Harold.

DI: Who's your idol?

JG: My wife.

DI: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

JG: A comedian.

DI: Where do you like to go to unwind when you're not working?

JG: Wherever my wife tells me.

DI: If you could change one thing about Hollywood, what would it be?

JG: The street names.

DI: Shakespeare wrote: "Brevity is the soul of wit." What do you think the essence of comedy is?

JG: A plate of fresh cornbread.

DI: I heard you studied law in college and almost graduated before deciding to pursue a career in comedy. Do you think you would have been a good lawyer?

JG: That's on Wikepedia.com and it's not true. I studied film.

DI: What's more difficult: performing stand-up comedy before a live audience or performing on camera?

JG: Actually, my personal life is harder.

DI: Do you own an iPod? If so, what's the most unusual music you've got on it?

JG: Chin Ho soundbites from Hawaii Five-0.

DI: Who is the funniest comedian of all-time?

JG: Jack Benny.

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