I recently had the opportunity to attend the 37th Annual Association for Baha’i Studies Conference in Irvine, California, and during the conference I was able to meet J.A. McLean, the author of A Celestial Burning.
This recently published work is a comprehensive study of selected writings of Shoghi Effendi, and the book won the Association for Baha’i Studies 2013 “distinguished scholarship” award in the book category, and according to the Academic Director of the Association, Dr. Pierre-Yves Mocquais, the award was a unanimous decision by the judges.
J.A. McLean spent over a decade working on A Celestial Burning, and there’s no doubt that readers will develop a deeper appreciation for the writings of the Guardian through this book.
I decided to catch-up with J.A. McLean to find out more about the book and his experience in taking on this important work:
Baha’i Blog: Can you tell me a little about the book in general?
Well, may I answer first with a qualifier and then more directly? I think it’s highly likely that as Baha’i scholarship develops in the years ahead, other books will be written on the writings of Shoghi Effendi from various angles: historical, literary, administrative, strategic (planning), theological, oratorical and discourse theory, etc. The seeds are all there. Regarding A Celestial Burning, I felt that my academic background in theology and comparative religion, as well as my interest in literature and literary criticism, would enable me to write a book that would examine the Guardian’s writings from a particular point of view. That point of view is an interdisciplinary analysis of the Guardian’s writings as an outstanding paradigm of both religious ideas and superb literary style. In other words, I wanted to examine the doctrinal or “theological” importance of the Guardian’s writings, in his capacity as the appointed interpreter of the Baha’i teachings. At the same, I wanted to elucidate the remarkable literary and oratorical qualities of his writings. In order to do this, I correlated what I perceived in his writings with Baha’i and non-Baha’i scholarship in fields such as philosophical theology, comparative religion, oratory, history, literary criticism. This was my basic purpose and orientation.
Baha’i Blog: What compelled you to write the book and what were you trying to achieve?
I had a few main purposes in mind when I wrote A Celestial Burning. Generally speaking, in Baha’i scholarship there has been a very large gap in the scholarly treatment of the writings of Shoghi Effendi, and I wanted to fill that gap. I offer a few reasons in the “Introduction and Parameters” as to why this situation has arisen. So basically, I was trying to do justice to the whole corpus of the Guardian’s writings—to draw attention to their merits, as well as to provide insights into their dynamics and organic structure. I am not meaning to suggest by this statement that the very important foundational work that has been done, and is being done, in Baha’i studies by our outstanding scholars is not important. Of course it is. But to a large extent, Shoghi Effendi’s writings have not yet found their place in the foundational scholarship that has been generated by research and reflection on Baha’i scripture, teachings and history. It’s a question of time and development. Hopefully, my book will help us to catch up gradually with the Guardian’s long ministry. Scholars cannot afford to ignore the Guardian.
Baha’i Blog: As you have noted, there doesn’t seem to be that much material or works about the Guardian. Why do you think it’s important to change this?
It’s important to change this situation for several reasons. The writings of Shoghi Effendi, and the leadership that he so skilfully provided for 36 years, through the strategic planning that led to the worldwide expansion and consolidation of the Baha’i community, brought us squarely into the harsh but promising realities and challenges of 20th century life, which included, we should not forget, two devastating world wars. His many thousands of letters to both eastern and western Baha’is, clarified vitally important questions of Baha’i spirituality, doctrine and administration. We should not simply ignore all this vital material. In my view, Shoghi Effendi was one of the most informed and incisive commentators of world events in the 20th century, particularly of the “dual phenomenon”, as he called it, of the decline and fall of the old world order and the corresponding rise of the new. This idea is central to his world order letters and remains as fresh and pertinent as this morning’s newspaper. So I think it’s safe to say that the formative interactions of the Baha’i Faith with modernity is largely a creation of the mind of Shoghi Effendi. He reformulated virtually the entire corpus of the Baha’i teachings in light of the political, social, spiritual, and moral realities of contemporary life as they related both to the world at large and to the Baha’i community. While some of the historical events to which he alludes have since passed into history, his overall comments still remain fully applicable today, and will remain so for generations to come.
Baha’i Blog: As you’ve explained, your book approaches Shoghi Effendi from two main perspectives: The Guardian as the divine expounder, a wellspring of incisive and perspicuous religious thought, and Shoghi Effendi the eloquent writer, a vocation that was inseparable from his sacred office. Can you tell me a little more about this?
Well, it would be an exaggeration to say that Shoghi Effendi was a philosopher in any sense. Temperamentally, he was not fond of metaphysical abstractions. So I was not trying to portray the Guardian as a philosopher or a theologian. He was, of course, a writer—a very special kind of writer, who brought epistolary into its fullest expression. But this is not to say that his authorized interpretations, such as we find, for example, on the station on the Three Central Figures and the nature of the Administrative Order in The Dispensation of Baha’u’llah, or some of the thousand of letters he answered on doctrinal questions, do not have theological or even philosophical import. They do. What else but “theology” are we going to call his interpretations that deal with the station of the Three Central Figures, their relations to one another, to the other prophets and to God? Theology does not have to be a forbidden word for Baha’is. It is a useful word, if by it, we refer to reasoned discourse about God and divine questions. Of course, we do not and cannot have professional theologians defining Baha’i doctrine—there is no provision for such an arrangement in the Baha’i community—but that does not mean that the word “theology” needs to be proscribed. Neither was Shoghi Effendi a scholar or an academic, but his writings can keep scholars and academics fully occupied. I point out in my book that the Guardian’s writings were not theoretical: they are fully functional and practical, that is, actual. They were intended to accomplish something, whether it was to define doctrine, write Baha’i history, expand the Administrative Order and its governing principles, or to exhort the Baha’is to arise and to fulfill the goals that he had set out for them to expand the Baha’i Faith around the globe.
Baha’i Blog: Can you share a couple of interesting points about the Guardian and/or his work which you discovered while you were working on the book?
What was fascinating to me was that gradually, over the years that I worked on this book, I began to see structures or patterns in Shoghi Effendi’s use of language and thought, structures that were closely tied to the way his mind worked…at least as I perceived how his mind worked in the particular writings that I was studying. So it was my gradual perception of the “architectonic structure” of the Guardian’s writings and thought that fascinated me. Although the book was indeed hard labor at times, there was also the joy of learning and discovery along the way. I wrote one chapter on Shoghi Effendi’s use of rhetoric, “the language of persuasion”. Shoghi Effendi had actually taken a number of courses at the Syrian Protestant College on rhetoric, courses which were still included on college curriculums at the beginning of the 20th century. It fascinated me to learn more about Shoghi Effendi’s masterly use of oratory, which I correlated to some of the classical concepts of oratory that we find, for example, in Aristotle’s On Rhetoric. I have a feeling that in the future, the study and art of rhetoric will be revived in the Baha’i curriculum. But aside from these points, I was at times simply elated by the divine, inspirational nature of his lucid and moving epistolary. If anyone has any doubt that Shoghi Effendi was the “sign of God on earth”, and divinely inspired in the exercise of the various functions of his office, they should study his writings with the careful attention and reverence that they deserve.
Baha’i Blog: You spent over 10 years working on this book. What was the experience of working on this important book like for you personally?
Well, I should say that it wasn’t exactly 10 years of writing and research . It was probably closer to seven. The whole project from the first drafts until the time of publication was actually about 12 years, but I wasn’t working on the book for that entire time. To speak more personally, writing my book was also a deeply and genuinely spiritual experience. This spiritual vision lay at the root of my writing this book. I mean that I had one very significant symbolic dream about the book, a dream that was closer to a vision, in the form of a pearl of great price, just as I was beginning the first drafts. Later, while I was writing the book, I had several extraordinary dreams about the Guardian’s wife and widow, Ruhiyyih Khanum (formerly Mary Maxwell of Montreal). Of course, Ruhiyyih Khanum was profoundly interested in anything pertaining to Shoghi Effendi. In these dreams, she let me know that she was aware of what I was doing, and she encouraged me to use the highest possible standards. These messages were conveyed largely in symbolic form. I didn’t think that I could live up to such standards of excellence, but I certainly tried my best. But I think that the seed for the book was actually planted many years ago when I was a young man growing up in Toronto. One bright summer’s day, I walked into my great aunt, Violet Halsted’s room. “Auntie” as we called her, happened to be living with us at that time. Auntie Vi was a deepened, devoted and self-sacrificial Baha’i. She happened to be reading God Passes By which was sitting on her dresser. I recall that moment very clearly. It was a defining moment. Although I knew very little about Shoghi Effendi’s writings in those days, I was struck by the pathos of the title, a title that I subsequently learned was chosen by George Townshend. God had passed by, and we had missed him. How sad, I thought. I determined there and then that I would not be one who would let God pass by.
Baha’i Blog: What are you working on right now and/or what are your plans for the future?
Ah, that’s the $64,000 dollar question, as people of my generation used to say. You know, Naysan, when you start working on a book, you are in a sense married to it for a few years, so you have to choose carefully. I have a few projects in mind, and I am close to making a choice soon. It’s what the French call “l’embarras du choix”—the awkwardness of the choice. Stay tuned!
Baha’i Blog: What message do you have to other Baha’i writers out there?
Keep writing. Write regularly. Be disciplined about it. Most importantly, believe in yourself and in your mission—if you have a sense of mission. Don’t let anyone discourage you, no matter what their profile happens to be, whether inside or outside the Baha’i Faith. When you are not writing, you can be researching; when you are not researching, you can be reading; when you are not reading, you can be thinking. Do not underestimate simple human contact. Cultivate friendships. Widen your circle of friends. Consult those who know more about the topic than you do. Important ideas can come just as much through conversation as they can in reading, lectures or the like. Personal contact can change a life. Do not fear or shrink from fair criticism. Ignore vicious criticism. Vicious criticism has no place in Baha’i discourse. If your work is any good at all, it is going to be criticised. All scholars or writers can benefit from fair criticism. No Baha’i scholar or writer’s work is so perfect that it can’t benefit from review or critique. Listen to or read such comments and assess them, but do not be overwhelmed by negative comments. Appreciate any positive comments you may receive, but don’t let them go to your head. We should feel humbled as well as honoured by accolades. Remember where it all comes from. Remember the Source. You don’t own your ideas. You are a channel for them. Many others helped to create what you have learned and convey through writing. Adopt a few outstanding writers as models, but don’t imitate them slavishly. Let them inspire you, but develop your own style. Finally, find a good editor. Some scholars and writers think they can edit themselves, but it is not so. Editing and writing are two very different skills. A good editor can be a great help to a scholar or writer, but they can also be the bane of a writer’s existence.
Baha’i Blog: Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview J.A. McLean, and congratulations on winning the Association for Baha’i Studies 2013 Distinguished Scholarship Award, and most importantly, thank you for contributing such an important body of work for the Baha’i community.
You can find out more about A Celestial Burning from J.A. McLean’s website, and purchase your copy of the book from your local Baha’i bookstore.