Courtney T. Ball

Our Vast Ignorance


I left my job to write a book about Jesus. It was a good job at a great nonprofit organization which my brother Clint and I founded in 2006. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I knew that the demands of that job would not leave me with sufficient time to write a novel which had been on my mind for nearly ten years.

I want this book to help people (especially American Christians) to understand the world in which Jesus operated and how it relates to our world today. To answer the question of what Jesus would really do today, one has to have a pretty good sense of what he was actually up to back then, and why.

I have a Bachelor’s degree in Religion from the University of Iowa and a Master of Divinity from Iliff School of Theology. It’s safe to say I’ve taken more classes and read more books about early Christianity than the average Christian.

Still, even to understand the small cast of characters in the biblical gospels as we have them, I have had to do a lot of research into areas about which I know next to nothing: the Roman Empire, for instance. Scholars like John Dominic Crossan–and, quite frankly, resources like Wikipedia–have been immensely helpful in this pursuit, but the task quickly becomes overwhelming. When people ask me what I’m working on, I sometimes feel like giving this famous answer from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

“…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

Rumsfeld was talking about the U.S. failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The Iraq war is something else I’ve been learning about lately. I want to draw parallels in my story between U.S. involvement in the middle east and Roman efforts in those same territories 2000 years ago.

As I began to look into the Iraq war, I quickly learned that a huge part of that region’s difficulties stems from a 1300-year-old division between the Shiite and Sunni sects of Islam. Like most Americans, I had heard those terms in the news, but I knew nothing about what they meant.

It turns out, neither do most of our leaders. In this op-ed piece from the New York Times, Jeff Stein asks high-ranking officials the simple question, “Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?” To quote him:

“Most American officials I’ve interviewed don’t have a clue. That includes not just intelligence and law enforcement officials, but also members of Congress who have important roles overseeing our spy agencies. How can they do their jobs without knowing the basics?”

So, the majority of high-ranking officials responsible for big decisions related to our involvement there lack even a rudimentary understanding of Iraq’s culture. This is a nation with which we have been deeply engaged for decades.

On the one hand, I am deeply unsettled by this lack of knowledge on both fronts: Christian ignorance about Jesus and Americans’ cluelessness regarding Iraq. As a member of both those groups, I’m not very proud of us.

On the other hand, it does present a wonderful opportunity for storytellers like me to do our work. And thankfully, there are some excellent artist/scholars stepping up to provide truly engaging material in both these areas of study. One such example is Reza Aslan, whose book Zealot I am reading right now. Aslan was born in Iran but grew up in the U.S. and was a fellow in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Zealot is his bestselling depiction of “the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth”.

We also live in a time when information is easier to access than ever before. The map at the top of this post is from Wikipedia, in case you are now curious about Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Click here or on the map, and you can start to learn. Even if the rest of the world is vastly ignorant, you can at least now inform yourself rather easily.

Or, if you don’t feel like it right now, you can just continue to wallow in your ignorance, and maybe someday you’ll get elected to office.

Like this? Click to subscribe!

About author View all posts

Courtney Ball

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *