Top Young Historians: 24 – Jonathan Sheehan


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

24: Jonathan Sheehan, 6-26-06

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Associate Professor of History, University of Michigan
Area of Research: Early Modern Europe; intellectual and cultural history; history of Christianity and Judaism; history of science; history of media and print culture; secularization theory; political theology; systems-theory.
Education: Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley, 1999
Major Publications: Sheehan is author of The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture (Princeton University Press, 2005) Jonathan Sheehan JPG Sheehan is currently working on two projects: Invisible Hands: Self-Organization in the Eighteenth Century co-authored with Dror Wahrman, a synthetic study of the relationship between the eighteenth-century interest in human autonomy and in suprahuman systems of social, political, and intellectual organization and, Theology and the Human Sciences in Early Modern Europe a book on the religious origins of the human sciences, including anthropology, geography, comparative religions, and comparative philology.
Awards: Sheehan is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including:
The 2005 George L. Mosse Prize, American Historical Association for The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture which was also named one of Choice’s Outstanding Academic Titles for 2005.
He was also awarded: National Endowment for the Humanities, two year Collaborative Research Grant ($100,000) to write Invisible Hands with co-author Dror Wahrman, January 2007-December 2008;
Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbuettel, Germany. Research fellowship, Summer 2006;
Central European University, invited faculty participant in “Bookish Traditions: Authority and the Book in Scripturalist Religions,” Summer 2005;
President’s Arts and Humanities Initiative Indiana University fellowship, Spring 2004;
Outstanding Junior Faculty Award. Indiana University, Fall 2003;
Summer Faculty Fellowship. RUGS. Indiana University, Summer 2004;
Travel Grant. West European Studies, Indiana University, Fall 2003;
Center for the Study of Religion. Princeton University fellowship. Fall 2002-Spring 2003;
Summer Faculty Fellowship. COAS. Indiana University, Summer 2002 and 2001;
Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship. UCLA Humanities Consortium thematic fellowship on the topic “The Sacred and the Profane,” Fall 1999-Spring 2000;
Charlotte Newcombe Fellowship for Religion and Ethics. Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Fall 1998-Spring 1999;
William Andrews Clark Library. Predoctoral Research Grant, Summer 1998;
Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities, UC Berkeley. Dissertation Fellowship, Fall 1997-Spring 1998;
Mabel Mcleod Lewis Fellowship. Dissertation Fellowship. Fall 1997-Spring 1998. DAAD. Annual Research Fellowship, Fall 1996-Spring 1997;
Andrew Mellon Research Grant, Summer 1995.
Additional Info:
Formerly Assistant Professor of History at Indiana University in Bloomington, joint appointment with the department of Religious Studies.

Personal Anecdote

It Hasn’t Happened to Me

I have never left a briefcase full of precious research notes aboard a Berlin subway, only to have it airmailed to my apartment in New York by some elderly Samaritan who read through the address book stored inside. Nor I have ever showed up at 1 a.m. to a deserted and snowy airport and hitchhiked to an on-campus interview where it turned out that no one expected me anyways. Nor have I ever been wheeled into the emergency room at the end of three sleepless nights of writing for treatment of advanced caffeine poisoning. I get nervous before I deliver big public lectures, but I have never vomited in anticipation. Once I did drop my laptop onto a concrete floor. But it did not break. In any case, I had it backed up.

When I describe writing and thinking to myself, it is anyways rarely colored by horror or drama. And that suits me fine. In all honesty, I would rather hold onto their simpler pleasures. So here are a few mundane anecdotes about these:

I had a friend in high school who spent much of her work time listening to a single song, carefully recorded over and over again on an old and, by the end of the year, doubtless scratchy cassette tape. She plugged into her headphones at study hall and unplugged from the chaos and stimulation of two thousand rowdy adolescents. The sheer monotony of the music—and don’t ask me what it was, likely something embarrassing—must have been a comfort. She became an academic too.

“Monotonously beautiful,” was a description offered to me when I arrived in Berkeley, with its endlessly sunny afternoons and foggy mornings. And it was true: after a certain point, even beauty can become the setting for the ordinary. Indeed, it had to if I was ever going to finish graduate school and take my reluctant leave from the place. Monotony seems to be a key element of the intellectual process, at least for me. Maybe it is the sensory buffer that keeps the world slightly at a distance, and gives my thought the space for freedom and play.

That’s a romantic way to look at it, of course. But why not look at it that way, since this is what I love to do? I wrote my book sitting two stories below ground in a room a quarter the area of a federal prison cell. Four by four were the dimensions of its walls, and its only light came from a tiny table lamp I brought in myself and mounted on the shelf in front of me. The first week I was there, I accidentally banged the bulb and ever after, it burned with a white light too fierce to look at and burning hot to touch. Books were piled in enormous stacks around front and back. A librarian’s nightmare, I imagine, with half of them open and strewn about without a conservatorial care. Every three weeks I shoveled all of the books out onto the reshelving table and reloaded the room with new ones, flipping them open and heaping them up. The occasional toppling of a stack brought a spike of adrenaline to the day. To keep me tranquil, I endlessly replayed Kind of Blue, the Miles Davis tribute to blues, modal tones, and heroin. Seven months later, the manuscript was done and a pallid man put down his headphones, and left, happy.

And the last word is important to me. I don’t tend to hear much talk about the pleasures of historical labor, perhaps because they tend to be rather undramatic. A day of research or writing has many of the qualities of a melting glacier. You know you are making progress because you can see words stream (or trickle) across a page. They gather in a small pool and represent enormous amount of energy. And the end of the day, though, that huge mountain of ice looks just about the same. Yet for me, the pleasures of thought demand slowness, stillness, and the time for cool reflection. They are the pleasures of the turn of phrase, the connection forged, the idea imagined. For me, more than anything, these make this whole business worth it.


Jonathan Sheehan

  • “Prophets of modernity count the hours until religion’s death. They should not hold their breath. Modern society will never lack for religion, not because humans are essentially superstitious or because, in their frailty, they crave supernatural comfort, but because the process of religion’s disappearance is itself integral to the self- definition of modernity. For modern society, secularization always is and always must be incomplete. The Enlightenment Bible JPG Even as religion seems to vanish from politics and public culture, it never ceases to define the project of modernity, whether negatively, in specters of intolerance and hatred, or positively, in ethics of social justice and equality. Religion is always receding and returning and its repeated tidal flow is essential to the self- image of modernity, which can no more dispense with religion than embrace it.
    There are few clearer witnesses to this process than the Bible. If indeed modernity were secular, this provincial and archaic artifact should long have been discarded. Instead, its prescriptive content is rejected, even as it has become one of the sturdiest pillars of Western “culture.” At the same moment that the Bible is mourned (or celebrated) as a victim of secularism, it has also been recuperated as an essential element of that transcendent moral, literary, and historical heritage that supposedly holds together Western society.” — Jonathan Sheehan in “The Enlightenment Bible”

About Jonathan Sheehan

  • “This lively, elegant and erudite book sheds new light on intellectual relations between eighteenth-century Germany and England. The book will have much to offer historians of the early-modern period, as well as historians of science, literary critics, and theologians.” — Anthony Grafton, Princeton University reviewing “The Enlightenment Bible”
  • “I can genuinely say that this is one of the most interesting books I have read in a long time. Elegantly written, it presents the issues in a clear, thorough, and scholarly fashion. It is sure to win high praise.” — Susannah Heschel, Dartmouth College reviewing “The Enlightenment Bible”

Posted on Sunday, June 25, 2006 at 7:07 PM

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1 Comment

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