I arrived in Aix-en-Provence, France, in September 1976 with my wife and two children to begin a one-year appointment as a Fulbright visiting professor at the University of Provence. I had arranged to rent a house owned by Michel Vovelle, a famous historian at the university who later became a chaired professor at the University of Paris. Michel agreed to meet us on the property to show us the ins and outs of living in a French “villa,” and we struck up an instant friendship.
The house was very pleasant and colorfully decorated, but the real prize was a room filled with bookshelves that ran the length of the place, illuminated by natural light from a picture window. Michel left after a while, promising to return the next day so that we could meet his wife, and I spent a good part of the evening grazing among his books. I knew that he was well known for his work on the “dechristianization” of France during the French Revolution, but the Vovelle library was a treasure trove of writing about Christian history and Church politics.
One collection of writings I found particularly intriguing without really knowing why focused on the theological controversies of the fourth century C.E., in particular, the ferocious debate about the nature of Jesus later known as the Arian Controversy. When Michel returned the next morning with Mme. Vovelle, we had breakfast and talked politics for a while (a new political figure named Jimmy Carter was running for President, and the Vovelles wanted to know what we thought of him). After the meal, I asked Michel about the debate described in his books. Even now, his answer rings in my ears: “Ah yes, the Arian Controversy. The most interesting and important ideological struggle before Stalin versus Trotsky!” He then explained that, for reasons still not well understood, what seemed to be a hair-splitting theological debate caused something close to a civil war, with riots, assassinations, and urban neighborhoods burned to the ground as part of the struggle to define what being a Christian meant in the late Roman Empire.
That hooked me. I continued researching that controversy and decided that when I knew enough about the matter, I would write a book about it. Life intervened; I spent a number of years teaching law and writing a book about terrorism but after becoming professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University, I saw an opportunity to realize my old ambition. When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome was published in 2000 and still ranks as a best-selling book on religious history. In its Introduction, I tell the story of Michel Vovelle’s library and my memorable Fulbright experience.
Richard Rubenstein – Fulbright to France 1976