Monthly Archives: February 2005

Address On The Right Use Of Speculative Literature

Yesterday BoingBoing flagged an argument by sf novelist Will Shetterly that reading science fiction helped make him a better Unitarian — and in the cited article, Shetterly makes an appealing case. On the other hand, students from Seabury’s Early Church History class may remember that nearly 1700 years ago, St. Basil [the Great*] of Caesarea made a comparable argument relative to the pagan literature of classical antiquity. The earliest Christians distanced themselves from pagan literature, as the Apostolic Tradition 16 illustrates when it limits the possibility of schoolteachers to become Christians (presumably because they inculcate the myths of Hellenistic civil religion). Basil, on the other hand, argued that when young people (“young men,” to Basil, despite Macrina’s good example) study the classics, they apprehend the dim outline of such Scriptural truths as they are not yet ready to encounter directly. The youths who study literature stand to learn nobility and virtue from authors whom everyone admires for their insight. At least, they stand so to learn as long as they don’t linger over the salacious passages.

Pretty good for an old guy, especially considering that Basil hadn’t read Dune even once!

* I was about to mourn the era in which theologians got jazzy nicknames like Basil the Great or Gregory the Wonderworker or Peter Comestor (“the Eater”) — but given the temper of the moment, when the cleverest nicknames flying around seem to involve calling the U.S. Presiding Bishop “Grizzy” or tagging the Archbishop of Canterbury as a “sick chicken,” I suppose we’re better off without, for now. . . .

Short Conundrum

I’m thinking over the Primates’ Statement, and although I’d have wished it different, I’m not surprised by its general tenor.

One source of puzzlement, though: why do the Primates ask that the US and Canada withdraw from the Anglican Consultative Council? Does this imply a hierarchy of the Instruments of Unity, such that the Primates constitute a “higher” instrument than the Consultative Council? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the Primates to ask the primates of the US and Canada to withdraw, and to let the Consultative Council make its own requests relative to particular delegations?

Isn’t this request especially odd since it coincides with a request that the U.S. and Canada return to the Council in special status to explain their actions?

I’m not lobbying against asking for “withdrawal” per se; that seems a consistent gesture on the part of the relevant authorities. I am curious about what the present request implies about the Windsor process, its present standing as a guideline for institutional action, and its standing as a goal.

If you want to have a conversation (as the Primates expressly said they do), it seems odd to kick some people out for not cooperating, then invite them back provisionally to hold up their end of the conversation. It would make more sense to me for them to simply say, “You didn’t convince us; you’re out, for now,” or to say, “We want you to give us your best shot at making a case that we’re sure you can’t make. Come back to the Consultative Council; we’ll give you a hearing, then you can decide what to do when we ask you to withdraw.” To that extent, the outcome of the primates’ meeting misses the opportunity to stake out a clear message.

Liturgy, Meaning, and Teaching

Tripp pursues one of the main topics of his thesis in this morning’s post. He worries about the dialectical relationship between “teaching” and “worship” in liturgy: “How do we understand the purpose of liturgy as a teaching tool? It seems that whenever we become too didactic, we cannot worship, but the moment we stop explaining then worship becomes meaningless.”

[Disclaimer: With regard to what follows, readers should bear in mind that I am not a card-carrying “evangelical” (as Tripp seems to have become, at least for a day) nor a scholar of liturgics. I am what the jargonmeisters call a reflective practitioner of leading worship, and (most to the point) an avid student of semiotics, of the study of meaning and what we do about it.]

Tripp seems to have gotten stuck at the wrong point in the argument, though. It’s not that liturgical worship is ever meaningless, any more than a Unix manual, or a volume of the Summa Theologia, or an essay by a postmodern theorist. “Meaninglessness” applies neither to the published words of people whose expertise doesn’t overlap with our own nor to the enacted words and gestures of a worshipper whose relation to those actions doesn’t overlap with our own — in these cases, the kind of meaning we (presumably) seek eludes us, but the words and gestures nonetheless continue to mean. If nothing else, they may mean something such as “the author of this work (of worship or prose) expects me to regard baffling obfuscation as mystical profundity.” Japanese isn’t meaningless because I don’t understand it; the problem lies not with Japanese or its speakers, but with my ignorance.

With regard to liturgy and Tripp’s dilemma, then, it looks as though Tripp is conflating the kind of teaching by which one learns a language (or a discourse or a sort of cultural behavior or a craft) with the kind of learning by which one moves from the dim, frustrating perception of what each word means toward the appreciation of sentences, thoughts, meditations, and so on. It takes a long time to learn Greek, and once one has attained elementary acquaintance with the language, one still has a hard time puzzling out what Aristotle thinks about ethics; but it seems worthwhile to distinguish the two processes.

The notion that liturgy should be self-explanatory, should comprise both the expression of thankful praise and the metacommentary that articulates that expression in plain, open terms, serves particular theological-ideological purposes. That notion eases the transition between not having the vaguest idea why Christians do the sorts of thing that they do (or having a misguided idea) and recognizing the rationale for liturgical behavior.

At the same time, some ideas and some gestures depend for their intelligibility on prior formation. Schoolteachers try to inculcate the background knowledge and sensibilities by which students may relish Shakespeare’s plays or von Bismarck’s statecraft — but without some sort of preparatory instruction, few learners will find King Lear especially “meaningful.” I once found myself in an argument over the extent to which “meaning” transcends cultural specificity, in which debate my interlocutor cited the example of Antigone as evidence that something about our common human essence binds us to the great works of antiquity. That example seemed contrariwise to demonstrate my point: unless we’re instructed beforehand about Antigone’s family history, about ancient piety and burial practices, about the politics of Sophocles’s own day, Antigone may well seem absurdly meaningless, not because of a defect in our alleged common humanity, but because the drama relies on a context of shared information and assumptions on which we just can’t draw. If a vendor won’t exchange her goods for my foreign currency, the problem isn’t that the currency is intrinsically worthless, but that we haven’t worked out a context within which it might have value.

Back to liturgy: we shouldn’t expect every service to teach the faith at an introductory level, or to evoke the deepest mystical truths, any more than every book be written by Dr. Seuss or Jürgen Habermas. I think it’s probably fair to wish that every service point toward the greater mysteries, and that no service constitute itself so as to repel visitors — but a great part of the life of faith (as it comes to expression in the liturgy) involves putting into practice things one has learned outside the liturgy. Just as one is taught table manners over time, usually at home, before one attends a formal dinner, so the teaching ministry of family and congregation prepare people, over time, for the fullest participation in a solemn mass.

In any case, the meaning subsists not just in a participant’s experience, not just in the leader’s intent, but in a complex of intentions, conventions, receptions, and innovations that (to recur to one of my favorite topics) we don’t control. The challenge for each worship leader, or for each participant in liturgical planning, involves not a simple dialectic of teaching and worship, but a negotiation among the calls to nuance and to explicitness, to that which is shared with generations of worshippers reaching into antiquity and to that which stimulates the most vivid sense of contemporaneity, to theological truth expressed in actions and words whose intelligibility derives from their roles in a great shared discourse of liturgical art, and to evangelical transparency expressed in a shared vernacular discourse of colloquial immediacy — among other urgent imperatives.

So I’d suggest (at a minimum) specific effort among regular members of the congregation to assimilate and understand the congregation’s liturgy so as to be able to bring visitors into the stylized theological conversation. (Catechizing the regulars provides all manner of benefits, this just one among them.) At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt if the congregation provided (along with its regular bulletin, assuming that they use a bulletin) a very simple guide to the congregation’s worship. It needn’t pares every technicality or define every term, but should provide enough guidance that a visitor not feel quite lost. The combination of a friendly, helpful congregant and a basic, direct guide-leaflet would do a lot of the work of elementary liturgical instruction.

Simultaneously, the congregation could devote serious time and consideration to the reasons for its liturgical practice, and the significance of the liturgical decisions it makes. Tripp knows how vexed I get when people think that “ ’Cos I like it that way” trumps all other reasons in shared liturgical deliberation. Common worship involves a tremendous amount more than your or my individual likes and dislikes; if we want to communicate among the historic, dispersed, contemporary, and future saints, we need to attend to ways that our behavior signifies beyond our preferences. To that end, we should be cautious about adopting purely local idiosyncratic formulations — however much we may like them, they may exclude the saints from taking their part in a worship God longs for all to share in.


Fresh from yesterday afternoon’s victory, Pippa and I crowned my efforts today. Early in the afternoon, she found the book on cartooning lying on the table irresistible. She perused it over her lunch, and afterward sat down and pencilled a sketch for me (I’ll post it on flickr when I have a chance).

Then I mentioned that I’d been meaning to go over to the Block Museum at Northwestern. Pippa indicated a reluctant willingness to go with me (she feels that art museums are too boring), but when I was ready to go, she preferred to stay in the basement working on a massive laundry project. That was okay; I tackled further steps in the massive financial aid project. About forty-five minutes later, Pippa showed up at my back, holding a pair of socks for me to put on, and together we spent an hour or so examining furnishings and designs by William Morris and his colleagues. I have a weakness for the Arts and Crafts style (all the more so after a visit to Glasgow and its Charles Rennie Mackintosh House), so the wallpaper patterns, books, tapestries, and stained-glass windows all captivated me. Pippa was less vividly enthralled than I, but as always she engaged the works on display quite studiously.

On the way home, we stopped at the Norris Center for a snack sushi and Chex Mix. The walk home was clear and cold, brilliant and exquisitely illumined. Glorious.

Forms and Play

I’ve just finished the family taxes (Nate comes next, hang on, fella), and a spate of forms that I fill out annually when Seabury sees what kind of medical insurance it can afford, and I’m working on financial aid applications. Permit me to say, relative to all these, that I have yet to encounter a form that doesn’t invoke my deepest anxieties about making a mistake, misunderstanding or forgetting something, and having my house surrounded by flare-orange-suited agents from a federal agency, armed with automatic weapons. I’m not math-phobic; I appreciate some sorts of legal puzzling; but this particular high-stakes game gives me a terrible allergic reaction, and the ways that tax software (no doubt itself constrained by dread legal forces) and insurance companies elicit information from me aggravate every confusion and fear my unconscious mind could rev up.

Again, next year I hope I can send our taxes to a professional. This year I needed to do them in a hurry so that I can submit financial aid information (late) to go with Si’s college applications (Happy Birthday, 18-year-old son!). There’s a lot of good work to be one simplifying and clarifying information-gathering for these agencies.

At the other end of the spectrum, Burning Monkey Mahjong 2005 has just been released, and this ludic user interface has me very positively impressed. If only I had more opportunity to play this, and less obligation to fill out the former.

One Victory

Pippa does not read my blog, so far as I know (this would be a good time to tip me off if you are reading, Pip!), so I’ll crow about Margaret’s and my subtle method for inducing our children to read books that we know they’ll be interested by.

We hit them over the head with it.

No, no quite that obvious, but still — the time-honored method in our family entails leaving the “interesting” book in some incredibly obvious place (Margaret used the middle of the floor for a while), until the target child can no longer ignore it. This doesn’t always work, but it’s more consistently successful, and a lot less costly, than nagging.

On today’s library trip, I spotted a book on drawing comics that I knew would interest Pippa, if only I could induce her to look into it. As Pippa hit the comics section upstairs and the children’s section downstairs, I settled into the adult recent acquisitions section with a book by Paul Ricoeur that I’ll ignore until it’s due, Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602 (which I enjoyed immensely, though wityh a slight let-down at the end), and the how-to-draw-comics book on the library table in front of me. When Pippa finished her browsing, she came to get me. I continued reading 1602 until I reached the end of a chapter. She glanced at the cover of Ricoeur, looked at her own stack of books — then picked up the comics book. When I decided it was time to go, she had been reading intently for a good ten minutes. I took that book out along with the two that interested me, and it’s sitting prominently on the dining room table. . . .

Forgot To Remember

Somewhere I thought I had learned that the obsolete word “eke” was used to fit into metrical lines that needed an extra syllable — hence the expression “to eke out” meant “to draw to necessary length by adding the syllable ‘eke.’ ” I thought I had learned this, but I can’t find support for that usage anywhere online. So, to everyone to whom I’ve asserted this to be the case, I issue a blanket reservation: maybe so, maybe not.

Certainly the use of “eke” tends to fit that characterization, even when editions of Chaucer gloss “eke” as “also.” The value of this syllable frequently entails only its contribution to the scansion; only rarely does an affirmation “additionally” flavor eke’s semantic role in a line. Still, absent an authoritative permission to continue my previous line of thinking, I’ll retract and wait further instruction.

Usage Fussbudget

A subhead in the Baltimore Sun suggests verblessly that “Gonzalez latest to refute steroid claims of Canseco.”

May we agree that Gonzalez “contradicted” or “disputed” or even “gainsaid,” Canseco’s allegations, but unless Gonzalez presented ironclad evidence, he cannot yet be said to have refuted Canseco? For now, it’s one outfielder’s word against another.

Freedom At Reduced Cost

David Isenberg reminds me that “there’s one week left to register [for the Freedom to Connect conference] at the Early Bird price of $250. The higher price, effective 12:01 AM on March 1, will be $350.” Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

There’ll be a tremendous line-up of ’net policy thinkers, with a passel of other geeks and wonks in attendance. I missed the WTF!?! — A Gathering of SMART People conference last year; I’m tickled to be going to F2C this year (this year, David lowered the standard from “smart” to “available,” in the theologians category, anyway). Disclaimer: I’m giving a keynote at F2C, so take that in consideration when I say it’ll be a conference full of chewy, nutritious net-policy goodness, apart from one keynote’s worth of theological reflection on freedom and connectivity. I still think the other speakers will be good, the company will be heady, the conference productive, and the Early Bird Special a better deal than last-minute registration.