Monthly Archives: July 2006

Ekklesioteros

The morning plenary at the Ekklesia Project involves Debra Dean Murphy, Brenna Cussen, Fred Bahnson, and Grace Hackney; they’re talking about “Kingdom Practices.” By this, they refer to the deliberate inhabitation of particular places, in ways congruent with the specificity of the place and of their vocation as Christians. Fred and Grace live at Anathoth Community Garden in North Carolina, and Brenna at a Catholic Worker house in South Bend.

Brenna begins the presentation with a discussion of “making a home” as a way for Christians to live together. She cites Matthew 25:31-46 as a charter for Catholic Workers’ social activism. The works of mercy, according to the Catholic Worker movement, lie at the heart of the gospel, to be enacted in person. She points to visiting Al, a prisoner; caring for Anna, with a disabling illness; to feeding refugees in Darfur. She understands the significance of her work as the parabolic mustard seed: a small movement, which she trusts that God will ultimately bring to fruition. The House where she lives anticipates the culmination of their labor with the daily joyful dinner at 6:30, seven days a week.

Grace describes her experience in Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, where she has borne witness to a life consistently grounded in peace. Cedar Grove Church had burned down , and as part of the congregation’s recuperation from that trauma, and in the aftermath of a brutal murder in the rural community, Grace began a discussion of land and faith, about poverty and abundance. In the course of a Bible study on Jeremiah, Grace’s community found the opportunity to found a community garden, where those who commit to participate in the work of raising food share in the produce and donate from the abundance of their garden to feed their hungry neighbors.

The first workshop I’m attending is Debra Dean Murphy’s session on Christian Formation — the room is crowded, and everyone is introducing him- or herself, which will take up a considerable part of the morning’s time slot. Debra begins the formal part of the session with the Parable of the Mustard Seed. She characterizes the parable as a subversive narrative, which all too readily the church has flattened out into reinforcing (rather than deconstructing) the powers of domination and exploitation.

She wants to strengthen the integration of the project of Christian formation with the liturgical, ethical, social practice of discipleship. She rejects the terminology of “Christian [or, less acceptably still ‘religious’] education,” and insists on speaking about catechesis. Worship should be the matrix and milieu for other modes of catechesis, which in turn should reflect the ideal of doxological growth toward full, grounded, deep discipleship (over against nationalist idolatry, consumer ideology, or the acquisition of abstracted facts and propositions about God). On her account, teaching in this way defies the traditional model of content-transmission, and turns us toward transforming the disciples’ imaginations.

After lunch, Allyne Smith, Brian Volck, and old friend Trevor have a panel discussion on “the Kingdom in Pictures and Poems.” Brian starts the discussion with a paper on “The Catholic Imagination as an Antidote to Gnosticism.” The catholic imagination entails a strong element of bodily experience: scents, sounds, sights, gestures. He cites Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Teresa” as an example of the carnality of catholic spirituality; it’s not (shhhh) secretly a Freudian subtext, but vigorously, explicitly a demonstration of the bodily experience of spiritual ecstasy. Brian reads several poems, displays a series of paintings, and argues that his positive illustrations exemplify a sacramental co-inherence of matter and spirit.

Allyne Smith begins from his Platonic conviction that beauty, truth, and goodness converge, and regrets the Western theological tradition’s relative silence on theological aesthetics. He cites a description of the Divine Liturgy, to the effect that God dwells in the liturgy of the Hagia Sophia, so great is the beauty of the worship. He turns the lecture to the topic of icons, a fundamental element of Orthodox identity and worship. Supporters of icons understand icons to represent an integral aspect of sound incarnational theology — but from the Orthodox perspective, iconoclasm entails all the previous heresies rolled into one.

Trevor has very little time left — the first presentation went long — but he’s using his time to narrate a Mennonite transition from hostility to visual and auditory art, to accommodation of the beautiful in contemporary Anabaptist life. He argues that the key concepts of “patience” and “simplicity” explain the transition. “Simplicity” was a watchword of modernism (manifest in the architecture of Mies van der Rohe, for instance). He cites a description of congregational four-part harmony as “the Mennonite Eucharist”; he does not believe Christ to be physically present in the bread and wine, but he suspects that Mennonites feel the presence of God in their mouths, in song.

I skipped the second workshop — Margaret and I needed to get our blood flowing, so we went for a walk around the DePaul neighborhood. After the break, we joined the plenary presentation from Englewood Christian Church, a congregation from Indianapolis. They seem a fascinating bunch, with lovely admirable qualities.

Live From Ekklesia

Today I’m blogging notes from the annual Ekklesia Project Gathering — or, more precisely, I’m noting some impressions and ideas that I hear from others, or that others’ notions provoke in me. That’s one of the things Ekklesia does so well, to bring us together with people who feed our imaginations. So it’s great to see Phil Kenneson, Stan Hauerwas, Barry Harvey, Beth Newman, Trevor Bechtel, Michael and Mary Cartwright and their children, James Lewis, Trecy Lysaught, and bunches of other provocative friends.

The Gathering began with worship, at which Stanley preached a sermon on Matthew 13:24-35; I love Stan, but I’d want to argue with him about many, many features of the sermon.

Improvisation, on Sam Wells’s account, teaches discipleship about four things: First, about forming habits (developing a sense of relaxed awareness), “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton“ — formation in specific practices and habits makes possible a freedom and responsiveness learned therein. Improvisation is about learning patterns and expectation so that you do what seems obvious (though it be mysterious to someone who hasn’t shared that preparation). Second, reading status relationships: He cites the example of encountering another in a hallway, and trying to figure who will yield which space to the other. High-status roles command attention, occupy space and do not yield; low-status roles operate in the margins. Third, over-accepting: Again, he invokes the theatrical categories of accepting, blocking, and over-accepting. In “accepting,” one simply cooperates with another’s offered [narrative] sequence (one offers a handshake, another accepts it); in blocking, one refuses the other’s offer (declines the handshake); in over-accepting, one accepts in such a way as to change the terms of the narrative one is enacting. Fourth, Wells cites “reincorporation.” He explains that reincorporating involves gathering the loose ends of the performed narrative and re-associating them with the posited main narrative. Reincorporation effects a satisfactory closure to a narrative. Sam connects these four features of improvisational discipleship with the Parable of the Unjust Steward in Luke 16:1-9. Sam’s take on improvisation impresses me, but I’m disappointed that he blocks three consecutive questions from women relative to ways that his theory might better deal with gender and racial difference.

After a break, the Gathering, ummm, gathered to talk about fasting. The Project involves a pledge to observe a daytime fast on Fridays, a fast that I observe generally (not unvaryingly). The discussion sounded very Protestant — “What should we do about fasting? Why do we fast?” I fast because it’s what we do, not because it’s predictably effectual toward a particular end. Thus I also have a hard time thinking about what we could do to make fasting better, or more effective. . . .

Beautiful Theology

David asked, “Could you post a short note describing a connection you see [between Edward Tufte’s information design and Christian theology]?” Well, no. “Short” isn’t in my repertoire on this point.

But here’s the beginning of a try:

Over the past couple of years, I’ve come to think about hermeneutics in a much more expansive context than is usual. Most (not all) treatises on hermeneutics discuss only the problem of identifying appropriate interpretations for verbal expressions; I think that picks up the stick at the wrong end. Words are an extraordinarily peculiar instance of meaningfulness; the prevalent examples, from facial gestures (which we significantly call “expressions”) to natural phenomena (“You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky. . .”) to deliberate communicative gestures, involve our responding harmoniously* to the ecology of meaning that suffuses us. Only when we consider verbal interpretation in the broader context of communicative interactions can we appropriately work out problems relative to verbal interpretation.

(I’ll get to Tufte in a minute.)

To this way of thinking, “words” constitute a particular sort of information, not intrinsically more “meaningful” than clouds or physical posture or a frown or numerals or traffic lights. Since Tufte argues for finesse and beauty in information design, and since I’m consumed by questions relative to hermeneutics (particularly about questions involving the relation of written expressions such as the Bible to the enacted interpretations in our daily lives), I recognize profound continuity in the issues that agitate Edward Tufte and those that provoke me.

I’ll go on to write more about the specifics of Tuftean information design and AKMA-ian hermeneutics (and also to write about going to a Cubs game last Friday), but now our beloved friend Phil is here, and it’s time for me to join the conversation in the living room.

Right Turn

I have to pay more attention to scholarly publishing and technology, because it looks as though I’ll be going to the Society for Scholarly Publishing’s Top Management Roundtable (evidently, no web address yet) in Philadelphia in early September — so I made it a point to look up this note in Inside Higher Education. I was exhilarated to see the sorts of plan Rice University Press already has implemented in the area of Open Access, and their vision of future projects looks spot-on to me.

When I see news of real publishers really implementing the projects I merely insist are possible (probable, necessary), I wonder what on earth I’ll say to a conference. Maybe I can simply give them an author’s-eye perspective, and encourage them to move toward the future rather than adhere with barnacular tenacity to a past whose tide is receding, not to return.

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

I was rooting for France during the later stages of the World Cup; it seemed as though Italy had a strong diaspora fan-base, and I’ve been to France (not to Italy), and I’ve been influenced by French philosophers and theologians more than Italian (despite my appreciation for Eco and Vattimo, and various historic monks and clergy) — so I was disappointed for France and for football when Zizou lost control.

But his loss of perspective pales beside the colossal catastrophes around the world, to which the U.S. government has responded with the cavalier lack of concern that it typically addresses to any topic that’s not at the focus of its limited agenda. Disasters in Mumbai? “Sorry, wrong number.” Israel-Palestine conflict boiling over and engulfing Lebanon? “I have to wash my hair. Besides, I’m worrying about the price of oil!” I don’t suppose that the present weak-tea Democratic Party would do much better, either — but what a terrible shame that the last superpower, which claims to be a beacon of hope to the world, has so little to offer wounded, grieving, starving, chaotic peoples.

Beautiful

Sorry, too absorbed to blog. My copy of Beautiful Evidence arrived today.

I suppose I’m just weird for seeing profound connections between Tufte’s work on information design and biblical theology — but I do, and I wish I were in a position to teach those connections, to work with students who have recognized the connections, too.

Movie Spree

The past four days, our family has watched four movies: A Scanner Darkly, Pirates 2, The Philadelphia Story, and High Society. (To be exact, the boys and I went out Friday night, while Margaret and Pip opted out of Scanner and stayed home to watch Spies Like Us.)

The classic movies were part of a family tradition, to which we were introducing Si’s girlfriend Laura. Whenever conversation lags in the Adam household, you can stir it up by suggesting that Katherine Hepburn is as beautiful as Grace Kelly, or that the addition of Louis Armstrong and Cole Porter makes up for the absence of Cary Grant. And, of course, when someone feels groggy in the morning, they always say, “This is one of those days that the pages of history teach us are best spent lying in bed.”

About Pirates 2, I don’t have much to say; it’s still a very slick movie about an amusement park ride. The animation of the doomed sailors worked very well; I enjoyed watching Bill Nighy, whose face came through clearly under the Chthulesque make-up. Johnny Depp was Johnny Depp, and Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom ran around and buckled swashes. The lack of even a shade of resolution at the end of this installment annoyed me, but I’ll still go to Pirates 3.

I was deeply impressed by A Scanner Darkly, though I understand why some people might not be. I loved the novel (one of P K Dick’s better-realized books) for the same reason: Dick writes about people I knew and cared for, with sympathy and honesty and sadness. Viewers who don’t recognize anyone they know or love among the characters of the movie will have reason to wonder why they should care about a hundred minutes of awkwardly-animated, drug-addled paranoia. David wasn’t convinced by the animation; I’d argue that the rotoscoping contributes to the movie’s ambiguous sense of reality. If the film were presented straight (so to speak), it would seem to assert the reality of everything it showed; by presenting everything in a way that raises the question “is this a hallucination, or is this what’s actually happening?” the rotoscoping underlines the novel’s challenges to what counts for reality.

David’s daughter thought that the movie’s affecting afterword cut against the plot’s grain. The afterword mourns the fate of souls who suffered disproportionately for their playing; the movie depicts the world of drug use as an abyss of vacuous, destructive, exploitive selfishness. Dick and Linklater don’t soften the movie’s judgment on drug use by presenting us with an attractive version of drug experience; I think that’s both politically and cinematically the right decision, but it leaves viewers without a convincing reason anyone would take Substance D in the first place. Still, I admired the movie and it touched me as the novel did; I understand why some viewers won’t like it, but anyone who might like it should give it a chance.

Bangs Head Against Wall

When you’re just restarting a complicated project, it’ best not to take on the biggest problems right away. The whole business quickly assumes daunting proportions when you view it from the perspective of its knottiest enigmas.

So a wiser person than I would have skipped over James 1:17 when resuscitating a project that involves fixing intricate formatting glitches, adapting to an analytical framework you don’t fully share, and accelerating the pace of one’s progress toward completion.

James 1:17 involves parallel clauses that juxtapose dosis agathê and dôrêma teleion; are they synonymous? Why the distinction? (After reviewing the evidence, I plump for rhetorical effect rather than lexical semantic distinction.) It identifies God as the “Father of lights,” a relatively peculiar characterization at that point — Scripture identifies God as creator of light, of course, and as universal Father, but that particular phrase seems unprecedented. The Dead Sea Scrolls’ usage “Prince of Lights” doesn’t seem to apply to God directly, but to an intermediate agent (it stands opposite the “Angel of Darkness” in 1QS 3.20, and Belial in CD 5:19).

Then it ends with a four-word phrase whose meaning is so obscure that scribes twisted it various ways to wring the semblance of clarity out of it: “the Father of lights, with whom there is no parallagê ê tropês aposkiasma” (“variation or shadow of change,” or something like that). The textual variations demand thoughtful attention; syntax and semantics of the phrase demand careful deliberation; and I have to express my conclusions in someone else’s preferred terminology.

Plus, I’ll probably have to revisit it after a while.

Revolution In Self-Presentation

Margaret says that resumés and c.v.’s should have blurbs on them — so that the first page comprises pithy endorsements from the best-known people you can come up with, before a reader gets to the nuts and bolts of your experience, your qualifications, and so on.

She’ll be applying for jobs in a little while; maybe we can test that idea on her applications.

Radio Frequency Interference

I should have known not to have a second large cup of Peet’s coffee. I usually don’t make my coffee as strong as Peet’s does, and they didn’t have any clean medium-sized cups, so they were serving coffee in their oceanic “large” mugs. Margaret very sweetly wanted to get a refill for me, and I thought about asking for decaf, but I hesitated. By the time I had made a significant dent on the second cup, I was practically shooting electric bolts out of my fingertips. I couldn’t concentrate on anything of hours after.

Next time, a one cup limit.