Lawson Whitesides, a Seabury trustee and my former student in church history, is sitting beside me at the Board of Trustees meeting, and his Starbuckss take-out coffee cup bears a quotation from Dave Grusin: “In my career I’ve found that ‘thinking outside the box’ works better if I know what’s ‘inside the box.’ In music (as in life) we need to understand our pertinent history…and moving on is so much easier once we know where we’ve been.” (I didn’t transcribe it myself, but found it on Sarah Friedlander’s blog —thanks, Sarah).
I note this because future-oriented church thinkers tend to be ready to dismiss the out-dated, antiquated thinking of those archaic servants of God who bequeathed to us the foolish ideas that have defined Christian theology over the millennia. “Christianity,”in Bishop Spong’s flatulently pompous prose, “must change or die” (as though Christianity has not always been changing, as though one could somehow prevent change in the church). If we care to change wisely, to respond soundly to changes in the world around us, I’m with Dave Grusin. In this, I sympathize with Katie Geneva Cannon, whom I once heard to explain that her theology graduate students complain about having to read so much of the writings of dead white guys; Katie Cannon answered something like, “If we want to do better than they, we have to understand the theology that got us here.” Dumping the past as a dead weight is the easy, quintessentially modern response to the past; a sounder, richer, more productive approach to our future would involve engaging our forebears, allowing them to teach us, and then endeavoring to figure out what will withstand the stresses of oncoming years, and what has lost its structural integrity. Let’s don’t repeat the harrowing mistake of bulldozing our heritage to slap together steel-and-glass monuments to an ephemeral aesthetic. We don’t need to; that hurts us more than it helps us; and if we put in the effort to think along with others (with whom we may not always agree), we prepare ourselves much better to offer our ideas, plans, and hopes to another generation (which may not, after all, agree with us).
I had a pleasant chat this morning with Seabury alumna Susie Shaefer, in the course of which I revisted her blog and noted the “How Many Of You Are There?” quiz. Curiosity got the better of me, and I learned that there seem to be 37 people named “Andrew Adam” in the U.S.A. It’s a good thing I have a distinctive nickname, although when I entered it, I got the unsettling news that “There are 0 people in the U.S. with the first name Akma.”
Susie pointed out that it isn’t really a “first” name, since it encompasses my first and last names by initial, to which I eagerly shot back, “It’s a mononym!” Susie and I were hoping that I had hit upon a hitherto undiscovered word, and Susie noted that it did not appear in either of the online dictioneries she consulted — but I quickly found it in the Dictionary of Difficult Words. While I would have enjoyed the glory of having invented the term, I am nonetheless pleased to be able to say of myself, “I’m mononymous.”
I attended an engaging lecture by Jason Byassee this morning. Jason — who works for the Century — was addressing the topic, “Why is Religious Journalism So Boring?”
He advanced a variety of reasons (including Peter Steinfels’s argument that there are only 6 “Religion Section” stories that get reprinted ad infinitum with names and specifics changed: “pastor has feet of clay,” and five more). I found most intriguing, though, his suggestion that religion (at least, Christianity) should be boring — that is, it ought to operate to change our frame of attention away from the misplaced desires for flash, for novelty, for instant relevance, and so on, toward a deeper, more prayer-like attention to the world we inhabit. He invoked, among others, Simone Weil and her “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies,”wherein she argues that the topics that interest us least, at which we have no particular flair, serve the great spiritual purpose of requiring us actually to attend to them.
I’m leaving out all the best parts, and over-simplifying what I do report, but I found it a delightful, heartening presentation. I hope he’ll publish it somewhere.
Continue reading Bored-Again Christians
Vanity prompts me to note with appreciation that David has a generous review of Faithful Interpretation up at his site. Of course, I tend to think the best of any favorably-disposed reviewer, but I take particular satisfaction that David has such an encouraging response to my arguments: he’s a sophisticated reader of philosophy, one who subjects “postmodern” theory to critical scrutiny (our first exchange of links — the response he cites was emailed — involved his having criticized Foucault), without any predisposition to favor Christian theological claims. He’s a tough reader, and (though we’re friends) I trust him to be an honest reader, and impressing him delights me no end.
This makes the second positive response — Jamie Smith offered appreciative remarks on the book and on my work in general over at the church and postmodern culture site. As I appreciate David’s review from outside the official target audience, so I appreciate Jamie’s response from squarely within my expected readership — he describes my work just as I might hope a “church reader” would: “[AKMA] winsomely argues that ‘postmodern’ interpretation will be faithful, Catholic interpretation.” Jamie’s characterization of my proposal as “Catholic” sounds odd next to David’s suggestion that “you don’t have to be Christian to appreciate the care with which AKMA approaches his topic,” but my hope was that by describing interpretation carefully and respectfully, I might arrive at an account that encompasses variety in interpretation while at the same time advancing criteria for assenting to (or dissenting from) particular proposals. To that extent, the distinct comments from Jamie and David suggest that I succeeded, at least in addressing them.
Thank you very much, David and James! When the negative reviews come, I will revisit your pages, often.
I see in The Living Church that newly-consecrated Bishop Beisner said, “At this moment in our Church there are two seemingly contradictory principles. On the one hand we are seeking to strengthen the understanding of our baptismal covenant and on the other we want to practice open commensality. I don’t believe these two need to be in conflict.” I’m glad to see him put these pieces together; the apparent contradiction has been grating on my nerves as well.
I’d be interested in how the high doctrine of baptism explicit in contemporary “baptismal theology” can be reconciled with communion of the unbaptized. If “baptism” constitutes a defining sacrament of identity, is not eucharist appropriately understood only in relation to baptism? And if baptism “doesn’t matter” relative to the eucharist, what makes it matter so much in other spheres of church life?
“Open communion” looks to me like a weightier issue of theology and tradition than do the more visible controversies over sexuality, though it has drawn far less public attention. I admit to a certain ambivalence about the soundness of “open communion,” but until such time as I have seen arguments that treat patiently and respectfully the monumental warrants from Scripture, tradition, and reasoning through a consistent theological account of baptism, I can’t see a responsible basis for disregarding the canons on this one (especially when those who practice that disregard ever wish to enforce other canons on anybody else).
This morning, Seabury’s first-years reminded me that it’s customary that they wear cassocks to classes on the day after Matriculation. They all looked charming, and today was a good day for wearing an extra layer because the heat isn’t fully reliable yet. One among them impressed me by sporting a biretta, an ecclesiastical cap distinguished by its absolute lack of any conceivable practical basis. It’s an item I’ve been casting sidelong glances at whenever the liturgical haberdashers spread their wares at Seabury, but they run more than a hundred bucks a pop, and I wouldn’t have occasion to wear one nearly enough to make it worthwhile.
What burned my toast, though, was that the first-year in question allowed that it wasn’t her own biretta, but belonged to a middler who is possibly the lowest of the low-churchmen presently studying at Seabury. The biretta was given him as a joke (!), and he had simply offered to share it with his friend.
So there we are — I, the arch-Anglo-Catholic, notorious hat-wearer, without a biretta — and he, the whale’s-belly-low-church seminarian, maybe puts on a baseball cap and probably wears it backwards, having a gift biretta. God hath indeed a rich sense of irony and poetic justice.
Pictures were taken of me wearing the doubly-borrowed biretta, and my esteeemed colleague Ellen Wondra wearing a Canterbury cap (Archbishop Laud example here), but they’re safe behind a password-protected barrier.
A while back, someone used the “email a comment” function to ask me, “You write, ‘Our response to terrorist attacks should always be, “How can we conduct our collective affairs in such a way as to make terrorism pointless?” ’ I was wondering how you would answer that question, and what you consider to be the terrorist’s point.” (I’m not posting it as a comment, since it wasn’t quite clear to me that the commenter intended the message that way.)
All along, my short answer has been something like, “Figure out what a war would cost in dollars and energy, and devote those resources to building up the economies and infrastructures of the nations where terrorist sympathies run highest. Don’t try to suppress violence and terror by answering it with terrifying violence; do good to those who hate you.” I do not claim that this would solve the problem of terrorism, but it would at least be an admirable course of action, and subsequent suffering and casualties would be inflicted in spite of the U.S.’s generous aid, not in response to the U.S.’s campaign of conquest and torture.
It doesn’t make a significant difference if the recently-published estimates of Iraqi death toll are off my 100%. The fact remains that the U.S. government chose to pursue a course of action that resulted in vastly more deaths than would have been the case if they had chosen differently. The fact that people are haggling over how many tens of thousands of Iraqis have died in a war that has not brought a higher degree of peace and security, that has evidently increased the amount of terrorist activity in Iraq, illustrates how the policymakers in the U.S. government have gone off their hinges. (Don’t let’s get started about their blaming the Clinton administration, during which there were no nuclear weapons in North Korea, for the recent nuclear tests there.)
Diana Butler Bass, a classmate of mine from olden times at Duke and a speaker coming to Seabury in a couple of weeks, said it vividly in a column at beliefnet. That’s what I meant; that’s what I hope that I would have done.
The Homeland Security people haven’t made any headlines about this, so I’ll break the scoop myself: it turns out that the Transportation Security people have discovered evidence that the next strike against our nation’s infrastructure will involve turtleneck jerseys.
Margaret was absolutely sure she packed a turtleneck jersey when she flew north to spend a week with her daughter and husband. When she arrived here at home, however, the turtleneck was nowhere to be found in her luggage. Presumably, an alert defender of our nation’s airways spotted the turtleneck as a potential double-use object, and confiscated it to protect everyone from the dire consequences of allowing Margaret to wear a turtleneck. So beware, everyone — leave your turtlenecks at home, or empty them into the convenient “turtleneck collection bins” at security. Fly smart, fly safe!
(Either all that, or she forgot to pack it. We’ll find out soon, cause Margaret’s flying back to Durham tomorrow.)
I’m preparing for tomorrow morning’s Gospel Mission class, and in our reading (chapter 4 of Darrell Guder’s Missional Church) I saw an interesting footnote (p. 94, n. 22). Guder observes that although the NRSV that he relies on uses “kingdom” to translate the Greek basileia, he uses “reign” “because it better captures. . . the dynamic meaning of basileia, which refers to the reigning itself and thus secondarily the realm incorporated under such reigning.”
I don’t have a beef with a permissive reading of that note — “sometimes ‘reign’ better captures the sense of basileia as an abstract noun for ‘kingship’ rather than a term for a geopolitical entity.” A less elastic reading of Guder’s note, though, suggests that basileia “really means” something dynamic and non-spatial, rather than something spatial and political.
I have several objections to that less elastic reading. First, I can cite a goodly number of cases in which basileia seems manifestly to refer to an earthly geopolitical regime, rather than to a disembodied activity of “reigning.” In many more cases, the sense could go either way. Since I attribute meaning more to usage than to etymology or association, I’m impressed with the likelihood that basileia — which could clearly be used to indicate a political unit — tends in colloquial writing to refer more to “where So-and-so is in charge” than to “So-and-so’s condition of majesty.” Neither is excluded, but I see many more uses for the former than the latter in the literary ambiance of the New Testament.
Guder himself devotes fair attention to the spatial aspect of the basileia, and discusses at length the relation of the two aspects of the term. Since he’s quoting texts that refer to the “kingdom,” I don’t quibble with his choice to use “reign” where he’s not quoting. Still, the better solution would identify cases in which basileia refers to a kingdom, and those in which basileia refers to “reign” or “kingship” or “majesty,” and translate each accordingly.
Hey, Jeneane, feel like coming over for a visit?