Monthly Archives: April 2007


Just a week after Joel Green gave a guardedly appreciative review of Faithful Interpretation in the Review of Biblical Literature, he reviews Reading Scripture With the Church this week and gives it, also, a favorable mark (he’s ambivalent about one of the essays, but positive about the other three, including mine).

The review inclines more to summary than to analysis (as is customary for multi-authored works), but Joel gives a lovely one-sentence characterization of my “Poaching On Zion” essay: “Knowing the Bible well and studying it faithfully and steadily in community, [Adam] writes, we encounter and embody the ways of God.” That sounds pretty fair to me; I’d want to expand on it, but then I wrote a whole essay, and another book, that provide some of what that single sentence simplifies.
Continue reading Encore!

Pippa Update

I haven’t enthused about Pippa in a day or two, so it’s about time for me to display more reasons for admiring my daughter. So, for instance, the other day she was plotting my lexical demise over the Scrabble board — this is what I’m up against.

Scrabble Shark

Frequent readers know her to have a rich imagination for design; yesterday she went to a party for an employee of Target department stores, for which she modified a hand-me-down dress (and her socks) with the Target emblem. I gather that she was a hit.

Target Costume Party

What readers may not have noticed that she frequently cooks dinner for us; not content simply to defrost some Boca burgers (which would be plenty good for me), she pores over cookbooks to find practical, inexpensive, appealing entrees. The other day I had a late-afternoon meeting when she would have an early choir rehearsal, so she cooked dinner while I was conferring with colleagues. I came home to see the note below:


(“Cool kids” alludes to a running joke between us. If one forgets to turn off the oven or a stovetop burner, the other will say, “Cool kids turn off the burner.”)

Honest, It’s Allergy

Spring has arrived in Evanston for good and sure, so the bags under my eyes have expanded like collapsible luggage coming home from a long vacation. And I’m liable to be wiping my eyes constantly, as the itching and weeping kick into high gear. I suspect the culprit is the cottonwoods that surround our house like a federal SWAT team around a hostage-taker’s hideout. So although the school year has worn me out and various strains vex me, if you see me crying, it’s really just the pollen. I think.

Either that, or I’ve just listened to one of the songs in the recent AV Club column about “songs that make us cry.” I’m notoriously sentimental about songs (and to some extent, about movies); Margaret and Pippa roll their eyes when they hear my voice catch during hymns or when I’m singing along to the stereo. The AV Club column hits many songs that have that effect on me, whether because they actually evoke sadness or (contrariwise) a particularly profound note of joy.

The eighteen they name in the column actually aren’t that moving bei mir (I admire “Veronica,” but it doesn’t make me cry — that I remember). The comments, which I haven’t worked all the way through, do highlight a number of weepers. “Dry Your Eyes,” by the Streets, was one that jumped out early. Sufjan Stevens’s “Casimir Pulaski Day”; Bruce Springsteen has performed a number of touching songs, including “Rosalita,” “Thunder Road,” “Prove It All Night,” and more. The commenters foreground “Makes No Difference” and “Tears of Rage” by the Band. The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, “Fairytale of New York.”

What would I add? Laurie Anderson, “Strange Angels,” definitely. Tom Robinson, “1967 (so Long Ago)” (the version from the Secret Policeman’s Ball album). Among the numerous Bob Dylan songs one might nominate, “Buckets of Rain” does it for me. Billy Bragg, “Must I Paint You a Picture?” I can’t even listen to Billie Holiday sing “Strange Fruit,” though I make myself from time to time. I mentioned Belle and Sebastian a few days ago; “She’s Losing It” strikes a very poignant chord with me, and Dar Williams scores with both “As Cool As I Am” and “What Do You Hear In These Sounds?” (though again, her work offers an embarrassment of riches). The “Cry No More” setting that Emma Thompson sings in Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. Charles Mingus’s version of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” If I have to pick one performance by John Cash, it’s “Down There By the Train.” And sappy a sentimentalist as it makes me, “Naked As We Came” by Iron and Wine, and “First Day of My Life” by Bright Eyes.

One that no one else would name for a moment is not even a song; it’s the theme music from the Albert Campion series on the PBS Mystery! program. I was chatting with Nate about it earlier this week; it’s an exquisite miniature, combining a cheery Edwardian setting with a bittersweet counter, beautifully arranged.

I’ve heard Counting Crows’s “Hard Candy” a few times lately, and it’s impressed me more each time. It doesn’t make me cry, but it puts together the elements of high-impact rock in a remarkable composition. Again, bei mir.

Generations of Pancakes

As I observed here before, we have a (lapsed) family tradition of Dad making pancakes on Saturdays for breakfast. Back in antiquity, when the boys were very young, I’d put their initials on the pancake (reversed, so that when the pancake came off the griddle it would be right way ’round). One notorious morning, Nate asked me to write the Lord’s Prayer on his pancake; I think I got as far as “Our Father,” but I’m not sure.

This morning Philippa came downstairs and asked me to make pancakes. I assented, mixed the batter, started flipping cakes, and she followed up: “Would it be too weird to put granola in my pancake?” Well, no, I’m aware that many pancake houses offer granola pancakes on their menus, so I agreed to make her one. “Not only is it not weird, but at lots of places you can get chocolate chip pancakes.” Her eyes lit up. “We have chocolate chips!” (I should note for the historical record that this is the spiritually earnest young woman who gave up not only chocolate, but all sweets for Lent this year.) Sure, OK, her second pancake had chocolate chips in it.

“What’s next?” I should have known better than to ask.

“On my next pancake, I want you to write the Nicene Creed —

in ketchup.”

Tiding Over

Today’s a wall-to-wall class, mass, and meeting day; Seabury is honoring Newland Smith with a lecture by Dwight Hopkins, with a dinner to which I forgot to make reservations, and general evening festivities.

I flared out about ten days ago, and will be staggering from appointment to obligation to meeting to tutorial, trying to avoid any egregiously outrageous forgetfulness. When today’s laudations all wind down, I’ll collapse in a heap and try to sleep late tomorrow morning; the blogathon over Rowan Williams has me pooped out.

Blink of an Eye

Before I was fully awake this morning — that is, after Morning Prayer and one cup of coffee — I discovered that David had blogged back at me about my blogback of him blogging back at me about Rowan Williams. (I typed “Roman” Williams, just now; I don’t think that Means Something, though.)

David’s rebuttal hits several points. First, he maintains, the “people-hood” of Israel derives from fictive consanguinity (when I say “fictive,” I don’t mean “fictitious,” but “setting aside for a moment questions of DNA and history, narrated into reality”), not “being called into existence by Scripture,” as the Archbishop of Canterbury suggests. I readily grant most of that premise; the constitution of Israel as a people is prior to its reception of the Torah chronologically, and probably logically also — to an extent. If I understand correctly (and my understanding of Judaism has more to do with academic reading and growing up a goy in a Jewish neighborhood than actual real live knowledge), there’s at least some sense in which descent from this people is correlated to receiving the Torah. By that I don’t mean that if you don’t keep the Torah you aren’t Jewish, but that as a collective, the people of Israel practice Torah-observance as an expression of their peoplehood. It’s not, as David takes Williams to mean, a matter of believing and adhering to a membership list, but would Israel (the people, not the state) be recognizably &#8220:Israel” if no one bothered with the Torah any more? I’d be surprised if one couldn’t find a fair number of Jewish intellectuals who maintained that Torah-onservance was a cardinal expression of Judaic identity. But I’m probably missing something here, in my turn.

By the way, one way of construing the discussion that puts David quite in the right is to compared the Judaic recognition of “righteous Gentiles” with Karl Rahner’s doctrine (to which a number of Christians hold, explicitly or implicitly) that admirable people who have not assented to the Gospel count as “anonymous Christians.” While I disagree with Rahner’s position, I see that it makes a certain kind of Christian sense that would not work relative to Judaism. Rahner’s position extends Christianity to envelope all righteous people; the recognition of righteous Gentiles acknowledges that even though these agents are not in any way Jewish, they’ve attained noteworthy rectitude. If that’s David’s drift, then I agree.

Then David suggests, “Akma’s interpretation makes Williams’ lecture right for Jews but at the expense of obscuring an important difference between the two religions…a difference that comes down to the difference between being a people and being a community.” Again, I see his point — up to an extent. Part of what we’re doing, I think is pushing, pulling, tugging, and having a coffee break to talk over just where to draw the distinction he’s talking about.

But so that no one can accuse me of being conciliatory, I have to ask David for a shade more clarity on his observation that “all too often, in my experience and opinion, Christians assume too much continuity with Judaism.” Here are the ways I agree: (a) as is so often the case with dominant cultures, Christians tend to assume that everyone is really just like us down deep; (b) Christians show an unnerving proclivity to lay claim to what is characteristically Jewish, whether as casual tourists racking up “broad-minded” chips to lay to their credit later (“Hey, some of my best friends. . .”); (c) in a more specific extension of (a) above, Christians tend to regard Judaic differences from Christianity as being divergent (or “malformed”) versions of what Christianity already is — rather than allowing that Judaism might be, like, you know, different (and Christianity might not have the prerogative to define itself as a universal norm of religious identity and practice). I cringe when Christians play at simulated Judaism. But I too insist on “continuity with Judaism” — in the sense that Christians can’t possibly understand who they are in a more than casual sense unless they’ve subjected their imagination to thinking about the Gospel in a world where there are no “Christians,” but only various sorts of Jews (and those Gentiles over there). Christianity becomes different from its origins, and Judaism has become different from what Judaism would have been like in the days the Temple was standing, and they’ve become very, very different from one another, not least because of all the blood on Christian hands. But I’ll insist, firmly but (I hope) humbly, that a Christianity without some mode of continuity to Judaism is a grave spiritual mistake.

And about Rowan Williams — I think that he’s one of the smartest Christians on earth, very concerned about an appropriate relationship among Jews and Gentiles (that’s one reason he’s explicitly attentive to the writings of Peter Ochs); I’m willing to trust that he’s very cautious about supersessionism, colonial Christianity, or disrespect to Jews.
Continue reading Blink of an Eye

Rowan Williams, David Weinberger, Joel Green, and Edward Tufte

No, this is not an arcane exercise in “which of these does not belong?” Earlier I projected that I’d write something up about Rowan Williams’s Larkin-Stuart lecture (endowed by St. Thomas parish and Trinity College) concerning the right interpretation of the Bible in the church. Earlier I indicated that I had some quibbles, that I hadn’t had a chance to read it carefully, but I’d come back later. I still haven’t had the opportunity to read it carefully, but this makes at least two careless skims, so that will have to do.

Quibble number one: Williams endorses Ricoeur’s heuristic device of talking about “the world in front of the text,” “the world of the text,” and “the world behind the text.” Okay, it’s a metaphor, and we all know roughly what it means: that as we read, we can pay attention particularly to the background of the text, that which makes the text possible, what it takes for granted, its historical infrastructure (“behind”); or we can attend to what the text’s apparently saying (“of”); or we can imagine how the text impinges on our own lives and our futures (“in front of”). But I’m persistently opposed to critical readers using that metaphor in their reasoning about interpretation, since it bootlegs in presuppositions about text and interpretation that influence the outcome of our deliberations. Texts don’t have fronts or behinds, though (in the sense the metaphor requires), and the background, the text “itself,” and the responses it subsequently evokes are all implicated in one another. It’s a quibble, but I’m sticking with it.

That being said, I appreciate Williams’s attention to Scripture under the rubric of “communicative act,” though you don’t need his stage-dressing of oral/aural contextualization in order to make that work. I affirm his suggestion that we “imagine that historically remote audience as not only continuous with us but in some sense one with us,” and his proposal that we ask “What does this text suggest or imply about the changes which reading it or hearing it might bring about?” Those seem like plausible, theologically sound hermeneutical gestures (though they’re already particular to the church, not disinterested principles of all interpretive activity).

The two examples that Williams chooses make sense to me. In both he selects texts that often serve as linch-pin proofs of particular positions, John 14:6’s apparent advocacy of the exclusivity of Jesus’ salvific agency (on one hand) and Romans 1’s assertion of the immorality of same-sex intimacy (on the other). Williams reads both passages carefully not just for the explicit points they make, but for their role in the broader rhetoric of the sources. He concludes in the first case that, in the context of John’s farewell discourses, Jesus appositely reminds/instructs the disciples that the path to his crucifixion is necessary, and that he is preparing a way that they in turn will have to go — not that Jesus is claiming a unversal, exclusive role in brokering God’s presence. In the second, he reads Paul as invoking the example of same-sex relations not for the purpose of reinforcing the Old Testament proscription of such activity, but specifically to indict those who find homosexuality a paradigm case of immoral conduct. I think he’s on plausible ground with both interpretations and with his interpretations of the interpretations: that in both cases the author presumably assents to the notion in question (Jesus only, and no gay sex), but that those notions aren’t the point. (He emphatically insists that he’s not deprecating these texts as evidence for theological claims against pluralism or blessing same-sex unions, but indicating that their usefulness as evidence is beside the point.)

So I also approve of his articulation, by way of Peter Ochs and Kevin Vanhoozer, of theological interpretation as a process of working out how we continue to live by the revelatory word that constituted us as a people, that instructs us on the shape and meaning of our lives.

David demurs from Williams’s lecture on the basis that “Although non-Jews often don’t give this full credence, Jews are a people. You are a Jew by birth, not by belief. (It’s more complex than that, but what isn’t?) Thus, the community isn’t created ‘out of nothing.’ ” (Is this a long way round saying that “existence precedes assents”?) I’m in no position to teach David why he should side with Williams, but I construe Williams as proposing that the people born into Judaic identity are so born by virtue of a calling and a covenant that precedes them, that made a “no people” into “God’s people.” By continuing the argument over Torah, interpreters born into that people-hood bear forward the identity of the collective. (Williams is also, of course, alluding to Christian theological investments in creatio ex nihilo as a doctrinal point — but I think his hermeneutics don’t depend on the allusion to a doctrine from which many prominent Jewish thinkers dissent.) But maybe I’ misreading you, David.

I don’t see Williams as evacuating people’s prior identity altogether as does *Christopher), or that “[Williams’s] ‘out of nothing’ in his reading of Scripture within the context of the Eucharist threatens to make of the community gathered in Eucharist itself a totalitarian hegemony or imperial enterprise by refusing to recognize the plurality of different subjects convoked by the Spirit for some sameness or nothingness too easily filled up and filled out by the scripts of those in authority or regaled with superiority who then determine the meaning of the Scriptures within the community.” Williams draws on 1 Peter 2:10 (where the author is apparently addressing Gentile readers, “Once you were no people, but now you are god’s people”) and invokes the two examples he chooses, I take it, to call into question two common interpretive moves that move directly against the kind of plurality that *Christopher commends. The essay in question does not, so far as I can read, include any assertion that “we’re all the same, ‘out of nothing’, meaning like me and interpretted by me” — but if we catch Williams making such a claim, I expect that I’ll gladly and vigorously join *Christopher in resisting it.

*Christopher’s concern resonated in my ears as I read Joel Green’s review of my book, a review written from a distinctly different ecclesial location from that which I inhabit. Joel very generously allows me my difference from him without making that an explicit point of contention — though I think that our difference also comes to expression relative to the queries he addresses to me. When Joel suggests that I ought to explain “how to adjudicate among not merely different but indeed competing and mutually exclusive interpretations,” I’m not sure that such “adjudicating” is the point. After all, as *Christopher points out, people tend to read the Bible as though it were about us, with our presuppositions intact and unquestionable, but calling their presuppositions and morals into question; on what basis could anyone promulgate the interpretive method that might satisfactorily adjudicate? Who would decide what would count as evidence? What disinterested party could function as a judge? (On these issues I continue to bear the impress of Jean-François Lyotard’s reflections on justice in The Différend and Just Gaming.)

And to draw the last of my title quaternity into the discussion, Edward Tufte proposes as a “grand truth about human behvior that, as Van Wyck Brooks said, “ It is a principle that shines impartially on the just and the unjust that once you have a point of view all history will back you up.” Other readers of his site contributed comparable observations: “ ‘What a man wishes, he will believe’ – Demosthenes” and Ben Franklin, “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

Quite so.

Good News

Nothing puts the spring in an author’s step quite like a positive book review (well, an ample royalty check might, but since I’ve never gotten one of those, I’m just speculating). Today’s Review of Biblical Literature brought news that Joel Green of Asbury Theological Seminary reviewed Faithful Interpretation this week, and his review (PDF only, I’m sorry, I’ve talked to them about it to no avail) makes a very favorable case for the book.

I’m dreadfully vain, but I’m not vain enough to quote the passages that gratified me most. I will observe — I hope not defensively — that most of Joel’s challenges relate to the problem of interpretive difference, about which we evidently hold very disparate positions. Joel, charitably, identifies these as problems that I “[have] not satisfactorily addressed.” From the perspective I’ve drafted in these essays, that recognizes bounded diversity as both a datum and a positive good, there’s no pressing need to identify a method by which a community adjudicates conflicts over interpretation. Indeed, any such effort will arise from a particular interpretive location that other interpreters don’t share — so why would the dissidents abide by this hypothetical “rule for adjudication” in the first place?

But granted that Joel is examining a different part of the elephant from me, I greatly appreciate his thoughtful attention to the book. He does not, as others have done, accuse me of “hostility” to historical criticism, nor does he launch any cheap shots about postmodernism. His reservations involve real problems integral to the project itself. Although Joel had opportunity, possible theological motivation, and means to drop the hammer on my essays, he commends me and thinks along with me, and that’s about the most encouraging experience around.

Book Alert

For a while I’ve been thinking about a monograph or lecture series on “subdominant christologies,” characterizations of Jesus that didn’t attain definitive prominence in the patristic period. Evidently Joseph Fitzmyer treats one of them, “the one who is to come,” as the touchstone for his most recent book. (I’ not tipping my hand on others I’m thinking of.) Fitzmyer is a scholar’s scholar, though his profound erudition sometimes seems to me to overshadow his judgment as a reader; I’ll be interested to see how his argument here develops.


The week was jammed with events, meetings, services, ideas, and interesting links, such that it gets harder and harder to blog without taking a week off to work out each link and idea in detail. Instead, I’m going to post a few links with only cursory comments, and wait and see whether the things I have to say about Fun Home, Rowan Williams, this Thursday’s U2charist, the following links, or my daily life — if any of those come to semi-articulate expression. If so, I’ll blog them; if not, you can always ask me about them in some other context.

† John Lanchester writes about copyright

† The Bavarian State Library’s website with digital images of icunabula

† A cool interview with Bill Cavanaugh

† Fr. Thomas Weinandy OFM makes BoingBoing

† Another test suggests that listeners have a hard time distinguishing digitally-compressed audio from full CD quality

Exhausted Words

Yesterday evening I preached at a funeral (on unexpectedly short notice, with imprecise information regarding the readings — I got lucky that nothing vital hinged on the substituted reading, but one of the readings I’d been told to expect was not what was read). It went all right, but preaching at a funeral is pretty stressful, especially when you have less time to work up the homily than usual, and then all the more so when you hear a different lesson from what you were expecting. Anyway, I’ll append it in the extended section.

I heard a rumor that David Weinberger read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s lecture and even had some comments on it; if he blogs it, I’ll delightedly link to him (and probably argue with him, since “AKMA and David arguing about hermeneutics” is like “David and AKMA breathing”).

Anyway, I’m drained from last night, and that’ before tonight’s service at St Luke’s celebrating our rector’s investiture. Tomorrow night Seabury’s celebrating a U2charist, plus we’re entertaining a candidate for our librarian’s position. I’m even more tired just thinking about it.

Someone, hire Gary!
Continue reading Exhausted Words

Remembering Album Covers

Adrian Shaughnessy at Design Observer posts an essay on the art that accompanies our LPs, cassettes, and CDs. The essay and comments provoked me to think that these designs constituted an unusually affordable source of art; I doubt I’ll ever be able to afford a canvas by Mark Tansey, but I could obtain a gallery arresting 12 x 12 inch illustrations along with my favorite musical recordings. Somewhere there’s an opportunity for someone who figures out a way to broker the gap between unaffordable high art and strictly disposable media.