Monthly Archives: April 2008

Writ Large

I haven’t read All the Sad Young Literary Men, and I’m not confident that I’ll get around to it eventually, but in Scott McLemee’s column/podcast about the book and its author, he quotes the following paragraph:

The trouble is that when you’re young you don’t know enough; you are constantly being lied to, in a hundred ways, so your ideas of what the world is like are jumbled; when you imagine the life you want for yourself, you imagine things that don’t exist. If I could have gone back and explained to my younger self what the real options were, what the real consequences for certain decisions were going to be, my younger self would have known what to choose. But at the time I didn’t know; and now, when I knew, my mind was too filled up with useless auxiliary information, and beholden to special interests, and I was confused.

So (as best I apprehend this), when you’re young, you don’t have sufficient experience of the world to assay truth from folly or deception, and when you’re older, you have made enough wrong decisions that you’re enmeshed in errors that you started into when you were too young to know better.
This all seems plausible enough to me, but I wonder about the note of betrayal in the lament. Whence came the idea that we have the prerogative to expect a higher degree of certainty? I admit that just now I’m scoring pretty high on the “affected by unforeseeable contingencies” scale, but I believe I recall making this sort of point in various public venues well before this winter. The illusion that we have, or ought to have, a determinative role in how our lives play out cripples our capacity to thrive in circumstances we didn’t choose and don’t control. Sulking, fulminating, agonizing over how things should have been misses the point, because our particular (always conflicting, always divergent) visions of “ought to be” pertain to how things actually go only sporadically. If we stake everything, anything, on controlling our own destinies, we gamble on a giant lottery with contingencies compared to which our aspirations and willpower are but paltry things.
(I hope I’m listening well to what I just wrote.)
Now, speaking theologically, there’s much more to be said about sin, grace, alienation, hope, theosis, and so on. On the terms of everyday secular discourse, though, the poignance of a character discovering how much more complicated it all has been all along, and perhaps not even registering how misplaced his expectations were, struck a note that reminded me of other times I’ve inveighed against illusions of control.


No news on job fronts, dealing with father’s-death-stuff, keeping up with daily obligations, feeling a little down-hearted for the past day or so.

Dreaming of Rome

No, not in the sense of swimming the Tiber; just because the Centre of Theology and Philosophy is holding its conference in Rome, with a provocative list of speakers, and a dearth of input (so far as I can tell) from the side of biblical scholars. I respect the roster of stars, and I sympathize with many (not all) of their theological interests, but I’m flummoxed by the idea that a program such as they represent could gain significant traction without a very firm base among biblical theologians. Of course, I expect some would respond, “But these theologians are all very biblical” — which just underlines the texture of the problem.
If I had a thousand+ dollars to throw around, and if whatever job I have next year allowed me the scheduling latitude, I’d fire off a paper proposal — but that’s strictly an idle thought, for the time being.

Me And Cheney

I can see why the Vice President likes this “undisclosed location” shtick. We’re enjoying the chance to unwind and to sleep and eat and watch movies or whatever on our own whimsical schedule.

From Hiding

Margaret and I are camped out at an undisclosed location one train stop away from Princeton, for a two-day escape from the tumult that has surrounded us for the past two months (yes, it’s a two-month tumult). I’d be more present online, but I left my power cord at home (rolls eyes), so I can only get on when Margaret isn’t browsing.
Anyway, having a lovely break. Glad that no one we know is here.


The latest phase of the Seabury story is playing out now. The seminary will shortly release an announcement that they’re terminating the contracts of the entire faculty (though they expect to be able to continue operating a doctoral program in preaching and congregational development).
I find this announcement baffling, but perhaps the days to come will make it clearer.


OK, granted that the Board submits that Seabury isn’t closing, it’s just firing all the faculty and most of the staff, and not admitting a new class of students, Margaret and Pippa and I are relieving our stress by substituting the word “seminary” for the word “parrot” in the Monty Python “Dead Parrot Sketch.”

Mr. Praline: I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it, my lad. It’s dead, that’s what’s wrong with it!
Owner: No, no, ‘e’s uh,… it’s resting.
Mr. Praline: Look, matey, I know a dead seminary when I see one, and I’m looking at one right now.
Owner: No no it’s not dead, it’s, it’s restin’! Remarkable seminary, the Anglican, idn’it, ay? Beautiful vestments!
Mr. Praline: The vestments don’t enter into it. It’s stone dead.
Owner: Nononono, no, no! It’s resting!
Mr. Praline: All right then, if it’s restin’, I’ll wake it up! (shouting at the cage) ‘Ello, Reverend Seabury Western! I’ve got a lovely fresh entering class for you if you show…
     (owner hits the cage)
Owner: There, he moved!
Mr. Praline: No, he didn’t, that was you hitting the cage!
Owner: I never!!
Mr. Praline: Yes, you did!
Owner: I never, never did anything…
Mr. Praline: (yelling and hitting the cage repeatedly) ‘ello Seabury!!!!! Testing! Testing! Testing! Testing! This is your nine o’clock alarm call!
     (Takes professor out of the cage and thumps its head on the counter.
     Throws it up in the air and watches it plummet to the floor.)
Mr. Praline: Now that’s what I call a dead seminary.
Owner: No, no…..No, It’s stunned!
Mr. Praline: Stunned?!?
Owner: Yeah! You stunned it, just as it was wakin’ up! Anglicans stun easily, major.
Mr. Praline: Um…now look…now look, mate, I’ve definitely ‘ad enough of this. That seminary is definitely deceased, and when I was admitted not ‘alf an hour ago, you assured me that its total lack of movement was due to it bein’ tired and shagged out following a prolonged litany.
Owner: Well, it’s…it’s, ah…probably pining for the fjords.
Mr. Praline: Pinin’ for the fjords?!?!?!? What kind of talk is that?, look, why did it fall flat on its back the moment I got it home?
Owner: The Anglican seminary prefers kippin’ on its back! Remarkable school, id’nit, squire? Lovely vestments!
Mr. Praline: Look, I took the liberty of examining that seminary when I got it home, and I discovered the only reason that it had been sitting on its perch in the first place was that it had been nailed there.
Owner: Well, o’course it was nailed there! If I hadn’t nailed that seminary down, it would have nuzzled up to those bars, bent ’em apart with its processional cross, and voom! Feeweeweewee!
Mr. Praline: “Voom“?!? Mate, this seminary wouldn’t “voom” if you put four million volts through it! It’s bleedin’ demised!
Owner: No no! It’s pining!
Mr. Praline: It’s not pinin‘! It’s passed on! This seminary is no more! It has ceased to be! It’s expired and gone to meet its maker! It’s a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed it to the sedilia it’d be pushing up the daisies! Its metabolic processes are now ‘istory! It’s off the twig! It’s kicked the bucket, it’s shuffled off this mortal coil, rung down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! This is an ex-seminary!!

Speaking of Music

I bought a few downloadable music files the other day, and the experience reminded me of one of the baffling aspects of the digital-music controversy. Why is it that, when the format(s) for digital music files are now well-established, music sellers don’t take full advantage of the medium? Why (for instance) do some sell files without full documentation and cover art? Why do no distributors (that I know of) include lyrics with the digital file? It’s not as though these can’t be tracked down elsewhere, and by including them in an authorized digital package the vendor would be differentiating their product from blank, inaccurately-documented files found on the dark net (or on less robust services), or ripped at home from one’s own media?
But instead, the vendors seem content casually to rip files from whatever medium is at hand, slap uncertain ID3 tags on them (track numbers as part of the selection’s title?!), and upload them for sale. Big whoop; what’s the difference between those and the tracks someone could find on a peer-to-peer server somewhere? A digital vendor who wants to lay claim to the marketplace should make the track available in a variety of bitrates, and should include full cover art (any pertinent art files), full documentation of musicians (where available), documentation of the publication and version history of the track in question, and embedded lyrics. Now, that’s a file worth paying for!

From Paul

“Truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.”
   Pope Paul VI, Dignitatis Humanae.

Opprobrious Characterization

I have a short essay half-formed in my mind, developing my argument from “La Misère du Littéral” to make the point that the whole discourse of what counts as “literal” interpretation or “biblical literalism” has gone off its rails. The same may be said of “fundamentalism,” as shown by the Revealer’s recent post about “Britain’s cleverest fundamentalist.” The article in the New Statesman to which they link doesn’t go that far; the closest its author comes is to suggest that he’s writing about someone whose “views come across as hardline, explicit and specific, verging on the fundamentalist… because of the gulf between his straightforward expression of belief and the kindly muddle of the old liberals who dominated for so long.”
The theologian in question is Tom Wright. Now, I disagree with Tom about plenty of topics, within our field of mutual specialization and in a broader theological sphere. For all I know, he supports Manchester United and the Yankees. But the Revealer’s characterization of Tom as a “fundamentalist” shows a disregard for the ethics of journalistic precision that reflects very poorly on the site and its contributors. The only rationale I can think of for labeling Tom a “fundamentalist” is that he takes positions on Christian doctrine and ethics that depart from the Manhattanite liberalism that regards any clear dogmatic claim as ludicrous (unless, perhaps, it’s made by a Tibetan Buddhist). Tom is a resolutely critical reader of the Bible, a throughly modern intellectual, and is miles away from the kinds of ecclesiology and theology that “The Fundamentalism Project” analyzed with scholarly precision.
But why let accuracy preclude name-calling? Tom doubts that gay and lesbian Christians can reconcile the exercise of their sexual inclinations with the theology he is entrusted to protect and promulgate. He thinks, risibly enough, that the phrase “of the body” in the millennia-old articulation of Christian faith in the “resurrection of the body“ should actually be understood to refer to bodies. No one sophisticated enough to work at the Revealer could be suspected of so callow a blunder!
I tell you, the more I hear from the prominent voices of Christian progressivism, the more determined they seem to fulfill all their adversaries’ worst opinions of them. If Tom is a fundamentalist, so am I. If Tom is a fundamentalist, all the term can mean is that the accuser thinks he or she is smarter than Tom. Guess what: you’re wrong both about Tom and about yourself.

My Type

Micah sent me a link to this rant about typographic “mistakes.” I think it more charitable and more accurate to think of these as short cuts or simplifications, since few people know how to generate the more precise typographic glyphs, and most people experience no confusion when reading text typeset in the way the blogger deems “wrong.” If a typographer committed these, I’d be willing to call them mistakes (granted that some of the points are debated).
More fun is the Rather Difficult Font Game, at which I got a score equal to Erik Spiekermann’s.


It’s not exactly a commonplace strictu sensu, but I can never remember the title of this Cat and Girl comic when I want to look for it.
I was reading an article in Inside Higher Education that cited Malebranche as saying, “Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul”; that seemed worthy of remembering, but because I’m fussy about things such as that, I opted to Google the phrase to find precisely where Malebranche said it, if I could. Lo and behold, I see those words attributed not only to Malebranche, but also to Paul Celan, Simone Weil, and Walter Benjamin (presumably based on their having quoted Malebranche) and to “a smart guy quoted in an Edward Hirsch book.” Now, of course, I’m curious to track down precisely what Malebranche wrote, where, and how that was mediated to this intriguing coterie of intellectuals.