Monthly Archives: October 2008

Not Thinking The Unthinkable, But Thinking Hard

Yesterday Graeme pointed meScientific American, to an article entitled, “Never Say Die: Why We Can’t Imagine Death.” The article sticks strictly to scientific explanations, and ignores the possibility that some non-scientific accounts might actually be well-grounded; that’s OK, it’s what we pay scientists to do. If someone asks me about death and existence, I won’t talk about MRIs or evolutionary psychology.
The article does the valuable work of directing our attention to death with unyielding unsentimentality, in contrast to cultural cues that favor denying, trivializing, or romanticizing death. At the risk of saying more than I know, I would affirm forcefully that everyone should take time for a more [painfully] unsentimental consideration of death and dying, if only to counteract the stifling concealment by which the powerful, profitable enterprises endeavor to assure us that if we just consume enough, we will live forever (or that we need not think about death as long as we’re accumulating material goods, or that death only happens to other kinds of people). Whatever conclusions you may come to, death will surely be among them.

Ivory What?

When visiting with the Bishop of Missouri and with Ralph, my current employment situation came up. I acknowledged the far-reaching uncertainty that characterizes Margaret’s and my future, and noted that for career academics, a one year contract is a mixed blessing: all the anxiety of unemployment, with none of the leisure.

Reports From Where It’s Happening

When I read reports such as this one, I always transpose its terms into the key of the educational and ecclesiastical organizations I inhabit — and I typically recognize a great deal of wisdom. Of course, they’re true enough of their world of origin. (I worry about the title of this one, though: “A Priest, a Minister, and a Rabbi Maxim: People lacking imagination, skepticism, and a sense of humor should not work in the security field.” Are they suggesting that priests lack imagination?) As soon as I saw the Cluetrain webpage, I edited a copy to fit the seminary-education system, and gave it to the dean.
And remember Radiohead’s “Pay What You Like” model for In Rainbows? And do you remember a big fuss shortly thereafter, when word got out that (shock! horror!) many people downloaded the album and didn’t pay for it? I had the impression, perhaps misplaced, that many people figured that showed the inadequacy of net-native distribution. There’s one problem, though: Radiohead sold very many more copies of In Rainbows than their previous albums. “Warner Chappell’s Head of Business Affairs Jane Dyball will reveal that the digital publishing income from the first licence (for the Radiohead pay what you want site) alone dwarfed all the band’s previous digital publishing income and made a ‘material difference’ to Warner Chappell UK’s digital income.”
“Piracy is killing music, except where it’s making money for musicians hand over fist.” Not as dramatic a slogan, but truer. And that’s not even counting the savings on legal fees, since Radiohead/Warner won’t be suing music fans for downloading this one. No one could have foreseen this — except people who did, and said so, five or ten years ago.
And finally, good news on the ubiquitous wireless front.

Signs O’ The Times

Trevor sent me an email with this photo in it,

to which I add, “Please do not use double primes (inch marks) for quotation marks.”
And Kate sent me a pointer to this receipt:


You may think that Kate is not the first person you’d imagine queueing up to buy a Jesuit, but I think that’s part of what makes her so interesting. (The explanation is in the comments.) As a Dominican spirit, I admire her investment but will decline to partake.

Bad, Ignorant Theology

I noticed yesterday that the Rev. Arnold Conrad of Davenport, Iowa, began a rally for McCain with prayer (good so far). Pastor Conrad, however, urged God to bring about a McCain victory — not because he supports all the evangelically correct causes, but because people of other faiths are praying for Obama, and it would be bad for (the Christian) God’s reputation if they could think their prayers availed.
To make matters worse, it sounds as though Pastor Conrad thinks “Hindu” is the name of a deity: “Millions of people around this world praying to their god—whether it’s Hindu, Buddha, Allah….” I’ll cut him some slack on Buddha, but it heightens the already-celestial ludicrousness of this intercession when he incorporates “Hindu” into that sequence.
Let’s see: two Christians are running for President, and God should favor one over the other because non-Christians favor the second. That makes the prayers of those non-Christians pretty powerful; think what might happen if the non-Christians of the world should get together and pray for world peace. Or, one supposes, cataclysmic war, since then God would have to bring about peace to spite them.
But wait — the McCain campaign issued a statement about the incident. They did not say, “Sorry, that was a foolish idea” or “We understand that Hindu is not a god,” but they did say, “Questions about the religious background of the candidates only serve to distract from the real questions….” But clueless Pastor Conrad hadn’t said anything about Obama’s faith (or McCain’s), at least not in the CNN story. The McCain spinmeisters had to use the opportunity to talk about religion as an occasion to imply that Obama himself was non-Christian.
Well, it looks as though this will take care of itself in the next few weeks. A couple of days ago, Palin indicated that McCain would end “abuses of power” in Washington, thereby ruling out a role for her in national government; and yesterday, McCain held one of those town hall meetings he so favors, but he left before the question-and-answer period that he himself had promised when he began talking.

Don’t Abolish Them Yet!

The House of Lords, God love them, defeated a proposal to extend to six weeks the state’s power arbitrarily to detain suspects:

The amendment [to eliminate extended detainment] was put forward by Lord Dear, a former West Midlands chief constable, who told peers: “This attempt to appear tough on terrorism is a shabby charade which is unworthy of a democratic.
“This legislation is fatally flawed, is ill thought through and is unnecessary. Perhaps worst of all, it seeks to further erode the fundamental legal and civil rights that have been the pride of this country for centuries.”

John Bull has a lesson to teach Uncle Sam. In the U.S., you can even call that kind of provision “unconstitutional.”

This Is Where The Party Ends

A few days ago, Doc suggested that John McCain had a variety of winning strategies; all involved putting his own admirable qualities forward. He had devoted his life to national service; he had spent five long years as a prisoner of war, and had been maimed in the process; he had a political born-again experience after he was caught shilling for a financier in the Keating Five scandal; he had charted his own course relative to the Republican establishment and (especially) its unscrupulous tacticians. Had McCain leaned into his strengths, calmly and confidently, he’d have had a strong appeal to independent voters, and the Republican base (however dissatisfied) would have had no viable alternative to Obama. If a few hard-line right-wingers stayed home from the polls, McCain would still have stood to pick up far more independent votes. As Doc says, that’s the high road: McCain equals experience, service, track record, non-partisan, honor, respect, a plain dealer, a straight talker. That’s the McCain that the media loved and protected, that was a McCain who ran a high-road campaign against George W Bush (and who could have parlayed that opposition into a winning campaign to remedy what his predecessor screwed up), and that was a McCain who had mustered a reputation for integrity and statesmanship.
Instead — for whatever reason, and I’m no campaign wonk so I won’t pretend to see into the planning — McCain began last year to pander to the same right wing of the Republican Party that had slandered and attacked him four years ago, and that questioned his credentials well after his nomination. He ran away from his strongest points by identifying himself strongly with the failed Bush presidency, by selecting a manifestly unqualified candidate for vice president (how can he look Kay Bailey Hutchison in the eye after nominating Palin?), and by staffing his campaign with lobbyists and practitioners of Rovian ethics. Rather than burnishing his own status by treating Obama with respect and honor (“for a young fella,” “for a misguided liberal,” “for someone without military service,” “for someone who wasn’t already wired into foreign policy networks”), he sullied and eventually dismantled his integrity with deceitful attack ads and by exacerbating the latent racism that scars this country’s recuperation from the evils of its past.
As David points out, even McCain’s efforts to rein in the rabid ignorance and xenophobia he inflamed smack of the bigotry he’s ostensibly trying to check. McCain ought to listen to more They Might Be Giants:

Can’t shake the devil’s hand
and say you’re only kidding

I guess November 4 is where the party ends.


The past four weekdays were grueling; I spent more time talking and meeting than I have in ages, and a couple of the conversations hit high intensity levels. On the whole, though, it went very well (so far as I can tell). You would never guess, from my experiences, that the Episcopal Church was experiencing convulsions over doctrinal differences; everywhere I went, my resolute emphasis on theological soundness met with appreciative sympathy (or polite reticence, I guess).
And now, I don’t have any special events for a few weeks. This week Duke observes Fall Break, so classes don’t meet. My stress level has dropped like the stock market.

Theology In Via

I’m between my two stops on this trip. St Louis went very well — I was touched by the diocesan clergy’s attention and enthusiasm for my reading of Mark. And the highlight was sharing in the Daily Office and closing mass with them.
Next stop, a full day of conversations and presentations, then home on Saturday. Thankfully, I can look forward to Duke’s Break Week coming up.

Mark, My Words

Most of the day here was occupied by my talking. You may well shudder at the thought, but on the whole things have gone pretty well. Most everyone has been encouraging and receptive; if some felt dubious and dissatisfied, they were gentle enough not to give me a hard time.
I’ll be talking again tomorrow morning, and preaching at the closing Mass (in honor of Robert Grossteste) before I begin making my way homeward, via a visit to the University of the South.