Monthly Archives: January 2009

Really, This Is About Jonah

I’m supposed to be working on my sermon this morning, and (in a sense) I am, since by blogging these thoughts out, I’ll make room in my imagination for the sermon to coalesce. As I was reading for course prep yesterday, my iPhone played XTC’s “No Language In Our Lungs,” one of my all-time favorite musical ruminations on hermeneutics (lyrics):

There is no language in our lungs
to tell the world just how we feel
no bridge of thought
no mental link
no letting out just what you think
 
there is no language in our lungs
there is no muscle in our tongues
to tell the world what’s in our hearts
no we’re leaving nothing
just chiselled stones
no chance to speak before we’re bones
there is no muscle in our tongues
 
I thought I had the whole world in my mouth
I thought I could say what I wanted to say
For a second that thought became a sword in my hand
I could slay any problem that would stand in my way
I felt just like a crusader
Lionheart, a Holy Land invader
but nobody can say what they really mean to say and
the impotency of speech came up and hit me that day and
I would have made this instrumental
but the words got in the way
 
there is no language in our…
there is no language in our lungs
to tell the world what’s in our hearts
no we’re leaving nothing behind
just chiselled stones
no chance to speak before we’re bones
there is no language in our lungs.

Andy Partridge suggests (“suggested,” since the song comes from 1980) much of what I’ve been advocating in the past few books and essays. “Meaning” isn’t something in there, whether in words or in us; we can’t transmit intentions in such a way as to make a warrantable connection between speaker and receiver. The urgent temptation to think and act as though our expressions contain definite meanings undergirds the outlook of interpreters who want to be able to oblige others to adopt “correct” understandings, to suppress the abundance of meaning that any expression might engender.
 
All this came to mind as I was reading Richard Hays’s study on Paul’s use of the Old Testament, wherein Hays frames his arguments with claims about what Paul was alluding to, and what we can infer from his allusions. Now, on the whole I tend to agree with Hays’s supposition that Paul’s allusions to Scripture should most productively be read with attention to the material surrounding his explicit citation, so that we catch points of reference that Paul didn’t include in the quoted material. But sometimes Hays infers that because Paul constructed such an allusion, he must have expected his readers to catch it — and that seems a very different, and very mistaken, inference. Writers and speakers construct our expressions out of the abundance of our imaginations (deliberately and subconsciously), but experience teaches us that people do not always catch all our allusions, and our expression is (oddly) the richer for not being comprehensively up-taken.

(Looks Over Shoulder)

I’m planning to assign a couple of chapters from a particular book this spring, but I didn’t ask the students to buy it; it’s a good book, but if I’m asking them to read less than a quarter of it, I don’t feel justified in asking them to pay for it. I put it on reserve, so that they can read it in the library.
 
This morning, I checked my (usually empty) mail folder at Duke, and a copy of the book was there. No explanatory note, no packaging, not from the library; it looks like a new copy. I didn’t request a desk copy. Evidently someone somewhere in the information chain figured out that I should own it, which is pleasant and kind and astonishingly efficient, but a little scary.
 
I wonder if there’s a way I can indicate to these powerful, effective, anonymous agents that Margaret and I could use jobs for next year….

Peculiar Prophet

I’m preaching at St Joseph’s this Sunday, and (so far) intend to preach from the reading from Jonah. I’m not sure where it will lead, or whether I’ll change tack later, but for now I expect to foreground the Jonah’s peculiarity, and some of the significance of the inclusion of so incongruous a prophet among the witnesses to God’s word.

Sending Out

Margaret and I aren’t the only ones in the household who have sent out applications this year. Pippa would like to try studying at an arts school for her remaining pre-college years, and we’ve been collating essays and portfolio items for the past few weeks as we worked up the first of her packages, and she’ll go with Margaret to tour and interview this coming weekend.
 
The portfolio we compiled excites me — and it still doesn’t encompass her general sense of design and expression, made manifest in her daily conversation and her way in the world. We know all too well that “applying” entails tremendous contingencies, but I dare say that any school that doesn’t avail itself of the chance to bring Pippa aboard is poorer for that decision.
 
Here are some of the items from her portfolio:
 

Sunflowers
Sunflowers
Acrylic on canvas, 24″ × 30″

 
 

Rapid Eye Movement
Rapid Eye Movement
Pen and ink and watercolor, 10″ × 13″

 
 

After the War
After The War
Pencil on Wallpaper, 10″ × 17.5″

 
 

The Pause
The Pause
Digital Photo

 
 

Back To Basics
Back to Basics
Digital Photo

 
 

Self-Portrait With Moustache
Self-Portrait With Moustache
Collage with Acrylic, 36″ × 48″

Thinking and Reacting

Margaret and I were talking before and after church about disagreement in church and theology. We noted that a great proportion of the participants in theological and ecclesial debate seem reluctant (if not unable) to countenance the possibility that their opposing counterparts have good reasons for thining as they do. So, “conservative” commentators do not simply argue against the grounds for “liberal” conclusions, or against the conclusions themselves, but they frequently deploy in personam epithets — and vice versa. Similarly, partisans do not rest content with disputing the soundness of the Other’s position, but treat their adversaries’ whole identities as a danger to themselves, as though any apparent convergence must be repudiated lest the contagion of wrong-headedness infect The Good Guys’ theology.
 
Since we know mostly intelligent, well-informed, pious and resolute participants (at both antipodes of disagreement), and since we decline to suspect that the Pope is scheming to take over every bastion of liberal theology and purge the defenders of Good Causes (on one hand), or on the other hand that feminists, queer Christians, and communists are set on transmuting the Gospel into a New Age positive-thinking self-help cult, we are left in the uncomfortable position of seeming too Northeast for our Southwestern friends, and too dry for our humid friends. I do not ask that we all just get along — but I wonder whether we may just not reflexively correlate disagreement with suspicion?

Infrostructure

David links to Harold Feld‘s counterintuitive argument for the low, low, low allotment of stimulus-opackage funds for building out broadband. Feld thinks that the low allotment raises the likelihood that the money will actually do some good; I, contrariwise, tend to suspect that any allocation will wind up being engulfed by an incumbent telco’s insatiable maw. Moreover, half measures (or in this case, “one percent measures”) will leave intact the presumption that users should only expect mediocre data transfer rates. While such an approach might, if all goes well, stimulate the economies of a handful of under-served areas, it neglects the powerful stimulus that would jolt the whole economy if the U.S. devoted itself to providing widespread, low-cost, high-bandwidth net access to all citizens (heck, non-citizens too: “all inhabitants”).
 
A national broadband package would intrinsically limit the disproportionate benefit that privileged citizens command; after all, the Hampshires might get connected sooner than Victoria City, but once both municipalities are on a fiber optic network, there’s little effective difference. The Montanan and the Long Islander both have access to a ferociously rapid data transfer network, which — once it offers access to a reasonable proportion of the U.S. — would transform and enliven vast swathes of the economy.
 
And of course, that’s one reason such a proposal meets resistance: incumbent interests from telcos to broadcast media, to film and record companies, to print media, to corporate interests I can’t even think of, all don’t want a rapid revitalization of the economy if it would destabilize their backward-looking business model. I’m no economist — though I couldn’t do much worse than our economic policy-makers did over the last decade or so — but it seems luminously obvious to me that the stimulus package should orient itself toward an element of infrastructure that will bear increasing demand and increasing productivity, as opposed to infrastructural elements that should be bearing diminishing loads defined by legacy technology (roads, for one example; why build new interstate highway segments at the same time you’re trying to discourage over-reliance on fossil fuels?).
 
So that’s my platform, if Obama nominates me as Undersecretary of Information Technology. Plus, I’m slow and a bad shooter, so if he matches up against me in a basketball game, I’ll make him look like Connie Hawkins.

Accedie

I don’t feel like blogging, but if I did, I’d link to Paste’s story on The Welcome Wagon, to the intriguing web app TileStack (for those of us who miss HyperCard), and — with cautions about sacred cows and gored oxen — the Buffalo Beast’s viciously bilious list of the 50 Most Loathsome People in America. Fair warning: it would be pretty tough to find a culturally-involved citizen who doesn’t find one of their heroes in this list, especially since #50 is The Big O himself.

Truly, Truly

Jay Rosen presents a lucid, powerful case for understanding the political character and effects of the institutional press (via a link from David). I’m particularly impressed by his observation that because “he press does not permit itself to think politically, but… does engage in political acts…, it is an unthinking actor, which is not good.”
 
I wonder whether one can make an isomorphic diagram for other controverted fields — including, of course, “What the church should do about Big Awkward Issue X?” and “Can departments of religion/religious studies teach their field more fairly than departments of theology?”

Connecting Dots

Students (and offspring) whom I’ve taught to write in a particular way should immediately proceed to follow this link to Joseph Williams’s article “The Phenomenology of Error” from College Composition and Communication 32 (1981): 152-68 (PDF here). Williams, as you may recall, is the patron of the writing-for-readers school of instruction, of which I’m an enthusiastic adherent.
 
Williams makes a compelling case that grammatical (and lexical) errors are not all created equal. Some errors generate ambiguity; some give offense; some depart from established usage without imprecision or dissonance for most readers; and some depart from standard usage and give offense. The force of his article, though, depends on the premise that if an error (as defined by some canonical source of grammatical law) does not distract or confuse the reader, we ought not worry about that error. Perhaps we ought not consider it an error at all. That grates on the nerves of old-school prescriptivists such as I (or “like me”), but I think it makes the best sense of what we can observe from real readers and real writers interacting.
 
Now, I discovered this article online through a link from Language Log, which is where it all gets especially interesting to me. As I was reading the LL post, it occurred to me that my entanglement in Williams’s reader-centered compositional practice contributed significantly to my expression-apprehension hermeneutics (I think there’s a sentence in the article that triggered that recognition, but I can’t find it right away). (Aha! There it is: “To address errors of grammar and usage in this way, it is also necessary to shift our attention from error treated strictly as an isolated item on a page, to error perceived as a flawed verbal transaction between a writer and a reader” (p. 153). The “transaction between a writer [or speaker] and a reader [or hearer]” gets to the heart of the matter.)
 
Then too, we sang the hymn “O Love How Deep” at church this morning, one of the verses of which goes, “For us he prayed; for us he taught; / For us his daily works he wrought, / By words and signs and actions thus / Still seeking not himself but us,” and I realized that I’d like to write an article making some of these connections, to be called “By Words and Signs and Actions.” I love it when a constellation of ideas comes together.

Neuhaus, Times, Blagojevich, and Fish

Richard John Neuhaus died the day before yesterday. He represents one of the schools of theology with which I almost (but not at all) agree whole-heartedly; hence, although his theology and mine converged on a great many affirmations, they conflicted at many other painfully neuralgic points, and many colleagues and friends of mine held him in low esteem (while many others found in him a dearly beloved friend, leader, and outstanding public intellectual). Since I almost agreed with him, the irritation of being-at-odds and of friends’ disdain for him pains me all the more. I grieve with those to whom he was a great friend, a generous mentor, a vigorous supporter; and for those who will not miss him, I grieve as well, in several different ways.
 
On a different theological note, another of the intellectual figures with whom I almost agree offers a very wise Augustinian analysis of the Blagojevich-Burris fiasco in the New York Times.
 
If any Mahler appreciaters in NYC have Monday evening open, or have a few dollars to contribute to a good cause, there’ll be a benefit performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony at Carnegie Hall this coming Monday, to support care for children with AIDS in Africa. They’ve set up a website at Mahler for the Children, where you can learn more about the performers, the program, and the beneficiaries — and buy tickets.
 
And as Mark points out, Abbott-Smith‘s Greek lexicon is available for download from Google books. Indeed a great many precious nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Greek reference works can be downloaded for free from Google; Greek students should definitely poke around in that tremendous resource.
 
One more thing: the film Examined Life looks terrific; they should make a comparable movie with theologians!

Headache

I’ve been trying to figure this out on and off for weeks, but this morning I’m giving up and asking the wider Web.
 
The set-up: cable modem to the internet, which checks out OK — a direct cat-5 connection from its output to the port on a computer makes a fine connection.
 
When I try it with any of our three (don’t ask how we ended up with three) wireless routers, though, no joy. The routers light up and give the apearance that they’re talking to the net. The one that has a USB port functions for remote printing. Connections with the wireless signals themselves work fine. I’ve tried the three routers, two cat-5 cables, and the cable modem in a tremendous variety of configurations, but the one constant is that I can’t connect from a wireless router out through the cable modem (even though I can make a wired connection, even though the modems seem to be functioning). Either the input port on each of the three wireless routers is fried, or something else is impeding the signal, but I can’t figure out what it might be.
 
Help me, Mr. Wizard!