Monthly Archives: March 2009

Weekend Update

Leaving in just a few minutes for Freedom to Connect. Pippa and I have stocked up on CDs (our current car doesn’t have an “Aux” input for our iPods) of music and spoken word. Snacks, seltzer, paper towels, check.
While Pippa participated in church school, I spent some time on the Invocation for the Internet; the discourses of liturgy and digital connectivity have uncomfortably little overlap, and I decline to indulge in parodic piety (cheap laughs aren’t worth trivializing). It’s a work-in-progress, if that’s not too pretentious a thing to say about fifty words of vocatory rhetoric, but I’m sure I’ll want to continue polishing it hereafter.
The sun is out, the roads should be pretty manageable, and we’re nourished with spiritual food. See you, as they say, on the flip side.

John Hope Franklin, Edmond Rostand, and Me

I began our Thursday class with prayers of thanks and intercession for John Hope Franklin and his legacy. Since Franklin was a Duke hero, local public radio listeners have been immersed in reports about his admirable life and career. In the midst of all this attention to a scholar’s persistent, ultimately successful efforts to make the records of African-American life available as formal “history,” it dawned on me that one strong element in my own pain and anxiety over the past few months has been my whiteness. Not, I mean, that I’ve been all broke up about being white; like almost all white folk, I rarely have to notice my race. The aspect of whiteness that has afflicted me recently is the proclivity to believe that deserving something bears a reliable relation to attaining it.
Dominant groups — especially, in this culture, white guys — tend to assume that deserving something should have a causal relation to attaining it because, on the whole, that works out better for dominant groups than for other folks. The people who don’t have a full share of social dominance frequently learn, harshly, that “deserving” a job, or a bonus, or justice, or whatever, doesn’t mean that they have much of a shot at what they deserve. White guys (or representatives of other dominant groups, or dominant groups in non-dominant subgroups, whatever) still enjoy/suffer the illusion that the alchemical blend of merit and social dominance (variously constituted) entail a binding claim on positive outcomes. Ooops — that was me. Is me.
As a social observer and as a theologian, I assert that “deserving” won’t bear all the weight that white guys want it to — and their, our, reliance on “deserving” falsifies the theological truth that we live by grace, through and through. The only kind of deserving that matters, in the end, is a deserving that will be adjudicated by an authority and a wisdom far greater than those that search committees, imperious guests at the Cosmos Club, or the recognition of our peers can offer.
Do we by this teaching annul the importance of “deserving”? By no means! In the first place, we will indeed be judged for the timbre of our lives and the quality of our offering to the world, our legacy. (You need not believe in a big, dramatic Final Judgment in order to assent to this premise; history, our children, our customers, clients, employers, the users of the products we build (here speaking as a fountain pen restorer), as citizens, as friends, as George Baileys or Henry Potters, our lives matter to a vast network of people and systems beyond our awareness.) We will be judged, and all we can do before the time of our judgment is to strive for the best, with our fullest capacities — regardless of whether we see the temporal outcomes we prefer.
Secondly, though, if we permit the contingency of “merit” receiving recognition to damp our diligence in striving, we give hostages to the capricious powers that already stack the odds against merit and desert. The dominant powers can pick on any sign of laxity, of half-heartedness, as a justification for their own laxity and unconcern (all the more culpable in dominant groups, since of those to whom much has been given, much will be expected). The flaws of “people like us” are understandable and excusable; the flaws of “those people” indicate characteriological defects that make them unreliable, inadequate, partisan, unprepared, presumptuous, and so on.
But third — and this realization cracked something open in my heart when I recognized it — I believe with every fiber of my corporeal being, every moeity of my spirit, that striving is the right thing to do, regardless. Indeed, when recognition and reward seem least evident, all the more I need to persist in advocating the truth as I have been given to understand it. The literary characters who resonate with force that overmasters my conscious reasonableness are the chivalrous figures who live by honor and principle, whose witness to their vision of how things should be takes precedence over practicalities and appearances. Tilting at windmills, entering the lists as The Disinherited, over-romantic as I know it all to be, these prevail in my heart. As much worldly-wisdom as I have learned, my soul stirs at the testimony of faithful persistence in the face of resistance, even and especially when that resistance is to some extent generated and perpetuated by the persistence itself.
And when I stand before God
and my salute sweeps the blue threshold,
One thing remains uncreased, unstained,
And that is… My panache.

If A Tome Falls In The Woods…

I had a bad day yesterday; discretion prevents my being too specific, but it involved a vivid indication that the twenty years of deliberation, research, imagination, and composition that have gone into my scholarly work simply haven’t made much of an impact. And if the work in which I take (perhaps unjustifiable) pride isn’t a blip on the academy’s or the church’s radar, on what basis might I make a pitch for either church or academy to hire me? Please note that I’m not asking for accolades, not a sedan chair, ostrich-feather fans, the applause of adoring throngs — either from you, dear reader, or from some hypothetical employer or colleagues — but simply some recognition that I’ve actually done something. It’s difficult to avoid the sentiment that my work isn’t even worth refutation, even though one implication of my work is, ironically, that it would not readily gain traction in established interpretive circles.
But all that is vanity, especially since merely having a job for next year is an achievement that so far lies beyond my grasp; obviously it’s time for me to humble down. I’m ruminating about whether it makes more sense to try out some vocation where I haven’t already washed out, or to hang onto a line of work that at which I’m already demonstrably better than average, but without sufficient recognition among my peers for the quality of that work to matter.

Daughters of Ada

I promised to take part in Ada Lovelace Day — I meant what I said and I said what I meant, a postmodern hermeneutical preacher-technologist’s word is one hundred percent.
Awkwardly, I have a hard time singling out one particular woman in technology for my blogging attention. When I was young, I admired Lillian Gilbreth (my subsequent concerns about her role in shaping industrial labor practices notwithstanding). I hung out with some fairly geeky types in high school and college, and the presence of women among my incipiently-technological friends didn’t seem extraordinary.
When I started blogging, I immediately turned out to be part of a conversation including Halley, Jeneane, Shelley, and Dorothea among others. They spoke up then and continue to speak up for women’s involvement with technological concerns on widely varying (sometimes contrary) bases. Shortly later, Liz’s path crossed mine and we fell into friendship; and then many more, from to Suw (who inveigled me into participating in Ada Day), to Kazpah to countless others whom I haven’t named. Thanks, and blessings, and I’m rooting for them and their sisters and daughters to turn things around in tremendous ways.

Stagger For Your Life

I’ve been intrigued and bemused by the different ways my body has responded to my beginning to exercise more intentionally. Some days my legs feel quite leaden, hard to lift — not sore, just inert. Some days my biggest problem is my wind, prickling as though I were trying to inhale steel wool instead of air. Some days my muscles hurt. Some days my joints play me false; this morning, my left knee kept wobbling every twenty paces or so. The insidious obstacle comes from the spirit, though: “Why isn’t this easier already? It’ll never make a difference. You might as well just lie in bed a few minutes longer.”
Well, I’ll keep at it. I don’t imagine myself as an athlete, but I’d very much like to be limber and less aerobically-challenged. (I still prefer swimming to running walking, though.)

Inexact Change

I feel for Dave. Just a month or so ago, Peachpit Press published his very helpful introduction to Facebook, and no sooner does it hit the shelves than Facebook alters its interface so as to disrupt the smooth connection between the copious illustrations in Dave’s book (on one hand) and the experience of a novice user (on the other). It’s just not fair, especially since so many of the time-marked aspects of the book are so clearly recent; Dave and Peachpit must have taken pains to emphasize the contemporaneity of the material, only for Facebook to pull the rug from under them.
Still, I haven’t seen many ways that the new design (to which Facebook is apparently committed, no matter how strong the backlash against it) negates the value of Dave’s patient explanation and step by step instruction. I hope that beginning users of Facebook would consult Dave’s book with the cautious awareness that FB itself moved the furniture around; if they make allowance for that nettlesome fact, they should be able to puzzle out any discrepancies they notice. And Dave points out many aspects of Facebook that a new user wouldn’t guess at just on the basis of beginning an account — so even if the interface elements look different from the illustrations in the book, the new user knows more and expects more on the basis of having consulted Dave.
Plus, he’s a swell guy with great taste in music.

Beautiful Day

Even though my NCAA brackets are a disaster (thanks very much, Wake Forest and Maryland); even though our job situation is not any more nearly resolved than it was several weeks ago; even though Pippa has spent almost the whole day visiting other people, rather than making her dad laugh (usually at himself) as she so consistently does; even though the weather was a shade cooler than my favorite; even though various other things, this has been a beautiful day.
Not the only reason, but a delicious ingredient: a pen came in the mail today with an unadvertised italic nib. It looks somewhat frankenpen (it’s a jade Sheaffer Flat-Top Lifetime pen, whose two halves have faded to radically different extents), but it’s such a sweet big golden italic nib, I couldn’t be happier with it.
It’s a beautiful day, won’t let it slip away.

How Long, O Lord?

One aspect of the online conversation several of us were holding involved the question of whether “we” or “students” or some other constituency could read long-form texts adequately any more. If students can’t read The City of God but immerse themselves in Facebook status updates all day, have we arrived at the threshold of civilization’s end?
While I quickly and firmly stand against portentous claims about digital media making us stupid, I sympathize with people’s concerns about students’ — and “our,” for those of us who don’t self-identify as students — capacity to read well. Experience suggests to me, though, that this has more to do with the capacity to read texts of any length, than with skill at one length (contrasted with incapacity at a different length).
I resist the quick identification of the problem as “short texts, digital media” in part because changes in reading involve complex cultural changes on other fronts, too. Scapegoating digital media ignores the role of video culture, cinema, of changes in journalistic practice, and changes in the ways that scholars produce long (and short) texts. To indulge in self-quotation, “It’s more complicated than that.”
I also resist these concerns because of the presumed valorization on longer expositions of scholarly argument. Long isn’t ipso facto bad, but neither is it good. Too often, writers and teachers and preachers and liturgists presume that the only reason for making their productions shorter involves impatience, short attention span, the moral and characterological flaws of their audiences — when we can easily point to plenty of profound meditations and arguments that manage to express tremendous wisdom in relatively short compass. Sometimes, long is sheer self-indulgence — and when we focus attention solely on the alleged short attention span allegedly caused by digital media, we occlude several other very pertinent aspects of problems relative to our expression and apprehension of meaning.

Rick Warren and Me

Last year, David Isenberg spontaneously called on me at the Freedom To Connect conference to offer a “prayer for the internet.” Now, I spent enough years teaching for Protestants that I have some practice at extemporaneous prayer; such prayers are always an adventure, but with a decent sense of how to get to a conclusion, they usually turn out just fine.
At F2C, though, I knew that the room was brimful of people who espouse faiths quite distinct from mine — or no “faith” at all. While I am not ashamed of the gospel, I also try to follow the Apostle by meeting people on their own ground. To those under the Law, I become as one under the Law; to the geeks, as a geek. So I steered clear of explicit Christian theological affirmations. If I recall correctly, I cited a saint whom most everyone could recognize, Stevie Wonder: “Heaven help us all.”
Since I care ardently about well-chosen words, though, I’m beginning to scour my brain for a somewhat more extensive invocation. I would anticipate deliberate equivocation (not in the interest of suppressing the truth I learned from Scripture and the saints, but in the interest of bringing as many people as possible together in affirming convictions that are at least proximate to that truth). I don’t know when I would have a use for such an invocation, but I expect that President Obama may have some jobs left, or maybe a Little League opening ceremony. Anyway, it seems fitting that il cappellano di Blogaria, someone who has reflected on the nature of digital benediction, have an interfaith invocation readily at hand for internet occasions.

Bacon For A Theological Vegetarian

This morning I spent some time pondering the extent to which Francis Bacon’s diagnoses of intellectual errors persist in contemporary theologizing (as well as in professedly non-theological biblical interpretation). In the course of contemplating a renewal of Baconian asceticism from within theology, I stumbled on O. Bradley Bassler’s “Theology and the Modern Age,” which intrigued me by focusing on Hans Blumenberg (whom I studied here in grad school decades ago), the problem of modernity, Bacon, and theology. Hard thinking — it’s good and good for you!