Monthly Archives: December 2009

A Worthy Distinction

It’s been a long time, but back in olden days readers used to tax me (as the representative of the category “postmodernists”) for the impenetrable language that “postmodernists” deploy. I used to respond that complicated, counter-intuitive ideas usually require more laborious communication. If the ideas were that obvious, we’d have noticed before; when we use very plain, lucid language, readers typically assume that we mean something essentially similar to what they already expect. As a result, in order to express what-you’re-not-expecting, we “postmodernists” write difficult prose.
I’m not saying my response constitutes the best, most convincing apologia for postmodern obscurity, but it’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Terry Eagleton, however, has a different riposte to both the populist advocates of clarity and the pomo advocates of unreadability (quoting here from Scott McLemee’s recommendation of a book of interviews with Eagleton):

Eagleton calls it “particularly scandalous that people engaged in what is basically a democratic enterprise should write in such an obscurantist way. But to say that one shouldn’t write in a deliberate and willfully obscure way isn’t of course to say that one should always be easy to read.”
Nobody expects an engineering textbook to require anything but diligent attention. This is not a matter of the intrinsic elitism of engineers. “And just as in engineering, there is a specific set of skills and languages to be learnt in literary theory in order to understand it. What I’m saying is that populism need not be the only opposition to elitism.”

And what I’m saying is, “Amen.”

Back To Scotland

Margaret and I arrived home at my flat on Partickhill Rd, vegged out for a while, I cooked her a rice pasta dinner, and she turned in. I’m about to follow suit, but not till after I repeat how wonderful it was to catch up with the midwestern offices of our family. Tomorrow we look around, maybe check out a museum or two, obtain some groceries, and I should be working on Sunday’s sermon and a little piece for the Scottish Episcopal Church’s magazine. (We’ll see when I and Margaret wake up tomorrow morning!)


Gosh, thanks a lot: Margaret and I are flying from Detroit to Amsterdam tomorrow as part of our trip to Glasgow. Guess we’ll be leaving Ypsi for Chicago extra extra early. “In seats for an hour before landing, with no personal items or blankets in their laps”? Bruce Schneier, when will the authorities listen to you?

Transitional Theology

This morning, Margaret, Pippa, and I catch a ride from Josiah and head out to O’Hare Airport where (contrary to what one might expect) we will not get a plane flight, but rather will rent a car to drive to Ypsilanti. The plane flight comes later; for today, we have to say a sad and appreciative goodbye to Si and Laura and our Harris-McVetty home, and navigate northeast to spend a short day-and-a-half with Nate and Laura. The week that the H-McV’s have sheltered us has gone by in a blink, and that blink has been nothing but happiness, an outward and visible sign of the kind of harmony and delight we anticipate for the even greater home we will share bye and bye.
Hard to leave as it is, it will thrill me anew to see Laura and Nate; spending Thanksgiving alone in Scotland when Margaret and my kids and their spouses gathered at the Dunbar-Adam flat in Ypsi gave me a serious case of loneliness. I could use a sizable dose of Laura D. to chase the memories of that weekend.
One can imagine all sorts of reasons for feeling distant from family, for feeling unimpressed or even resentful about the prospect of settling down with a beloved partner for life — that’s totally fair and understandable. Anyone who wants to register a protest in the name of single-person’s rights will get no pushback from me (and it’s a concern I try to keep explicit in church-related doings). Let’s distinguish, though, the social compulsion to pair off and nest (on one hand) from a theological basis for sharing joy with others, for which life-in-family provides one cardinal vehicle. “It is not good for this creature to be alone” — and our destiny is not isolation, but solidarity. Even the hermits people their lives with visits from angels, demons, friendly and hostile beasts, plants, and visions. In sociality and solitude, it’s all about the tuning; families can destroy, solitude can bless, and a harmonious blend of either builds up that sense that something greater than just my interests, my priorities, my very limited insight into a staggeringly complicated creation, or my preferences is at stake. Despair and joy can each give us a peek at that greater alternative, and despair’s vision may even be sharper. And yet, it is out of love’s joy that we learn a Way that despair does not comprehend, that enters into deepest grief and does not stop there. Maudlin sentimentality surfeits, pleasure palls and fades, and these provide no bulwark against the gravitational pull of gloom. Love, even warped, dented, destructive love gives a shimmering glint of something else. And when we can draw near that something else, when we can cultivate it, blossom before it, amp it up and turn it loose on behalf of the world, we’re doing some of what families are good for.
Such as what Laura and Nate, Laura and Si, Pippa, Jennifer, Margaret, and a swirling cavalcade of friends and relations do for me. Moving on, I don’t leave them behind, nor they me. They make me possible, make my joy possible, offer me some of what I can in turn offer others. And I think that this begins to touch some of the point of Christmas. “God bless us, every one!”

Holiday Wishes

I’m still operating on Glasgow time, alas; I wake at about 5 AM, and become insurmountably drowsy at about 9 PM. I mention this because our family plans on attending two Christmas Eve services this year, the earlier of which begins at 9 o’clock. Si is supervising a betting pool, I think, on how long I’ll be able to stay awake.
If you’ve been around here before, you have probably figured out that I’m so intensely proud of my family that it must be endangering my health in some way or another. Our visit to Si and Laura (and Laura’s wonderful family) here, and our trip to see Nate and Laura in Ypsilanti, bring us more joy than I can possibly express. And we’re counting on catching Jennifer as soon as we can arrange it.
Plenty of different people in the world celebrate innumerably different things at different times — and some of them even read this blog. So permit me this non-specific holiday greeting, speaking nonetheless as a devout, committed Christian theologian who doesn’t hate the church, the Truth, the creeds, the holy days, or the Archbishop of Canterbury:
   “I wish you all the most wonderful of days, as my family and I rejoice at the annual remembrance of our Saviour’s birth; and we ask that you remember us fondly when you celebrate that which is most precious, most dear, most important in your lives. You stick with us, we’ll stick with you, and together we’ll try to build a tenuous web of solidarity in a world too often characterized by facile hostility. Or as the angels said, ‘Peace on earth; goodwill to all.’ ”

It Only Hurts When I Don’t Laugh

The other day, Si noted the correlation between my current address (on one hand) and the They Might Be Giants favorite from their Flood album — characterizing me as “Partickhill Man, Partickhill Man.” True enough, and clever indeed — but I so often err in comical ways that I tend to think of myself more as “Risible Man.” I’ll turn the key in my office door several times, annoyed that the door doesn’t open, before I remember that I’m turning it the wrong direction. I’ll hustle downstairs to deliver some papers to the office, and realize halfway down that I left them in the office. I’ll stumble in an especially awkward way, or buy a big load of groceries before I realize that I was supposed to pick up a parcel on my way home, or… well, let’s just agree that there’s no end to the comical blunders to which I’m liable.
This is a convenient thing, since I love a good laugh, and living with me — as I have for as long as I remember — I always have plenty of material to laugh at.
For instance, yesterday Margaret and Pippa and I were doing some errands in the Chicago snow and sleet. I was trying to protect Margaret from slipping, since her knees and ankles are already in dodgy condition. As we stepped onto a grate, my foot went out from under me and I plummeted to the sidewalk. With more presence of mind than I can account for, I rolled with the fall (so I didn’t land squarely on any one body part); as a result, I haven’t hurt anything badly — but my whole body is achey (especially (of course) my neck, back, and shoulder). So both the spinning fall (which amused the watching Margaret and Pip) and the ironic post-tumble aches and pains (which amuse me, between winces) provide material for mirth.
Though some days I wish I could do that for a living, instead of being a laughably forgetful, clumsy, awkward lecturer/priest, in the end it’s just a joy having so much cause to chuckle absent-mindedly at my own ample folly.

Shoulder On

I had been getting along pretty well with my left shoulder, almost to the point of thinking that whatever had bothered it during the summer had resolved itself and gone away. Then came last weekend’s shopping extravaganza, and my packing and flights to Chicago, and now I’m achey again.
Obvious Lesson One: Be gentle to my left shoulder when carrying loads. It’s easier said than done, because after a while toting whatever is heavy with my right shoulder, the temptation to switch the load to my left is practically irresistible. Likewise sleeping on my left side: try as I may to sleep on the right most of the night, I feel a compulsion to roll over, and that puts pressure/weight on my left shoulder. Still, I should definitely try both things.
Not-so-obvious possibility two: It occurs to me that the problem with my shoulder may be the same as the problem with my thumbs — that is, some form of hypermobility. With the extra stress I put on my left shoulder this summer, packing and moving unpacking and moving and packing and moving, then traveling all over with heavy suitcases, then more unpacking, and so on, I can easily imagine my left shoulder just pulling out of its usual snug fit, and then causing havoc as it shifts around. At least, that’s the way it feels to me: nothing feels broken, no particular muscle or ligament distinctly strained. It mostly feels bruised inside. Clearly I’m not a physician, but this explanation would be consistent with other joint problems I have had, and would account for the type of pain and the circumstances for my shoulder being aggravated.
And yes, now that I have an NHS number, I will definitely have someone look at it when I get back to Scotland. I’d have done so already, except that the aggravation took place over the weekend, before I came to the States.

Two Half Notes

First, I finally finished the raw draft of my presentation at the SBL meeting, “C’Mon Save Your Soul Tonight.” It’s still mutable; I expect to make significant changes and additions, so by all means help yourselves to offer feedback in the comments. (I’m leaving the post at the older address, since that address is listed in the SBL Call For Papers.)
Second, I’m now working on an article (principally) about the Mountain Goats’ recent album The Life of the World to Come; working title, “ ‘What These Cryptic Symbols Mean’: John Darnielle’s Allusive Hermeneutics.” This is a welcome opportunity, though not without its dangers. I can now rationalize all sorts of web browsing about Darnielle and his five-hundred song catalogue, interviews, live-performance banter, and so on. “No really, I’m doing research.” So my statistics suggest an obsessive fascination with the Mountain Goats, but that overstates my enthusiasm to a degree. I love the new album, I’m very impressed by Darnielle’s body of work, but honestly, I’m not five times more impressed with tMG than (say) the Beatles.
Anyway, it’ll be fun to put my love of music to work in a biblical-interpretive mode.

Not Quite Being There

For the sake of any reader who has said to her- or himself, “I wonder what it’s like to attend church when that guy’s preaching,” and for the sake of the kind folks who have said they miss seeing me preach, and for the sake of people in the eastern USA who can’t get out to church this morning and don’t mind hearing last week’s sermon, and for the sake of people who don’t really believe I’m a priest, and for the sake of aggravating global warming by using more bandwidth than is necessary — the Provost of the Cathedral burned late-night oil editing video and fighting with his uploading service (before he switched to Vimeo, which evidently went very smoothly) to bring you a video of last week’s sermon at the cathedral.

Preaching at St Mary's

Now, time for me to get ready for the walk to church — a dusting of snow on the ground, housework to do on my return, and then one bright morning (tomorrow), I’ll fly away to Chicago to see my loved ones for a short visit!

Ho, Ho, Ruddy Ho!

I went out for my Saturday Morning Treat (professionally-made coffee and a carbohydrate-and-fat bomb of one sort or another), and while I traversed the streets of the West End, the Spirit of St Nicholas fell upon me, and lo! I outdid myself with locating and obtaining delightful but modest gifts from Glasgow.
Now, having been a good hunter-gatherer for Christmas presents, I will bring my booty to Margaret, counting on her guidance to determine who fits into which tartan Bermuda shorts, who needs a Rangers-branded sump pump, and how many of our friends and family deserve souvenir packets of salt from One-A The Square.
Then I picked up some tide-me-over snacks at Waitrose, and got a haircut.
Watch out, USA — AKMA’s coming back, and this time he’s bringing the Xmas Xpirit!.

Musing Before Coffee

I continue to be amazed, astounded, dumbfounded — I should know better by now, but I seem incapable of adjusting my hopes — dumbfounded by the proportion of human beings who cannot imagine that their perspective and experience are normative for everyone else.
The clue phone is ringing, and if you pick it up there’s a voice at the other end saying, “You are not the only person in the universe. There are people different from you, some even smarter than you, some even more sensitive than you. But your sense of humor doesn’t constitute the absolute horizon of what’s funny, your sense of justice doesn’t define the universal criterion of fairness, your moral horror doesn’t oblige others to recoil from the same evils, your inclinations do not reflect the general human propensity to do any particular thing.”

Glasgow and Me, Part… Um, Six? Five No, Six

I handed in my marks yesterday, then came home and dissolved into a jelly-like goo. I was worn out from marking, and also having my predictable end-of-term let-down, intensified by my being alone in Glasgow. So I watched the last episode of The Wire and just zoned out.
I’ve never worked under this system of grading: I never (in theory) know whose exams or essays I’m marking, since all the paperwork comes through Christine, our Departmental Secretary. Everything is identified by numbers. I assign the marks (and make comments) on our 22-point scale, and direct the numbered evaluations back through Christine. She handles the spreadsheet with marks and percentages and so on, an assigns the summative grade to each student. This way, I don’t agonize over whether Annabelle tries hard, or how Rodney has disappointed me by working below his potential, or whatever. You’re Number 08073333, and I think your essay was a 17. Bingo. It’s liberating, in a way, although it doesn’t transform marking into a paradisal activity. (I can, if I’m determined, figure out identities for some work — but I prefer not to know, so even though I could, I won’t.) More marking next year, as I will be convenor for the NT Introduction.
Then today, I made a quick trip to the office to leave gifts for Christine and Meg and Helen, and to shut down my computer for the duration of my trip to Chicago. From there I went to the Cathedral, where we had an pleasant clergy-team meeting, and thence went to lunch with the other clergy. I already knew John Riches (I caught a misspelling of his name in the Wabash Center “Should We Teach The Historical-Critical Method?” round-table article in Teaching Theology and Religion) from New Testament academic circles, and it’s always a delight to converse with him. Kelvin is the Provost, who has been so generously interested in bringing me aboard; and Caroline is the third member of the team, whom I’d only just met in passing at church. We had a jolly old time talking about the up-coming episcopal election in Glasgow and Galloway, about some of the oddities of liturgy at St Mary’s (we deploy a double corporal to extend the area of the altar blessed at the Eucharist, but for a newcomer priest it’s very perplexing that the corporal you see first is off-center, and it seems to be overlapping another, and what about the lump in the middle, and so on), and weddings. A lovely time, and most intoxicatingly promising for time ahead spent working with these estimable colleagues.
Then I went gift shopping, about which I can’t say too much except you wouldn’t think I’d have to go all the way to the City Centre to find coal for my children. But coal I found, in interesting colors for each, plus some intriguing items that we’ll have to figure out how to distribute. I was going to have fajitas tonight, but I forgot that the fajita special applies only Sunday through Thursday, so I rolled home and settled in for the evening. I’ve been managing my grocery purchases so carefully that I’m running out of foods a little ahead of schedule.
I continue to be mystified by my toy washer-dryer (“I’m sorry, AKMA, but I can’t wash both legs of those trousers in the same load”). The same cycle will somedays end up with clothes wet to the point of dripping one day, but on the next day will produce hot, dry clothing with intense wrinkling. I think it’s a “wheel of fortune” model, and there’s a random factor built in to heighten the excitement.
And I’m realizing that I’ll actually be sad to leave Glasgow, even to see my family, even only for a week. Partly it’s that I’m just getting the hang of it; partly it’s my innate homebody nature; but also partly I’ll be missing all the far-reaching ways that I’ve been made to feel welcomed and valued here. I do like it here.