Monthly Archives: February 2010

Internalised Oppression

I attended a theological get-together earlier in the week, the topic of which was lay presidency at the Eucharist. Some folks in the room were for it, and some were agin’ it. Among the for-its, many advanced pragmatic or sentimental reasons. “Pragmatic,” in that there are more congregations in Scotland than there are full-time (or even part-time multipoint) clergy to serve them (hence, accord to the laity the prerogative to bless the eucharistic elements); or “sentimental,” as people affirmed that they had felt every bit as blessed by various para-sacramental events as by the typical clergy-led Eucharist.
I was, as one might guess, agin’ it, for various reasons that I won’t dwell on here. More to the point of this particular rumination, though, is the question of why (if it’s as necessary as all that, and if it feels entirely satisfactorily spiritual) one would still think it obligatory to call a lay-led consumption of bread and wine “the Eucharist”? Doesn’t that perpetuate a clerical paradigm by taking something that once was a clerical responsibility, and appropriating it as a function of non-ordained ministry? In other words, rather than arguing that X or Y function belongs fittingly to the ministry of a priest or a deacon or a layperson or a bishop — in this case, arguin that the sacramental act of presiding at a Eucharistic celebration appropriately belongs to the whole people of God — this approach seems to leave untouched the premise that there’s something special about presbyteral orders, and then reassigns the special ministry of clergy to laypersons. Why otherwise not just say, “We don’t feel the need to have a Eucharist here today, because we can’t arrange for a priest to be here and when (non-ordained) Leslie prays that God bless our bread and wine, my soul is exalted more even than when a clergyperson recites an official eucharistic prayer”? I’d think that “getting over clericalism” would mean not assenting to clergy-defined ecclesiastical practices” (such as distinguishing certain ritual acts from others) more than “wanting clergy prerogatives/responsibilities for non-ordained people.” But that’s just me, the dreadfully rebarbative traditionalist priest. For the record, I have not the least objection to people sharing bread and wine in Jesus’ name when- and wherever they want; I would think that a far better state of affairs than their feeling that they might only do it when a clergyperson is around. I think, however, that it’s still worth distinguishing such an act from a Eucharist, which is an action of the church, by the church, as the church.

Four Things, Two Pairs

Relative to teaching: Thought-provoking blog (as usual) from George Siemens and chat transcript over at weblogg (ed) moderated by Will Richardson. (Unnumerated bonus, but this would make it “Five Things, Three Plus Two”: Blog from the University about undergraduate teaching.)
And Suw points to an HBR entry by Roger Martin that discusses the problem of “inauthentic communities” for business leaders. Suw, soundly, suggests that social media represent a changed and changing environment for community, which promises some advantages for sound community connections that late pre-digital business culture lacked; and Martin underscores the baneful effects of executive insularity (for which Suw hopes social media may be a partial remedy). I note these partly because I admire and respect Suw, and wanted to affirm the possibility she cites, and partly because I think that both she and Martin can get at the important points of their observatiuons withlout the use of the red-herring word “inauthentic.” I started out on the ’Net carping about the usage of “authenticity” and its evil twin “inauthenticity” in conversation with David, Tom, the non-Groundhog Day (now Net-absent) Dave Rogers, and others, and I have revived my jaundiced view repeatedly since then. I just don’t think that conceptual vocabulary contributes to clear thinking about the problems to which it points. Not that there isn’t a problem — just that framing it as an “authenticity” problem usually (inevitably?) invokes ideological mystification about what counts as “authentic,” rather than pointing to specific weaknesses, conundrums, contradictions, and so on. It’s a familiar, comfortable ideological mystification — but I remain persuaded that we’re better off taking a different tack.
And now I can close five tabs that have been open on my browser far too long!

Enforced Simplicity

Tuesday, I complained on Facebook about having only fifty minutes to lecture on 1 and 2 Corinthians. Now I should own up right away that the same mind (mine) that gave fifty minutes to lecture on twenty-nine chapters of tightly-woven theological argument gave the same fifty minutes for me to lecture through the four chapters of Philippians. So this morning, I bootlegged some extra 2 Corinthians into the first bit of my lecture class on Philippians. Problem ameliorated.
While I was prepping for these classes, though, I recognised a side benefit to the forced-march approach to lecturing on topics that I love so dearly: the requisite celerity with which I treat these topics obliges me to distill my account of them to the strongest concentrate. Starting out as a gospels-oriented New Testament teacher, and still firmly loyal to my main man Matthew (and his epistolary counterpart James), I’ve felt stronger and stronger kinship to Paul from having to represent the thrust of his letters in very compressed exposition. If someday I were able to focus my energies to clear off the backlog of writing obligations I’ve committed myself to (and working at an REF-governed institution provides strong motivation for such focus, if it does not always afford the fullest possible opportunity for it), I think I’d like to spend some time working on Paul. Of course, (a) that would mean reading things like the three recent mammoth volumes on Pauline theology (I’m think of Doug Campbell, Tom Wright, and Mike Gorman — though only Doug’s is truly gargantuan, it’s big enough to overflow onto the latter two and keep the average at “mammoth”); (b) I’d also love to venture into writing on Revelation; (c) way back before I even started doctoral work, Sue Jaeger always urged me to write a book about Hebrews, which is another text I love; (d) there’s all that early church theology about which I have things to say; (e) I haven’t written out a premises-to-consequences exposition of my hermeneutical theology yet, and I had a very encouraging talk with a publisher who would want dibs on it if I did so; (f) if I ever get my metaphorical desktop clear, I’d like to keep it that way for a while so I can write about things that pique my interest at the time; (g) I have in mind a sort of cartoon guide for finding one’s way into exegetical competency; (h) I enjoy loafing, too, so I want to reserve time to just hang around and unwind (perhaps playing Glitch!); (i) most important of all, time with my sweetie, who’s coming to Glasgow for a week starting tomorrow.
But anyway, I chafe at the limited time for expounding complex texts, but there’s an upside in the obligation to discern what’s most important to communicate. That’s what I noticed this morning.

Peril, Jeopardy, and Other Dangers

Because I can’t draw humans worth beans (that is, “draw… worth beans,” not “humans worth beans”; I can draw neither bean-worthy nor un-bean-worthy humans), I am contantly on the lookout for repositories of pre-drawn figuers I might use for illustration. The stick figures from signs provide an especially compelling treasury, and I was browsing around for some when I found this compendium, which intensifies the delight of endangered stick figures with the site owner’s droll commentary. It reminded me of old-time favorite “Stick Figures In Peril,” a group from Flickr.

Prolegomena to Polyamory

I’m continuing to mull over the topic of moral theology and polyamory, but before I write anything specific I wanted to set out a few preliminary premises.
First, I recognize that various readers might take offense at my raising the topic at all — whether because it is for them an integral aspect of their way of life, or because it is so obviously and vitally anathema to sound Christian teaching that for me even to deliberate about it entails my betraying the faith I am sworn to uphold. I apologise to both such communities of readers in advance. To polyamorists I say, “Look, I’m already firmly on record as stating that I’m governed by the Church’s rejection of that practice, and I’m inclined to be sceptical also from my own sense of who I am and what I can envision as a matter of human flourishing. The reason I want to bring the topic up in the first place is that I perceive a stronger theological case in behalf of polyamory than I would have expected before the recent Questionable Content brouhaha called the topic to my attention. So if you will, consider this the voice of a stranger acknowledging that he had been insufficiently careful in his past assertions. I’m not on your side relative to this, but I’m trying to think through the possibility, and I’m trying to recuperate from ignorance and dismissiveness.” If you’re still irritated at me for treating your life as a sort of lab specimen (“But is that thing good?”), I hear you, and I will not try to persuade you that you’re wrong to be mad at me.
If contrariwise you’re convinced that this is an obvious, non-negotiable pillar of Christian ethics, I recognize the force of that claim, too. I would rejoin that it still behooves theologians to explore topics such as this, in order to understand better the inner fabric that holds our moral teaching together, and also in order more charitably to interact with neighbours who take a different approach. Especially since I am interested in the signifying practice of Christian discipleship, it’s my responsibility to be able to make a case for what I teach; and the claim of self-evidence is rarely the strongest possible basis for moral teaching, since it only matters when in fact the topic isn’t self-evident to someone. If you then throw up your hands in exasperation and write me off as a hopelessly compromised liberal, I (grudgingly) understand the basis for that dismissal, and though I remain convinced it’s misplaced, I won’t waste both our time by trying to convince you that I adhere resolutely to what the Church teaches.
So I fully anticipate that some readers will consider my moral-theological musings about this to be an offensive waste of time and space, and to them I can only say that I haven’t yet learned the wisdom on the basis of which they can state that — but perhaps if I allow myself to muddle along with topics about which they’re much more comprehensively correct than I, I may run into the consideration or the fact or the argument or the angle or the convergence of the above that extricates me from my culpable wrong-headedness — though in which direction, I dare not guess. Hier stehe ich, as Martin Luther said, and we’ll learn wo gehe ich.

Glasgow and Me, Part Nine

Well, it’s not really Glasgow, but it had to be retold anyway. Apparently an alert foot patrolman warned a t-shirt store in Aberdeen that their “A B E” football apparel (“Anyone But England”) was racist, and asked that the ABE shirts be moved out of the front window.
“We’re certainly not being racist. We are the same race as the English. It’s just daft to say it’s offensive.”
Ah, but as we noted yesterday, saying that one didn’t mean to give offense and that someone would be wrong (or “daft”) to take offense don’t ameliorate the problem. On the other hand, I think the proprietor might have a point; there’s something a bit Pythonic about the whole scenario.

Climate Change

We’re drawing to the end of the coldest Glasgow winter in fifty years, according to my informants here. Today it snowed all day (though hardly accumulated, as the temperature was hovering around 0°). Everyone agrees that it’s an extraordinarily long, chilly, snowy winter for Glasgow; I feel apologetic, as though I’m complicit in the importation of New England-y weather.
So, on my way upstairs at the end of the day, my neighbour remarked, “So much for global warming!” to which I responded right away, “Climate change doesn’t mean ‘always warmer,’ just ‘always weirder.’ ” I’m tired of people regarding one day’s weather, or one location’s season of weather, as a putative rebuttal to the mountains of data from around the world — though that does help explain a number of other political phenomena.
Call me “Delayed Gratification Man.”
Well, not exactly — I was practically trembling from the force of a sudden craving for nachos the other day. The UK sells crisps ( = “chips”) mostly in teeny little one-serving bags such as you might put in little Courtney’s school lunch bag. Nonetheless, Alana brought a couple of slightly larger bags of Doritos by my office, and it turns out Tesco (of which a new branch just opened on Byres Road) sells small bags of actual plain mass-produced tortilla chips (without extra flavorings such as “Prickly Pear Doritos” or “Smooth Mint Doritos”).
I poured some of these chips out onto my baking pan, sprinkled grated cheese on them (Red Leicester; I didn’t see any Monterey Jack), some salsa I had bought for a night on which I cooked fajitas, and some faux ground beef, over which I scattered chili powder. Mmmmmmmmmmm.

Polyamory and Hermeneutics

No, I’m not going to examine the moral-theological questions concerning polyamory; I’ve been thinking about them because of what follows, and it strikes me as a more interesting problem than my superficial moral-theological assessment (“No,” or maybe “No!”) would usually imply. For this post, I’m writing about a specific incident and its hermeneutical ramifications.
(Note: many of the links that follow point to sites with, as they say, “strong adult content.”)
A couple of weeks ago, Jeph Jacques wrote an episode in his daily webcomic Questionable Content in which the central character (a man named Marten) and his colleague/boss (a woman student named Tai) discussed Marten’s relationship with his girlfriend Dora. Marten hadn’t had much of a love life in the backstory of the comic; he had grown very deeply close to his apartment-mate, a woman named Faye — but Faye had not been able to accept him as a boyfriend, and after a while, Marten and Dora (a bisexual woman who owns the coffee shop at which she and Faye both work) fell for each other. They’ve had a very positive, and very durable, relationship ever since. In fact, Dora just moved in to Marten and Faye’s apartment. (Excuse me, I should be saying “flat.”)
Tai is attending a women’s college that the webcomic transparently identifies as “Smif.” She is a lesbian who has, throughout her acquaintance with Marten, expressed a strong affirmation of her polyamorous philosophy and practice. In the particular comic in question — posted on a Friday — Tai expresses her envy for Marten and Dora’s happy, stable, long-term relationship. Marten is taken aback, but Tai indicates that she thinks eventually she’d like to settle down with someone like Dora. Someone exactly like Dora, as it turns out: “I can’t believe that out of all the hot chicks you know, you have to get into a committed relationship with the ONLY ONE who’s also into girls.”
So, to give a summary: in this episode, Tai indicates that she imagines someday settling down with another woman (such as Dora) in a monogamous relationship.
Very much to Jacques’ surprise, the moment he posted the episode to the web, his twitter feed began filling up with very angry protests from readers who had identified sympathetically with the polyamorous Tai. I haven’t tracked down all the original tweets to which Jeph — evidently feeling blind-sided and besieged — was responding, but his responses show him scrambling to answer his furious readers. (Here are selected samples from the archives of his Twitter stream, set in chronological order; I’ve edited out the tags of his interlocutors.)

As I said to someone who emailed me, Tai’s outlook is certainly not meant to be a catch-all point of view on the polyamorous lifestyle!
I mean, Tai SAID she wants ONE PERSON TO SETTLE DOWN WITH. That by definition means she’s not polyamorous! She’s just figuring this out.
You can be polyamorous and totally into committment, you can be poly and have lots of casual sex, there’s lots of ways to do it.
The point of Friday’s comic is Tai going “hey, this situation I’m in isn’t fulfilling for me,” not “ALL POLYAMORY IS UNFULFILLING”
[Responding to a particular tweet] it comes off like that because mono IS better than poly, FOR HER. not for everyone else.
[Responding to tweeter A] I can understand why it might be disappointing, but in no way is it a blanket statement about the validity of polyamory.
[Re-responding to tweeter A] I’ve reread the comic 50 times and there is no way “tai realizes she might not be poly” = “poly relationships can’t be serious”
[Responding to tweeter B] why read comics you don’t like?
[Re-responding to tweeter B] I don’t ask to be a smartass, I just don’t get that mindset. There are plenty of comics I don’t like, so I don’t read ’em!
[Re-responding again to B, a few tweets later] hahaha WOW. i’ve had plenty of folks wish I would get cancer or whatever but that is a new low
[Re-re-responding to tweeter A] dude, let it go. Tai finding that poly doesn’t work for her does not mean I’m saying mono is inherently “better.”
Polyamorous folks: would you agree that “polyamory is not a compromise?” Need to know for Monday’s (potential) script.
I mean a compromise in the sense that if it’s not your ideal situation, you probably shouldn’t do it.
okay! People seem to agree with that, so hopefully monday’s strip will not step on too many toes or ruffle too many feathers
[Responding to yet another tweeter] people forget stuff that happened hundreds of strips ago! if I had realized it would be an issue I woulda linked that comic.

Jacques’s comments illustrate a number of points that I’ve tried to make about language and interpretation. Most important, there’s no way to control interpretation. Jacques correctly (to my mind) notes that the story arcs of his characters show no inclination to devalue polyamory in principle, and asserts that the specific words (and, he might have added, illustrations) do not in any way imply that he or his characters deprecate polyamory as a way of life. Indeed, several episodes before, Marten seems to envy Tai’s life of “recreational drug use, casual sex, and occasional studying” (if any episode was going to cause a stir among QC’s polyamorous fans, I’d have thought it would be this one, in which Tai acknowledges that her life “gets boring after a while.”) But the point isn’t the specific words Jacques (or Tai, or Marten) used; the point is that intentionally or not, they gave cause for QC’s polyamorous readers to feel slighted. Jacques hadn’t anticipated that the strip would irritate (nor would I have), but then we aren’t polyamorists swimming against a stream of culturally-dominant monogamy.
To Jacques’ credit, he took account of the protests and designed the subsequent Monday’s episode to clarify whence Tai was coming. It seems to have satisfied his readers, though I think the strip itself was stiff and unconvincing; on my reading, his characters would not have felt the necessity for making Tai’s position explicit, the way that Jacques’s other readers felt important. It looks to me like better politics than it is good art. Again, not my call, and I admire his willingness not to just shrug and suppose “It’s their problem.”
Hermeneutical lesson: All the things you might want to enlist in your defense if you offend somebody — your intentions, your history as a good actor, the specific meaning you ascribe to your words (and that you think anyone ought to) — can’t defuse the offense. If you care about communicating with people, you have to allow that they construe your utterances, gestures, behaviour differently from what you wish. And once a particular utterance/gesture/act has given offense, appeals to your defenses are unlikely to resolve the problem. Constructive remediation, and manifest response to the basis of the offense, are likely to be the most productive way forward.
And all of this applies doubly (or even more, trebly or quadrally or quintuply or more) to people who inhabit positions of cultural dominance relative to those whom they offend. Disavowing responsibility for the offense, assigning the problem to them, only intensifies the misunderstanding and offense; that’s the “liberal white guy” response, that “I can’t be wrong because my attitudes are all in the right place.” (Here I mean “liberal” in a particular, narrow usage, the way Phil Ochs satirizes in “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.”) The problem in such situations isn’t that the aggrieved party hasn’t done their interpretation “correctly,” it’s that someone doesn’t care enough about what some of their neighbours think to acknowledge and take account of their relation to your behaviour.

What’s The Angel Constant?

This morning’s sermon is one of those sermons that benefits from being preached once at the early service before I arrives for the main service of the morning. (Sadly, I didn’t preach at the early service today.) There are a number of edits I would make to tighten it up, to underscore some points I’d want to make sure were clearer. Although the congregation received it very warmly, it would have been significantly more satisfactory with a slightly longer gestation period.
Interstingly enough, one of the choir members came up after the service to show me that he had in fact been calculating the number of angels required to catch Jesus before he hit the ground. He and his friend and I had a convivial visit, discussing numbers we remember from science classes (Avogadro’s Number = 6.02 × 10^23 = the number of molecules in a mole, along with the Quadratic Formula and of relevance this morning, the rate at which falling bodies accelerate). I spent the rest of the day, though, wondering how one knew exactly how much force to reverse Jesus’ downward accelaration we could assign to each angel. Sermon after the fold….
Continue reading What’s The Angel Constant?

Sunny Day Stromateis

• I was overpowered by this profile of Roger Ebert from Esquire. In the middle of a very busy day Wednesday, I had to read it from beginning to end. He has made a great and beautiful life.
• “What Makes a Great Teacher?” from the Atlantic, with particular reference to the Teach For America program, but relevant to anyone who cares about teaching.
• Maybe more to come when I get home to see what tabs are lingering open on my browser there.

Something Clicked

I talk about Scott McCloud in lectures and classes all the time (well, not as often as I talk about the New Testament or hermeneutics, but pretty often), but his weblog post today really touched me. His experience of learning how to learn pertains to the highest degree to our understanding of pedagogy and instruction, and of cultivating the kind of relations among one another (teachers and learners) that catalyse learning. I learned how to learn about comedy, about Shakespeare, about statistics and probability, mostly apart from the full-time schooling in which I participated at the same time. Even in college my learning and my classes intersected only intermittently (kudos to Bowdoin’s philosophy major program, which, back in the day, had relatively few onerous requirements); they converged more nearly in seminary, and in my advanced graduate work they came closer to being identical. Even then, someone else’s decisions about requirements meant my having to walk through classes in which I learned less than I might have if I’d been free to devote that time and energy to study on terms more congruent with my interests and capacities.
This sort of concern informed Margaret’s and my practice of home-schooling our kids; the idea was to strengthen their capacity and inclination to learn, apart from institutional settings wherein a great deal of time might be spent doing things-other-than-learning. This sort of concern tends to situate me always closer to the anarchic side of educational practice than toward the systematized, one-size-applies-to-all-whether-it-fits-or-no side.
I hope that some of my students have had McCloudian experiences relative to learning, and I hope I didn’t impede or delay that “click.”