Monthly Archives: February 2010

Oasis Of Relief

I’ve been running hard to keep from falling too far behind this week, and events such as yesterday’s committee-meeting-a-thon (although all most of the meetings were quite congenial) set my wheels skidding instead of pushing forward. Today I ran into another setback when — wait, let me start over.
Yesterday, in between committee meetings, there was a gap in which I could text my laptop on the projections system in the room in which I’d be giving a presentation today. Time and experience have taught me that it’s always, always, always worth running such a check, and this time reaffirmed that axiom. As it turned out, I had the wrong adapter for our projector in the Upper Seminar Room. I quickly dashed off a note to the IT Department asking whether the University had such an adapter, giving both the specs of the adapter itself and the units between which I needed it to adapt. IT then passed along some queries, someone knew someone who had the adapter, who said it would be brought by the office yesterday afternoon. It turned up at the office this morning, and as soon as I saw it I recognized that it was a different adapter; the relaying of the request had gotten it to someone who didn’t recognise the relevant technical specs and who went to some trouble to locate a connector that they thought would be equivalent. With only a little while to go before the presentation (and a class and another committee meeting in between), I sprinted walked vigorously to the underground, caught a train to Buchanan Street, bought the adapter out-of-pocket at the Apple Store (hey, at least this way I’ll have it on hand when I need it), caught the train back to Hillhead and made it to my office a minute before the committee meeting.
So that was the frustration du jour, and although it was an expense and a bother it worked out fine, which makes it worth having done. The committee meeting was short (and at the end of it, my confusion about what we were about to do was dispelled), class went all right, and I plopped down to set up the presentation spot on four o’clock. The Theology, Literature, & the Arts seminar is larger than the Theology seminar, apparently; the room was very full, and I launched into the talk — a revised and updated version of one I’d given at the SBL a few years back — and the seminar seemed quite engaged by it. It’s hard for me to know how much to expect that other people have already digested from the soup of ideas that I’ve been living with, thinking with for more than fifteen years; I usually oscillate between wondering if I’m expounding my topic at too basic a level, and sensing that I’m going right over people’s heads. This time the presentation and the seminar seemed to mesh pretty well, and by the time I showed the N.W.A. video for “Straight Outta Compton” (that wasn’t part of the original SBL presentation) juxtaposed with Nina Gordon’s acoustic cover version, I think everyone was more or less on board.
Excellent questions and answers followed, then the traditional pint of beer out with the seminar, and I stumbled home weary and hungry, but intensely thankful for the opportunity to unreel my ideas to an alert, interested, acute gathering of post-grads and colleagues.

If You Can Get It

There’s a lot going on here these days, from a day of back-to-back committee meetings to Ash Wednesday service this evening, to a presentation for the Theology/Literature/Arts seminar tomorrow, to a sermon for Sunday, not neglecting work on my James commentary and a couple of articles.
All that being said, let’s turn to what’s really important: John Mayer and Robert Pattinson. (Warning, Mom and others — although the links take you to Google News sites, the topics are decidedly indelicate.) Maybe it’s just me, but if I had a career that depended to a great extent on maintaining an agreeable, friendly, congenial public presence, I would think I’d be able to avoid making such unutterably stupid and offensive remarks. I say dumb things sometimes, heaven (and Margaret) knows. I don’t always anticipate well how my perspective might sound to others. But both of these megastars jave just said — to reporters, reporters, heaven help us! — stupider things than I’ve heard even from some of the really stupid, heedless people I’m acquainted with.
Both have cost themselves non-trivial sums of money; each stands to lose probably more money than I will make in ten years of being a hard-working, careful-communicating, racially-alert (not claiming to have attained “post-racial” status, just saying that in the first instance I wouldn’t boast about whether I’ve gotten particularly far in that direction, and in the second instance that however far I have gotten, the most important thing by far is that I’m still striving), non-misogynist teacher and preacher.
I guess the continuing saga of Mayer’s and Pattinson’s celebrity and wealth are the Invisible Hand’s way of giving people like me the finger.

Theological Symbiosis

As I was walking to work this morning, it occurred to me to conjecture that “liberal” theologies err to the extent that they neglect their symbiotic relationship with ordinary, historic, “orthodox” (by which I don’t necessarily mean “what contemporary soi-disant orthodox Anglicans mean, but something more like “broadly-agreed-upon”) theology. I’d say “liberal” theology is parasitic on historic orthodoxy, but there’s no way to do that without giving the impression that I mean it pejoratively, which I don’t.
That is, I conjecture that “liberal” theology flourishes to the extent that it provides an alternative articulation of theological points alongside what non-“liberal” theologies assert. When “liberal” theology begins to elbow aside or suppress non-“liberal” theology — when it asserts a sort of Whiggish triumphalism over the allegedly obsolete, irrelevant formulations of hidebound blah blah blah — it cuts off the vitality of the partner without whose continuing strength, the “liberal” alternative loses its coherence. Thus, if I’m on the right track, it’s positively in the interests of “liberal” theologians to support strong education in the basics of historic theology; that’s the juniper that supports their mistletoe, or the anemone that shelters their clownfish.
On this account, “conservative” theologies likewise depend symbiotically on historic orthodoxy. And by the same token, the more narrowly one defines the “one true and eternal faith” of a “conservative” theology, the less wholesome that theology becomes; dry rot sets in, and (once again) the tree collapses under the weight of its symbiont. The leading difference in these two cases derives from the rationale given for choking off the host: in the case of the “conservative” symbiont, the main trunk has become too tolerant, has deviated fatally from the correct doctrinal formulae.
When I propose this, I do not mean to refer to a particular present case, e.g. sexuality. All the specifics of cases would require argument relative to their specifics, and although I disagree with many “conservative” arguments regarding sexuality, I don’t posit that they err simply by drawing a line and not “tolerating” disagreement on this topic. Rather, the more precise way to conduct the “conservative” argument (according to me, to whom no one is obliged to listen) would be to begin by allowing that breadth and diversity and flexion characterize the church through history, and that theological positions such as that which I advocate nonetheless fall outside the bounds of what the church can permit. Now, some theologians do couch their arguments that way (generally), and I respect the care that reflects. I still disagree, but it’s an argument within which we’re really disagreeing about a real thing. A considerable number of theologians, on the other hand, espouse a perspective on the church’s teaching that unduly throttles the circulation of nourishing theological ideas — let us say, by making one particular doctrine of the atonement an essential hallmark of sound theology — such that the church’s growth and strength suffer. “We only need Vitamin D! All those other vitamins are a snare and a delusion!” One need not adopt an absolutism of one source of nourishment in order to dispel claims that other diets are unbalanced (if indeed they are).
It’s harder to explain to “liberal” theologians that I disagree with them, because often (as in the case of sexuality) we seem to be agreeing. Still, where a modernised church proclaims its triumph over its own past’s ignorance, I politely step out of lockstep and return to converse with less up-to-date colleagues. The fact that the church’s mind changes in various ways over time (how could it not?) doesn’t mean that its former outlook is benighted, foolish, uncritical, anachronistic, or “fundamentalist” (a word that tends to function overwhelmingly as a term of abuse, not as a clearly-defined explanation of a basis for disagreeing). Most “liberals” take some things literally and they ignore or rationalize other things; most “conservatives” likewise take some things literally and soft-pedal or rationalize others. Most “liberals” and “conservatives” both construe certain theological premises as “fundamental.” Almost all of those definitions obscure the possibility that the definer in question might, possibly, be wrong — might indeed need fellowship with, communion with, a broader range of alternatives than she or he is willing for his/her definition to permit. (Again, there will be boundaries — the problem arises not from drawing boundaries, but from refusing to draw boundaries humbly, charitably, and subject to change or correction.)
The strength of good theology draws on more than simply partisan teaching. If any version of “liberal” or “conservative” theology is sound, it will be able to draw strength from the historic breadth and variety and consistent emphases of the church’s teaching. At the very least, the distinct “l”/“c” theology will benefit from its adherents and exponents being able clearly and specifically to explain the pattern of continuities and exclusions that they propose. And new believers will be very much better served by learning sympathetically the church’s historic basics first, before they learn ways that their contemporaries have characterized topics more narrowly.

Good Question: Party Music

Meg asks (on her Facebook page), “It wouldn’t be a party without which songs?” Knowing how much I delight in arguments discussions that bear on popular music, taste, cultural differences (US/Scotland, generational difference, rationale for the party, and so on), and the extent to which reality accommodates my unswerving certaqinty that I know best about matters of popular music, I thought I would bring the question over to my blog.
I’m trying to resist the temptation to equivocate in the face of all the differences, but in the spirit of the question I guess I’d nominate the Isley Brothers’ version of “Shout” as one candidate, and “I Got You (I Feel Good)” by James Brown as another; about the only sort of party for which those would be inappropriate would be the Queen’s Tea. Now I’ll begin pondering other nominations; you feel free to suggest some, too.

Valentine’s Day

When you’ve been blogging for eight Valentine’s Days and eight wedding anniversaries, the sense that you’ve run out of convincing ways to say again a message you’ve already voiced more than a dozen times casts a shadow over the “New Post” screen in your blogging engine.
This year, though, I’ve outdone myself in the effort to alter my circumstances so as to generate an original asseveration of affection. Since my expatriation in September, Margaret and I have been in the same place at the same time fewer (by my reckoning) than twenty days. Even this severe and unwelcome separation, however, has not limbered my typing fingers to compose a new ballad of desperate romantic longing. Not even the extremity of our dislocation brings novel words to my heart.
It’s true, though: I don’t have anything new to say. I said it all twenty-eight years ago, when I vowed before God and a congregation of dear friends and family, that nothing would part us until death. I had said it all in late October of your first year at Bowdoin. I’ve said it as each of our stunning children has entered our lives, and I’ve said it to you each time I’ve told one of them how much I love them, and how proud I am of them. I’ve said it each time you’ve accomplished one of the impressive achievements you attained despite carrying such great burdens. I say it at night before the light goes out (sometimes even after). I say it when you first emerge from the covers in the morning.
And I have nothing to say that wouldn’t be less than the time-worn, musty, familiar utterance that lovers have hallowed with a majesty and truth greater even, greater by far even than it has been profaned by callow, crass, tawdry dissimulators — so that when I speak, the uncountable voices of true soulmates over the ages whisper together as witnesses to affirm what I have said so long, so often, and now despite their obviousness I say yet again as though for the first time: I love you, Margaret, now and forever.

Glasgow and Me (8), Plus Edinburgh

When I was small, our family had a copy of Maurice Sasek’s This Is Edinburgh in circulation:

I don’t remember if there was a specific reason, apart from our vivid consciousness of Scots ancestry, but I read through that book countless times. I bring it up now because I had so internalized the images on those pages that actually going to Edinburgh, all the way to Edinburgh (as Ian Hunter might sing) not stopping at Haymarket, was like entering a a physical representation of my imagination. It was that strange and intoxicating.
Relative to the “Glasgow and Me” theme, nothing I have done since I moved here underscored as much as this that I actually live in Scotland, and that I live in Glasgow-as-distinct-from-Edinburgh. I loved visiting Edinburgh, and I can’t wait to take Margaret and Pippa there. I’ve said before that I feel at home in old places, and Edinburgh is significantly older (in architecture and even in most streets). Add to that the experience of discovering what you had seen and known before (in my imagined, childhood, Sasek-inspired version of Edinburgh) and it was a truly spectacular afternoon.
I love ScotRail.
Now, as to the visit to Edinburgh itself: I arrived at Waverly shortly before midday. I fist explored Princes Street; there’s a branch of the Pen Shop in Jenner’s there, and I went up to encourage the staff by purchasing a bottle of ink remover (didn’t really need any more ink, and I tend to steer away from contemporary pens — speaking of which, I should do some pen posts again soon, maybe after I write out what I was thinking about hermeneutics and moral theology and so on). I had finished reading a book I’m reviewing on the train ride, so I felt a rush of satisfaction and accomplishment; a pen accessory seemed like a modest reward. On the way to Jenner’s, I took a photo of the Scott Memorial.

Scott Memorial

There was a kilted piper busking on the pavement; I declined to photograph him, but I’m sure there was such a figure in the Sasek book, so I felt as though I’d gone through the Wardrobe into fantasy-Edinburgh already (much stronger than seeing locations I recognize in “Taggart” episodes). The message of the Scott Memorial: “We’re serious about honouring people who boost the stature of Scotland!”
I crossed Princes Street Gardens and headed to the Royal Mile in search of the hotel where I’d meet Holly later that afternoon. That accomplished in short order, I began meandering. Sisters and brothers, Edinburgh is a city made for meandering. All the closes — hidden byways and plazas without obvious immediate street access — and bridges and alleys make for prime meanderage. Meandritude. Meanderosity. In one of the staircases, I discovered that some Edinburghians evidently had a low opinion of George II.

Edinburgh Pedestrian Staircase

I had coffee at a pleasant juice bar, wandered some more, clambered up to the castle (didn’t go in),

Edinburgh Castle

looked in at the Writers Museum,

Writers Museum, Edinburgh

and ended up at one of the cafes in which J. K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book, The Elephant House. There’s a lovely windowed back room there (would be exactly what MArgaret’s looking for, but the commute would be rough), with a great view of the Castle Rock, but I sat out front with a smoothie.

The Elephant House, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh

Then it was time to go meet Holly, with whom I shared a wonderful drinks-and-dinner, reminiscing and updating and talking about the cashmere business and academic life. Holly impressed the staff by speaking to them all in fluent Italian; I nodded vaguely, and at one point the “foreign language” center of my brain emitted a pointless “Danke.” We called it a relatively early evening; she had to wake up at six, and I had the train ride ahead of me. The hotel was stylishly crepuscular, so there wasn’t much chance of a well-lit photo, but a kind desk clerk agreed to give it a try. Of course, no single frame caught both of us smiling. . . .

Sister and Brother, Missoni Edinburgh

Great to see you, Holly, and thanks again for the terrific dinner! Great to see you Edinburgh, and soon I’ll bring Margaret or Pippa!


Margaret anticipates looking for a coffeehouse in Glasgow with a south-facing window, from which she can soak up sunshine while she sips tea and writes. Accepting nominations. Proximity to Partickhill Rd a plus.

Sunny Day Stromateis

  • Sumedecina — a story told mostly by the graphic display of quantitative information — strikes me as an admirable idea unsatisfactorily executed. The graphics don’t carry enough of the narrative burden, so they become illustrations; b ut the illustrations don’t amplify much over what the captions say. I was rooting for this to be brilliant in both conception and realization, but the realization falls down a bit. (Hat tip, Eric Rice.)

  • Thomas Benton strikes again with “The Big Lie.” I fully support the premise that the system that produces increasing numbers of doctoral graduates for diminishing numbers of full-time academic teaching/research positions has gotten out of hand (and it has spawned increasing numbers of journals and monographs to support the publication-needs of the growing population of scholars). I fully support the premise that (potential) doctoral students should be aware of the very serious economic problem this constitutes. At the same time, I’ve never been associated with a school where the (post-)grad program relied on its students as warm bodies to staff unpopular courses, so although I believe it happens, I don’t regard that as a sufficient explanation of the source of the problem. Moreover, here in the UK, the economics are very different, both for better and for worse. On one hand, postgrads from the EU don’t have the same crippling debt burden that their US colleagues usually have to shoulder; on the other haqnd, the economics of institutional funding mean that it’s in our interests (for survival, not just for prosperity) to draw students from outside the EU, who then pay a much higher rate — regardless of the prospects of their future employment. While I would think it admirable if schools cut down the flow of degree candidates to match more closely the vocational prospects for research scholars, that premise involves so many complications that I can’t imagine it ever taking shape voluntarily. The situation is all the more vexing as the economics of culture reward vulpine market manipulators (and governments have now funded that endeavor to the tune of many billions of dollars) but pinch pennies with regard to funding the robust educational culture that advances a whole people. Ugly, ugly situation; nothing even remotely like an easy answer.

  • Derek and I are having fun parsing the cognitive topology of sainthood in the Carolingian period. What? You mean, not everyone finds that fascinating?

  • Tatyana from Sharmanka spotted by blog post (with impressive rapidity!) and left a nice comment (with links to relevant Flickr collections). It reminds me of the good ol’ days when bloggers used to read one another’s posts and answer in comments or on their own blogs, when the power law distribution was less harsh and less dominated by mass-media-style sites.

  • Did I mention that I’m very eager to see what’s inside Glitch?

  • My friends from Seabury will be pleased to see this sign from the Glasgow Theology Dept.’s recreption area:
     In The Departmental Recreption Area

  • The excellent webcomic Anders Loves Maria ended the other day, and I’m still feeling the reverberations of its very powerful conclusion. I can’t think of a comic that felt as much like a (non-graphic) novel to me for its sense of narrative and character. That’s why I linked to the very first episode: it makes no more sense to read Anders Loves Maria from some point in the middle than it makes to pick up, say, Great Expectations partway through. If you have patience with explicit sexual content, and a heart to look into the lives of some complicated, flawed characters, set aside some time and read it through.
  • Probably more to come as I discover tabs that I meant to blog about but haven’t yet.

Spectacular Sunday

Yesterday , after church, I went on an adventure with my colleague/neighbours the Blantons and the Sherwood/Davises (we’re threatening to take over Partick Hill in the name of biblical studies). We ended up having a quite delectable Indian lunch, but the real excitement came before that. (Well, the giant curled crispy pancakes were pretty amazing, I have to admit, but the gallery was even better.)
The primary destination was the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre, a brilliant art installation woefully under-served by their website. (Underserved by Google, too, which still thinks the gallery is located at 64 Osborne St., where I walked back and forth several times trying to find anything that resembled a gallery — I finally noticed a single sheet of A4 paper taped to a door among various other posters and leaflets, saying that they had moved to 103 Trongate. Look at the “Street View” on Google Maps, turn to see the red doors with white trim, and then imagine what they’d look like if no one had been keeping them up for months.) If you go through Sharmanka’s site and look at the photos you will get only a foggy sense of the intricate constructions made with the sort of underground Russian satiric bite that you might suppose to have died out years ago. Several YouTube videos show the sculptures in motion; again, there’s no substitute for seeing them in situ. Read the bio page for a fuller sense of the backstory of these wonderful works.
The kinetic art was terrific; the children were spellbound (Adam Davis had been there before, but he couldn’t have been more enthusiastic at this repeat visit); the wit and imagination scintillate; the craftsmanship astonishes. I can’t wait to take Margaret and Pippa (successively, not simultaneously), and if any of you want to go with me, I’ll be glad to go with you, too.

Semi-recursive Sermon Comments

This morning’s sermon seems to have gone well, even among the people who helpfully noted before the service that they were expecting a strong one. The specially odd part is that (as you will see, if you’re so inclined) the sermon pivoted on the question of “self-esteem,” and whether Isaiah and Paul and Peter suffered from low self-esteem — so in commenting about how I felt about it, I have to observe a robust enough confidence that I can mention, in passing, that I see some rough patches.
Actually, my original draft began with a description of Chris Locke’s relentless polemic against bogus self-esteem-mongers. It got off to a great start, then modulated into the problems that arise when students arrive for study with a boatload of groundless self-esteem. But I try to be very, very cautious about saying things from the pulpit that I can easily imagine stirring up needless trouble, and if studetns were there it might have been problematic for me to suggest that I knew of over-confident students. Then too, the transition to the Scripture lessons wasn’t working out, so I scrapped that beginning and just started writing in the middle. Eventually a beginning paragraph attached itself to the middle, and I wrote the ending in the wee hours of this morning. Took a nap, walked to church, and — as I said before — people received it very generously.
All that being said, I’m pretty tired. I look forward to a comfortable night’s sleep, and I won’t bother getting to work by eight, the way I usually do. It feels good just anticipating it.
[Later: Kelvin has put the video of the sermon up — here it goes.]


Continue reading Semi-recursive Sermon Comments