Monthly Archives: March 2012

‘Elegy for our Locus Amoenus’

Pippa presented a ‘prototype’ of the work for her senior thesis at Interlochen yesterday. We’ve seen bits and pieces of it before; she was crocheting doilies all summer (the work currently totals 291 doilies), we’ve seen the ‘tree’ on which she’s sitting, and so on. But put all together, it makes a really stunning impression —
 


(Photo credit: Pippa’s friend Christine)

 
(Granted that I do not accord ‘the author’ the defining voice in interpretation, I’m interested to learn what a creator supposes she is doing, so:) She observes that the tree on which the central figure sits is her locus amoenus, which she has ruined, through nostalgia and jealousy, so that it’s preserved, enclosed in a snow-globe, as a frozen memory. She sent along some photos of details of the piece as well (below the fold).
 
Continue reading ‘Elegy for our Locus Amoenus’

Understood, But Missed

The BBC has moved (and is continuing to move) many of its operations to newly-developed facilities in Salford, outside Manchester. Part of the point seems to involve an effort to devolve the media facilities away from London, so that a more northern perspective may inflect coverage. And, of course, no place is as expensive as London, and the BBC Television facilities in White City may no longer suffice for purpose.
 
Still, I’m going to miss Sian Williams, who will be leaving the BBC Breakfast show, as she declines to uproot her family to move north with the show. She’ll continue on BBC radio, but that’s not the same; watching her roll her eyes at Bill Turnbull, joke with Charlie Stayt, and generally bring grace, maturity, beauty, and wisdom to the broadcast has been one of my satisfactions since I landed here and switched on the telly to find out if anything had happened overnight. I’ll miss her.
 

Kickstart Suw!

Suw Charman-Anderson is a champion in every sense of the word — a champion of women’s participation in technology (and founder of Ada Lovelace Day), a champion fictive-geography novella-writer, and just a champion as a human being. She’s Kickstarting the production of her next novella, Queen of the May (‘Every year, faeries steal a human woman to be their Queen. This year, they pick the wrong one’ — I want to do the voiceover for the film adaptation!), and she needs everyone’s support. You too can be a champion: pledge to support her Queen of the May, and help Suw out! (Pro Tip: Suw’s been bookbinding like a madwoman, so if you venture up to the ‘Colombier’ level, you’ll be receiving not just an engaging storybook, but a hand-bound work of art.)
 

 
Go, Suw!
 

Sick Day

It says a lot, I guess, that I’ve been going to the office daily, grinding out pages for a commentary or writing a book review or catching up on sundry other things. Today I’m at what I hope will turn out to be the peak of the cold I caught from the most wonderful woman in the world, and it only just occurred to me that it’s OK to take a sick day when you’re on study leave. Go figure.
 
Anyway, that’s what I’m doing today: concentrating on allowing my body to beat the cold, and not going in to work.
 

Playing Theology

I’ve just finished a review of Lee Sheldon’s The Multiplayer Classroom for Teaching Theology & Religion, the journal of theologico-religious-studies pedagogy. The review only allows 500 words, which I stretch a bit, and it’s formally constrained — so I’ll expatiate a little here, in the manner of a pub conversation about the book. I know that Liz (not here, Liz?)is using this book enthusiastically at RIT, and there’s an online community of academic gamifiers at Gaming the Classroom and likewise a Facebook page for the book and its users.
 
First of all, I’m dead certain that gamification has significant benefits for theological education if approached and deployed sensitively. The key insight — that people from all walks of life, with varying capacities, willingly (nay, eagerly) learn a great amount in a relatively short while if they actually want to learn — poses a serious challenge to all who teach. If students select your course, but do not show themselves willing to learn, what is going wrong? Surely it isn’t all ‘the teacher’s fault’, but we may too rapidly point to extrinsic obstacles to learning. The widespread tendency to scapegoat teachers doesn’t imply that the opposite tendency (to set teachers above criticism) should prevail. Teaching involves a variety of obligations, but if we decline to frame our instruction in winsome ways, we’ve chosen a way that will predictably deter some students.
 
To return to Sheldon’s book, much as I’m a proponent of learning from games as an enhancement to our pedagogical repertoires, I don’t find Sheldon’s book as helpful as I wished I would — and I especially doubt that many teachers in TRS will find it helpful. For instance, the preponderance of the book treats topics in academic areas (science, technology, engineering) that don’t transfer very obviously to T/RS. An imaginative teacher will be able to negotiate the distances and differences, but that requires an increment of determination that some teachers — many, I suspect — won’t sense the urgency of mustering. Sheldon lauds his supportive administrators, and bless them, and bless him. Practitioners whose admins look with suspicion on innovation, or who eagerly pounce on possible ‘failures’ to hang on the neck of adventuresome teachers, or who load up teachers with such daily work that they labour and are heavy laden, will understandably hesitate before they apply suggestions that risk disapprobation from higher-ups.
 
Likewise, Sheldon puts much emphasis on the appurtenances of gaming in the courses he designs. That makes perfect sense when one is teaching game design — but that’s pretty different from teaching the history of Buddhism (‘Our sangha is called the Hillhead Bowling Club!’), or Political Theology. Yes, certainly, one can work out congruences and translations, but the book displays mostly STE (not ‘M’) and especially game-design applications.
 
A more helpful book — for teachers in Theology and Religious Studies — might have started from the premise that students often find it difficult to master the welter of different terms, rhetorical moves, discursive rules, textures of what counts as ‘evidence’ and who counts as an ‘authority’. By framing a skill-acquisition context in which to develop the background competencies (the way that grinding particular sorts of mobs prepares gamers to face more intricate, more powerful boss encounters), a TRS teacher might distinguish the capacities and background knowledge vital for excelling in TRS (much of which is usefully transferable from course to course) from mastery of the course subject itself. One can certainly imagine a student as a beginning ‘player-character’ without the possible institutional risks of naming your biblical-studies students ‘Hebrews’, ‘Hellenists’, ‘Herodians’, and ‘Hasmoneans’* and assigning them to level up their avatars (from the classes of ‘scribe’, ‘prophet’, ‘sage’, ‘lawgiver’, ‘bandit’, and so on) through quests in first-century Galilee and Judea
 
Another drawback to Sheldon’s book is his relative inexperience as an institutional academic (he’s been teaching gamers for years, of course), which colours some of his presentations. Other relatively new-minted teachers may read and nod in sympathy, but older geezers may turn up their noses at Sheldon’s rookie mistakes, or his tone of having discovered truths that teachers have been practising in one way or another for years. Again, this isn’t an intrinsic problem with Sheldon’s pedagogy or even the book — it does, however, run the risk of attenuating his uptake, especially among teachers sensitive about their status (and a very great proportion of teachers is either deeply anxious or lying).
 
And I should acknowledge what some readers will hasten to remind me if I don’t state — that there remain pivotal questions about motivation (intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards) and trivialisation (possibly engendering among students the sense that critical questions about interreligious understanding can reasonably regarded as a game in which the object is to attain Enlightenment by circumambulating the library stacks a hundred times). Those topics are worth working through with practitioners and theorists, absolutely; they don’t occupy centre stage in Sheldon‘s book, though).
 
So I remain unwaveringly confident about the importance of applied gaming for theological teaching — but I’m not sure Sheldon’s book will win over my colleagues. Maybe someone else will take up the challenge, or maybe TRS pedagogy will so maintain its cloistered seriousness that it forgoes the insight into skill-acquisition and captivating, immersive learning and sticky knowledge that game designers must incorporate into their structures for learning. If what we do is more important than building online games (as many of my colleagues will insist), ought we not know at least as much about how to cultivate willing learners as game designers know?
 


 

* I know that proposing two groups, one Herodian and another Hasmonean, is redundant, but I liked the alliteration. Call the last one ‘Hessenes’ if you want.
 

Post-Partisan Dilemma

When I moved to Scotland, I was already keenly aware of the vast divide that separates one Glasgow demographic from another: ‘Do you support Celtic or Rangers?’ I resolved to avoid taking sides publicly — I didn’t need to put myself at odds with anyone (I have had more than enough of unwillingly being at odds with people, believe you me). Gary advised me to support the Partick Thistle, which sounded good to me, but I knew without even deliberating that I would not align with one or the other of the Old firm.
 
Once I got here, and began paying attention to football, I realised that my resolution was more complicated than it might have seemed. Partick Thistle does not, in fact, play their home games in Partick, which is an affront to the good name of my neighbourhood (as though anyone would prefer to play in Maryhill rather than Partick!). If they honestly called themselves the Maryhill Thistle, I might be able to appreciate their candour and adopt them, but if they want my allegiance, they will have to depart Firhill and put together a stadium in some of the open land in our end of town. So no Jags for me.
 
That leaves Celtic and Rangers, and for my first two years here, Rangers were the decided overdogs — and brash about it, at that. They reminded me a little too much of the New York Yankees (by the way, what’s with so many people in the UK who wear Yankees gear? Are there not many other deserving baseball teams to support? Wearing a NY baseball cap in Glasgow is like saying, ‘I can’t be bothered to find out about a team I might actually like, so I’ll support the best-publicised team’), and the Orioles fan in me felt an obligation to prefer some team other than the overdogs — which meant, Celtic. (Their association with the Catholic community likewise played to my favour; in fact a couple of people have, after asking where my loyalties lay, have told me that I seemed to them like a Celtic supporter, with that circumstance in view.) That worked well enough for the past two years, where the Hoops played well, bettered most of the rest of the SPL, and finished second to the loud and proud Rangers. And in none of this time did I really feel tempted to voice a public allegiance among the Glasgow teams.
 
But at the beginning of this season, I felt as though Celtic had had enough hard times (well, finishing second to Rangers) that my determination was slipping. Two years was long enough for Rangers to dominate the SPL, and when Celtic stumbled to a haphazard start, I began leaning into public Celtic support.
 
And Celtic rewarded my support by turning on a streak of determined football, pulling from nine points behind Rangers to one, then three, then four points ahead. Huzzah! The on-going buzz of news reports that Rangers had been overspending like a sodden hooligan, had been dodging bills and neglecting their taxes, only affirmed my sense that Celtic represented a team of prudence, probity, and grit.
 
But then all fell to bits: Rangers’ financial troubles caught up with them, they’re shedding players and losing points, and suddenly Celtic is alone atop the SPL standings with a twenty-one point lead over second-place Rangers (equal to the distance between second-place Rangers and eighth-place Kilmarnock). It’s no fun to root for a steamroller in a league of Matchbox cars, and my appreciation for Celtic is now shadowed by compassion for everyone else in the league (besides Rangers, for whom my only positive feelings come from Christine (our building’s cleaner) supporting them). So there’s the dilemma. Support the superpower Celtic FC, the new overdogs par excellence, for whom I’ve been building sympathy during their years of (relative) hard going, or just stand off from any allegiance? Or support the Jags?
 
Well, baseball season is nearly on us, and there’s March Madness*, and maybe Celtic will win some games in the Europa League, and there’s the Scottish Cup, and eventually World Cup will start up again…
 


 

Another thing we love about living here: Margaret got a personal letter from her GP today, apologising for not having written her sooner about a routine test she recently had. Her GP had lost track of the results, they hadn’t been sent to him, and then one day he remembered that he hadn’t heard back from the lab, followed up, and passed along the nothing-to-worry-about news to Margaret.
 
After thirty years of adult life spent dreading communication with medics and onsurance companies, it’s now a pleasure for us to hear from our doctor. This we love about living in Scotland, and (by the way) this is what the benighted Con-Dem coalition is willing to endanger in favour of having a system more like the US (more costly, less even-handed, with profits for the few). Well, it’s lovely while it lasts.
 


 

I’ve been grinding my own coffee and making filtered coffee cup by cup, because I just don’t much like Americano. I suspect that it’s a trick of my imagination — is there really that much difference between filter-brewed coffee and diluted espresso? — but there we are. I prefer my coffee brewed, not diluted, and that’s that.
 
Now on Byres Road a coffee-aficionado’s haven has opened up, Avenue G, and every now and then we go to give AKMA a treat: my choice of three single-location varieties, fresh ground and filter-brewed. IF you care about coffee and live in Glasgow, Avenue G is the only place I’ve discovered where the coffee warrants a special trip. (We still love S’Mug for its atmosphere, and the tea is fine, but the coffee can’t hold a candle to Avenue G).
 


 

* Scotrail uses the term ‘March Madness’ to characterise their reduced-price ticket scheme — ‘Wow, only £2.90 to Motherwell! Let’s have a holiday!’ I think they don’t quite grasp what March Madness is all about.
 

Clueful Hermeneutics

Yesterday, I was surprised and delighted to see David Weinberger’s blog pop up in my RSS feed with a post about something I had written — it felt like Olden Days! Better still, I agreed with practically everything he said, which always reassures me, since David is a remarkably smart guy. It’s always fun to talk with David, and he has very often triggered some of the insights that I’ve wanted to stay with and explore further (we were conversing before our talks at a conference a few years ago when he mentioned Claude Shannon’s essay on information, and I realised that part of my project entailed problematising the nature of ‘information’ — but I digress).
 
David contrasts the particular (retrospective, somewhat individualised) way I framed up my ‘On Death (Part 1)’ essay about the understanding of death in the Old Testament/Tanakh with the ways that the Judaic tradition keeps the text as an on-going element in the interpretive conversation. If I’m reading David aright, he proposes that the rabbinic tradition constitutes a case in point of what I’ve elsewhere called ‘differential hermeneutics’: ‘The Jewish understanding of its eternal text is the continuing contentious discussion.’ If that’s a sound interpretation of David’s contribution, and of rabbinic textuality, I couldn’t be much happier, because it would be fair to argue that my energies have all along been directed toward persuading Christians to read more the way rabbis do.
 
I wouldn’t identify the ‘continuing contentious discussion’ with ‘the text’, or maybe not with ‘the text’, since I see some value to preserving the possibility that there’s a point of reference that isn’t simply dissolved into the discussion. Or maybe not ‘point’ of reference, since I don’t think a ‘text’ (which can also be an image, a flavour, a gesture, a sound, a scent, and so on) has an autonomous self-identical existence apart from our engagement with it, such that that autonomous existence can serve as a beacon toward which interpretive discussion can, or should, tend — maybe a zone of reference, or a nexus of reference (to attenuate the possible spatial implications of ‘point’ or ‘zone’). To that extent, I don’t share David’s suggestion that his community of readers shares ‘an unchanging text. We’ve been given an original text that stays literally the same; its letters are copied from one text to another with error-checking procedures that keep the sequences of letters quite reliable.’ (My explanation of why I doubt this constitutes part of my ‘Sensing Hermeneutics’ presentation/argument, which I may try to whip into publishable shape someday.) But both the ‘meaning’ of a text, and the constitution of what we count as the text, are thoroughly bound up with the ‘contentious discussion’ David describes.
 
Now, a careless reader might move from this to suppose that David or I posits that Christians wrongly ascribe essential self-identity to texts and pursue their interpretations in strictly individualistic terms. My first reaction would be to underscore that Christians who seem so to be doing are themselves caught up in a ‘continuing contentious discussion’ of what texts mean every bit as much as the Jews whom David describes — but whereas the shared venture of interpretation is an explicit part of the Judaic interpretation in David’s essay, the post-Reformation Christian/secular interpretive practice tends to suppress the role of community, difference, polyvalence, and non-finality in favour of the ideal of a single, univocal, universal, (aspiring-to-) final meaning. As I overstated a couple of days ago, ‘Everyone wants to be right, and most people want to have a theoretical apparatus that justifies coercion directed against those who aren’t right.’ Christians’ cultural dominance has contributed to a sometimes-unstated imperative to make social power correspond to a correct interpretation of Jesus, the New Testament, and orthodox ‘faith’. To the extent that Jewish communities have been excluded from social dominance (and here I’m not forgetting that power struggles continue even when they aren’t extruded into state/civic policy), the issue of controlling other people’s interpretations has taken less prominence than in more dominant cultural groups — notably, among Christians.
 
David’s ‘tradition of revered sages’ corresponds to some extent to the Christian ‘communion of saints’; renewed attention to the ways that Scripture has been interpreted among previous generations provides perspective (so that readers don’t suppose that ‘this is what all right-thinking people have always thought’); it provides a reservoir of imagination for various ways one might take a text seriously; it provides a sense of elastic, but not non-existent, discursive boundaries; and it offers us guidance toward growing into the sorts of interpreters we want to be. In that context, the quotation from Levinas that Jacob Meskin provided to David seems very right: ‘ the multiplicity of irreducible people is necessary to the dimensions of meaning; the multiple meanings are multiple people.’ (This also sounds quite Pauline to me, but then, he was very Jewish himself.)
 
So without romanticising Judaism or deprecating Christianity, David rightly upholds the Judaic traditions of reading, interpreting, appropriating, embodying, and protracting the understanding of texts. These are reminders that others, especially Christians, do well to remember, to rediscover within their own tradition, and to bear forward in conversation and (especially) in controversy. And they exemplify the sort of reason I so appreciate having David as a reader and friend.
 

On Being A Scottish Episcopalian

A while ago, Bishop Gregor officially appointed me to the staff of St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow, and made me a priest of the Scottish Episcopal Church. That ratifies a fact of geography — I really do live here — and (I confess) alleviates a certain sense of alienation from the US Episcopal Church that I had served for many years.
 
I came to Scotland as an economic refugee, as it were, and brought with me a relatively ordinary US-ian understanding of what the Episcopal tradition must mean in Scotland. I had, after all, been a seminarian in Connecticut at the time of the bicentennial of Samuel Seabury’s ordination in Aberdeen by Scottish bishops (1784 / 1984), and had taught for nine years at the seminary named in Bishop Seabury’s honour. My sense of ‘Scottish’ + ‘Episcopal’ equalled ‘Anglican but not established’, a very misleading caricature of the complexities that have become clearer to me over the years I’ve spent here. Archdeacon Simonton’s historical survey (to which I linked earlier this morning) attends so carefully to the nuances of the historic relationship between Scotland and England and the episcopal churches therein that most readers will react with a simple tl;dr — but some of the pivotal points he makes merit highlighting apart from the rich context he provides.
 
First: the break from Rome in Scotland and England took place at different times, in different ways. Remember that Henry VIII was not king over Scotland, so his marital status had no direct bearing on the relation of Scotland with the See of Rome. Henry broke with Rome in 1535, and in fact was battling against Scotland in the 1540s; Scotland continued in communion with Rome until 1560, when the Scottish Parliament (not the same entity and the English Parliament) promulgated the Scots Confession and abolished observance of Catholic faith. At this point, the Scottish Parliament specifically did not at first abolish the episcopacy (although ministry was framed up in largely Reformed terms), and it did not adopt the English Book of Common Prayer. The introduction of the proposed Scottish Prayerbook of 1637 — prepared by Scottish bishops — to supplant John Knox’s Book of Common Order provoked riots in the streets and led the General Assembly in Glasgow to abolish the office of ‘bishop’ in 1638.
 
At this point, Scotland and England — still separate realms with separate Parliaments, although ruled by the same king from the accession of James VI to the English throne in 1603 to the execution of Charles I in 1649, the Protectorate from 1649-1660, then again under Charles the II and James VII/II, under William II/III beginning in 1689, until the English Parliament and the Scottish Parliament were dissolved in favour of the united Parliament of Great Britain in 1707 (as late as 1703, Scotland was asserting its prerogative to select a Stuart monarch if Queen Anne died without surviving issue). When William took the throne in 1689, Scottish bishops would not swear allegiance to a monarch who had deposed a Scottish king; they continued to be bishops, but were completely written out of the polity of the Church of Scotland. There was still no Prayerbook for Scotland, though once Scottish Episcopalians were separated from the Church of Scotland, they began using the Scottish Prayerbook of 1637 (with modifications, ultimately gathered up into the successive supplements known as the Wee Bookies).
 
In the eighteenth century, the Scottish Episcopal Church — disowned by the Church of England, and discountenanced by the Church of Scotland — operated in a legal-ecclesiastical no-one’s-land. The Church of Scotland tried to suppress the SEC — which had strongly supported the Old Pretender in 1715 and the Young Pretender in 1745 — with the Penal Acts of 1719, 1746, and 1748. The state regulation of Episcopal worship divided clergy and congregations between qualified Episcopalians, who were ordained by English or Irish bishops, swore allegiance to and prayed for the English monarch, and complied with the restrictions on worship; and the proper Scottish Episcopal Church, which continued its Jacobite loyalties and the lines of ordination and succession of the Scottish non-juring bishops. (There were also actually a few Church of England chapels for the use of English residents of Scotland; these were under the direct authority of English dioceses or agencies, whereas qualifying congregations were autonomous as long as they adhered to the relevant laws.) Qualifying congregations thus frequently drew their leadership from among English-trained and ordained clergy, perpetuating the strain, or stain, of Englishness in Scottish Episcopalianism; but these were not high-flying English churchmen, since the best and brightest of English clerics would hardly go north to serve a non-established qualifying congregation in Scotland when they could secure a more prestigious and remunerative benefice in the Church of England.
 
The Penal Laws were repealed in 1792 (after the death of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Charles III), after which the qualifying Episcopalians and the Scottish Episcopalians reunited and eventually adopted the Thirty-Nine Articles (for the first time — since English polity had no authority over the Scottish Church) in 1804, 233 years after they were adopted by the Church of England.
 
If one wants a fuller exposition of the cross-currents, conflicts, hybridity, persecution, rebellion, and other circumstances attendant on the formation of Scottish Episcopal identity, Archdeacon Simonton’s essay supplies many, and Canon Gavin White’s history of the Scottish Episcopal Church goes into further depth. A careful consideration of ‘Anglican’ identity in Scotland, though, stands to disrupt any naïve notions about a grand, coherent, Anglican unity grounded in the Book of Common Prayer or the Thirty-Nine Articles. I fully support the idea of the Anglican Communion, and the collegial unity of episcopal churches in communion with the See of Canterbury (which nonjuring Scottish Episcopalians would not have been, for a while), and I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the Anglican Covenant — but such a communion should be grounded in a forthright recognition of the very, very different paths by which ‘Anglicans’ or Episcopalians arrive at their inheritance and allegiance.
 

Break From the Outré

I’m listening to the new Bruce Springsteen album, reading about relevance theory, Hutchinsonianism, and the fascinating history of the Scottish Episcopal Church — so I may not generate any substantial bloggage today. But as a way of making it up to you, I’ll point to Fluxblog’s retrospective surveys of 2002 and 2003. If there’s music you missed from nine or ten years ago, you may be able to find out about it from these mountains of mixtapes.
 
Oh, and a hat tip to the astonishing Mark Wood of wood s lot — still presenting us with a giddying swirl of the most stimulating poetry, photography, commentary, and theory on the web, after all these years. Cheers, and blessings, and thanks without ceasing from Lanarkshire to Lanark County!
 

Understanding Aberrant Interpretation

My work in hermeneutics has always sought out explanations for interpretive divergence — in the first instance, for proximate disagreements among well-qualified readers who generally share their premises and conclusions, and in the second instance, between ‘mainstream’ and ‘off-beat’ interpretations. It’s easy enough, and rewarding enough, to come up with a theory of hermeneutical correctness. Everyone wants to be right, and most people want to have a theoretical apparatus that justifies coercion directed against those who aren’t right. Fewer people, though, want to understand why one would reach wrong interpretive conclusions in the first place.
 
For a while, I corresponded with Lee Perry, the author of Holy Grail: Cosmos of the Bible; he was a genial and patient correspondent, who understood that I declined to assent to his conclusions, while he did not ever waver in his own confidence that he had discovered the true meaning of the Bible (among other cultural phenomena). Perry, and other conspiracy theorists, national treasure hunters, Bible code-hunters, and sundry outsider interpreters, can be literate, erudite, ingenious, articulate, and 100% wrong. What hermeneutical reasoning can give an account of intelligent, well-intentioned people arriving at bizarrely wrong conclusions? The problem is doubled when you look at interpretive change from a historical perspective (as does Frank Kermode in ‘Can We Say Absolutely Anything We Like?’ in The Art of Telling/Essays on Fiction 1971-82); ideas that seem outlandish in one decade turn out to be tiresomely obvious in another.
 
In the course of exploring outsider biblical interpretation*, I’ve now come to pay particular attention to Hutchinsonianism, a peculiar intellectual affliction that beset the north of England and Scotland in response to the Enlightenment.† Hutchinson taught that the unpointed Old Testament text anticipated New Testament teachings, but that hostile Jews had introduced misleading vowel points into the Hebrew Bible. The doctrine of the Trinity was specifically set out there as well, and all manner of natural science (since all truth was revealed, Hutchinson was ardently anti-Newtonian). Hutchinson’s works influenced an interesting stratum of marginal English and Scottish clergy and educators (apparently including the founder of King’s College/Columbia University, Dr. Samuel Johnson), which is how they came to my attention.
 
OK, I have to get back to research — trust me, if I come up on any irresistible Hutchinsonian tidbits, I’ll share them here. The point, though, is that a hermeneutics that can’t give a plausible, respectful account of difference — even bizarre-to-the-point-of-hallucinatory difference (I’m looking at you too, Muggletonians) — fails in one of its most important tests. A hermeneutic of self-congratulatory correctness does little to advance mutual understanding, and much to aggravate interpretive conflict. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, our first desideratum in hermeneutics should be to clarify the basis on which reasonable, lucid, erudite minds may reach divergent conclusions,
 


 

* Anyone who has ever observed me turn purple and splutter over the terrible writing and utterly vacuous biblical interpretation of The da Vinci Code will understand that I undertake this research not out of any fondness for interpretive implausibility, but strictly out of an obligation to take outré interpretations seriously as part of my hermeneutics.

 
† I also may be supervising a thesis on Blake’s christology, and Blake may have been influenced by Hutchinsonianism — so there are two reasons.
 
** William Van Mildert, Bishop first of Llandaff and subsequently of Durham, after whom the disinguished chair in Divinity was named (once occupied by my Doctrine Committee colleague David Brown, now held by my Chicqago-area Episcopal colleague Mark McIntosh), appears to have been strongly influenced by Hutchinsonian theology.
 

Sunday Story

Once upon a time, my little ones, there was an energetic young scholar who saw a gap in the academic reference material, and sought to remedy that blank space. The gap marked the space between parsing guides, syntactical analyses, morphological lexicons, and so on (on one hand) and New Testament commentaries (on the other). The scattered reference guides might be useful on a word-by-word basis, but they didn’t tell how the bits hung together in forming a phrase. And in those days, most commentaries gave only superficial attention to straight-ahead lexicography (as opposed to glossing words), to text-critical work, to even-handed acknowledgement of the genuine ambiguity of verbal expressions.
 
So the young scholar in question organised a series of grammatical guides for the books of the New Testament. A university press agreed to run the series — a good business move, since there’s more stability to the text, the syntax, and the semantics of the New Testament than to the wind-blown and storm-tossed expositions that scholars build on the foundations of the Greek text, and there will always be students, ministers, and interested non-academic readers who don’t read Greek easily but who want better to understand the gospels and epistles. A good number of scholars set about preparing the first volumes in the series. Yay, happy scholar, happy authors!
 
But all was not rosy in the land of academic publishing. For reasons the young scholar — by this time, not really ‘young’ any more — never found out, the academic press in question faltered in its resoluation to publish the series. And they didn’t tell [young] scholar-editor-guy until the first manuscript was ready for publication. Ooops.
 
First author found another press for his commentary, rewrote it to suit the changed circumstances, and that worked out. Second author was alarmed that his manuscript was well along, and now he didn’t have a publisher, and the book wasn’t going to appear in a series. (Commentaries always do very much better in a series; some people like to buy an entire series at once, or as the volumes appear, or the reputation of the whole set enhances the standing of individual books.) Concerned author spoke to another academic press, where a newly-arrived editor thought the series was a swell idea. New editor took on publication of the second author’s book; he green-lighted a new series to go cover the text, syntax, and semantics of the New Testament, tapped a new series editor, and (because this editor knew about the initial idea) asked initial scholar-idea-guy if he wanted to prepare the volume for this new series that he would have done for the first series.
 
Meanwhile, first-scholar-idea-guy had pretty much given up on the whole idea. It was great to hear that the initiative hadn’t been lost, that the kind of series he had originally envisioned would be published (although there was a certain piquancy to the sweetness of that news). When the new publisher offered getting-older-scholar the crack at his favourite book of the NT, it felt great — but some lingering frustrations about how everything played out haunted his efforts. It felt weird to be working up the manuscript for another’s series.  
After a few years of just poking the manuscript to see whether it would have the good grace to die and leave everyone alone, the very patient publisher and series editor convinced older-scholar to see the book through to completion. It’s not much, a pretty short book about a pretty short epistle, but it survived eighteen years of liminality, serving first one editorial direction, then transforming itself into another; it turned itself inside out to change from improvised-Greek typefaces to Unicode. It learned new terminology. It stewed.
 
On Friday, older-scholar finally sent the manuscript to the series editor. There’s surely going to be a lot of revising, editing, probably some amplification at certain points — but it has left the nest, and older-scholar is free to start dreaming up projects over which the old project had been hovering darkly, like an asbestos blanket over sparks of energy and imagination. So much to think and do!