Just For the Record

Back when Sam Tongue’s and my edited volume from Glasgow-associated biblical interpreters came out, I was browsing about for last-minute fact checks and so on. It occurred to me to check on my claim, initially made in 2005 at the Ekklesia Project annual Gathering, to a trademark/copyright/prior art for the portmanteau ‘Sacramerica’. At the time, Google reported no other sources; when I rewrote the essay, there other results were nugatory (or references to my Ekklesia talk, transcribed here and reported elsewhere).

On that fateful morning, though, I discovered that there was another iteration of Sacramerica forthcoming, and that it was virtually guaranteed to have a higher media profile than anything I have ever done or am likely to do. Italian novelist and film director Angelo Cannavacciuolo is planning a novel to bear the title Sacramerica, and apparently there are cinematic possibilities (as would seem obvious, since the novel concerns California). Dr Gregory Pell of the Italian Department in Hofstra University is preparing the English translation.

So with a bit of curiosity, a bit of gentle innovation-preservation, I wrote Dr Pell a couple of years ago to check in and say, ‘Oh, by the way…’. A pleasant academic exchange followed, and in short order Sig. Cannavacciulo himself wrote me (or, to be more precise, ‘his Anglophone wife wrote me’) to assure me that he thought up ‘Sacramerica’ independently (inspired by Sacramento, one of the locales of the novel). The book apparently still awaits publication, but when it reaches press I have been promised copies in Italian and English, with perhaps even a nod of acknowledgement on an obscure page that no one will read.

In the meantime, Avanti, Sacramerica! (The novel, that is, not the signifying practice of deified nationalism.)


There’s a snippet of text that bounces around the ’net at irregular intervals — it concerns the latest development in digital gadgetry, called ‘Built-In Orderly Organised Knowledge’ (B.O.O.K.). Nowadays it strikes me as a bit precious and predictable, but here’s the thing: I remember having read it (or something very like it) in the late 60s, at which point I thought it was exceedingly clever.

I thought I remembered that it was written by Stephen Leacock, partly because I was on a big Leacock kick in those years, fuelled by my father (who was a connoisseur of astringent humour in essays). So to satisfy my bibliographic obsession, I began googling searching the Web for “built-in orderly organized knowledge” and “leacock”, but came up with no results. I then searched for Leacock with various parts of the title phrase, likewise to no avail. At length I decided that the most important aspect of my search was the date of my first encounter with the phrase, jettisoned my Leacock search terms, poked around a bit, and discovered what must be the ur-source of the meme.

The document I found is ‘The Education of the Gifted Child: An Annotated Bibliography’ by Maurice G.Verbeke and Karen A. Verbeke (you can try to order a bound copy from Amazon, though it’s currently not available) — but that’s not where the B.O.O.K. originated. Rather, the Verbekes list the publication in 1965 (the chronological sweet spot for my having had access to it) of an article by R. J. Heathorn, entitled ‘New Teaching Machine — Great for the Gifted,’ in Gifted Children Newsletter 8:23-24, September 1965. And the annotation that the Verbekes so providently supply reads ‘Article describing the new teaching machine called BOOK (Built-in Orderly Organised Knowledge). It is quite adaptable and covers a lengthy program of information.’ It has been reprinted several times, and you can read it here. It differs from the more recent meme, but the later version has evidently been rewritten (to suit actual technological developments) on the basis of Heathorn’s.

But wait! It turns out that, on further searching, the Gifted Children Newsletter has lifted Heathorn’s essay from his column in the April 1963 edition of Harper’s — here entitled ‘The Ultimate Teaching Machine.’ I don’t have access to Harper’s, so I can’t check, but the title and the illustration (visible in the thumbnail provided) match the essay.

But that’s not all! Apparently Harper’s got Heathorn’s essay from Punch (May 9, 1962) (thank you, Brian!)

So, several lessons learned. One, I can afford to trust my memories in general, if not in particular. The essay I remembered was more subtle and clever than the internet-ified version that now dominates the Web, and it was indeed written by a professional humorist (though not Stephen Leacock himself). Two, don’t stop searching at the first positive result; add elements from that first result to the search and find more, deeper, older results. And three… I have forgotten the third thing, but it was good, trust me.

I’m All Right, Jacques

Since everyone knows that ‘postmodernism’ means ‘anything goes, nothing is true, everything is permitted’, the latest outbreak of unmitigated flagrant prevarication from the new inhabitant of the White House has engendered an unseasonable tsunami of the threadbare ‘see what happens when postmodernists blah blah blah’ fustian and twaddle. I thought — having lived through it once in the 80s and 90s, when Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s evasiveness and lies were blamed on the likes of Derrida and Foucault — this canard of popular rhetoric had flown north for good. Honestly, can you imagine W. sitting in a classroom at Yale reading Of Grammatology and saying, ‘I understand this well enough to put it into practice by claiming that there actually are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq’? Honestly?

Of course, the ironic advantage of the ‘blame it on the French’ trope is that it plays on exactly the ignorance and the suspicion of complicated ideas that fund the post-truth propaganda brigade. And the denunciations of Parisian intellectuals come, to a large extent, from the same constituencies who support the political fraudmongers.

Let’s take a slow, deep breath and recollect a few things (we won’t call them ‘facts’, lest someone have a seizure).

    • Politicians did not invent ‘lying’ only after reading Discipline and Punish. Emperors, tyrants, kings, presidents, premiers, prime ministers, duchi, and Führer have propagated bald-faced lies pretty much as long as there have been political leaders.

    • Has anyone read Machiavelli lately? Or the Bible?

    • Perhaps somebody is confused and thinks that French theorists developed a complicated positive rationale for lying. Not much to say about this except ‘if you care so much about truthfulness, I strongly recommend that you read some of the relevant sources carefully and base your ciritcism on, you know, something they wrote rather than your general impression of rilly compluhcated stuff’.

    • To the specific point: are there ‘facts’ any more? Sure there are. Sorry to pop your ballon. But ‘facts’ may be more complicated than you want them to be — even the most obvious, most basic, most fact-y facts. Many matters one or another of us wants to call a ‘fact’ has been questioned by thoughtful, intelligent people on the other side of whatever aisle. Simply calling it a fact doesn’t advance an argument, nor does insisting in a loud voice that it really is a fact. Calling something a ‘fact’ works only if one’s interlocutor agrees, in which case it’s trivial.
    If we disagree about whether X or Y is a fact, we may just shout at one another and call each other names. Or, more productively, we can specify the reasons we regard X as a fact. We can cite the studies on the basis of which 97% climate scientists assert that the earth’s temperature is rising to dangerous levels, and our interlocutor can say… whatever it is people say when 97% of scientists think they’re wrong.

    • What if, instead of getting our undergarments knotted, when we want to talk about ‘facts’ we were to talk about ‘evidence’ instead? We know from the start that ‘evidence’ is a contested category (ask Johnnie Cochrane and Marcia Clark); but we can argue about evidence, about what it is and what it isn’t, about which evidence outweighs what). Talking about evidence leads us into arguments, the good kind, the kind where we exchange ideas and interpretations, the kind that can clarify the premises we are starting from, the warrants on which we’re relying, the pros and cons of the various interpretations of things on which we agree.

Philip K. Dick famously defined reality as that which, when you don’t believe in it, doesn’t go away. That should do well enough for ‘facts’ as well; if you don’t step off a ten-floor building expecting to waft gently to the ground, we can safely treat gravitational attraction as a fact (even though gravitational attraction is a lot more complicated than we learned in secondary-school physics — if I wanted to, I could write a little piece about ‘there’s no such thing as gravity’, but I don’t have the energy and someone might think I actually was arguing that there’s no such thing as gravity).

Does that mean everything is only someone’s perspective on facts (no ‘facts’ as such)? Maybe, if you’re in an actual argument about whether something counts as a fact. But no, not if you and your interlocutor both stay on the safe side of tenth-floor roofs, both eat apples but not arsenic, both wash with (mildly alkaline) soap rather than battery acid.

Getting back to the number of people at the US presidential inauguration on Friday, let’s set aside the terminology of facts for a moment. We can talk about evidence that the National Mall was more crowded Saturday than Friday: photographs, use of the public transit system, eyewitness accounts. If we agree that some of these count as evidence, we can weigh and compare the bits of evidence to see whether we can come up with agreed ‘facts’. But if, hypothetically, you refuse to acknowledge anything I introduce as evidence — my photos are faked, even if they come directly from the federal government itself, my transit statistics reflect a big, huge sale on waterbeds at a local department store and not the Women’s March, the eyewitnesses are all liars — then the language of reality or factuality doesn’t do any work any more. But that’s nothing whatsoever to do with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak or Jean-François Lyotard.

Let’s ask ‘evidence’ to do some of the heavy discursive lifting. And let’s start by asking what evidence there is that French theory is in any way more implicated in contemporary political codswallop than is the time-dishonoured tradition of lies and the lying liars who tell them. Show me a single reason to think that there’s more of a connection between Bill Clinton and Baudrillard than between Clinton and the dozens of other elected officials who have lied about having affairs. Show me a trace of evidence that Deleuze and Guattari influenced the Bush and Blair administrations’ determination to sex up reports on the missile capabilities of Saddam Hussein’s government. Show me a single reason to think that the world was more inclined to truthfulness in the days of Richard Nixon, or John Profumo, or Joe McCarthy, and that French theory can be implicated in that decline from honesty.

I can wait.

* Note: I am not a French person, or a fully-credentialled philosopher, and although people who know about me in a general way often associate me with ‘postmodernism’ I have no stake in being regarded as ‘a postmodernist’ nor even in composing an apologetic for a thing you might call ‘postmodernism’. I care about careful reading and thinking, and I have been positively impressed by many writings that casual observers lump together under the artificial category heading of postmodernism, but my interest and allegiance depends solely on the extent to which so-called postmodern ideas help me explain philosophical and theological puzzles I encounter.

The Revd Richard A. “Dick” Bamforth, Pastor and Teacher 1930-2017

The Rev. Richard Anderson Bamforth, 86, of 17 Brooklawn Avenue, Augusta, died peacefully, at home, on January 6, 2017.

Born in Lynn, Massachusetts, January 7, 1930, the son of Captain Charles N. Bamforth and Dorothy Anderson Allan, Dick Bamforth grew up in Swampscott where he completed high school in 1947. He majored in French and Classics at Bowdoin College and graduated in 1951. After further study at Middlebury College he taught French, Latin, and Social Studies at Cony High School for one year before enlisting in the U. S. Army during the Korean War. In the Army Security Agency he studied the Russian language in Monterey, California and spent the rest of his tour of duty in communications reconnaissance on the border between the American and Soviet Zones of divided Germany.
Inspired by a German Lutheran pastor who reached out to American GIs, Bamforth shifted his direction and, upon release from the Army, entered Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. He graduated with the degree of Master of Divinity in 1958 and was ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. He served in two Missouri parishes: Grace Church, Kirkwood, and Holy Cross Church, Poplar Bluff. In 1959, he married Patricia Anne Pennington of Kirkwood. Their two daughters were born in Poplar Bluff.
In 1966 Bamforth was called as Rector of St. Mary’s Church, Rockport, Massachusetts where he served until 1992. Forever a student of language and literature, he took many evening courses at Harvard and, in 1982, earned an additional master’s degree from Boston University in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages. While ministering in Rockport, he tutored numerous refugees and foreign students in English and taught courses in Russian language and culture in the continuing education program of North Shore Community College.
Bamforth retired from full-time parish ministry in 1992 and moved with his wife, Pat, to Augusta. For nine years he was a regular substitute teacher at Cony High School, served as Interim Rector of St. Mark’s Church, Augusta, from 1993 to 1994, and was for 20 years a frequent supply priest in many Maine parishes. More recently he served as Assisting Priest at St. Mark’s. His book reviews and articles have appeared in several church periodicals and, with his brother, he co-edited the autobiographical journals of their sea-going father, Iron Jaw, A Skipper Tells His Story, published in 2002.

An avid gardener and photographer, Bamforth enjoyed his kayak and canoe at “Someplace Else,” his summer camp on Damariscotta Lake. Dick and Pat enjoyed traveling in Great Britain, where he sought out English and Scottish relatives, and in Russia, where he twice visited seminaries of the Orthodox Church. A spiritual director and small group Bible Study leader, he also did tutoring in the Russian language. In recent years, he taught a variety of courses in the UMA Senior College, focusing on literature, art, history, and religion.
In Maine, he served on several diocesan committees and was a member of both Veterans for Peace and the Episcopal Peace Fellowship.
Bamforth delighted in the nicknames others gave him. His grandchildren call him “Pa Moose,” high schoolers called him “Abe Lincoln” or “Colonel Sanders,” and parishioners often called him “Father Bam-Bam.” In addition to the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer he considered both Celtic and Russian Orthodox spirituality, together with the classical Anglican theologians, to be great resources for his faith and life.
Bamforth is survived by his wife, Patricia of Augusta; daughter Jeanne Bamforth of Topsham; daughter Margaret and her husband Andrew K. M. Adam of Oxford, England; three grandchildren: Nathaniel Adam and his wife Laura of New Haven, CT, Josiah Harris-Adam and his wife Laura of Watertown, MA, and Philippa Adam of Bristol, ME; sister-in-law Janice Bamforth of Belmont, VT; niece Judith Jervis of Danville, N.H.; and nephew Charles H. Bamforth of Kingston, N.H.
A memorial Eucharist was celebrated at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 9 Summer Street, Augusta on Saturday, Jan. 14, at 1:30pm, followed by a public reception. Interment of ashes will follow at a later date in Forest Grove Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions are invited for St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 209 Eastern Ave., Augusta, ME 04330.
Arrangements are by Plummer Funeral Home, Augusta.

Richard Bamforth Obituary from the Poplar Bluff Daily American Republic

What Does It Mean To Be “As Objective As Possible”?

HoopoeIt’s become commonplace for biblical critics to concede readily that no one is truly objective — “but” (they say) “we must strive to be as objective as we can.” In the shower this morning I was wondering what this means. On one hand, if objectivity is impossible, striving for it amounts to an empty gesture. I may strive for universal acclaim, but I know that haters gonn’ hate, and “being applauded by a great many people” differs in significant ways from “universal acclaim.” How could one more precisely get at what people hope for when they say “we must strive to be as objective as we can”?

One may begin with the obvious: we mean that interpreters should aim at impartiality*, at not allowing commitments more remote to the interpretive question at hand to outweigh considerations more immediate to the question. (I prescind from saying “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” to avoid complicating one problem with another.) When an advocate of penal substitution says “This particular passage clearly draws on Christus Victor motifs,” I’m more inclined to believe her than if she says “This appears to promote a Christus Victor perspective on atonement, but really if you look at it correctly, it too requires a penal-substitution interpretation.” When somebody allows that this or that bit of evidence tells against their own interests, I’m more inclined to trust them than when they insist that all the evidence points their way. So, the discernment of the weight of considerations (“impartiality”) should matter greatly to interpreters. Is that most of what the common usage of “objective” gets at, or should I add further considerations?

[Later:] OK, “humility” should also matter. Interpretations demonstrate humility by acknowledging the good reasons that people have for arriving at divergent conclusions, and by avoiding the presumption that today’s best reading will endure forever as the definitive account of a particular text. I can trust an interpreter more if she has the sense of history and of human limitations that equips her to propose and advocate an interpretation on specified grounds, without explicitly or implicitly advancing the claim that now, the puzzle has been solved and we can hereafter move on to different issues.** Contrariwise, a responsible interpreter ought to be able to address a problem without disrespect to predecessors, without implying a claim on transcendent eternal correctness, without a tacit affirmation that one’s native culture has attained the only intellectual pinnacles worth ascending.

* “Impartiality” seems to share the characteristic of unattainability with “objectivity.” I doubt that I can make a case that there’s a fundamental difference, so I’ll reluctantly move away from using “impartiality.” If I did want to stick with “impartiality,” I might differentiate it from “objectivity” by according impartiality more of a practical significance: I may not be objective about the Baltimore Orioles, but if I were to serve as umpire for a baseball game I could impartially refuse to allow my lifelong support for the O’s (the first-place O’s) to affect my ball-and-strike calls. But some would probably dispute that usage and distinction, so I can opt out of using the terms.

** Except that everything I write about hermeneutics applies across all disciplines, forever, and resolves all problems in the field. I am deeply embarrassed (both intellectually and spiritually) by my failure of humility.

Good Friday 2016

HoopoeLast time, I said I’d begin posting sermons from the past few years. I had expected to fulfil that promise gradually over the course of my weeks of study leave, but Tasha asked to see Friday’s sermon here, so I’ll put it up as soon as I finish typing these notes. I worked on getting the best balance between the horrible risk of perpetuating and underscoring anti-Jewish presuppositions (on one hand) and accepting the catholic tradition that sees continuity between the sacrifices of Israel and the sacrifice of Jesus (continued in the Mass). Likewise, the text from Hebrews wants very much to relegate Israel’s covenant to obsolescence (even as Hebrews insists that neither Israel nor those who enter the heavenly sanctuary through Jesus is to be complete without the other). As a result, I aimed at associating and juxtaposing the two scenes without prejudice to either.
Continue reading Good Friday 2016

Not Dead Yet

HoopoeI had a small breakthrough in my thinking about my hermeneutical project yesterday morning before church, perhaps the most frustrating time for such an insight, since I absolutely had to be present at the beginning of the Blessings of Palms before the procession and Palm Sunday liturgy. I managed to scribble down what I think were the key notions, and — as my study leave begins sometime in the near future — I’ve made a plan to renew my blogging about “meaning”, along with posting some of the backlog of sermons and devotions I had left unposted.

One of the ideas that’s been rattling around my mind for ages has involved my not having a catchy label for what I’m about. That is in part a matter of stubborn vanity: I don’t want my ideas to gain a toehold (or a casual rejection) based mostly on the adjective appended to “hermeneutics” in a convenient tag. If you’re going to agree or disagree with me, I want you to have thought through my premises, not just ridiculed/embraced a fad. That’s almost pure vanity, of course; the world has lots to do, and keeping up with my random thoughts is not necessarily one of them. It’s my job to earn attention, not just stomp my tiny foot and demand it.

But I resist a label for other reasons as well. Whenever I think of a possible label, in the same moment I conceive a reason for that not being an apt characterisation of my project. “X Hermeneutics” — but it’s not really X, since people generally understand X to refer to this set of premises and activities that I’m calling into question. “Y Hermeneutics,” but Y isn’t a positive value for me, just an adventitious outcome. If someone suggested “Neti neti hermeneutics,” I’d have to concede that that might be the best alternative.

But as I think through the topics about which I want to write [eventually, if God permits me time], I realise that one way to wrangle the problem would take the shape of an essay/chapter that simply catalogues all the vaguely applicable alternatives I can imagine, and explaining their negations. So that’s now on my list (along with about fifty other things I need to write. Mercy, I hope I live long enough to write at least most of them.)

I realise after writing that last paragraph that I should note that the title of this post was meant to refer to the blog, not to me — but both senses do fit.

Accounting for Drumpf

HoopoeThere’s been some online bafflement about how evangelical (or other) Christians can possibly support Drumpf. George Lakoff contributed an essay that uses his now-familiar cognitive linguistic model (widely publicised in his Don’t Think of an Elephant) to spotlight Drumpf’s self-representation as a Strict Father and his concomitant appeal several strands of Republicans and conservative Democrats and independents. True enough, I guess, but there may be another angle, about which I left a comment on Mitch Ratcliffe’s FB page. The clue might be the parallel between (and I can’t believe I’m about to say this) Drumpf and Jesus — as modern Christians often read the Gospels.

The hero of the story confounds his detractors who are hostile, alien, oppressive, self-righteous, elite, from the political establishment, threatened by his candour and popularity. When confronted, he insults them and outwits them, so that they dare not ask him any more questions and people are amazed at his authority. They marshal all their resources in a conspiracy against him, and despite their evil plans, he rises triumphant at the end.

Right away, a careful reader will spot vast discrepancies between Drumpf and Jesus even within this narrative frame, but that doesn’t matter — as long as it feels right to a certain constituency of Drumpf voters. Drumpf has mastered the practice of agonic self-definition — building himself up by belittling others in such a way that they can’t, or won’t, respond effectively in kind; that’s very similar to Jesus’ role in the controversies with his antagonists. Oh, and I could add that both had powerful fathers who set them up with advantageous inheritances, but that’s stretching an already laboured comparison.

I’m last in line to offer advice on political strategy (when was the last time I was elected to anything? I don’t remember, and I’m the one who would have known), but to the extent that I’m on to something, this Drumpf-Jesus resonance will blunt the value of accusations of womanising (“he associates with prostitutes”), direct attacks (supporters will have faith that in the end, he will be victorious), anything that looks like a ganging up on an isolated hero. If I were running against Drumpf, I would avoid any negative characterisation of him at all (there’s no benefit there, there’ll be plenty floating around) and aim for sympathy, suggesting that he needs gentle treatment; facts asserted as a matter of record rather than an assault (“it’s not fair to introduce his failed business ventures as evidence, because he can always just print more money if he wins the election”); and keeping him associated with the very tiny group whose actual interests he represents (“He brought so many casino jobs to Atlantic City, offering part-time employment to hundreds of desperate citizens and giving gamblers a chance at winning big”). But that’s just me.

Short Bit from Sensuous Hermeneutics

A little more than a year ago, I gave a talk at Oxford fortnightly seminar on The Bible in Art, Music, and Literature (hosted by the Centre for Reception History of the Bible). Once upon a time, I’d have posted the transcript of the talk here right away, but no longer being a diligent blogger, I left that in abeyance. It would be handy, though, for the blog to link to the paper — so here is a link to the paper at academia.edu which should last for a while, together with a taster paragraph to convey part of what I was getting at in the discussion (sadly, probably much less convincing without the accompanying visual presentation):

No one signifying practice controls a uniquely privileged methodological or ethical key to interpretive legitimacy; within each interpretive practice, indigenous conventions will raise up some interpretations as sounder and more compelling, and will discountenance others as uninteresting, poorly-executed, unsound. In order to have made sense of everything we have experienced in all our lives, we must have had viable conventions and criteria by which we venture and assess interpretations. The same capacities will serve us well as we undertake interpretations of the Bible; though we may falter at first, and err more often than we would like, we will in short order be able to acclimatise ourselves to interpretations authorised on the strength of characteristics that do not depend primarily on their deference to an unreachable “correct” meaning.

Re: John’s Femininity

He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man;
and he that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him.
Much Ado About Nothing, (II.i.28–32)

Ever since The Book That Shall Not Be Named sold a couple billion copies, people have been conditioned to point out that John the Apostle looks effeminate in paintings. “Oooooh, maybe it’s really Mary Magdalene!” I used to have a collection of paintings that unambiguously depicted John, and his appearance definitely has softer features, often silkier hair, he is beardless, and so on. John was, in other words, painted as a youth, not as a woman — as Shakespeare conveniently illustrates. (Posting this here because I often forget the exact wording of the quotation)