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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)

The Badness of the Good, the Goodness of the Bad

HoopoeMargaret and I have fallen into a number of conversations recently involving the problem of mixed personae: the status of benefactions from donors whose character has been subjected to question, the exquisite work of artists who perpetrate horrors, the useability of ideas proposed by morally compromised thinkers, and also the grim side of exemplars held up by the Church, or by culture, as heroes and saints. Just on a quick run, we came up with Cecil Rhodes, Woodrow Wilson, Eric Gill, Martin Heidegger, Mohandas Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., St Junípero Serra, John Howard Yoder — and that was just a moment’s effort.

Our interest concerns not so much the justification of particular accusations as the relation of the alleged behaviour to the reception of the hero/villain’s legacy (on one hand), and the rhetoric of accusation and defence that these allegations inspire. Though we know to expect that almost everyone has flaws as well as strengths, those whose strengths “we” particularly admire seem to elicit rationalisations and justifications; when those of whom “we” disapprove seem to have committed similar malfeasances, we show less forgiveness. When our hero has a tainted side, we insist that their ideas/art can be distinguished from their moral failings; when scandal attends an opponent, their teachings/works must be purged.

If everyone is a microcosmic mixed economy of vice and virtue, how should we go about dealing with extreme examples? Can we, in good conscience, appreciate the thought or art or music or literature or political action of someone we have reason to think was a persistent sinner? How do we answer those whose lives have been particularly affected (directly or indirectly) but the sorts of malfeasance that these figures practised, if those affected charge us with glorifying their oppressor? How should we frame a general account of the relation of conduct to ideological production?

Once we clear our writing agendas of current projects (“the resurrection of the body”, in one case, and further boring hermeneutical reflection on the other), we’d love to work on this together.

Eighty

Today’s my father’s birthday; he would be 80 today. This afternoon I bumped into a couple of ‘Net essays about parents and children and ageing and death, and only just now did I figure out why I was so teary and reflective.

A K M Adam and Donald G Adam

Dad taught English Lit (among other things) at Chatham College. He loved bringing students to England and showing them the places so many of his heroes, and theirs, walked and talked, drank coffee, drank wine and ale, and wrote. He was a great teacher.

This evening I’ll head out to the High Street to meet up with some students and former students at the Mitre. I know Dad had visited Oxford — I’m not sure whether it was a regular stop on his student tours — I know he’d been here because on one of his first trips, he brought back a yellow Oxford University t-shirt for me. I wore it through college, I wore it for years after, and it may well be in a storage bin in an upstairs closet right now. He wasn’t a perfect dad, and I was by no means an ideal son. I’m a teacher too, though I’ve come to terms with the fact (amplified by observing what an excellent teacher Margaret is) that I won’t ever be as good at it as he was. But I’ll have a pint, maybe more, and I’ll give thanks for him and his imparting to me his love of teaching and learning, and I’ll try not to embarrass my students by weeping at how he taught me to care about them, and how much I do.

Thanks, Dad.

Just To Remember

Sonnet 73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
   This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Turner Network

Our dear friend Gary Turner used to be famous online for his manic comic inventiveness, which he sometimes expressed in new-media stunts such as posting messages left on his phone-answering machine, colourful interviews, Blogtank organising, and photoshopped pictures of his cronies in various situations with television caption crawl incorporated into the picture. I was looking for one of these earlier, and I’m posting them all now so that they’ll be easier for me (and the internet) to find.

From “OK, No More Now, This Time I Mean It” (that is, it would be there if the Wayback Machine had saved the image file):

AKMA Nat Enq Preaching

From “I Got AKMA His Gig on Fox News” (note fountain pens in chest pocket:

akma_fox

And last of all, coverage of the notorious “Information Highwayman” incident:

AKMA_FELON

Those were the days….

Jamie Lawrence Mitchell

Last Friday night, a friend of mine from more than ten years ago died. Jamie had been undergoing a series of surgeries to treat his heart. He had begun the process with confidence and bluster that we would have expected of him, and came back after his first treatment with determination to resume life full speed ahead; but a second surgery was required, there were complications, and quite unexpectedly Jamie Mitchell of Goulburn, New South Wales, died as a result.

I knew Jamie as Dargarian, the mercurial, boisterous, impatient, utterly determined lead warrior — our “tank” — in the World of Warcraft guild that Joi Ito founded, of which I was an admin. Very often I was Darg’s healer; he would yell “BIG HEALS” into the guild’s shared audio channel when a monster was raining down damage on him, and on those occasions when I did not successfully keep up a stream of healing equal to the damage he sustained (sometimes through random mischance, sometimes through my own slowness, sometimes because Darg would keep moving forward and I’d lose sight of him) he would shout “Tank down!” and sometimes suggest that we start the attack over again as soon as his character died. “Tank down, it’s a wipe” he would say, and we would point out that thirty-nine of us remained who might possibly be able to finish a particular event without his participation. I loved healing Darg, even though he sometimes cursed me out for not doing a good enough job; that’s what we want in a tank, a sort of swash-buckling, irrepressible enthusiasm for the job he has to do, and though I healed many excellent tanks before and after Darg, none were as colourful, as manic, as mad for the struggle as he was.

Eventually the close-knit raiding group from our guild changed direction, changed characters, changed times and emphases. Darg — who, after all, was devoting his Australian midnight morning and daybreak mornings to our raids — took less part in both the group raiding and in the guild as a whole. He’d pop up now and then, we might run a lesser dungeon crawl with him, but the mad glory of the huge 40-member raids ebbed away.

We kept in touch through the Guild forums, through Facebook, and in the years after our guild conquered its first big raiding challenge, Jamie went on to marry and have a fine son; we’d see photos on Facebook and imagine Darg as a Dad. He must have mellowed over time, but not too much. I’ll invite Giselle to leave her own comments — but we know dozens of comrades-in-arms who will remember Dargarian, will remember Jamie, as an unstoppable force (for better or, sometimes, for worse) with a big heart, comrades who will miss hearing him explode into the guild audio channel, who have been sending him big heals, big heals, and who have been greatly saddened this past weekend to hear that the tank is down. For now, it’s a wipe.

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I’m Sorry, Cambridge

As I was going over the last round of edits to this morning’s sermon, I realised that the conclusion wanted a place name, a place name near to Oxford and recognisable as forming an improbable match for our fair city. I could have said “Blackbird Leys,” but Blackbird Leys attracts enough disrespect without my piling on. Jericho, Summertown, Banbury, Cowley, Iffley, none of them had the right ring to them. So I took an easy way out and chose “Cambridge,” even though it wasn’t what I wanted rhetorically. I apologise, but the sermon had to be finished one way or another.

What with the travel to and from Glasgow, my giving my Ephesians presentation twice yesterday, and preaching this morning, I’m knackered (and so is Margaret, who did most of the difficult stuff with me plus she has an ethics lecture to prepare for Tuesday). Glasgow touched my heart over the weekend: the city, our very sweet friends whom it was a joy to see again, teaching on behalf of Trinity College and the Scottish Episcopal Church, the pint of Chip 71 at the Ubiquitous Chip…. But it’s great to be back home in Oxford, and we will allow ourselves some time to relax this afternoon.

Sermon below:

Continue reading I’m Sorry, Cambridge

Friday’s Devotion

HoopoeLast Friday I led our weekly Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, so I prepared a devotion for the service. As it was St Ignatius of Antioch, I composed the devotion as a pastiche of passages (and some paraphrase) from Ignatius’s letters (attached below). I’m still getting the hang of this genre of writing, but this week’s did not take as much intense compositional frustration as past devotions (partly, I think, because I gave myself a framework by deciding to use Ignatius’s words).
Continue reading Friday’s Devotion

Rough Injustice

Several weeks ago, the Executive Board of General Theological Seminary fired eight members of the teaching staff, patently construing their legal work stoppage as “resignation.” Since then the leadership of the Episcopal Church has opted not to intervene (although GTS operates “under the superintendence and control of the General Convention”), and the full Board of Trustees yesterday evidently voted to affirm the dismissal of the eight staff who were exercising their right to seek redress of grievances.

Tom Ferguson of Bexley/Seabury has commented on this in extenso, and I agree with him whole-heartedly. I’d like to add my tuppence on several dimensions of the situation.

As Tom points out, there must be no mistaking what the General Executive Board and Trustees have done: they have publicly and unreservedly acted against the basics of labour law and (specifically) the definitions of academic governance, asserting their lordly prerogative to fire tenured members of the faculty without observing legal process. Even if they imagine they know loopholes through which they might be able to slime their way through this without juridical penalty, the explicit facts remain that the Trustees have taken the teachers’ statement that “We did not resign” and have responded “We accept your resignations.”

This fact alone should depress anyone who cares about labour justice, the Episcopal Church, truthfulness, the integrity of the General trustees, or anything other than investment opportunities in Manhattan real estate. Such as, for instance, the Gospel.

Several things follow from this naked, undisputed fact.

First, if I were a bishop or a Commission on Ministry, there is no way on earth I would let a prospective seminarian near General Seminary. At a moment when the Board most needs a full, active, enthusiastic enrolment, they have sent the message that theirs is a toxic environment in which those who hold power cannot be trusted. If their leadership takes “we do not resign” to mean “we resigned,” what student could trust them when they say “this is confidential” (already one of the background issues in the conflict) or even “this is a fact.”

Second, the Trustees of the seminary seem to have acted to kill the seminary with whose well-being they have been entrusted. Seminary education costs students and dioceses a lot of money; who would gamble such stakes on General’s future? What clear-sighted observer can disagree with Stanley Hauerwas when he says “in some ways what has happened is the death toll of General Seminary” (apart from Stanley’s use of “toll” when he probably wanted “knell”). I’ll bet that the space formerly occupied by General would make a swell headquarters for the Episcopal Church, though, enabling them to sell the skyscraper at 815 Second Avenue.

Third, the administrative style on display in this tragedy coheres with the way leaders in the Episcopal Church have operated with increasing frequency over the past few decades. Everything must reflect orderly “process” when it serves power’s interests, when the outcome is assured, but if “process” would allow the possibility that the wrong people might be allowed a persuasive voice or permitted to initiate a change of direction, then executive action is required! “The task of filling up the blanks I’d rather leave to you” — but the contorted use of terms such as “resign,” “renounce,” “abandon” and so on has become standard operating procedure, now more vividly displayed because the targets of such Humpty-Dumptian tactics are not isolated individuals without leverage, or ideologically unwelcome Others, but insiders who have been front-and-centre stars of the Episcopal Church’s self-representation as a haven for progressive, intellectual Christians.

Fourth, this manner of behaviour (it has been said before, but mostly by those outsiders and loners) partakes in no way of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the best one can do is hand-waving about “stewardship,” but it’s a pretty sad statement when the Board opts to exercise benevolent stewardship of the seminary by taking actions that evidently will lead to its demise. Everything Jesus taught militates against this manner of behaviour. The Board willingly, knowingly, went there.

Fifth, this course adopted by the flagship seminary of the Episcopal Church drags all its lofty principles and manifestos into the muck. If General were located in a romantically exotic “foreign” locale, the plight of its academic staff would be just the sort of cause the Episcopal Church would ordinarily take up with fervour; anyone can perceive the self-serving duplicity of supposedly pro-labour, anti-oppression gestures that the church’s privileged leadership might make hereafter. Solidarity with unjustly treated persons is all well and good, so long as privilege still holds its perks.

I’m a contributor to the GTS 8 fundraising support site; I just made my donation, later than I might have, but I wanted to wait until the initial rush was over and till the Board had met and acted. You might also want to offer a hand to people against whom the fickle scythe of passive coercion has turned, who have been turned out of their posts for daring to organise and strike, for presuming to question their executive (surely not their “leader”). If you’re an Episcopalian, you might bear in mind that General Convention is coming up.