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 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.


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.


If you try to understand hermeneutics in order to control interpretations, you will neither control interpretations nor understand hermeneutics.

If all you want to do is to understand interpretations, your hermeneutics can reach deep and explain much. Your hermeneutics won’t help you control interpretations — but you’ve forgone that anyway.

O Felix Serpens

Daniel posted his Mountain Goats talk, so I’ll join in with mine (as distinct from the longer article on tMG from several years ago):

O Felix Serpens
Genesis 3 in Recent Songs of John Darnielle

A K M Adam
St Stephen’s House
Oxford University

Whereas in many popular interpretations, the Bible figures as an oracular repository of sacred law, or as a textbook of science and metaphysics, or a sourcebook for general spirituality, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats has developed a repertoire of songs that draw on the Bible as an utterly human expression of how the world is (and will be), even in the face of appearances that suggest otherwise. In so doing, the Mountain Goats make the moral and theological ambivalence of the Bible audible again without resolving that ambivalence into cloying pieties, defiant blasphemies, or historical criticism.
Darnielle frequently invokes the crisis of Genesis 3 — without, however, focusing on “man’s first disobedience.” Instead of telling tales about temptation and fruit, Darnielle parses the effects of the primordial transgression: exile, alienation, labour. The serpent in particular draws his attention. In the lyrics of “Cobra Tattoo,” “How To Embrace A Swamp Creature,” and “Supergenesis,” Darnielle draws out ways in which the snake of Genesis 3 not only shares the curse that falls on humanity, but shares, and expresses, some aspects of humanity as well.

The earliest of the songs, “Cobra Tattoo,” narrates at the same time three interactions — perhaps more. In one setting, the song follows a scene of courtship and flirtation between two human contemporaries, a singer and a tattooed woman. At the same time, a figurative reading may regard both characters as snakes; the singer self-identifies with the serpent of Genesis 3 (“You will bruise my head, I will strike your heel”), and the girl bears the totemic tattoo identifying her with the cobra. Or one may finally see the scene as an interaction between the Genesis serpent and Eve (marked by the serpent’s prior seduction). On this last reading, the snake imagines wooing the marked woman from a position of celestial authority — Darnielle cites from the Daystar/Lucifer passage from Isaiah 14 in the second verse — “Higher than the stars / I will set my throne” — but then adds to it John the Baptist’s warning to the crowds, “God does not need Abraham / God can raise children from stones.” The serpent of “Cobra Tattoo” patiently awaits the time when he will be transformed from his reptilian condition to the dominion to which he aspires; he urges the girl to “dream at night,” in which dreams he may communicate with her (“Try to let these garbled transmissions come through”).

On a more recent album, Darnielle returns to the serpent’s longing for transformation with the song, “How to Embrace a Swamp Creature.” As in the earlier song, the most prominent aspect of “Swamp Creature” concerns two ordinary humans (in this case they’re ex-lovers who meet one another and embrace in a perhaps-spontaneous encounter after they’ve broken up). Here the refrain makes explicitly impossible what “Cobra Tattoo” leaves undefined — that the two lovers, or would-be lovers, belong to two different species (“I’m out of my element / I can’t breathe”), as in comics and films that portray male aquatic monsters who lust after, and ultimately kill, human women. Thus the resonance with the third possible dimension of “Cobra Tattoo” — the singer again identifying himself with the reptile aspiring to a relationship with a human woman — comes to the fore. Although in the first half of the first verse he knows himself accursed with serpenthood, the second half reflects the perspective of the human visitor who stands in a doorway with his arms at his side. In this song, then, Darnielle invokes the myth of the Swamp Creature to characterise the situation of an ex-boyfriend, neither stranger nor lover, simultaneously human and reptilian. As in “Cobra Tattoo,” the singer is ultimately barred from the connection he longs for; Cobra Tattoo’s invocation of Isaiah 14 foregrounds the snake’s aspiration to be a star, but neglects Jehovah’s implacable determination to stymie any such transformation; in Swamp Creature, the way back into the Eden of the lost relationship is barred by the flashing swords of the cherubim. Although they may for one night fulfill God’s command that they be fruitful and multiply (“but not in those words,” as Woody Allen said), no more good can come of this liaison than did women’s unwilling encounters with the Swamp Creature. He’s out of his element, he can’t breathe; he panics and flees.

The transfigured serpent reappears in “Supergenesis,” although in this song Darnielle sticks solely to the snake’s longing to regain use of his lost limbs, so as to mount an attack against the forces that hobbled him. He “tries] to hoist myself up right / Again, try again,” because “someday, someday the call will sound / We all, we all are gonna get up from the ground.” (Darnielle also refers to Genesis 3 in the most recent Mountain Goats album, The Life of the World to Come, but this song (“Genesis 3:23”) concentrates solely on the expulsion of the human occupants from Eden: “See how the people here live now / Hope they’re better at it than I was / I used to live here….”)

Though the serpent in these songs looks forward to a rebellion, indulges in ill-planned sex, and imagines a battle for revenge, none of the songs vilifies him for these actions as do traditional interpretations that ascribe to him diabolical evil. But neither does Darnielle present the snake as the wronged victim of an unjust judge; “in the twinkling of an eye, my sentence gets passed” (“Supergenesis”), but the snake doesn’t protest that he was innocent. Darnielle describes how it might be to be the serpent, perhaps eliciting sympathy, but mainly opening up a rich imaginative connection to serpentine existence (and specifically to the existence of a Genesis serpent). In contrast to biblical scholars’, and most popular interpreters’, determination to prove a point for or against God, Darnielle doesn’t damn or praise his subject. He listens for the serpent’s voice, and finds the serpent in very human predicaments.
In so doing, Darnielle defies the binary mania of the recording industry by refusing both the controlling embraces of categorically Christian music (on one hand) and the defiantly secular (and in many cases “anti-ecclesiastical”) mainstream rock marketplace. The Mountain Goats’ presentation of biblical tropes is generally sympathetic, even when it’s contrarian; the frustrations and challenges that characterise The Life of the World to Come remain as steadfastly within the ambit of the biblical world as do the Psalms and Lamentations. Nonetheless, Darnielle’s qualified fascination falls far short of the norms expected of official, Gospel Music Association-certified Christian rock (even more so when one considers the catalogue of Mountain Goats’ songs with Vedic and Meso-American religious themes). The Mountain Goats sing of a more ambivalent sort of faith — steadfast and wounded, sin-soaked but hopeful — and instantiate it as a standpoint their audience may recognise, and may identify with.
They also exemplify a way of reading the Bible that doesn’t comport well with the sorts of distinctions that conventionally inhabit the interpretive discourse of professional biblical criticism. One would seek in vain for Darnielle’s lyrics to suggest that a historical reading of a particular verse legitimates his exposition. Neither, of course, does he back up his interpretive approach from creedal or magisterial authority. The standing of the Bible relative to Darnielle’s compositions derives from the extent to which he and his audience sense that he is telling the truth about the world in his (biblical) idiom.
As we theological professionals range from smoky concert venues and solitary mp3 players to the fluorescent lights of seminar rooms, lecture halls, and conference panels where we propound our own interpretations, we do well to bear in mind the limitations that arise from excluding middle terms. The texts we study provide ample grounds for complementary and contradictory readings, historical and theological, social-scientific and liberatory-political. Our best, most enduring interpretations derive their power to convince not from overheated claims about bias, ideological correctness, or methodological legitimacy, but from reading carefully and well, and from attending well to the myriad ways of heartbreak and hope in this world, for men, women, and serpents.

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:


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


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.



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