Can’t Look Away

From Steve Himmer’s blog:

Jacques Tati traversing a block of flats

Because I love Jacques Tati, and my Dad loved Jacques Tati, and when my family watched Mr Hulot’s Holiday, Pippa shouted out “Dog!” every time she spotted a canine in the scene.

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Passivity and Pædagogy

HoopoeIf you have encountered me in a pædagogical situation, you have probably heard me moan about the general quality of student writing. If you are a student about whose writing I have moaned, you have probably heard (or “read”) me complain about passive constructions.

Now, I must at this point note that the linguists over at Language Log have a lot to say about the passive voice and passive constructions. In their on-going struggle against Prescriptivism, and especially against its woebegone cousin Uninformed Prescriptivism, they inveigh against the advice always to avoid the passive voice (OK, “to always avoid,” since they inveigh against avoiding split infinitives, too). They point out first that passive constructions serve entirely respectable syntactic purposes, and they’ve been an integral part of expressive English composition for as long as we’ve had expressive English composition. They are correct. Second, they point out — often with considerable glee — that most people who denounce the passive voice in print are themselves quite confused, if not ignorant, about what constitutes a passive construction. Language Log is correct about that, also.

I do know what the passive voice is. I agree that good writers use the passive voice often, to positive effect. I do not spend much time dealing with elegant stylists, though; more of my marking time involves people who could write better essays with a few clues and a little more effort. I offer them some clues, in relatively simple versions, one of which urges them to avoid using the passive voice and passive constructions as a default mode of composition — but I do not say “Never use the passive voice.” (If I did, I would illustrate my mandate with a proper example, but since I don’t, there’s no need.)

Catherine Fox’s recent Lent Talk for the BBC cites Microsoft Word]s annoying “grammar check” function as an example of indiscriminate animus against the passive as the lead-in to her reflections about Christ and power. The column rightly reflects the rhetorical importance of writing deliberately; Fox contrasts the MS Word anti-passive function with the words of the Creed, “He was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate.” The Conciliar Fathers set these phrases in the passive voice (presumably) because Jesus ought to be the subject of the sentence, the most prominent syntactical figure; and the phrases are set in the passive, precisely because Jesus is not the active agent in these events. That, and the Creed is written in Greek, which introduces different colourations of voice anyway. But the broad point remains: the passive voice isn’t bad in itself — the Creed uses the passive properly and effectively — but it is very often used badly by poor writers. The target of our clean-up efforts should be those weak, confusing, vague, colourless uses of the passive.

So by all means use passive constructions, where they work well for the rhetorical effects you have in mind. And avoid passive constructions when you aren’t sure why you’re using the passive rather than an active alternative. (Even then I said “avoid,” since sometimes the passive will be preferable even when you can’t articulate a reason. But usually not.) When it comes to passives, as Jesus says in a famous textual variant to Luke 6:4, “Man, if thou knowest what thou doest, blessed art thou; but if thou knowest not, thou art accursed and a transgressor of the law.”

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The Colour of Progress

There is no question regarding the relation to our front room and Carolina Blue:

Mimosa paint, front room


If I remember correctly, the front room (and the upstairs guest room, currently being finished — the bookcases got in the way) are coloured “Mimosa”; the top floor room is “Bluebird,” as the dining room is; and a couple of rooms will be “Champagne.” At least one of those colours looks more yellow than they seem in the samples, but there are many variables involved, from the ambient light to colour matching in digital applications. All is fine.

The front room had its first encounter with Mark the House Painter today; the kitchen is preparing for a skirmish. The guest bedroom is nearly done, and the smaller WC and the hall and stairwell are set to go. The master bedroom and the wee room in which I hang my clothes are thus far untouched.

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The Revd Prof. Rowan A. Greer

Sometimes it’s handy to gather up obits and memories in one place — and since I’ve seen less attention to Rowan than I’d have thought fitting for a man who had devoted so long and distinguished a life of service to his students, his colleagues, and his church, I wanted to make sure that the Web reserved a little corner for somebody I remember very fondly, very respectfully.

I didn’t know Rowan as well as a good many other people did; I was not a star student in Patristics, nor was I on the staff at Christ Church very long. When he invited Margaret and me home to dinner one night, I’m sure it was more because he appreciated Margaret’s work for Berkeley Divinity School than for my (unremarkable) essays in Church History I or the Anglican Ethos class. I must say, though, that he helped my academic writing considerably; he helped me understand that it was my job as a writer to make myself clear to my reader, rather than his job as my examiner to put the best construction on the overly vague points I was trying to make. He helped me take life at Christ Church less seriously, which was good for my sanity and for my relationship with Fr Miner. Margaret and I did attend the Daily Office and Eucharist regularly during our time at Berkeley, so we were accustomed to seeing him sitting in the back corner, reading along in Syriac to the New Testament lessons. In the sacristy, he would recount droll stories of Christ Church’s history. Over coffee, he would fill in blanks in my understanding of the New Testament, or early Church history, or the Church of England. And wherever there was Rowan, there was also his companion MacGregor (we also knew Rowan as custodian of another Golden, Papageno, whose regular guardians left him with Rowan for a long stint), and his pipe.

Part of formation in training for ministry involves observing the priests whom you admire and those you do not, and piecing together a clerical identity by assimilating, differentiating, and synthesising the bits of of the people you see into a liveable sense of what it means to serve God and God’s people through the Church. While I can’t imagine that anyone who knows me as a priest thinks of Rowan, I have to say that he was in many regards a model for me — even more, now that as I have occasion to look back at those days, than I’d have thought at the time.

Yale Divinity School posted an obituary, and of course the Register did as well. His colleagues are quoted there saying true things about Rowan’s stature in his fields, and his importance to generations of students, but Steve Cook’s more personal recollection rings truer to me. Perhaps this is simply my own recollection, but I have the sense that modern academia did not accord to him the fullest measure of recognition for all that he did. I thought that I remembered that his book Broken Lights and Mended Lives won an award, but the web conceals from me the name of that award; maybe the prize-winning book was Fear of Freedom, but I don’t see anything listed for that, either. At the same time, I never knew Rowan to court acclaim, so perhaps this is more appropriate to Rowan. Whatever the case — I wish the theological academy had more scholars like him.

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Rest of Day

I resolved to take today easy, even though Mark the housepainter was arriving at 8:00. I slept till 6:30 or so (my usual, I rarely sleep past 6:30 or 7:00), went for a morning cup of coffee, worked on the thesis I’m reading, wrote notes to my Mom and Margaret, then headed back to the house. Took the bike out for a short spin, watched some TV, made soup, did the washing-up. cleaned some pens, ordered some ink online, made a pizza, watched a film. Tomorrow, I will say mass at the House Chapel, then I need to move some goods around from room to room, so that Mark can paint the remaining rooms. Not a thrill-packed weekend, but the pace and the lack of stress will be delicious. Maybe I’ll blog something substantial tomorrow.

Oh, and I’m disappointed about Duke’s basketball team losing yesterday — but if we have to lose to an underdog, I’m pleased it’s Mercer.

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An End

QuadrigaToday was the end of my second term at St Stephen’s House, Hilary Term. Many of the ordinands have left for home; some will be staying around Oxford, studying for the exams that come up during Trinity Term. I’ll be resting and catching up, and maybe even doing some reading and writing. I have an article in mind about John 4; another article about ho Dikaios in early christology; and maybe an essay or something about the role of technical biblical criticism in catholic Anglicanism. I’d like to make a video out of my “Sensual Hermeneutics” presentation. And then there are the essays that follow on from “Code Talking” (one on the problems that come from thinking of X, Y, or Z as “symbolic” or “literal”; one on how we can get along without relying on the idea of subsistent meaning; one on the how textual interpretation and ethics converge).

Of course, I have some marking to mop up, a thesis to examine, a book review or two to write. I have some projects in mind relative to my getting better acquainted with the Common Worship (the Church of England’s authoritative liturgical compendium) and how it’s used here. Some thoughts about spirituality. And a Holy Lent to keep.

Margaret’s safely in Chicago with Si and Laura. The house painter has nearly finished the half of the house he started on week before last, and is about to shift to the half of the house in which I’ve been living. I suspect that my weekend will involve moving things around to make the last three rooms accessible for painting.

But my highest priority is to shed some of the manic term-time stress. Not a vacation, not a holiday, but a saner pace.

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Disturbing Search

Today, someone came to this blog by searching for “how we could eat akma.” I prefer not to think about it.

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I know I determined to observe a Lenten discipline of blogging every day, but tonight I’m saddened, at a loss for wise things to say, by the news that Rowan Greer, one of my seminary professors and a colleague in the ministry at Christ Church, New Haven, has died.

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Long Patrick Day


My diary looked pretty clear this morning, as long as I didn’t, you know, actually look at it.

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Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus

Stained glass window from Holy Name Chapel of St John the Evangelist Church
This morning before Mass, our attention was called to the stained glass above the Holy Name Chapel in St John the Evangelist Church (the church of St Stephen’s House, as opposed to our House Chapel where we say daily services, and the Founder’s Chapel which is mostly for private devotion). St John the Evangelist is the headquarters of SJE Arts, our Arts and Concert venue.

The window in question is not the focal point of that space; it overlooks a more prominent altarpiece, and the iron chandelier obstructs the view of the window. This morning, though, we noticed the angels in the stained glass, and their extraordinary virtuosity with the censers they swing. Thurifers I have worked with over the years — take heart!

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Mood Bluebird

QuadrigaSo, yesterday I said that the dining room isn’t Carolina Blue — but in the article to which I linked, it turns out that “Carolina Blue” is a moving target. (If they worked at the University of Glasgow, they wouldn’t have any doubt of exactly what colour is what — the visual identity instructions are absolutely specific to the control-freak designer’s nth degree).


Although one might think that a colour with long historic standing would be fairly carefully pinned down — especially since the binary alternative to Carolina Blue is Duke Blue (Pantone 287) — in fact, the reporter found

“I found another document online called The University of North Carolina Identity Standards Manual, and they state that the official color of UNC is Pantone 542, which is definitely more aqua. It is obvious that the colors used for the UNC logo on the two documents themselves are completely different. In my search, I also discovered that UNC’s Athletics Office mostly uses Pantone 297, and on occasion, 271 or 298. UNC Hospitals use Pantone 543.”

Evidently our rivals down Route 15-501 just don’t care much about which shade their uniforms are. Perhaps they’re trying desperately to help the franchise University’s luck. Margaret and I remember classic Carolina Blue as a very pale, powder blue/sky blue, almost as if they were trying for a blue that was as light as possible without being white. This Carolina Blue gingham bow tie is close (I love that they highlight the tie’s “modest quality so you won’t feel the urge to ‘turn your nose up at others.’” Go, Carolina!).

I crossed the street and headed into Johnny T-Shirt, a shop that has been selling UNC merchandise since 1983. UNC junior, Arthur Iannacone was cashiering, and he pointed to a baby blue colored shirt when I asked him to show me the real Carolina Blue. “Anything darker looks too close to Duke.”

Which gets back to the heart of the issue. Carolina will adopt any shade of “light blue” so long as it’s not confused with deep Duke Blue. And surely at some point or another, a desperate designer has probably used the colour of our paint (official name: “Bluebird”) for Carolina gear. But that doesn’t matter; two true Blue Devils live here, and we are above changing paint colours just to avoid one shade that Carolina might have used at some point or another.

Besides — Carolina lost in the ACC Tournament yesterday.

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Huffing Home

It just happened that in the week that a housepainter took over our home, I came down with a cold. I can’t complain about the cold itself — it’s a very low-rent cousin to the Plague That Lays Waste At Midday, which has decimated the college community — but the congestion has been affecting my sleep, and last night I was sleeping in one-hour segments interrupted by walks to the sink to splash some water only head. Luckily I had gone to bed early; otherwise I might have fallen asleep in the four-hour important University meeting I attended this morning, or perhaps while I was bicycling madly back from said meeting to get to our staff meeting.

But the convergence of paint fumes and a cold — that I feel justified in whinging about (a little). The dining room is now a fresh, interesting shade of blue (sort of richer-than-sky blue; certainly not by any means Carolina Blue!). Oh. Well, maybe a little like Carolina Blue.

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