Somewhere Else

Greetings from the heterotopia. Last night I greeted Adam and Sarah in the hotel; I saw Chris Spinks and Tyler WIlliams; the session I chaired this morning on Walter Moberly’s book Prophecy and Discernment went well, and Jason showed up for it; Margaret and I had a pleasant visit toward midday, where we ran into Derek and his wife; this afternoon I was among the author-guests who skulked around the Baker-Brazos book display to promote their fall line to biblical-theological fashions (“Now, coming down the ramp, is AKMA, showing a spin on the Birmingham School’s analysis of signifying practices — trendy and oh-so-comfortable on the Day of Judgment. Next, see. . . .”). Tonight, dinner with alums of the Wabash Center Greek Teachers colloquium, then the receptions for Princeton Seminary and for Duke.

Feet sore, legs weary, thumb sensitive — but a good conference, no matter what.


Very little time today, as I have to finish up my SBL response to Dale Martin’s new book Sex and the Single Savior; it’s a collection of essays, hence a shade miscellaneous, making it hard to compose a through-coherent response. I think I’ve found an approach that sets me up to say most of what I want to say. My biggest challenge right now involves choosing between two titles for my response: “This Sex Which Is Not Single” or “I Did Not Have Sex With That Man”?

Because I’m squeezing too many activities into today — packing, haircut, drafting response, teaching, time with Pippa before the weekend, looking into sources for grant support for my zingy research gig — I shan’t blog much more, though I’ll try to paste in my response if I finalize it tonight.

Two Good

I spent this afternoon with Juliet Dodds’s doctoral seminar on hermeneutics at Garrett, across the vast expanse of Sheridan Road. They had read two of my recent essays on hermeneutics (“Poaching on Zion” and &#8220:This Is Not a Bible”) along with essays by a couple of less-distinguished French guys you never heard of. I showed them the presentation on Visual Hermeneutics, since it had gone over so well at McCormick earlier this fall, and then we launched into a vigorous discussion of meaning, textuality, communication, the Bible, history, and other topics. It was a blast — they were good readers of the essays, not uncritical but neither were they simply gainsaying (or affirming) my arguments. They were the sort of readers who convey to you that they paid attention and have worked with your premises carefully enough to advance the discussion (which is most of what I really want from writing anyway). The thought that a generation of students at McCormick and Garrett — and maybe other places as well! — may regard my essays as a constituent element in their hermeneutical outlook excites me no end.

As I was walking home from Garrett, I opened a letter that I knew to contain a polite rejection notice from a research institute to which I’d applied for my next year’s sabbatical residency. As a rejection letter, it was pretty confusing; it discusses the physical facilities at the research center, among other things. It took me some puzzling and staring to figure out that the reason it was so confusing was that it wasn’t a rejection letter at all, but an acceptance — so if I find funding, I can look forward to spending next year in a very propitious, rather prestigious theological study center!
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The Office

I know many people who are worried that Rowan WIlliams has gone off his theological chump. Since he had written firmly and eloquently on behalf of the full participation of gay and lesbian persons in the leadership of the Body of Christ before his elevation to the archepiscopate of Canterbury, but now advances a different perspective on licit and illicit relationships, some of my friends take him as a callow vacillator who abandoned principle in order to advance to the most prestigious job in Anglican Christianity (short of being by God’s grace Monarch of England). I’m reluctant to think him so base a careerist; contrariwise, I have several times wondered whether he might not construe his new role much as did Thomas a Becket — as an office to which, by accepting, he agrees to subordinate his own interests and convictions. (“Oh God, I hope not!” sighed one interlocutor.)

I wish the Most Reverend Dr. Williams, with the cooperation of the Holy Spirit, were deploying his considerable theological wisdom and rhetorical skills to direct the Anglican Communion in a direction different from its present course. But if he’s getting up morning by morning to ask himself how the Archbishop of Canterbury must rightly serve God and the Anglican Communion — rather than what he, Rowan Williams, could do to effect ends that he knew were right — I think I’m pretty sympathetic with him. I believe in “the office” as an expression of vocation distinct from the full expression of personal convictions. “The office” exemplifies a social identity in which we participate, the exercise of which we affect (obviously), but which we do not possess, to manipulate as an instrument for our purposes.

(Parenthetically, I don’t suppose that everyone who disagrees with me or Rowan Williams therefore must think of offices solely as nexuses of power that avail to satisfy self-interested policy goals. There’s shades of difference, by all means.)

Now, as a follow-up reflections: I doubt that demystifying and disenchanting “the office” effect the same gesture. On my hunch, “the office” provides something of a bulwark against the bare-knuckled brawl of power and will; it can surely be used in manipulative ways, but that’s the gesture of someone who already disbelieves in the distinct responsibilities of “the office.” And I wonder whether, if we leave behind an ideology of office, we don’t swing the door open to the puerile sorts of egalitarianism (because each of us presumably has some positive qualities, because we stand equal before the throne of God, therefore everyone’s opinion and standing should be treated equally in all circumstances”). But maybe this just catches me on a grouchy day.
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In the midst of a succession of administrative meetings, Seabury’s Greek reading group devoted a mirth-filled session to reading Mark 13:14ff together. There are probably quarters where 90 minutes of parsing, translating, analyzing, and working through a two-thousand year old Greek text doesn’t sound like the high point in a busy day — but you wouldn’t have known it in office 24 (or, as Pippa puts it, “0024 — License to Teach”). Too bad Brooke couldn’t make it today. . . .


Friday at diocesan convention, I voted for the relatively few candidates who had bothered to run for diocesan office, and read the motions scheduled for debate on Saturday. As I looked around the conference area, I wondered whether all this was the best, most effective, holiest use to which we could put the countless person-hours that the convention required. I thought about how little I knew of the candidates for diocesan office; even if I were more of a social butterfly on the diocesan scene, I might well not have known half the candidates (several people were nominated from the floor). I can’t imagine that we’re ordering our ecclesiastical life in the wisest possible way, and that saddens me.

The elections proceed as though the identity, the faith and theological insight of the candidates make no difference. The business of the convention, which this year was mostly administrative minutiae, might equally probably have included a diocesan response to the Windsor Report or the general condition of the Episcopal Church. If we had such a motion, it would have been decided by the same indifferently-elected* delegates as disposes of the method of appointing campus ministries delegates to Diocesan Convention.

My experience in teaching Early Church History to first-year Episcopal seminarians suggests that convention delegates may not come to their responsibilities richly armed with an appreciation of the elements of Christian history or theology. We turn to their legislative wisdom on the sound premise that all are equally members of the Body of Christ; I wonder, though, whether that might not eclipse the equally true, and arguably more pertinent, point that

to each has been given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. There are varieties of gifts and services, but it is the same God who inspires them in all. Therefore, each working for a good purpose may have a different gift; but these are all the works of the same Spirit, who distributes different gifts to different people. . . .

If I saw more reason to be confident that parish and diocesan elections involved careful discernment of gifts, I would probably feel more sanguine about ecclesiastical politics. Under present circumstances, I find it difficult not to leave diocesan convention with more Dilbertian sense of resignation.

“Very well,” someone says, “What’s your better idea, big-mouth?” I don’t pretend that my gifts include planning for legislative processes, but I would think it mere common sense that the exercise of institutional authority in the church be reserved for people who have demonstrated at least a minimal fluency in the subjects about which they’re about to make decisions. “Participation in church governance” apart from theological, historical, or biblical literacy becomes a self-perpetuating qualification that sets a disquietingly low bar for wisdom** in ecclesiastical leadership.

* “Indifferently-elected” in the sense that the elections did not involve searching examination of the merits of the various nominees; they may have been nominated by direct inspiration from the Holy Spirit, for all I know, or by over-whelming majorities of the voters (the latter must be the case in the several elections where nominees ran unopposed). The new office-holders may be absolutely the best people for their jobs, but that ideal match arose out of some factor other than legislative deliberation and discernment.

**Note that I don’t rule out the possibility that someone without academic theological formation may be a commendable church leader with sound theological judgment. I doubt, however, that it makes sense to presume that anyone whom a parish elects as a convention delegate must thereby exemplify such laudable gifts. Indeed, I could (if I were in a nasty frame of mind) amass considerable empirical data that such saints constitute exceptions to the overwhelmingly dominant rule. To hark back to my customary comparison, I’d hesitate to consult a surgeon who was elected without careful attention to her medical training.

Preaching Under Pressure

I was short on time this week; it felt terrible, wrasselling with sermon ideas among the various other obligations of the week, sensing that whatever idea I had needed more breathing room. In the end, I squoze out a homily, but it would have benefited from more time spent burnishing the details. I handwrote the last few sentences in the minutes before the sermon, and in the version I post in today’s extended section I’ve spruced them up a little. I haven’t dug in and reworked the whole thing as much as it needs, I’d say, but I’m taking it easy this weekend.
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Hat Tip

Well, Hat Tip #1 is “Don’t wear your hat around Pippa; she’s on a hat-pilfering kick, and may run off with it.”

But the hat tip I had in mind when I chose the entry’s title involved acknowledging Tom’s beautiful riposte to my musings about Bea and hermeneutics (I almost wrote “ruminations,” but given the topic of the entry and the etymology of the word, that seemed distasteful). I have to go to class this morning, and work on a sermon for midday — I wish I could read Tom’s essay aloud to the congregation instead.

Off to chapel, and class, and chapel, and then diocesan convention (wheee!). . . .

Another Of Those Days

My morning started with an interview for the CDR Radio network, set up by the publicist at Fortress Press; I went ahead and talked through some of the implications of my work with interviewer Chad Bresson before I explored their website and learned that the radio channel’s sense of doctrine and mine diverge about as sharply as one could imagine. I’m almost glad I didn’t know at first. I’ll be intrigued to know how this develops; surely my work should be upsetting at least to some of their listeners, though I tried to hew to the most irenic possible presentation of my argument.

I then dashed to the meeting of Seabury’s self-study accreditation subcommittee, which went pretty much as I had anticipated: too much to do, too little time. Somewhat to my surprise, though, everyone present agreed that it would be worth trying to use a wiki for developing our shared documents between meetings. That seems eminently practical and sensible to me, so I hadn’t dared hope it would fly. Maybe it still won’t work out, but at least we got as far as implementing it.

Oh, and you won’t very often catch me siding with Starbuck’s about anything, much less Starbuck’s plus The Economist, and even less often agreeing with Starbuck’s and The Economist over against Oxfam. The other day, though, I came to this article (through Jordon’s contextless links) and I have to say, I think Oxfam is barking up the wrong tree. I’m not signing up to be a Starbuckisto, but of the alternatives sketched here I think the “appellation controlée” approach vastly more sensible than the “trademark a bean” approach.
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Accreditation Blues

I’m the chair of the subcommittee on Theological Curriculum and Degree Programs for Seabury’s decennial re-accrediation process. Right now, that means I’m trying to read the regulations, criteria, and standards without succumbing to a massive headache. I can’t express adequately how ill-suited I am to this task.

Excremental Semiotics

No, I’m not referring to the kind of theory that exasperates plain, sensible readers.

Most days, I walk Beatrice first thing, before I head off for morning chapel. We follow a very predictable path, which (I find) helps prompt her to accomplish the purpose for the promenade. When the time arrives for her to produce the material component of our morning exercise, she slows down and begins sniffing a particular patch of earth with even greater intensity than is usual for her. She circles several times, and frequently adjusts her position several times; I gather that the precise location of her deposit makes a big difference to her (it doesn’t seem to matter that I will, in a matter of seconds, scoop that ephemeral monument up in a plastic bag). Within the highly limited sense in which one can discuss any matter of cognition with regard to a dog who has fluff for brains, the location of her morning donation seems meaningful.

Now, if that premise be in any sense true, this seems to present a case in which the meaning truly is in the text. Her text constitutes as it were a natural sign of Bea’s existence and digestive activity (“Natural signs are those which, apart from any intention or desire of using them as signs, do yet lead to the knowledge of something else, as, for example, smoke when it indicates fire”; On Christian Doctrine II.i.2).

The reason I first started thinking about this topic involves the odd disjunction between the amount of effort that Bea devotes to the endeavor of finding exactly the right spot for her product, and the margin of error between her final sniffs and the ultimate location of her text. She made me think of the ardent but incompetent poet who agonizes over each syllable, but whose weak grasp of the language dooms the poem itself to failure.

On the other hand, the “meaning” in this interaction isn’t an ingredient of the text. Other dogs may infer Bea’s identity and salient characteristics on the basis of the textual deposit, but those remain inferences — not the extraction of a meaning-constituent within the text she leaves. An Animal Enforcement officer might construe her text as a “dog nuisance” punishable to the full extent of the law, but not based on any ingredient therein. To the extent that Bea has done something expressive, something meaningful, the expression and meaning depend on a system of instinctual (?) expectations and conventional interactions. Even considering this quite material example, I don’t see how we can ascribe intrinsic “meaning” to the text.
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