Mad About Teaching

Margaret points me to The Story’s interview with Rafe Esquith, superstar teacher in the LA public school system. I haven’t heard this particular show, but he’s making the rounds on public radio these days, supporting his book Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire; I’ve heard him on one or two of these, and he struck me as the genuine article (or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof).

I’d say more, but I have to get ready for Terry Bowers’s ordination to the diaconate.

On-the-Cuff Calculations

I was interested to read that one reason that Mr. Bush’s War has taken relatively few mortalities in the U.S. Armed Forces involved the significant improvements in military medical treatment. If what Dr. Blimes reports is sound, the ratio of injuries to deaths in the Iraq War reaches 16:1 (cut to 8:1 if one only counts combat injuries, as the Pentagon would prefer that Blimes and others do). By way of comparison, the story in Inside Higher Ed sets the ratio for Vietnam at 2.8:1 and for World War II at 1.6:1.

So let’s do some rough-and-ready figuring. Last time I checked, the Pentagon has acknowledged 3,072 U.S. military deaths. During the same time, the Pentagon acknowledges 22,834 soldiers wounded; under the Vietnam standard for wounds-to-deaths ratio, that would correspond to 8,155 combat deaths, more than five thousand more than have actually died. That’s using a pretty narrow accounting of wounds and deaths, too.

To the extent that news reporting foregrounds U.S. military combat deaths only as a measure of the mortal costs of Bush’s War, tghey actually attenuate the war’s unpopularity. If we heard more about what we might call Vietnam-equivalent deaths (8,155 and counting) or — to avoid relying on hypotheticals — the actual numbers of seriously wounded soldiers, and the effect of their wounds on families, how popular would we estimate the plan to escalate the war to be?
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On Behalf of the Ox

Today was a full day for me, with committee work in the morning, then preaching and mass, then a course planning meeting over lunch, then the NT II field trip to the library. I was a little stressed out about the sermon, as it falls into the category of “things I wish I had more time to work out,” but the service went fine.

Margaret left today (or rather, she’s waiting to take off at Midway as I type). A two-day visit doesn’t accomplish everything a longer stay might, but it beats another five weeks of separation.
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Proud Day

Often enough, Pippa delights us by her imaginative participation on family life — such as the day she manufactured a black cloth moustache:

Groucho's Visit

This morning, she delighted us by affirming her conscientious participation in the life of the congregation, serving in the office of Junior Chorister. She indulged us by permitting Richard Kieckhefer to take some pictures of her with the choirmaster Jonathan Scarozza, Margaret, and me after the service.

Newest Chorister

Lest it not be utterly clear, we’re awfully proud of her.

Breathe Deeply, Too

Margaret’s here for her last visit before her exams (at Duke they’re “preliminary exams,” other places “comprehensive exams,” either way “the last essay exams she’s likely ever to take, and for that matter she hasn’t taken any in years beforehand”). We’re attuned to the very high probability that she’ll pass with flying colors, but the stakes and the contingencies amply warrant a degree of anxiety, which we’re working on strategies for disarming.

Speaking very strictly for myself, I was always much more impressed by exams that demonstrated articulate familiarity with a topic than those that tried to replicate the content of a research paper (more or less successfully). I envision being stuck in an elevator with a doctoral candidate and some other scholar, and expecting that the doctoral student wil sound as though she knows her business. In an elevator, you don’t need a full bibliography; you need a good perspective on things. So explaining and articulating are two attainable and impressive goals.

The other point we’re coaching her on involves remembering that her committee will involve at least one person who’s relatively ignorant about each area she’s covering. If she writes the exam to explain that topic to the least-well-informed reader, she can then use the oral to demonstrate her more nuanced apprehension of the topic.

By keeping the “clear explanation to the less-well-informed” function in view, we hope to fend off the sorts of tension and brain-lock that would entail the most evident problem for her exams. Of course, every institution (and every committee and department) varies, so our strategy won’t apply equally well to all dissertators (who themselves vary; Margaret, for instance, simply can’t do the “take a practice exam” approach).

Preaching: Don’t Kite Checks

(Foreword: I frequently think of advice about preaching when I hear sermons that instantiate counter-examples of the principle I’m propounding, and since I blog among people with whom I also worship, I end up not blogging what I thought, so as not to be perceived as criticizing this or that particular sermon or preacher. Last week’s sermon at St. Luke’s bore no relation to the following jeremiad.)

My students can hardly have sat through a whole term of one of my classes without having heard me insist, at some point, “Don’t write checks you can’t cash.” I’m not solely offering sound financial advice (though evidently clergy need a reminder about this one from time to time), I’m trying to help students with their preaching by prodding them to acknowledge the difference between “things I can claim on the strength of my own study and research” and “something I read in a book” or, sadder still, “what clergy, as experts, know.”

You can’t really blame students and clergy for eliding these categories. The church wants people who graduate from seminary to be able to speak with authority on theological topics, on the Bible (weekly in sermons), on all sorts of things; at the same time, the church offers few incentives to study and think critically, and tends to reward people who can speak with glib confidence about what “scholars have concluded” or whatever bosh they want. Not every seminary can offer a curriculum that guides its graduates toward comfortably critical assessment of theological topics. Under the circumstances, compliant tempers will tend to assert the truth of what they learned in an introductory class, or in the latest book they read, or in the interview they heard on “Fresh Air” or “Speaking of Faith” the other day.

The problem arises when claims that preachers may have apprehended only partially, or which may not have been well-founded in the first place, or which were widely-held at one point but which have fallen into scholarly disfavor, are presented as solid facts (in sermons, study groups, and so on). I’m not referring here to partisan disagreements, though these will intensify the problem; I’m talking about circumstances where a preacher asserts something with a surety incommensurate with what she or he can back up critically-evaluated knowledge. Someone with a conservative view of the authorship of Colossians can expound that text in a way that communicates both the confidence that Paul wrote the letter and the awareness of some of the problems with that claim. Someone who just knows that Paul wrote Colossians risks not only being wrong, but being willfully wrong for bad reasons that he or she opted not to deal with.

All of this goes doublemore than double, square it or cube it — for “he must have been thinking” or “feeling” points. Look, I’ve spent nearly thirty years in very close communion with Margaret, and only rarely would I venture to state firmly what she “must have been thinking,” and even then I’d frequently be subject to error. Telling a congregation what Moses or Judith (yes, I know, “when was the last time you heard a sermon on Judith?”) or Jesus or Paul must have been thinking almost always means displacing some of the preacher’s fantasies onto some alleged historical figure. Not good historiography, not good homiletics, and not good for anyone’s soul.

If there’s some novel (or traditional) idea that tickles your homiletical fancy, but you don’t have the time or inclination to examine it for soundness, please think twice about preaching it as true. There are lots of ways to qualify claims without waffling; careful use of words such as “if,” careful restriction of your claims to warrantable assertions (“I was taught in seminary that. . . .” or “I’m intrigued by the possibility that. . .” or some such conditional rhetoric will begin to do that work. More to the point, cultivate the humility that will allow you to stand before a congregation without posing as a greater authority figure than you can back up with real scholarship. Say what you mean, speaking from something you know, and people will hear a difference, the saints will affirm your wisdom, and you’ll be building up the truth. Insofar as it’s been given em to know the truth, that is.


I’e been wrestling with the question of how to frame the “postmodern Christians” essay (and Margaret rightly reminds me to be skeptical about claims pertaining to “the postmodern age,” as though Euro-American and global cultures had unambiguously and necessarily modulated to a different era with fundamentally different conditions for thought and practice). For a while I worked with the tentative title, “ ‘How Will This Be?’ — Possibility, Compulsion, and Postmodern Christians,” the force of which aimed at Mary’s response to the Annunciation as neither a facile affirmation nor a dubious refusal, but an expression of interested, patient, inquiry. I wanted to develop that as a paradigm for “postmodern” Christians’ faith: neither asserting as flat propositions the truths of faith, nor jettisoning them as incredible fabulations, but persisting with them despite their apparent impossibility.

But the alternative title “ ‘The Way’ Out of No Way” wouldn’t let go of my imagination. That title points me toward Lyotard’s “The Strength of the Weak” article, as I said yesterday, toward pursuing Christian faith as a way rather than a science. Such a way does not repudiate knowing, study, critical reflection, or truth-claims, but it affirms them in a context inseparable from a practice of discipleship — charity, patience, service, and fidelity. I think that converges with the other essay-notion’s attention to disarming forced binary choices, as well. We’ll see what happens next.

Mark Your Calendars

Nate will make his academic-conference debut this spring at the 2007 Great Lakes Chapter Annual Conference of the College Music Society, the music-theory professional organization. Working title is “Deck of Trick Chords: Tonal Analysis and Chromatic Substitutions in the Songs Of Elliott Smith,” and if you ask politely he may be signing autographs after the presentation. At moments like this, Pippa canonically rushes up to me, saying “Deflate! Deflate!” but I’m awfully proud of my kids anyway.

What I Was Thinking

Of late, I’ve been suppressing awareness of my obligation to write an article with an uncomfortably close deadline. I was invited to write an article about “living as a Christian in a postmodern world,” and I have 3500 words to expound my response. As usual, I have a small mountain of partial ideas, but have not yet discerned the connecting principle that will transform my random thoughts into an orderly argument.

Among the notions with which I’m likely to play will be the rhetoric of compulsion relative to cultural interpretations of Christianity (the ways people tend to say, “Well, you can’t X Y Z in a postmodern world,” or “In a postmodern world, one must J K L. . . ”); the question of possibility, in conjunction with Michel de Certeau’s marvelous article “How is Christianity Thinkable Today?”; the question of Christianity and power, in conjunction with Jean-François Lyotard’s “The Strength of the Weak”; or something else. A catchy title might transform the whole project, if such a thing occurs to me.

Expect updates.
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Case In Point

Since I am a committed, long-term fan of Elvis Costello (so much so that I can still say that after his series of unfortunate collaborations), let me point to him as a perpetrator of bad rhyme.

In the Oscar-nominated “Scarlet Tide” (you’ll have to scroll down to get to it), he writes,

Man goes beyond his own decision
Gets caught up in the mechanism
Of swindlers who act like kings
And brokers who break everything
The dark of night was swiftly fading
Close to the dawn of the day
Why would I want him
Just to lose him again

That makes me wince every time I hear it — not just because “decision” and “mechanism” don’t rhyme, but because of the aggravating circumstances. First, Costello is a demonstrably ingenious writer — we know he can do much, much better. Second, this song presents itself as a weighty meditation on humanity, love, and destiny; the more seriously I’m supposed to take the song, the less slack I’m willing to cut the composition. Third, both arrangements that I’ve heard — one from the Cold Mountain film soundtrack, performed by Alison Kraus, and one from Costello’s own album The Delivery Man — bring the lyrics clearly, distinctly to the aural foreground.

If the Ramones mixed a barely-audible “decision”/“mechanism” pair with their over-amplified guitars in a raucous amphetamine-fueled bop through high school romance at Coney Island, I’d be inclined to smile at the absurdity of it, or perhaps roll my eyes (now I’m trying to imagine the Kings of Leon playing “Scarlet Tide”). If it came up in a song from the vernacular tradition that employs high-flown vocabulary for self-consciously elevated effects, I might even admire it. When the song is presented with contextual cues that bespeak deliberate artiness, that couple flat-out clunks, and drags the rest of the song downward with it. EC is a hero of mine, and I like a lot about this song, but that rhyme kills the thing.