Jeph Jacques Hermeneutician

Jeph Jacques — a terrific comics writer/artist, one-man band, and thoughtful person — has once again run into the uncanny valley of unintended consequences, where what you write (draw, sing, sculpt, design, whatever) engenders responses wildly different from what you expected. Actually, to be more precise, this time he has caught himself at the edge of that valley and changed direction. This time, a space station’s AI system harassed one of the staff (bear with us on this, it’s coherent with the rest of the comic; here’s the original offense) and offered her roughly $5 million as restitution.

But the more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I got with that idea. Station’s offer of the shares was made entirely with good intentions on his part, but Potter accepting them might send the wrong message. That you can simply buy your way out of trouble if you’ve got the means, or that money is an acceptable substitute for contrition.

His change of direction may have been prompted, to some extent, by his experience on which I commented two years ago, when a polyamorous character expressed a moment of wistfulness about the [then] stable relationship between two other characters. Then, Jeph’s polyamorous readers lit into him for implying that polyamory wasn’t an ultimately fulfilling way of life, which — as Jeph notes — he had neither intended nor even said. (By the way, I’m once again not tackling the moral-theological problems here, just the hermeneutics of expression and intention.)

So this time, Jeph stopped before he wrote himself into the situation of appearing to support the notion that a sumptuous payoff was adequate recompense for harassment. And in his Tumblr blog, he wrote

You as an author have control over the intent of your work, but you do not have control over how other people will interpret it. And if someone’s interpretation of your work differs from your intent, while you can defend your intent, it does not necessarily render their interpretation invalid.

Jeph’s so on target here that I want to applaud him digitally (isn’t all applause ‘digital’, in the sense that you do it with your fingers?) — he doesn’t shift blame onto his readers, and he offers only qualified self-justification. And yet, there’s still something missing. The notion of control obtrudes awkwardly here at both ends of the communicative interaction. I’m not convinced that writers (artists, et al., or even anyone at all) actually do have control over their intentions; isn’t that part of what psychology and related sciences remind us? We do stuff; we intend stuff; but only relatively rarely do we formulate a coherent intention and deliberately, critically implement it in a careful way. Jeph’s actions relative to this strip are the exception, rather than the rule. By the same token, it’s more than a little odd to think that someone might control someone else’s interpretation. When has this ever happened?
We’ve developed and propagated a way of thinking about interpretation that fosters the illusory notion that ‘control’ is even a relevant consideration. Rather than beginning with our observable, universal, demonstrable lack of control as a datum, hermeneutics has begun by taking the instances of satisfactory communication and supposed that they constitute a norm that provides a warrant, an intrinsic ethical criterion, by which to evaluate interpretations. And since we can’t control our intentions in the first place, and since a hermeneutics of success ignores the significance of countervailing evidence, the discourse of hermeneutics continues to generate anomalies and puzzles about ‘misinterpretation’ and ‘validity’ (‘it does not necessarily render their interpretation invalid’). No: start with lack of control and unsatisfactory communication, account for them, and then work toward how we manage so often to get communication more or less right.
Jeph is a terrific comics artist (‘comicist’?) and a mensch; he’s thoughtful, alert, and willing to face criticism, and he’s way more on top of this pivotal hermeneutical issue than the vast preponderance of we biblical scholars are.

‘With The Rich And Mighty, Always A Little Patience’

The news that broke a few days ago that now science reveals that wealthy and powerful people are more likely to lie, steal, cheat, and generally disregard the norms that apply to mere humans seems to have surprised some readers. They evidently have forgotten The Philadelphia Story, one of the sources of formation for our household. (We endeavoured to counteract the message that paternal adultery improper flirtation was justified because of the faults of mother and elder daughter.)
Evidently people haven’t been paying attention to the daily news, to the Con-Dem coalition’s agenda, to the protests about the results of the 2008 ‘World Throws Boatloads Of Money At Losing Gamblers’ crisis, the congressional follies and the Republican primaries… the list could go on indefinitely. So to underscore the message, Scotland Yard loaned a retired police horse to underprivileged Rebekah Brooks, perhaps so that she could unwind between sessions of her trial for phone hacking.
I think people are too quick to pick on the felonious, unscrupulous, mendacious, cruel-hearted members of the upper class. They have feelings, too. Just don’t expect those feelings to extend to pretty much anyone but themselves.
(Can you tell I’ve been writing a commentary on the Epistle of James?)

Additions To The Gang

I was working away on my commentary on the Epistle of James this past week, when Margaret popped into the office with a small but bulky package. In that package was a very lovely note from my friend and former student Suzie Stark, and within were two very elegant pens that had been Suzie’s mother’s.
One of them is a handsome ‘mottled Vulcanite’ pattern, manufactured by Conway Stewart for Lyon, Ltd., of Glasgow. As far as I can ascertain, it’s from between the wars; it resembles pens to which Conway sTewart assigned the model number 200M:
Lyon - Conway Stewart
The other is a Waterman, a cracked-ice body with flat black caps at top and bottom. I don’t have enough reference material to pin down the date on the Waterman, but I’d bet that it was the successor to the Lyon/Stewart pen for Suzie’s mother, so from the 40s or 50s:
I will entrust these to a responsible restorer when I can. The Lyon/Stewart pen will be especially tricky, because it has a chip out of the screw threads, which will make it very hard to remove the section (the bit you grip that holds the nib in) without further damaging the threads. The Waterman shouldn’t be too hard. For less special pens, I’d give it a try myself, but I would hate to cause these any harm — and I’m very eager to set them to writing.
I’m a little frustrated about the photos. Our flat is smallish, with no north light, and I haven’t rigged a light tent to even out such light as I can muster. I don’t even have a tripod here to hold my camera still — so these photos are not as fine as I’d wish. Making a light tent and tracking down a second-hand tripod go on my to-do list, for after the James book is finished and after taxes are all sorted.

Kicking Wheels

I’ve been playing with Pinwheel this week, and it promises to be very interesting. The premise is that users leave digital notes relative to locations through a web interface (for now; mobile options are in the works) — then other users, in turn, can find these notes and benefit from their colleagues’ wisdom, or nostalgia, or photographic capabilities, or knowledge of history, or poetry, or whatever else. I’ve been concentrating on leaving notes in Glasgow’s West End, but I’ve dropped some in places I’ve lived before.
I invited a few people who have so far left (count ’em) zero notes among them, no doubt for good and important reasons. If I get more invites, I’ll pass them along to interested friends, but please do actually use the service if you enlist.

Click In, Lock In (Lazyweb)?

Dear Lazy Web,
On the train yesterday, reading The Multiplayer Classroom, I was thinking about pedagogical problems, problems that could be resolved using lower-tech solutions than arming a classroom full of students with individual clickers. I know I’d really like a way to leverage students’ laptops (many fewer in UK classrooms than in US classrooms, I notice) or smartphones to make possible a sort of University Quiz team question-answering exercise.
So this is my Lazyweb request: a web page to which a set number of entrants could log in, which would register the order in which those entrants clicked in response to a question. That is, at the beginning of class, three (or seven) team captains (or individual quiz players) would log in to aforesaid page. The page would display the names of each entrant, provide a button for them to click, and would have a ‘clear’ button for the referee to restart the question process. At the beginning of a question round, the referee would read* a question, and the page would note which team/entrant clicked their button first (and, ideally, which second, third, and so on — but the key would be registering the first).
One could envision lots of bells and whistles†, but at its heart, this would provide an indisputable arbiter of who clicked first, and that’s what I’m looking for. Lazyweb, are you listening?

* Clearly it would be possible, in a more advanced version (see below) to do the whole thing online, with the referee typing the question gradually into a chat box, or the interface revealing the question gradually — but those are the ornate icing on the very basic cake I’m wishing for.
† As above, a completely online interface would be one bell or whistle; point totals would be another, sound effects to go with the first-click, the imagination devises multitudes of desiderata. But first things first: lock-in for first click. That is all.

On Death, Part 1

This will get long, so I’ll put most of the matter below the fold. The story is that the Doctrine Committee of the Scottish Episcopal Church keeps its members from idleness by assigning them the annual task of producing a small tract called The Grosvenor Essay on a particular topic. A year ago, it was ‘Incarnation’; the one in preparation concerns ‘Marriage’ (we’ve had some quibbles about the title, whether it concludes ‘and Human Relationships’ or ‘and Same-Sex Relationships’ or ‘and Human Intimacy’ or, in a left-field suggestion, “and Salacious Photos of George Newlands’). The one on which we’re working right now concerns the spiritual preparation for death — the Ars Moriendi. This is, as I’ve said to many, many classrooms and naves full of people, a very good thing, and I’m happy to be participating.
Among my other various obligations, including clearing up tax returns, finishing the notorious James commentary, and watching back episodes of the Spooks BBC series with Margaret, the lot fell on me to prepare the biblical material on death and preparation for death. For today’s meeting, I managed to cobble together a synthesised summary of the Old Testament’s handling of the topic of death; I’ll have to revisit the various suicides in the OT, since part of our work will involve addressing the Scottish Parliament’s consideration of a bill permitting assisted suicide/assisted dying, and I need both to report on the New Testament and offer an overview of the whole Bible on ars moriendi. Since what I write will be mashed up and woven into the community property of the Grosvenor Essay, I figured I would post today’s draft here, where it can attract the corrections and suggestions of careful readers, and where I won’t lose it on my hard drive.
Continue reading “On Death, Part 1”

Ten-Year Tape Delay

I’m copy-and-pasting the posts from 2002 and 2003 into my WordPress database, as I think I’ve said before. It’s interesting to observe what blogging was like back then, how long some of us have been talking toeach other (and observing when someone new enters the conversation), noting that Josiah blogged from Sri Lanka when he went there (wish I could recover those posts, but the earliest I can bring back are from the time he returned to the States), and generally getting a fresh view of things we said yesterday.
If you’re curious, you can follow the links from down at the bottom of the archive list, as they grow longer; or if you subscribe to the RSS feed, those posts will probably just pop up as they’re entered. Those were the days….

On Miracles

The other day, my [old] grad-school classmate Craig Keener wrote a column for the Huffington Post about belief in miracles. I think that we do agree about some things, but it would take some ground-clearing to figure out where our agreements lie; and since it’s a topic that draws much attention, which topic generates more heat than light, I too decided, after having thought things over, to write a blog entry for you, most excellent reader.
First, I see no point whatever in trying to persuade people that miracles happen. People who repudiate the idea of miracles have excellent reasons for so doing — and citing the number of people who do (or don’t) ‘believe in miracles’ is absolutely beside the point. The number of people who believe absurd things, or disbelieve obvious things, will always depend on what you think is absurd or obvious and on the credulity of large numbers of only-partly-informed respondents, and the case of miracles represents a paradigm instance of what many people will think a priori to be absurd (or obvious). If you think miracles are absurdity, rest assured that I’m not trying to rope you into something you resist; I ain’t. You just stick with what you already know to be obvious and absurd.
Granted that a great many very sensible people think that the idea of miracles is absurd, why do I not count myself among them? Let me suggest several ways. First, I am heir to a body of wisdom that upholds the category ‘miraculous’ as a significant, if rare, constituent in our way of life. ‘Miracles’ are significant in subtle ways, admittedly (and some wiseacre will submit that those ways are so subtle as to be invisible); but I don’t understand a way that someone who professes Christian faith can simply write off the category of ‘miracle’ as useless, unimportant, regressive, banal, superstitious, or whatever. Some things about Christian faith involve (so far as I can understand) assertions that run counter to common sense — and I’m OK with that. If I self-identity as a Christian, as a servant and teacher of the church, and a brother of the great theological sages throughout the ages, I cannot simply discard what they handed on to us. Among those hand-me-downs, the saints have consistently included assertions about ‘miraculous’ things having happened.
Second, I am amply aware that I don’t know enough about most topics to submit what cannot have happened, or why. I quickly add that I’m not appealing to this as if it were a positive argument in favour of ‘miracles’ — no way that works! — but it does require me to hesitate before I say ‘I know the causes of this event well enough to rule out (or rule in) X or Y influence’. A miracle-skeptic will very rightly say, ‘I know the way of the world sufficiently well to assert that material causes (including a certain apparent randomness) suffice to explain why this improbable event happened; indeed, improbable things happen all the time, in theologically-coloured situations and otherwise, such that it’s meaningless to assert that this is miraculous whereas that is just one of those things’. They are satisfied by their knowledge of causes and effects (bless ’em); I’m not satisfied by mine.
Third, I don’t understand how one can imagine the Bible in any non-Pickwickian relation to Christian life without taking miracles as something more serious than something to be explained away. If one supposes that the Bible holds a primary place of reference for Christian life (and I acknowledge that my boss doesn’t*, in the sense I propose here), one ought to have something to say about the prominence of extraordinary events in that compendium. Moreover, since we are instructed repeatedly in Scripture to pray with specific ends in mind, and that those prayers are not merely adventitious to what ensues, my understanding of the Bible obliges me to pray even for apparently impossible developments.
So I advance my own affirmation, subject to correction, that I don’t suppose that I know the causes for all of the extraordinary occurrences in life. Some are assuredly the strictly random outworkings of contingency in material existence, even if to us subclinical pareidoliacs it seems as though there must be some obscure casual connection. But at the same time, the occurrence of apparently inexplicable events, and their occasional convergence with prayer, and even their correlation with identifiable causes (or ‘congruent circumstances’ or something like that, if one wants to be cautious about asserting causality) fit coherently within a picture of a cosmos brought into being in a particular way — and in that way of envisioning a cosmos, I am satisfied for ‘miracle’ to identify the category of remarkable developments that fits particularly aptly into the biblically-limned character of a Creator-God, a Divine Author, whose temporal fingerprints are healing, release from shackles, transformative illumination, and perhaps above all else, amazing grace.
I think Craig probably wants more mileage from the miracles in which he believes, but maybe I’m wrong. (Wouldn’t be the first time!) The reticent version of miracles I sketch here, though, tries to preserve an elasticity that may strengthen it to survive harsh winds and fierce discursive storms. At any rate, it’s my best effort (for now).


* I’m a bit perplexed by several points in Kelvin’s argument. As far as I can tell, there’s simply no evidence that Hooker held Scripture, tradition, and reason to bear equal authority; I’d be interested to see evidence supporting that point, when Book V, Ch. 8.2 (p. 34) says ‘Be it in matter of the one kind or of the other, what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth.’
There are surely differences among (a) asserting that the Bible provides ‘the rule and ultimate standard of faith’ (which I take to indicate a sort of theological court of last appeal, always (of course) requiring reasoned interpretive work), (b) affirming sola scriptura (not I, by any means), and (c) asserting that the BIble constitutes ‘one, single infallible source of authority’. In the church’s tradition, the teaching of the creeds hangs on their being plausible authorised interpretations of what the conciliar fathers read in Scripture, so I don’t think I can own allegiance to the creeds without at the same time allowing a primary authority to Scripture (without just planting a flag at the creeds and saying, ‘Here and not elsewhere I choose to recognise ecclesiastical authority’). This, however, probably marks one of those spots on which the Cathedral’s clergy arrive at different conclusions, which is not surprising.

f8 And Be There

As I was walking to the Doctrine Committee meeting in Edinburgh this morning, I was startled to see this:
woman apparently putting hed through window
It is not, as it seemed to me to be, a person pushing her head through a window. As it turns out, she was simply leaning over to speak into her phone, and the curve of her shoulders matched the cracks in the window. I hesitated to take the photo for a moment, but the Weegee in me couldn’t resist.

Who’s the Patron of eBooks? (FOSOTNTT)

Among the heaps of roses and chocolates, the fizz and finery, Tim O’Reilly’s Tools of Change conference yesterday brought to the world’s attention two very intriguing ventures in e-publishing applications. The first is Inkling, specifically oriented toward constructing iPad textbooks. It looks powerful, fascinating, shiny, and very strongly oriented toward non-verbal instruction — indeed, their publicity suggests that iBooks Author is a good thing, a great app, but not sufficiently oriented toward the ‘born digital’ approach to textbook construction that Inkling aims at. They have an impressive partner — O’Reilly Media — and if the project looks good to Tim O’Reilly, only a very unwise person would bet against it. I signed up for a look at the beta, but they’re screening beta-testers with a view to selecting people who will actually be producing their kind of textbook, so I don’t count on seeing Inkling at work until it’s open for all.
[Side note: Among the patrons who might back the kind of disruptive innovation that I yearn for in academic theological publishing, wouldn’t Tim O’Reilly be a natural? When I gave my pitch for this at Ars Electronica 2008 I addressed my plea to (the absent) George Soros, Pierre Omidyar, and Bill Gates, but Tim O’Reilly would be perfect.]
The other app unveiled yesterday was Booktype, a comprehensive OS package for authoring, collaborating, editing, and publishing ebooks to a variety of platforms. It’s free, it looks very useable, it handles a number of the vital aspects of a project like the F/OS/OT/NT/T, its OS ethos complements that of the textbook project. Booktype seems to be structurally open for multimedia elements, but it’s much more directly focused on verbal media. Suw has looked it over, and she thinks it’s promising. I’m actually eager to set up an installation and kick its tyres.
I hope both Inkling and Booktype flourish — that would betoken a strong environment for digital publishing across the board. Since Booktype is available now, and is open source, and is oriented toward distributed collaborative projects, I’d favour it for the FOSOTNTT — pending, of course, consensus from colleagues.

Six Degrees of Jaroslav Flegr and Belle and Sebastian

The interwebs were a-buzzing last week when the viral dream team of cats, parasites, and mind control converged in The Atlantic’s story about Czech biologist Jaroslav Flegr and his research into toxoplasmosis. Margaret and I read the column, were duly appreciative, and noted that we weren’t cat people ourselves (my family, while I was growing up, had one cat, Tina Mina, for a few years) so the odds of our having toxo were somewhat diminished.
This morning, Stuart David’s song ‘The Spider Man’ came up on my iTunes random shuffle; he used to play bass for Belle and Sebastian, and has for a while been recording under the band name Looper. ‘The Spider Man’ was on Looper’s first EP (which you can now download for free!); it caught my attention because the song begins by narrating the singer’s walk home

Straight up University Avenue, then right on Byres Road.
And at the top I turn onto Observatory, then down the lane and home.
I don’t even think about it anymore,
I just start walking and twenty minutes later I’ll find myself there.

which closely parallels our own walk back to our flat at the end of the day (David presumably envisions the subject of the song as either a student or staff member at the University of Glasgow). So that delighted me; if I knew what David looked like, I might give him a ‘Heya’ when our paths cross. (We may have another indirect connection, since I’m busily vying for the title of Mayor of Dowanhill Park with Gavin Dunbar, the bass player of Camera Obscura, one of my favourite Scottish bands — but I don’t know if the two West End bass players are acquainted.)
‘The Spider Man’ then goes on to note that ‘A few nights ago I went into Barrets [a Byres Road stationers, where Margaret and I also shop] to buy the newspaper I always buy’, but he discovers that instead he has bought a science magazine that includes a feature about Polysphincta gutfreundi, the wasp whose larvae inhabit and ‘possess’ the orb spiders in which they gestate — the same wasp-and-spider to which The Atlantic compares T. gondii.
I’m not sure that all means anything particular, but the earworm in my brain instructed me to post about it.