Cursory Writing

I’m busily, happily revising my essay ‘The Question Concerning Technology and Religion’ for publication in an academic journal (research, thinking and writing can be such fun! I’d forgotten!), so I don’t have time for a full-fledged post. Just want to say it’s a treat to have the chance to take this on, and to have several other short-term projects in my queue for study leave. Workaday responsibilities can too readily paralyse my imagination; turning to hard thinking, taking up the responsibility to express myself clearly and effectively for critical readers, really wakes me up. Thank you, world, for setting me to this work and for encouraging me to pursue it (though it would be even better if that ‘encouragement’ didn’t take the form of the *#$€!¥!#* REF.
Anyway, the main motivation for posting today at all is that my father-in-law’s film camera has finally gone to the big darkroom beyond, and it seems most practical not to try to find another. So he’s in the market for digital camera, and his chief requirement is that it afford telephoto capacity (whether by a zoom or separate lenses). Since it will be his first digital camera, I’m suggesting a point-and-shoot with a generous zoom, on the principle that the transition from film to digital will entail some acclimatisation in the first place; but he may want to jump directly to a DSLR (or mirrorless). Since I know that the internetz likes nothing much more than product recommendations, I’m asking my friends: any guidance on a camera for Margaret’s Dad?


I’m running through my essay on technology and religion (previous incarnation in the Introduction to Religious Studies, revised version for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics). I’m having fun filling in details and adding footnotes, rereading an essay I enjoy a lot, and imagining it appearing for academic consumption and interaction. Perhaps you all can help me — I’m trying to think of doom-and-gloom techno-skeptics of the Nicholas Carr sort (‘the Internet will make your teeth fall out even if you don’t log in!’); I remember their screeds drifting past me, but no specific names come to mind. If you think of a good example, feel free to leave me a comment. Would Jaron Lanier fit that role?

On Death, Part 2

I wrote the first part of this essay about six weeks ago, at which time I received helpful comments and promptly turned to finishing the final draft of my James commentary. The Doctrine Committee is about to meet again, though, so I need to have produced the second half of my part. It’ll be much longer than any of the other contributions, but it’s raw material for the amalgamated final product, so I’m happy to set it all out there in case any of it pleases the colleagues who piece together the final product.

When I left off, Chris Hays (about whom I could tell tales from the days when I assisted his dad as coach of the Little League teams Chris played on, but I won’t) gave me a gentle nudge to consider his [magisterial] treatise, Death In the Iron Age II and in First Isaiah, which actually spent ten weeks as the number one Amazon bestseller in the category of ‘books about concepts of death in the iron age that cost over $200’ until Amazon retired that category. A lot of Chris’s argument is somewhat beside the point of my assignment, since I’m to cover the biblical material, and much of Chris’s research concerns archaeological evidence, ancient Near Eastern parallels and contrasts, and other material that the readers of the Grosvenor Essay won’t have at hand to consult. His point, however, that the powerlessness of the dead is not an uncontested point even within the Old Testament is well taken, and when I draft the combined version of these two parts I will ramp up my account of the active influence of the dead.

And Alana pointed out that I said nothing about Deuteronomy 30:19 in my account. That was partly because i was trying to describe an understanding of death itself that might seem alien to my contemporary Christian readers; the notion of ontologically significant life continuing after death has become some ingrained that it’s very hard for many readers to even consider that possibility when they see the words before them (it’s the old ‘Well, but surely it means…’ or ‘but it could mean…’ phenomenon reassertion itself). I take the force of Dt 30:19f as divine counsel on how one ought to live, or (to put the same point from a different angle) the consequences of sin, more than What death is like. Now, those verses pertain, vividly, to the broader assignment of ars moriendi, so I should come back to them — and probably should have cover them last time — but I’ll y to roll them into the summation later.

All that being said, I’ll put my Part 2 of On Death below the fold.

Continue reading “On Death, Part 2”

Bunking Off Monday

It’s a bank holiday in England (not in Scotland, though the Uni and several other important venues were closed anyway), so I’m taking a blog day off. I’m only reporting that my Orioles, the worst organisation in Major League Baseball, swept the Minnesota Twins this weekend and proudly sit atop the American League East with an undefeated, 3-0 record. Only 159 wins to go, team!
Had a good writing day today. Thinking and writing — what a blast!

REF Justice

The past three years have unfolded for me a fascinating variety of differences below the surface similarities of higher education in the UK (and, within the UK, between Scotland and England) and the USA. One may begin with the extent to which marking is monitored here (two internal markers per essay or exam, plus an external evaluator at the Honours level), the ethos of student life (the library here is jam-packed much of the time; you would never have one of those ‘library’s empty, cut the hours’ meetings that I’ve been part of at US institutions), and proceed to plenty of other differences. I’ll expatiate about other differences another time, I’m sure.
This morning, though, I’m moved to explain one of the most barbaric and counterproductive aspects of higher education in the UK, namely, the Research Excellence Framework. Technically, it is usually identified by its initials preceded by an intensifying modifier: ‘the accursed REF’, ‘the *#$€!¥!#* REF’, for instance.
In order to understand the *#$€!¥!#* REF, you should bear in mind that universities over here have for the past century or so been funded almost exclusively by the government. That’s a system that has cultivated one of the outstanding educational systems in the world, second (perhaps, though it depends on the sample one takes) or superior to the USA. Since the economic collapse (for which the universities and other public services must have been primarily responsible, since it’s our funding being cut and not financiers having to repay the losses their speculation caused), funding for teaching (as distinct from research) is being cut to the bone; for humanities disciplines, our main government contribution will come for research. And the way the government’s research funding is determined is the *#$€!¥!#* REF.
(Research funding was determined by the *#$€!¥!#* REF’s predecessor, the RAE, in the past; since other sources of funding are drying up, though, the research component takes on heightened importance.)
The *#$€!¥!#* REF works this way: at a given moment, every university in the UK will gather pieces of research that represent the work of their staff in various subject areas, and a committee of scholars will evaluate all the books, essays, research reports, whatever, and assign each institution’s staff a piece of the research pie. That moment, for this REF cycle, begins January 2014. All across the UK, academics are straining to make sure that they have four significant publications in print before that deadline — all at once, except for the elect who have already published four estimable works.
Before I proceed to adumbrate several of the manifold degrees of madness this entails, let me stipulate that I am earnestly in favour of making institutions accountable for the funds they expect from the public. I’m not sure we’ve arrived at an optimal means of doing that, especially since different unis contribute to the public in different ways, but I affirm the principle, and I understand that a particular attempt to realise that principle will be flawed until such time as an optimal method of assessment emerges radiant and glorious from the minds of researchers, teachers, bureaucrats, political shills, and media moguls (you may guess that I do not expect that day to come soon).
Let’s grant, for the moment, that ‘publications’ provide a sound measure of the quality of an institution’s staff. That’s an unstable premise, but as a crude indicator it has been honoured by time and practice. Why on earth would one construct a system that samples the recent publications from every department in the UK all at once? It would make a great deal more sense to construct a rolling evaluation pattern (comparable to accreditation intervals in the USA) so that the process doesn’t generate panic-publishing across the universities at the end of a REF cycle. That would also permit the assessors to give more attention to the particulars of the work they examine (how carefully is anyone’s article on Dryden going to be read, among the thousands of contributions in the field of English Lit?).
Moreover, in an entirely predictable move, certain universities are conducting raids on the staff of others, cherry-picking research stars so that the rich remain richer while struggling departments lose what little research heft they gift have attained. If some uni decides that they’d like to add my REF contributions to their pool, so long asa I’m added to their roster in time for the December 2013 deadline, my book and articles count for them, leaving Glasgow without time to replace me for their REF roster. The pragmatically cynical predation that ensues has nothing whatsoever to do with promoting research excellence or evaluating particular universities; once the REF standing has been set, the department can let the department staff dwindle to insignificance, without penalty.
Finally, this morning, note that this system obliges scholars continually to be generating bits and bobs of research, and discourages scholars from projects whose long gestation might be justified by their profundity. A monograph and an article weigh the same in the REF (each is one publication), so although the exercise might provide a salutary brake on the mind-boggling multiplication of academic monographs, it accelerates the publication of an avalanche of articles in journals that owe their existence to the pent-up pressure to have venues for all the requisite REF-able articles.
I arrived over here partway through the REF cycle, not having been preparing to participate in such an exercise, so I’ve had to launch an energetic spasm of publishing activity; I think I’m all set now, so this is no skin off my nose. But it’s still a veritable Mad Hatter’s picnic of academic-government folly, and in its sound effort to parcel out funding in a way that correlates to productive use of those funds, it generates instead a carnival of counterproductive bureaucracy, manipulation, system-gaming, and dubious scholarship. If there’s not a better way, I suspect that just having a minister say Aye or Nay about particular funding lines makes about as much sense.

Video Before Maundy

I just found out — a little late — that the Welcome Wagon have a new album coming out soon. They’ve released a single and video for the song ‘Would You Come See Me In New York City’ before the whole album drops in June.


While I listened this morning, I wondered whether I’d like the Welcome Wagon if I hadn’t known Vito when he was in seminary. I think I would — I hear elements of other performers I like, without some of the preciosity or self-congratulatory artsiness that puts me off — but I could be fine-tuning my listening just to make room for a favourite student. Either way, I can’t resist, and it’s good, appropriate theological music for beginning Holy Weekend.
Not theological, but enjoyable to those of us who love books and design, Chip Kidd talks to TED about his work for Knopf.


And with no redeeming value at all, this is what the espresso-maker in the staff lounge sounds (and looks) like. It’s gone broken now, so I don’t hear it every morning several times, but I won’t ever forget it.


‘I gave myself to sin
I gave myself to providence
And I have been there and back again
The state that I am in’


        — Belle and Sebastian

Holy Week

In a wrap-up to the ‘renunciation of orders’ saga, this morning I received a very gracious email message from the Bishop of Chicago, acknowledging that the terminology should be refined, and thanking me for my ministries back in the States. So that’s sorted.
This week Margaret and I have arranged a complicated pattern of attendance and participation. She has grown into the life of our local parish, St Bride’s, after starting out with me at the cathedral. We expect to go each to our own services tomorrow night; then each of us is participating in Good Friday services, I reflecting on John 19:8-12, and Margaret on the Last Word ‘Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani’ (we were hoping we’d get the same assignments so that we could devise a reflection together, but it was not to be). We’ll go to the evening Easter Vigil at St Bride’s, and the Easter Morning service at the cathedral. The Glasgow Rocks basketball season is winding down, and I wasn’t fired up to go last week when game time came around, so it’s either the Easter Sunday match-up against the Essex Pirates or 22 April against the Durham Wildcats.

On Orders and Renunciation

In a curious development pertinent to my recent post about being obliged to ‘renounce my orders’ so as to serve in a different province of the Anglican Communion, the House of Bishops of the Province de l’Église Anglicane au Rwanda has had to instruct some its member bishops about orders and jurisdiction as well, though apparently with different terminology.
For the benefit of anyone who’s interested by the topic, but unfamiliar with the current state of play among Episcopalians/Anglicans around the world: some US Episcopalians are disaffected because of doctrinal/disciplinary matters in the US Episcopal Church (most prominently involving sexuality), such that they no longer can acknowledge the spiritual authority of bishops whose teachings and practice seem (to these disaffected Episcopalians) to fall culpably short of the standards for bishops. Some clergy among these US Episcopalians have been consecrated bishops by the Rwandan province, so that they can minister as bishops to other alienated US Episcopalians. A number of these Rwandan-US bishops recently withdrew from the authority of the Rwandan Anglican Church (for reasons to which I am not privy).
Now, I read that on 29 March, the Rwandan House of Bishops has advised these (separated) missionary bishops that

there are only three ways that we may “release” clergy affiliated with us:
1. By transferring them to another jurisdiction within the Anglican Communion;
2. By their voluntary renunciation of orders;
3. By formal ecclesiastical discipline.


So, at least in Rwanda’s understanding of canon law, ‘renouncing orders’ is categorically different from ‘transferring to another jurisdiction within the Anglican Communion’.
Obviously Rwandan canons don’t affect the canon law or interpretation of the US Episcopal Church — but this interpretation of ‘orders’ and ‘transferring’ appears to make more sense. The bishops in question must (on this interpretation — I’m not arguing anything about their side of the disagreement) have a canonical relationship with one or another Anglican province, but that’s a separate question from whether their orders as bishops are valid. If on the other hand they have no relationship to another recognised Anglican body, the status of their request to withdraw from the Rwandan Church is canonically intelligible only as a request to be removed from the roll of actual bishops. If my situation were interpreted on this basis, we would say that I wish to move (‘transfer’) my vows of obedience and allegiance to the Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway and the Scottish Episcopal Church — not to renounce my orders altogether.
If I understand the interpretation of canon law from the US Episcopal hierarchy, my priesthood is not in question — they’re interpreting my ‘orders’ as sort of ‘the ordered relationship that binds me to my bishop and the doctrine, disciple, and whatever of this [US Episcopal] Church’. On their account, then, it would be possible for me to maintain my ordained status without having a canonical relationship with a particular Church (and, by extension, so would the US-Rwandan bishops, if in fact the US Episcopal Church recognised their episcopal orders in the first place) — though I would not be authorised by any Church to exercise that priesthood. The Rwandan interpretation (again, if I understand it correctly) is that apart from a relationship with a particular Church, the idea of ‘orders’ is incoherent; the validity of orders depends on a living relationship of authority and accountability with a Church.
Of these two, I had been operating on premises closer to those expressed by the Rwandan bishops than those I’ve been instructed to observe by the relevant US authorities. I see elements of soundness in each. Ordination confers a grace that isn’t itself dependent on temporal authorities, or geography; but on the other hand, ‘orders’ outwith a relationship to a Church are gravely problematic.
I’m not usually very interested by canon law — but these developments point toward intriguing theological and political (in the sense of ‘church polity’) nuances. In all of this, I emphasise that I’m cooperating with my understanding of US policy, not repudiating anybody’s authority or rebelling against them. “Dissenting about what I think is a good idea’, maybe; but not rebelling or repudiating.

Not Fair At All

An Ode for Him

Ah Ben!
Say how, or when
Shall we thy guests
Meet at those lyric feasts
Made at the Sun,
The Dog, the Triple Tun?
Where we such clusters had
As made us nobly wild, not mad;
And yet each verse of thine
Outdid the meat, outdid the frolic wine.
My Ben
Or come again,
Or send to us
Thy wit’s great overplus;
But teach us yet
Wisely to husband it;
Lest we that talent spend,
And having once brought to an end
That precious stock, the store
Of such a wit the world should have no more.

                  — Robert Herrick
Four years ago today, my Dad died.
   What’s good ?
   Life’s good –
   But not fair at all
         — Lou Reed
I’m remembering him, and thinking of how wonderfully my internet friends reached out and helped me along. Thank you.
And thanks, Dad.

Franciscans Sue Starbucks

ROME (CNS) In an unexpected move, today the Franciscan Order filed suit against the Starbucks chain of coffee houses, enjoining them to refrain from using the name “cappucino” to identify their cream-topped espresso product.

Friar Roberto Pascattio, spokesman for the Order, explained that the Franciscans like a good cup of espresso as much as the next person.
“But ‘cappucino’ is a description based on a brand that the Franciscans have been cultivating for centuries.” Cappucino is so named after its resemblance to the cowled, brown-robed monks of the Capuchin Friars, a branch of the Franciscan Order. The name of the coffee drink derives either from the brown color of the monks’ robes, or the pointed crown of steamed milk that resembles the Capuchin hood. “After we’ve spent centuries building up the name recognition of our spiritual movement for simpler living, these people pirate our name and our trademark pointed hood and the goodwill associated with them, just to identify an over-priced cup of coffee.”
The Capuchins are a branch of the Franciscan Order. They were founded in the early sixteenth century as a reform movement among the Franciscans, dedicated to returning to strict observance of St. Francis’s ideals. They adopted a long, pointed hood in contrast to the close, rounded hood that more relaxed Franciscans wore. The people among whom the reformers worked nicknamed them for their hoods — “Scappuccini” — and that nickname became part of their official designation as a religious order, the Order of Friars Minor, Capuchin.
Prominent Capuchins in history include St.. Bernard of Corleone, and Padre Pio, who was recently canonized by Pope John Paul II.
In Seattle, Starbucks lawyer Thomas Billingsgate soft-pedalled the suit. “Starbucks has a latte good will toward these spiritual seekers, but everyone knows you can’t make intellectual property claims on varieties of coffee, apart from Frappucino®, Caffè Verona®, and other proprietary formulations.”
Br. Roberto indicated that Starbucks was only the first in a series of possible trademark enforcement targets for the Order. “Next, we’re looking into negotiations with those monkeys.”