Illusions of Publishing and Permanence

I had a great meeting with my colleague who’s in charge of helping with grant developments and applications the other day. The best part was the he recognised the project, and said ‘by the second paragraph I was thinking, “This is really exciting”’. He has abundant intriguing suggestions for where to go with the project, and we’ll be working together to parlay the ideas into events, impact, publications, and so on.
One of his suggestions, though, turned me off — and (paradoxically, for my identity as a techno kind of humanist) that ‘No, no’ suggestion was that we develop my project into a website. Now, you know that I’m not against the Web; perish the thought! His suggestion did trigger reflections about bespoke websites for projects. Too often I’ve seen websites devoted to X or Y good idea, or exhibition, or promising venture, that manifestly haven’t been touched by an updater’s hand in years. They often promote ‘future’ developments that haven’t materialised in years; they discuss ‘contemporary’ states of affairs that have now become past history (and often the future these sites foresaw missed their target by embarrassing margins).
But even more ‘project’ websites have simply disappeared. They aren’t there. They’re the targets of dead links. The pointers that lead to them indicate something of what might have been going on back then, but the void at the end of the link slaps the interested researcher in the face.
All of this came to mind, because this is a respect in which web publication differs from print publication and even to most film/video projects (Hugo illustrated this phenomenon winningly with regard to early cinema). I’ve often looked for back posts of Tom Matrullo’s, because Tom gave articulate, prescient, and lucid characterisations of the Web we saw at the turn of the century. But Tom was blogging with Dave Winer’s platform, a brilliant pioneering effort at the time, but with several complications. In the first instance, they relied on Dave’s servers. That meant that when he felt that some spiderbots were hitting his servers too often, too hard, he scripted his servers to exclude those bots with a request that they let up. That meant that (for instance)’s Wayback Machine was fenced out from archiving Tom Matrullo’s blog. But then in the second instance, when Dave suddenly gave up on (some blogs were carried over and preserved; others were not), Tom’s blog vanished from the digital record. Similarly, when Seabury ended its seminary teaching program, various of my digital documents were eradicated. I had back-up copies, so I can retrieve what I need — but a browser who looks for anything of mine at will find nowt. Any volunteer columnist for a local weekly newspaper has a better-documented oeuvre than some unlucky bloggers and researchers who wrote in the age of infinite reproduction.
So when I hear ‘project’ in conjunction with ‘website’, I think of dusty neglected sites, or of weeks/months/years of labour consigned to the void. Someone imagined that ‘the future’ would perpetuate her or his work indefinitely, and the future turned around and smacked down those notions, hard.
One way around that, of course, would be to develop a hosting environment specialised for ‘project’ destinations — comparable to a ‘publisher’, with concomitant interests in archiving, discoverability, searchability, and so on. I’m not sure what the business model might be — perhaps eliciting subscriptions from sponsoring institutions, perhaps an arrangement with, perhaps just plain philanthropic interest in preserving noteworthy digital ventures. But until I see pretty clearly how a web venture might be sustained into an indefinite future, I’ll decline to invest much time and energy into that particular mode of representation.

For Friends

My turn to preach came up this week, so I buckled in yesterday and — despite interruptions from Olympic bicycling, swimming, and gymnastics — hammered out a sermon. There were several biblical-theological themes on my mind, and also the situations of a parishioner who recently died, and several of my long-time friends who are caught up in the toils of very serious medical situations, plus the stunning performance of ‘Abide With Me’ by recent University of Glasgow alumna Emeli Sandé and the Style Council’s five-star recording ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’. That’s a lot.
It all worked out, and the sermon was warmly received. (It’s below in the ‘Continue Reading’ portion, if you’re looking at my home page right now; if you came to the page for this sermon, you won’t see the ‘Continue Reading’ link, so you can just go ahead. Maybe make some toast.) There’s a paragraph I’d really wish were more craftsmanlike, but the rest turned out better than I hoped. It’s for you — four or five of you in particular, but if you think it maybe’s for you, then assuredly you’re one of the half dozen people who’s been on my mind.
In a few hours, Doug will swing past and carry us off to Knockbrex, where we will spend a few days away from the bustle of city life, (ideally) writing and resting and breathing in (Irish) sea air and sunning ourselves on the beach. I’m not sure if we’ll have reliable connectivity, so if you don’t see me for a few days, don’t worry.

Low Tide

Continue reading “For Friends”

Vital Signs

A couple of my recent ecclesiastical posts have attracted a lot of attention, thanks (on one hand) to the convergence of digital activity around the time of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the USA and related areas (which I’ve dubbed, for shorthand purposes, ‘ECUS&’ — not out of disrespect for the non-USA portions of that body, but because ‘ECUSA’ is inaccurate, as is the grandiose self-designation ‘The Episcopal Church’ [Scotland, then, must not be ‘episcopal’, eh?] — hence, ‘ECUS&’, whose ampersand even looks like an ‘A’), and on the other hand from Kendall Harmon, who is a web traffic titan*, and on yet a third hand (where’s Zaphod Beeblebrox when you need him?) from Twitter. There’s a shared point in both my GenCon and my ‘excellence’ posts that I’ll try to state briefly.
That point is that attendance is not a direct index of anything vital to the church. Sometimes high attendance correlates to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on a blessed community’s faithful prayers and praises, but sometimes it’s a sign of cultural habit, sometimes of crass demagogic pandering, sometimes of fortuitous location or pleasant appearance. I’ve known congregations with pretty hollow high attendance figures, and deeply holy congregations where only a few hardy saints worshiped. And just as I wouldn’t want my detractors to gloat if I were responsible for a declining congregation, so I would hope not to snicker and jape at the stumbling of institutions where I’d be unwelcome.
And attendance numbers are fiddly things anyway; anyone who’s been in a sacristy after services may have noticed that clergy sometimes share with fishermen a capacity to see larger than the rest of us. (Put it this brutal way: Does having a liar for a rector make the congregation spiritually healthier? ’Cos it’ll for darn sure improve your attendance numbers.) While attendance statistics are not insignificant, neither are they an immediate cue for ominous staccato violins in the background, nor for raucously exultant fanfares. It’s more complicated than that.
Numbers are not an unambiguous index of spiritual decline, nor of spiritual vitality. The discussion amounts mostly to spin-doctoring, cheerleading, rather than praying, serving, studying, or any other Christian responsibility. Instead of arguing about how reliable the numbers are, and about what they mean, I strongly advise everybody concerned to redouble their commitment to seeking the well-being of their cities; to proclaiming the Word more soundly, persuasively, beautifully; to bearing humble, patient witness to the good news we profess; to costly service to hungry, wounded, outcast strangers and friends. If you spend hours polemicising against your enemies (who nonetheless don’t change their minds), what good have you done?
Pro, con, liberal, conservative, reasserter, reassesser, Episcopalian, Anglican, whoever you are, you have much more important — and more godly — things to do than over-investing in numbers. As Titus 3:9 reminds us, ‘Avoid stupid debates, genealogies, conflicts, and legal squabbles, which are useless and pointless.’


* I just noticed, and I’m impressed, that Kendall serves only one banner ad per page; that’s real restraint, when he could fill wider margins with smaller ads. He’s voluntarily forgoing a decent sum of money, which warrants respect.

Law, Axiom, or Whatever

I don’t know if it counts as a Law, an Axiom, a Maxim, or any other sort of anything — nor do I know if someone has formulated it before (this is one way of finding out). However, in case no one has, I herewith promulgate the following predictable correlation:

The longer you possess a bag (backpack, brief a, satchel, purse, messenger pack), the heavier it gets. This holds even after the bag has been emptied of detritus and refilled with things you really need for your day.

I observe this, you will not be surprised to know, because the case I’ve been carrying to and from work, which contains only my iPad, a notebook/holder, my diary (= ‘calendar’ for the benefit of my friends in the States), and a couple other things that have fallen in there over the years, has become distinctly heavier recently.
I suspect, although I cannot prove at my current level of funding, that carrying devices function as Higgs Boson attractors. CERN could probably have saved a lot of time if they’d experimented with physicists’ backpacks and purses. Anyway, there’s AKMA’s Axiom for you.

On ‘For A Reason’

Last year when the Mountain Goats came through Glasgow, John Darnielle performed the (unreleased) ‘Sign of the Crow 2’ (link to an earlier performance) with specific reference to my attending the show (‘There’s a guy who wrote a religious paper about my band’s last album I think maybe is here, and I know that he might like the more ecclesiastically-based stuff’). I was honoured, of course, and didn’t mind in the least when partway into the second verse he interrupted the song ’cos he’d skipped ahead.
As he paused to explain that he’s missed out a verse, Jon Wurster leaned back onstage and turned off the mike for the trap drums. John D. noticed this and observed,

‘See? Everything happens for a reason — I don’t believe that at all, by the way. It’s one of those things they tell you in order to keep the chaos at bay. “Oh, everything happens for a reason.” You go on telling yourself that. This song is about how everything happens for a reason, but we don’t know what the reason is, and if you knew, you’d be angry!’


I mention this in connection with the recent circulation of ‘Ten Things Christians Should Never Say’, among which ‘everything happens for a reason’ was listed, and because I hadn’t transcribed the observation before.
Plus, he’s giving away one of the tracks — ‘Cry For Judas’ (!) — from the Mountain Goats’ forthcoming album here, or you can buy it from iTunes. I’m-a go listen to it now.

Another LazyWeb Suggestion

There are skillions of disparate resources for eliciting and saving bibliographic information on the web, but there isn’t the right one. The Right One is just a webpage with a search window, comparable to Google’s old interface. Enter as much as you know about a publication, and the page responds by listing the most plausible matches online. Click the one you want, and it returns a page with that publication data formatted in each of a dozen or more labelled styles (MLA, MHRA, Chicago/Turabian, APA), in-text and footnote and so on. At the side of the entry there’s a ‘copy’ button, for copying the item to the clipboard. Bing, bang, bong, you’re done.

This, and This

Here’s a shocking news flash: my boss at the Cathedral and I disagree about things. Shock! Horror! We disagree about things, and we go ahead with life and serving God, and he doesn’t try to stifle me, and I don’t try to undermine him. And as far as I’m concerned, we get along fine.
So I don’t take it for granted that we’ll agree about sermons or liturgy or theology or church life. And when it happens that we do agree, when he knocks it for six, it’s not just cosy log-rolling for me to affirm his point. This morning, Kelvin says what great many people won’t: that excellence and forethought and diligence and attention really do make a tremendous difference in church vitality. If people don’t bother coming to church, it may be that church is giving them no reason to attend.
Now, that requires a few further clarifications. If you love Jesus all the way, you understand that we go to church not just because the choir is good or the preacher is wise or the worship raises your spirits to new heights; we go to church because it’s by faithful participation in the Body of Christ that we renew our sense of who we are, and of what we’re doing here — and by our participation, we encourage others to recognise themselves and their own callings. And there are some circumstances that call for us to withdraw from expressing our commitment to God in church gatherings, but those occasions are always fewer than our moodiness and self-interest incline us to think. So I’m not saying, and I don’t think Kelvin is saying, that the principal reason for going to church is or should be, to appreciate the exquisite production values of a Sunday-morning show of ecclesiastical proficiency.
But if we grant that the Spirit longs for us to draw near with sisters and brothers, and together to bear witness to the truth in ritual and song and speech, we ought every bit as much to acknowledge that it’s fully possible for us to put obstacles between people and the Spirit. Our behaviour — insufferably posh, or self-consciously folksy, or toxically partisan, or explicitly exclusivist, or whatever — can chase people away. Our disregard for our social environment can make it hard for people to get to our threshold (much less to cross it). Our neglect of our own capacities can tempt us to push beyond the bounds of competence into the miasmic swamps of (unaware) mediocrity. Our churches can be positively, effectually repulsive to people, and saying, ‘I guess it’s just the Holy Spirit’s will that they not come’ or ‘It’s just not realistic to expect these people to appreciate…’ or ‘Maybe this new technique will…’ misses a great proportion of the point.
As many of my readers have heard me say before, we don’t hear Bruce Springsteen saying ‘Guess the Holy Spirit doesn’t want people to come to this show’, or ‘It’s just not meant to be’. Springsteen doesn’t implore people to ‘bring a friend to Springsteen’ in order for people to find out that his concerts aren’t as unpleasant as everyone assumes they are. The E Street Band doesn’t hold committee meetings to figure out how to put bums in the pews. The terrific (and long!) profile of Springsteen and the band in the New Yorker underscores the point that being Springsteen is very hard work. Genious, of a kind, but damned hard-working genius, costly, painstaking, and unrelenting. And folks who spurn anything that smacks of ‘performance’ in their worship may roll their eyes (theatrically), but very few congregations work anywhere nearly that hard, that carefully, that thoughtfully, that energetically at raising a joyful sound unto the Lord.
So at the convergence of Kelvin and Bruce… (I’m pausing to let the imagination of that conjunction blossom in your minds)… at the convergence to my boss and The Boss, I propose some hard lessons about church life. One, if your aren’t trying your very hardest, then don’t blame God or the people or the organ or the organist or the choir or the lack of a parking lot or the building or the stifling liturgical tradition or your bishop or synod or presbytery or fellowship or any other person or entity. Start with yourself, demand the utmost of yourself, if for no other reason than that angels and archangels and all the company of heaven are always present, and if your cack-handed liturgical observance and half-baked sermon and torturous musical offering affront those who are always present in the Spirit, then you have no business imagining that those who have the option of skipping out in the flesh will not avail themselves of that opportunity.
Two, if you sense in your circumstances particular limitations — if you know yourself not to be a competent preacher, or if the leadership of the musical element in your worship falls short of pitch-positive, or if the building reverberates, has no sightlines, drops bricks on congregants’ heads once a month, find some way to work with or around those circumstances. Don’t repeat the Charge of the Light Brigade week after week; you don’t have five thousand souls to squander. And by all means don’t pretend there’s no problem, nor spend all day apologising. Grace and humility and imagination and thoughtfulness go a lot further than sheer bloody-minded determination. (Unless ‘determination’ is your spiritual gift, but maybe be sure that’s really the gift rather than a curse.) Kelvin’s column foregrounds ‘cathedrals’, but no one expects a rural parish to reflect all the many dimensions of excellence that a cathedral may; instead, cultivating small excellences, modest beauties, focused brilliances. Here’s a tip: the heart of the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer has served for hundreds of years, in staggeringly diverse cultures; do you really think you’re a better writer? Is your bright idea really that much more relevant, truthful, illuminating than what has been handed down to you? (Obviously non-Episcopal congregations will have different resources for worship, but the premise is the same: get over yourself. You don’t write better drama than Shakespeare, you don’t write better hymnody than Wesley(s), you don’t know Jesus better than the evangelists, and so on.) Small, limited congregations have the opportunity to flourish in ways different from cathedrals — but some modes of excellence will always be available to you. If nothing else comes to mind, try improving yourself, your worship leadership, your preaching, because you can always improve.
Three, encourage excellence where you find it without stirring up needless, empty conflict over ego, turf, credit. If you don’t know, through and through, that positive worship arises from cooperation and teamwork on the part of every participant, you probably don’t adequately understand what’s going on. The more you give away, the more thankful you are for everyone else, the more freely people can size up your contribution. If they join you in applauding the choir, the organist, the office administrator, the ushers, and acolytes, and Altar Guild, the flower arrangers, and the sexton, but it never occurs to anyone to applaud you, there may be a lesson in that.
Four — it is, from beginning to end, a matter of serving God. If you lost sight of that, you’re asking for the demons of egotism, laziness, prejudice, insularity, and narcissism to move in, and your latter state will be worse than the first.
And if hard work, collaboration, selflessness, and thoughtful openness seem unreasonably onerous to you — then I invite you to blame God, and the rest of us will draw our own conclusions.

Pride By Association

One of the majestic blessings of my years studying in Duke’s graduate program came from spending time in seminars, in the grad lounge, and generally to and fro with a great man and a great theologian, Willie Jennings. I don’t think I’ve ever studied with someone alongside whom it was more fun to learn. Whether we agreed or disagreed, I found that the workout of testing ideas in conversation with Willie was always seasoned with generosity, respect, and a manifest sense that each was striving toward a goal we shared.
Willie spent many years working hard in the Duke Divinity School administration, but a few years ago he published The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, a book that Margaret had known to be excited about since she had picked up the hints and clues about it from Willie while she was studying for her doctorate, and on publication Willie’s book won the 2011 American Academy of Religion’s Award for Excellence in the Constructive-Reflective Study of Religion. When I had the chance to teach at Duke for a year, it was great to work alongside Willie again.
So when Mary posted videos of Willie’s lecture and Q-and-A at Luther Seminary last year, I rushed to check them out. They‘re long, but Willie’s a terrific lecturer, and it’s well worth it to learn from a first-class theologian whose brilliance — and especially, whose friendship — helps me understand how to think better and how to be better.


Idiosyncracy Is Its Own Reward (Penalty)

As I said on Facebook the other day, I’m working on a grant application, partly because it’s de rigeur for us to apply for grants whether we want any or not, and partly because it would actually be encouraging to receive the imprimatur of a granting agency for my hermeneutics work. I’m hammering out the 1000-word explanation of my project now; it has gotten somewhat easier through the repetition of decades past, but it’s still tough to distill an idea that runs against the grain of almost everyone else working in the field into a plausible concise ‘explanation’. (I realised in a sleepless moment, the other night, that this endeavour constitutes, in many respects, a continuation of the first interesting paper I wrote as a seminarian 28 years ago (‘Parable, Jokee, and Dream’ for David Lull’s Parables course at YDS). You might think I’d have gotten good at it by now.
Anyway, a couple further observations: One, I would give me a grant just for the bibliography, which mostly just recapitulates the ‘Syllabus of my Imagination’, but when you put them in alphabetical order (with all the intriguing juxtapositions that entails — ‘Luce, I’d like you to meet Alan’; ‘Scott, you know Friedrich’; ‘Edward, Ludwig, I thought you’d have a lot to say to one another’), it cries out ‘This project will fascinate — or horrify — me’. Two, it underscores that the project is orthogonal to the sorts of venture that make sense right from the start to colleagues and, presumably, granting agencies.
So either it’ll look like exactly what you want to support, if you’re inclined to think I’m at least intriguing, if not right; or a total waste of time and money, if you’re a normal civilian. ‘Cult classic, not best-seller’, as Mike Skinner says.

Copyright Headaches Of An Academic

A while ago, one of my esteemed colleagues inveigled me into editing a collection of essays, for which we agreed that I would publish the essay about Magritte and Krazy Kat that I started working on several years ago. I’ll need to go over the article a few times to comb out the tangles from having been presented in a couple of live settings, and to orient it toward the trajectory of the whole collection, but those will be minor commitments; the article is mostly where I want it to be.
As you might expect, though, that argument invokes several illustrations by René Magritte and George Herriman, and one of the reasons I had let the argument lie in abeyance was that I anticipated vexation in obtaining the rights to reproduce those images. I’ve been exchanging emails with the folks at Fantagraphics, who have published Herriman’s full-page Sunday versions of Krazy Kat comics, and they’ve been a dream come true to work with. To be fair, all the images I want to work with come from comics in the public domain; but Fantagraphics has what one might call the canonical digital representations of the images, and there’s no need for them to be as accommodating as they have been. Hey, go buy something from them — they’re champs! Go, Fantagraphics!
Less helpful — though absolutely within their legal prerogatives — have been the guardians of the rights to Magritte’s work. Now, surely they have been ill-used by college dorm-room poster printers, and certainly Magritte’s brilliance warrants his heirs eliciting their full due from others who want to use his work for profit. In my case, I’m hoping to use several of the individual frames from his essay ‘Les mots et les images’, published in La Révolution Surréaliste in 1929 (had to be 1929, not 1926!). If Magritte had written the entire essay in words, I could have quoted freely from it, without impediment, as a normal matter of academic business. But because he illustrated the essay with sketches — and because the sketches constitute the heart of the argument — the agents for Magritte’s rights have a number of stipulations and, of course, expected payments (probably not unreasonable rates, but daunting to an impecunious academic). Moreover — because I seek permission to reprint two or three (two, at this rate) of the individual frames rather than the entire illustrated essay at one go, they require approval of the presentation, and a separate fee for each image.
It’s occurred to me to obtain permission to print the whole tableau, and just refer to particular frames as they come into the argument — I haven’t ruled that out — but the alternative underscores how peculiar the situation is. If I squeeze the whole tableau into my page layout, I only pay one fee, readers will see the whole thing, and the representation will be more crowded andf less legible, serving both my argument and Magritte’s reputation less well. If reprint only three of the frames, I have to pay three times as much, readers will see less of the tableau (and would be motivated to seek out the whole image elsewhere), the frames will be more legible and convincing, and I’ll have to send copies of the page layout to the Magritte agents for their approval — a lot more bother and contingency. And as my linking demonstrates, it’s easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy to find copies of the tableau floating around the Internet.
I’m not whining about having to pay the Magritte agents; that’s what I expeced when I contacted them. I didn’t expect quite the complexity of the negotiations, and the whole experience underscores part of the point of the whole essay, that is, the reculiar relationship between words (which, though copyrighted, can be quoted freely for academic purposes) and images (for which payment and design approval will be requisite). Go figure.

Reception History Resource

Once upon a time, scholars had to resort to all manner of ingenuity to scare up research sources — among them, ‘word of mouth’, our professors’ casual allusions, and the library circulation cards that we used to have to sign when we withdrew books from our libraries (ask your parents, kids). One of the resources that I’ve drawn on many times over the years is James Darling’s Cyclopaedia bibliographica:a library manual of theological and general literature, and guide to books for authors, preachers, students, and literary men. Analytical, bibliographical, and biographical, a great bibliographic reference for obscure treatments of biblical passages and topics. I believe Brevard Childs tipped me off to this when I was at YDS; I could walk to the spot where it used to be shelved in the YDS library (and also at Garrett, I think).
Now, you new-fangled research kids can just download it from Google Books or