Do You Think?

I suggested something along these lines of this article from the South Carolina State in response to some questions from Jordon Cooper a while back: it turns out that churches (laggards at recognizing the benefits of the Net in general and weblogs in particular) have recognized the benefits of podcasting, and now constitute a large and growing segment of the podcasting spectrum (I found the link via largehearted boy).

Congratulations to congregations that have seen this opportunity to use what they do best to their advantage; I’m delighted that St. Luke’s makes our sermons available as mp3s, along with some of the choral music (don’t miss the Biebl “Ave Maria”), and it wouldn’t take much to rig them up as podcasts.

The startling discovery that provides the take-away line for this article, however, must be repeated here: “Religious podcasters said they like the medium because it’s an inexpensive way to reach the masses.” Really?

Biting Back at Reality

Pippa and I went to the library tonight, and I took out a couple of books. Now, this seems (on the face of it) a plausible enough gesture, until you recall that the last time I went to the library I took out Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting, — a 600-page tome that I haven’t even begun reading. I thought of a couple more books I ought to be reading to prepare for my spring series of talks, and today I received twenty-odd papers to mark, with a set of final exams coming in next week.

As I wandered haplessly toward the library check-out desk, I realized that this constituted a pathetic charade: since I no longer have time to read, I go through the motions by taking books out, and then returning them a week or so later, as though I’d read them. Not only is that embarrassingly irrational behavior, it deprives other Evanstonians of the use of good books while I sit beside the stack of books on my desk, wishing they would read themselves to me while I struggle with my round of tasks.

This will not do — no longer.

I’m about to head upstairs, where I will read a chapter or two of Worship as Meaning before I go to sleep, no matter what.
I will learn to read again; I will not give in to attention entropy.

Cheerier Note

Margaret’s iBook died last week, midweek, and I conducted some long-distance pastoral care-cum-tech support. We talked through the problem and got her to Duke’s computing center, all good (apart from having to go without her computer for a week in the middle of the term). She’s been managing all right, apart from withdrawal symptoms, checking her email via webmail interface at open lab computers.

This morning she was checking her email and realized that lost among the messages from Josiah, weather updates, and helpful anatomical, relationship, pharmaceutical, real estate, and inheritance advice, was a note from the Computer Center saying that her iBook was ready. Although they had her phone number, they emailed her to say she could come pick up her computer.

And yesterday I had to open some files from my long-ago WordPerfect phase (Chris emailed me for the report on iWork, which is pretty good, so far — not perfect). I used nothing but WordPerfect for about a year and a half, and since there’s no native WordPerfect solution on OS X, I’ve been grouchily booting into Classic every time I needed something from those years. Yesterday I recalled, however, that the latest version of AbiWord is supposed to open WordPerfect filers, so I tried it and — yessirree Bob, it opens them beautifully. One more onerous use for Classic eliminated!

Another Memo

Reminder to self and readers: It’s pivotally important that we reflect on and work out our theologies concerning death — but the time to do that is when things are going well, when the road’s pretty smooth. A time for grieving brings with it other tasks.

The medievals were not simply gloomy, morbid weirdos; the skull on a medieval desk reminds us of our mortality, and of our need to come to terms with mortality, at a time when grace offers us some measure of respite for reflection and prayer.

Address On The Right Use Of Speculative Literature

Yesterday BoingBoing flagged an argument by sf novelist Will Shetterly that reading science fiction helped make him a better Unitarian — and in the cited article, Shetterly makes an appealing case. On the other hand, students from Seabury’s Early Church History class may remember that nearly 1700 years ago, St. Basil [the Great*] of Caesarea made a comparable argument relative to the pagan literature of classical antiquity. The earliest Christians distanced themselves from pagan literature, as the Apostolic Tradition 16 illustrates when it limits the possibility of schoolteachers to become Christians (presumably because they inculcate the myths of Hellenistic civil religion). Basil, on the other hand, argued that when young people (“young men,” to Basil, despite Macrina’s good example) study the classics, they apprehend the dim outline of such Scriptural truths as they are not yet ready to encounter directly. The youths who study literature stand to learn nobility and virtue from authors whom everyone admires for their insight. At least, they stand so to learn as long as they don’t linger over the salacious passages.

Pretty good for an old guy, especially considering that Basil hadn’t read Dune even once!

* I was about to mourn the era in which theologians got jazzy nicknames like Basil the Great or Gregory the Wonderworker or Peter Comestor (“the Eater”) — but given the temper of the moment, when the cleverest nicknames flying around seem to involve calling the U.S. Presiding Bishop “Grizzy” or tagging the Archbishop of Canterbury as a “sick chicken,” I suppose we’re better off without, for now. . . .

Short Conundrum

I’m thinking over the Primates’ Statement, and although I’d have wished it different, I’m not surprised by its general tenor.

One source of puzzlement, though: why do the Primates ask that the US and Canada withdraw from the Anglican Consultative Council? Does this imply a hierarchy of the Instruments of Unity, such that the Primates constitute a “higher” instrument than the Consultative Council? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the Primates to ask the primates of the US and Canada to withdraw, and to let the Consultative Council make its own requests relative to particular delegations?

Isn’t this request especially odd since it coincides with a request that the U.S. and Canada return to the Council in special status to explain their actions?

I’m not lobbying against asking for “withdrawal” per se; that seems a consistent gesture on the part of the relevant authorities. I am curious about what the present request implies about the Windsor process, its present standing as a guideline for institutional action, and its standing as a goal.

If you want to have a conversation (as the Primates expressly said they do), it seems odd to kick some people out for not cooperating, then invite them back provisionally to hold up their end of the conversation. It would make more sense to me for them to simply say, “You didn’t convince us; you’re out, for now,” or to say, “We want you to give us your best shot at making a case that we’re sure you can’t make. Come back to the Consultative Council; we’ll give you a hearing, then you can decide what to do when we ask you to withdraw.” To that extent, the outcome of the primates’ meeting misses the opportunity to stake out a clear message.

Time For An Update?

Seems as though the Bad Guys have devised a way to induce Safari to generate pop-behind windows, even when the “block pop-ups” preference is checked.

I’m just saying. . . .

Liturgy, Meaning, and Teaching

Tripp pursues one of the main topics of his thesis in this morning’s post. He worries about the dialectical relationship between “teaching” and “worship” in liturgy: “How do we understand the purpose of liturgy as a teaching tool? It seems that whenever we become too didactic, we cannot worship, but the moment we stop explaining then worship becomes meaningless.”

[Disclaimer: With regard to what follows, readers should bear in mind that I am not a card-carrying “evangelical” (as Tripp seems to have become, at least for a day) nor a scholar of liturgics. I am what the jargonmeisters call a reflective practitioner of leading worship, and (most to the point) an avid student of semiotics, of the study of meaning and what we do about it.]

Tripp seems to have gotten stuck at the wrong point in the argument, though. It’s not that liturgical worship is ever meaningless, any more than a Unix manual, or a volume of the Summa Theologia, or an essay by a postmodern theorist. “Meaninglessness” applies neither to the published words of people whose expertise doesn’t overlap with our own nor to the enacted words and gestures of a worshipper whose relation to those actions doesn’t overlap with our own — in these cases, the kind of meaning we (presumably) seek eludes us, but the words and gestures nonetheless continue to mean. If nothing else, they may mean something such as “the author of this work (of worship or prose) expects me to regard baffling obfuscation as mystical profundity.” Japanese isn’t meaningless because I don’t understand it; the problem lies not with Japanese or its speakers, but with my ignorance.

With regard to liturgy and Tripp’s dilemma, then, it looks as though Tripp is conflating the kind of teaching by which one learns a language (or a discourse or a sort of cultural behavior or a craft) with the kind of learning by which one moves from the dim, frustrating perception of what each word means toward the appreciation of sentences, thoughts, meditations, and so on. It takes a long time to learn Greek, and once one has attained elementary acquaintance with the language, one still has a hard time puzzling out what Aristotle thinks about ethics; but it seems worthwhile to distinguish the two processes.

The notion that liturgy should be self-explanatory, should comprise both the expression of thankful praise and the metacommentary that articulates that expression in plain, open terms, serves particular theological-ideological purposes. That notion eases the transition between not having the vaguest idea why Christians do the sorts of thing that they do (or having a misguided idea) and recognizing the rationale for liturgical behavior.

At the same time, some ideas and some gestures depend for their intelligibility on prior formation. Schoolteachers try to inculcate the background knowledge and sensibilities by which students may relish Shakespeare’s plays or von Bismarck’s statecraft — but without some sort of preparatory instruction, few learners will find King Lear especially “meaningful.” I once found myself in an argument over the extent to which “meaning” transcends cultural specificity, in which debate my interlocutor cited the example of Antigone as evidence that something about our common human essence binds us to the great works of antiquity. That example seemed contrariwise to demonstrate my point: unless we’re instructed beforehand about Antigone’s family history, about ancient piety and burial practices, about the politics of Sophocles’s own day, Antigone may well seem absurdly meaningless, not because of a defect in our alleged common humanity, but because the drama relies on a context of shared information and assumptions on which we just can’t draw. If a vendor won’t exchange her goods for my foreign currency, the problem isn’t that the currency is intrinsically worthless, but that we haven’t worked out a context within which it might have value.

Back to liturgy: we shouldn’t expect every service to teach the faith at an introductory level, or to evoke the deepest mystical truths, any more than every book be written by Dr. Seuss or Jürgen Habermas. I think it’s probably fair to wish that every service point toward the greater mysteries, and that no service constitute itself so as to repel visitors — but a great part of the life of faith (as it comes to expression in the liturgy) involves putting into practice things one has learned outside the liturgy. Just as one is taught table manners over time, usually at home, before one attends a formal dinner, so the teaching ministry of family and congregation prepare people, over time, for the fullest participation in a solemn mass.

In any case, the meaning subsists not just in a participant’s experience, not just in the leader’s intent, but in a complex of intentions, conventions, receptions, and innovations that (to recur to one of my favorite topics) we don’t control. The challenge for each worship leader, or for each participant in liturgical planning, involves not a simple dialectic of teaching and worship, but a negotiation among the calls to nuance and to explicitness, to that which is shared with generations of worshippers reaching into antiquity and to that which stimulates the most vivid sense of contemporaneity, to theological truth expressed in actions and words whose intelligibility derives from their roles in a great shared discourse of liturgical art, and to evangelical transparency expressed in a shared vernacular discourse of colloquial immediacy — among other urgent imperatives.

So I’d suggest (at a minimum) specific effort among regular members of the congregation to assimilate and understand the congregation’s liturgy so as to be able to bring visitors into the stylized theological conversation. (Catechizing the regulars provides all manner of benefits, this just one among them.) At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt if the congregation provided (along with its regular bulletin, assuming that they use a bulletin) a very simple guide to the congregation’s worship. It needn’t pares every technicality or define every term, but should provide enough guidance that a visitor not feel quite lost. The combination of a friendly, helpful congregant and a basic, direct guide-leaflet would do a lot of the work of elementary liturgical instruction.

Simultaneously, the congregation could devote serious time and consideration to the reasons for its liturgical practice, and the significance of the liturgical decisions it makes. Tripp knows how vexed I get when people think that “ ’Cos I like it that way” trumps all other reasons in shared liturgical deliberation. Common worship involves a tremendous amount more than your or my individual likes and dislikes; if we want to communicate among the historic, dispersed, contemporary, and future saints, we need to attend to ways that our behavior signifies beyond our preferences. To that end, we should be cautious about adopting purely local idiosyncratic formulations — however much we may like them, they may exclude the saints from taking their part in a worship God longs for all to share in.


Fresh from yesterday afternoon’s victory, Pippa and I crowned my efforts today. Early in the afternoon, she found the book on cartooning lying on the table irresistible. She perused it over her lunch, and afterward sat down and pencilled a sketch for me (I’ll post it on flickr when I have a chance).

Then I mentioned that I’d been meaning to go over to the Block Museum at Northwestern. Pippa indicated a reluctant willingness to go with me (she feels that art museums are too boring), but when I was ready to go, she preferred to stay in the basement working on a massive laundry project. That was okay; I tackled further steps in the massive financial aid project. About forty-five minutes later, Pippa showed up at my back, holding a pair of socks for me to put on, and together we spent an hour or so examining furnishings and designs by William Morris and his colleagues. I have a weakness for the Arts and Crafts style (all the more so after a visit to Glasgow and its Charles Rennie Mackintosh House), so the wallpaper patterns, books, tapestries, and stained-glass windows all captivated me. Pippa was less vividly enthralled than I, but as always she engaged the works on display quite studiously.

On the way home, we stopped at the Norris Center for a snack sushi and Chex Mix. The walk home was clear and cold, brilliant and exquisitely illumined. Glorious.