Bloomsday.

Ulysses

— History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

From the playfield the boys raised a shout. A whirring whistle: goal. What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?

— The ways of the Creator are not our ways, Mr Deasy said. All history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God.

Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:

— That is God.

Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!

— What? Mr Deasy asked.

— A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.

James Joyce, Ulysses, Episode 2: Nestor.

 

Ulysses is one of my top five favorite books. And I treat A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as the introduction of it. Or Ulysses as the former’s appendix. Either way, Stephen Dedalus is intertwined with the life of Leopold Bloom. Dedalus, who reneges against the Jesuits and priesthood at the end of Portrait, is now a teacher and cannot escape God, nor history for that matter. Both books have had tremendous impact upon me, especially about a man who cannot escape religion and God… and history. God is, indeed, a shout in the street.

Today is Bloomsday, that annual celebration of a day in the life of Bloom, who wanders Dublin as a Modern Odysseus. Thousands around the world take part in travels and readings and pints raised. Today, however, I am under the weather and not feeling well. So, I am not going to Dublin, at least. But for me, who has been so deeply soaked and drenched and drowned within Greco-Roman history and literature and the esotericisms of Christian theology and Western culture and education and Modernity and postmodernity, Ulysses is a sort of dream come true for me. It is an achievement of so many things and a real pleasure to read and digest. From Augustine and apotheosis to masturbation and Molly. Molly, that unstoppable, unquenchable, wonderful loving girl that she is. Yes. yes. yes. yes. yes. yes.

Ulysses is Platonic form and chthonic Aristotle. And worth an attempt. You will not catch all the references and allusions. Joyce meant it that way. But you will experience a love and awe of life. It is something that you let wash over you. Just keep reading. Though you may be lost at first, keep reading. You will eventually get home.

Yes.

 

Henri Matisse’s cover and illustration for an edition of Ulysses for subscribers to the Limited Editions Club, 1935, recently on auction.

 

 

Rethinking the Roles of Theologians and Biblical Critics for Today’s Church

This is the first post in a series about the roles certain kinds of academics play in Christian life and community in the present United States. I encourage you to share and respond to these posts to help create a kind of conversation I feel is not taking place within and among religious communities. Constructive criticism is always welcome in the comments section.

It’s been months since I’ve led the Theology Circle at St. Lydia’s, my home church. Parenthood will do that to you. But by creating this theology circle, and seeing it develop and take shape over time, I have seen how it has both affected the community of St. Lydia’s and has been affected by that same community (I’ll get to this later). It got me thinking about broader questions about the relationships of the theologian and biblical scholar/critic to religious community. In all of the many non-academic religious communities I have participated in, there has never been an active role for theologian and biblical critics within them. So, I wanted to think about why this is and how to think about this issue during a time of continuous exodus from the pews alongside the rise of the Nones.

At the basic existential level, I must ask “what is a theologian or a biblical critic?” and “what’s the point of having them at all?” Traditionally, a church’s clergy person is the expected and sanctioned authority for such things and the sermon is often the focal point of how God and Scripture is to be interpreted and understood. Clergy is (usually) formally trained in basic biblical studies and theology in religious graduate school, i.e., seminary/divinity school, for this purpose. This training is meant to equip clergy to do their jobs as ministers and to satisfy the immediate and lasting needs of the congregation and community..

Anything beyond this is usually relegated to “Christian education.” This often appears in the form of Sunday school or Bible study or some sort of class led by someone who may or may not have formal (i.e., seminary/div school) training. Is a trained academic a useful asset here in the life of the church? Of course. But in this context they are perceived and treated as educators, and usually ad hoc ones, at that, depending on the topic of study. As important as education is, I argue that it is often considered ancillary in the being and becoming of the church. In other words, the sermon is always most important – and this is moreso in the denominations that prioritize the preaching aspect of the liturgy.

But what many people outside of Academia and “professional Christianity” may not know is that there is a large number of theologians and biblical scholars who are not and have no desire to be ordained, instead preferring to function in more academic capacities. Many of these academics have been trained in secular graduate school programs. And yet they are still active in the life (I say this broadly and loosely) of the Church.

What I am saying is that while theologians and biblical critics are most (if at all) visible in the Academy as teachers and educators, this is not always their primary vocational goal. The academic may have something to teach, but more importantly, the academic has something to think and share with others. Traditionally, this has been book-writing, but publishing and academic politics as they are, this is becoming increasingly challenging (I’ll get to this later, too). Social media, however, has radically transformed and expanded how academics communicate with each other and those outside their traditional circles.

A major challenge, of course, is the age-old wall between the professionally trained academic and the layperson. While most people would like to see a study in The New York Times based on someone’s scholarly credentials, they probably aren’t going to read the study, itself, or seek to become conversant about the nuances of the academic field. In a religious context, especially a Protestant one that puts such a strong emphasis on the authoritative and personal experience and voice of the “priesthood of all (traditionally male) believers,” this can be an issue. It also raises issues of elitism and privilege.

But I propose that the trained theologian and biblical critic each have their own roles to play along with the laity and ordained clergy in the life of one’s particular religious community. For example, instead of teaching or explaining doctrine, the theologian assists the church in creating its contextual theologies that both reflect and develop its identity in its body and parts. Instead of describing a particular construct of an idealized “biblical world,” the biblical critic assists the church in understanding and utilizing the various forms of biblical criticism that have developed over the centuries such that a more robust and diverse understanding of what ancient texts are and how they can be understood and woven into the narrative of the church’s community and individual lives. What is happening here is that the theologian and biblical critic play integral, rather than pedagogical or consultive, roles in the life of the church. This is both a threatening and reassuring act that I’ll expand upon in the future.

My next post will be about my view on the current state of academic religion (spoiler alert: it’s bleak) and the challenges of being a theologian and biblical critic in the early twenty-first century.

I look forward to continuing this dialogue with you online and in the material world.

Charles Barsotti, The New Yorker magazine. Published December 20, 2004

Charles Barsotti, The New Yorker magazine. Published December 20, 2004.

Thoughts against a Birthday’s End

(This was written last night, just before midnight.) There is a little time tonight before Kierkegaard’s birthday passes for another year. I hoped to finish The Present Age on the train home, but I left my battered copy on my office desk. I’m surprised how upset I was about it, especially since I had dragged my feet on completing it. Sometimes, it takes me awhile to get through his stuff. Everything I read I heavily annotate. It’s slow, thorough going. I may read a passage three times before I write my marginalia and move on.

&

It’s strange having a son named Søren, who is now closing in on two years of age. Especially on days when I’m thinking about Kierkegaard a lot. He’s certainly not Kierkegaard and who’s to know what kind of person he will become? That’s his own choice. I’m very Kierkegaardian about that. He will have to determine his own way, deliberately, anxiously. We can only offer and instill within him the instruments and support to become well. Recently, I hear my father’s intonation or word choice in my voice. Becoming a father is rewarding, though arduous. Moments of reflection can be overwhelming.

&

I recently finished The Paris Review, Issue 211, which closes with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Letter from Österlen and this final paragraph:

But the feeling of the summoned by the thought would not come. No sense of the depth of history, no sense of being surrounded by the majesty of the past. If the moon is an eye, then it is the eye of the dead. You are also alone, it says, each one of you. You may believe in this, you may believe in that. It avails not, my children. Fight your fight, live your life, die your death.

When I went out late tonight to get cat food, I saw the rising moon, unearthily fat and yellowed, not yet past the far street’s trees. I was startled by her size, with a sudden memory of von Trier’s Melancholia. For once I did not take my phone, so there is no record of what I saw. Not that it could be captured.

&

I haven’t written for a while and I reorganized my writing desk, moving it into our bedroom. Giving Søren his own room to sleep in, he is now by himself for the first time since his birth, though we bring him into our bed when my wife turns in for the night. He cries in the dark until we comfort him. In truth, we never outgrow that desire. It’s always dark, even if there are luminescent stars and a moon upon the bedroom wall.

When he sees it, often in the afternoon sky, Søren waves and shouts “Hi moon!” Søren loves the moon, that eye of the dead.

I needed to write something. So, this is it. Wet bones pressed against sore tendons in brown paper, unsure if they’ll stick.

bookshelf

How Not To Get By During Holy Week

For the past week, I have been obsessed with a single song off the freshly-released album by England’s indie band, the ebullient and bubbly The Go! Team. Catching me off guard while listening to KEXP online, this song floored me with its Age of Aquarius choir grounded only by an infectious drum track and ear worm chorus. This is not the kind of music I like. It’s not just super-cheerful. It’s downright joyful. But I couldn’t escape it. I just sat there, captivated, almost wanting to raise my hands in some imagined Brady Bunch choreography complete with swaying dance steps. 
When I looked and saw the title, “The Art of Getting By (Song for Heaven’s Gate),” I gasped. And I knew why I found the song irresistible. In 1997, the New Age cult Heaven’s Gate committed mass suicide, leaving for the rest of us their message that they were abandoning a doomed Earth to meet up with a UFO following the Hale-Bopp comet. It was an incredibly sad and strange story when the news broke. Identically dressed in black sweat pants and crisp, white Nikes, their upper bodies were covered in purple sheets as they committed suicide over the course of three days.  
It’s no mistake, then, that The Go! Team’s album, the scene between, was released on the anniversary of the day Heaven Gate initiated their exit from the material world. And this one song sounds so optimistic. But the lyrics are so very, very sad when the greater context of the event is known. It’s like the Children’s Crusade, it’s so upsetting. I do love songs that sound so happy, yet mean so sad. But I didn’t expect this.
I keep singing along with the chorus, as far as I decipher the words. 
I remember the past, diving into the future
I hang on from the past, diving into the future

Taking the only way we know
Taking the only thing that matters
Taking the only way we know

Taking the only thing that matters

It’s so final and deliberate. Heaven’s Gate still believes they are on their way, when, in fact, they are dead. They are singleminded in their focus. There is only one way for them. Only one thing that matters. So happy. Come on, everybody! Join in!
I think that it bothers me because I have such a hard time with “the only way” and “the only thing.” And there is no anxiety in this song. No hesitation. This song is so cheerful, it’s infectious. You want to sing along, to be a part of this. Join the chorus. Eat the laced applesauce. Drink the vodka. Go to sleep. 
It is Maundy Thursday, our day of betrayal. We betray ourselves, we betray our friends, we betray our faith, we betray our God. More than one death will come of this. It’s a time of dirges and regret. It’s going to be one of a few late nights, this week. Hold on a bit. Eat the bread. Drink the wine. Stay up a bit longer? Don’t go to sleep. 
Yeah, it’s weird to juxtapose this eccentric sci fi death cult from twenty years ago with the Triduum, but there you go. That’s what happened this year. But I think it lays bare that this week is horrific and can not be saved or salved with cheerful praise songs of divine victory over death. There is a shared, though distinct, absurdity in all of this, though. I think that the nation was troubled by that tragedy. It was a clear bright spring. The deaths were clean and orderly. Methodical. Planned. Deliberate. It took place in sunny California. And Holy Week is such a fuck up of disorder and confusion. Everything is overturned. Enter the week riding triumphant on a stolen colt, end the week dead and abandoned by your friends and God. What happened here? 
Really, this is the question we can never stop asking ourselves: What happened here? The Go! Team’s song never asks that. But we must. Because this week must continue to confound us. If it ever gets easy, so obvious, then we’re doing something very, very wrong. 

Click to listen to “The Art of Getting By (Song for Heaven’s Gate)”

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