Disaster, “Bad Stars,” and Occupy Sandy

Today is the second anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s landfall in New York. We continue to suffer the consequences, both materially and immaterially. Sandy lives with us. For a Brooklynite, this is significant. When St. Lydia’s was looking for a new space, one real concern was water. “This is the New New York,” one of us said. We are closer to the superfunded Gowanus Canal than we were in our last space. The next time the Gowanus, that River Styx of Brooklyn, floods, we will lose.

But many have lost so much more. People still live in hotels, are waiting for financial aid, are trying to rebuild their lives. People died. In the aftermath, Occupy Sandy rose up in resistance. Occupy Wall Street and various churches worked together to provide support and aid. They were not the only ones, but they were visible, especially when FEMA failed.

It is not that the Church must sustain a defensive posture for trauma. It must sustain a responsive, loving posture. A place and space and movement of grace and aid and comfort. The Church lives and exists in disaster. It is convenient when disaster is abrupt, irruptive, and plainly evident. But the disasters of climate change and institutionalized prejudice and economic exploitation are slow and seeping.

Disaster has one of my favorite etymologies. It is Greek for “bad star,” when comets and other unexpected lights in the night sky unsettled the people and spread dis/ease. A bad star appears and remains for a season and then leaves. Perhaps to return in regular intervals. Bad stars are prophets. Bad stars are uncontrollable. We are at the whim of bad stars. They are harbingers. They are our disasters.

Biblically, the most famous bad star is Revelation‘s Wormwood, which falls from the sky and poisons one third of the water. But who needs Wormwood when we are our own bad star, when we have poisoned our own water, not in a moment, but over the course of a single industrial century? The new super-hurricanes are from our decades of pollution. The disaster has been slow and creeping.

This is why we love disaster and dystopian films. The crisis is quick and observable. And we can identify the rise of heroes. And resistance resolves and reorients the world in ninety minutes. Phew. That was exciting. Let’s go to our safe homes.

Sandy did not occur over night. Sandy was years in the making. We wrought her. And she wrought back. How often do we punt causation to theodicy, when the origins are from within ourselves, when we create the conditions of our own judgments? Perhaps, it is better to lament to God for our own actions, rather than the actions we press upon God like some sticky mess. Perhaps, it is the kindness of others, in pursuit of justice, who act as what could be God’s hands, that can help us clean up from the messes we inflict upon ourselves.

Gowanus Canal after Sandy

Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal after Hurricane Sandy

 

Ten Publishing Tips for Young Academics, Revised Edition.

I’ve been in academic publishing for over seven years. Until recently, I was an editor acquiring Religion and Philosophy monographs and edited collections at a major, international academic press. Because I kept answering the same questions over and over again and saw so many young scholars make grand faux pas as they entered the academic publishing world, I wrote these ten tips a few years ago and posted them on my academia.edu page. I did this partially to help young scholars, partially so there would be less people making such dumb mistakes… okay, mostly because of dumb mistakes… and everyone kept asking me for advice. Of course, I’m not an expert, I’m just sharing some tips that I think are worth knowing and aren’t commonly shared. So, since I know this is primarily read by young theologians, I’m sharing it here, with a few tweaks.  If you have your own tweaks or recommendations or want to share experiences, feel free to use the comments section below.

Nota Bene: This is a guide for monographs, not journals or edited collections. Also, these tips will not guarantee you a contract or a flourishing publishing career. This is humanities, after all. Oh. One last thing, before you ask any questions… READ THE SYLLABUS!

1) DON’T PANIC. I’m going to give you a lot of information. Yes, it’s unsettling and overwhelming. You’re no longer a student. The game is completely different. You have to think as an author, a reader, a scholar, an editor, and book buyer. You’re not writing for a small committee of knowledgeable peers anymore. This is the big leagues. You can do this. This is what you’ve been working towards for a very long time. Welcome.

2) YOUR NEW BIBLES. Two very useful books are From Dissertation to Book, 2nd edition and Getting It Published, 2nd edition by William Germano. Germano was editor-in-chief at Columbia University Press and then vice-president and publishing director at Routledge. He knows his stuff. Listen to him. I wish they would handed out these books with PhD diplomas.

3) PREPARE TO REVISE. Understand that anything you write will have to be significantly revised regardless what anyone says. And be prepared to realize that your dissertation is very rarely your first book. I’m always leery of “ready for publication” because how scholars see the manuscript is not how editors see it. Your colleagues are complimentary, but hubristic. Anything you send for consideration will be blind peer reviewed and the editor will take the review into serious recommendation. Let the reviewer and editorial board make the call.

Nota Bene: if, by chance, you are given the opportunity to offer names of potential reviewers, DO NOT list names involved in your committee, department, or directly involved in your education. It looks like you’re trying to pull a fast one on the editor.

4) WHICH PRESS? Take a close look at your academic bookcase and dissertation bibliography. The presses you cite most are the ones you should probably consider approaching. Go to their websites and download their catalogs. Consider these questions: Are they publishing in your area? Is your work possibly a next direction for their list? Do they do ebooks? Do they publish paperbacks immediately? What’s the price point? Do they have an international reach? Is their list interdisciplinary? Do their books get good reviews in CHOICE and the leading journals? These are things to look for and consider before you sending stuff out so there are no surprises for you down the line.

5) BE PROFESSIONAL. Treat this as a job interview. Professionalism is of utmost importance. This is about building a relationship that can last for years. Write a good cover letter email and keep it short, sweet, and direct. Don’t say “there is nothing like it” or “it’s ready for publication.” Look on their website for downloadable proposal forms. Send what the press wants. Don’t send the whole manuscript. If the editor wants more, the editor will ask for it. Most presses are going wholly electronic, so sending everything as .doc files will probably suffice. Ask the press about multiple submissions. Some houses will only consider a manuscript if they are the only one in the running. DO NOT pit one house against another trying to get the best deal in royalties, format, etc. – especially as a junior scholar. We don’t have time for such haggling and you’ll burn your bridges.

6) EXPERIENCE IS PRICELESS. Why there aren’t regularly-scheduled formal departmental presentations to ABD’s and post-docs on academic publishing, I’ll never understand. I think that the scholarly silence of mentors and advisors on this topic is deafening. Sadly, you’re just going to have to take the initiative. Talk to your peers about their experiences publishing their first book. Attend a conference panel on the publishing process (they’re often sponsored by a major press in the guild). What were the most valuable lessons scholars earned? Learn about the different houses. Ask about the procedures and timelines. Be prepared to wait.

7) THE SECRET OF SERIES. Consider submitting the manuscript for inclusion in a series. It will align you with an established list, raise your profile, and ensure purchase by academic libraries, which is more important than you think. Contact the series editor directly and ask if s/he would be interested in considering the work. With a series editor’s imprimatur, you may get a better chance with an editor at the press. You also may get a better chance with your tenure committee.

8) TIMING. This is so important. If an editor wants something from you, respond as soon and as comprehensively as you can. When you sign a contract, you will agree to a delivery date. Be realistic about when you can get the book in. Think of this way: If a student is late on a final paper, do you give the student an extension beyond when grades are due? Treat yourself as you would your student.

9) YOU ARE NOT A TRADE AUTHOR. You may think your scholarship is for a wider audience than what it actually is. It’s not. Deal with it. When you’re at a party with your significant other’s group of friends and they ask, “What do you do?” and you tell them and their eyes glaze over, you’re not a trade author. Deal with it. Publishing has had to be very pragmatic in the last three years. Be specific about for whom you are writing. Don’t in your proposal the book is written for “people interested in ‘x'” because that’s too vague and unhelpful. People outside academia don’t care about us. Deal with it. Write for the guild first and expand further once you’ve got a book or two under your belt. You’re welcome.

10) CONFERENCES. Spend quality time chatting with editors at the conferences. Look at the exhibitor list on the conference webpage. Contact the house to set up a meeting if you want. DON’T take your manuscript. We don’t have time to read it. We don’t want to carry it on the plane home. Take a three-page prospectus and your CV at the very most. Have a good thirty-minute conversation and you’ll figure out if there may be a good fit. Exchange contact information and follow up afterwards.

BONUS TIP! Think of your academic career as a giant hourglass. When you started as an undergrad, you started with a generalist education, which narrowed and specified through your master degree and, by the time you submitted your dissertation, you could count the number of readers on two hands. You are at the midpoint of the hourglass. NOW, you are writing to a (slightly) broader audience of a few hundred people. The second book will hopefully be more and the third more than that. And so on and so on. Maybe one day, thousands of people will read your work and you’ll be a great luminary… or… something. Until your sand runs out.

Good luck on your first book!

And just to make sure you read the fine print: The views on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer, Oxford University Press.

Circular bookshelf designed by Zhdanova Irina, H/T Frances Quinn

Bad Theodicy and the Summer that Sucks.

Ferguson. ISIS. Robin Williams’ suicide. Gaza Strip. Ebola. Border refugee crisis. Ukraine. Syrian civil war. Boko Haram. Global warming.

It’s been a bleak summer worldwide. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it sucks.

I’ve found that when significantly bad things happen, I don’t write something. Sometimes, it’s because I have an incomplete blog post (Trust me. There are a lot.) that I could not contain or wrap up. Sometimes, it’s just overwhelming. Sometimes, there is the futile sense of thinking that what I write contributes in no way to the signal, but instead just adds to the noise. But, I’m writing now, because I just can’t not. I’ve just reached that personal threshold.

I don’t like theodicy, the theological consideration of suffering. Let me reframe that. I don’t like reading most theodical suppositions, those awful chimeric results of creating causes for perceived effects. Most theologies won’t admit that theodicy is phenomenological, meaning that the attribution of God to action and event comes from our subjective perception and encounter with the world. But it is we, ourselves, either individually or collectively, who assign action and event to God, depending on our understanding of divine encounter. This means that what action and motive we assign to God is what comes from our comprehension and interpretation of God’s ability and identity. So, it’s not what God does, but what we perceive God to do, whether it’s God or not. So, really, in theodicy, God isn’t the bad guy, here. It’s you and your horrible, finite, all-too-human “explanation” of why bad things happen to good people. And that means that we haven’t moved any further in our understanding of why bad things happen to good people, at all. And yet God is still is part of the conversation.

When we read Ecclesiastes along with Qoheleth, we look for God in particular ways, starting with the foundation that everything is meaningless and there is nothing new under the sun (observations that warm my heart, actually). And from there we see Ferguson. ISIS. Robin Williams’ suicide. Gaza Strip. Ebola. Border refugee crisis. Ukraine. Syrian civil war. Boko Haram. Global warming. We want there to be meaning, so we create it to give ourselves reassurance. This meaning is created because it is relational. It is because of our encounter with events and our imaginative ability to create meaning from our relation to them because they resonate with our sense of being human.

Ferguson. ISIS. Robin Williams’ suicide. Gaza Strip. Ebola. Border refugee crisis. Ukraine. Syrian civil war. Boko Haram. Global warming. Is the world worse now than it was exactly one century before when the first shots of World War I have been fired? What about all the horrors humanity has inhumanely inflicted upon itself that have never been recorded or are so terrible they’ve never been uttered? Has the world increased in suffering? Is my question quantitative or qualitative? Trick question: Suffering knows no human limit. Neither in time nor in space.

What is increased is our awareness and devastatingly so. The internet and its rhizomatic social media have made our connections to the plight of the Yazidi in Iraq and Black youth in the United States almost instantaneous. And we immediately become a part of this encounter with injustice. And we can choose to care if we want or care about something else. Or create something to care about. Whatever. There was a time until recently that we learned about great atrocities post facto or in historical narrative. No longer. And once you see this suffering, you are a part of it. And theodicy or not, we are now held to account for it. We’re stuck. Deal with it. And that adds to our misery.

Because suffering knows no qualitative or quantitative limit in time or space, suffering requires acknowledgment and recognition to function. You do not notice you are breathing until you cannot take in air. Suffering is ubiquitous. It’s just a matter of noticing it, because it is always touching you. You are affected by suffering, you just don’t care until you’re made to because it has surpassed whatever threshold you have to prevent the floodgates of how awful things are. It’s really quite miserable when you think about it. And it’s worse for others, right now, when you think about that, too.

So back to theodicy. Theodicies are what we create for ourselves and our communities when our thresholds are overwhelmed. It’s not that we punt our responsibility. It’s that our encounter with tragedy is beyond comprehension that we assign a relation to ourselves that is beyond comprehension to handle the incomprehensible. (This blog post could get super interesting in a way that I’m not going to examine, but my apophatic theology friends just started to salivate a little, all the same.) This is not saying that God is a fabricated crutch. I’m saying that it is quite human to try to handle things on our own until we can’t. Or won’t. And then we hand it off, because explanations of ultimate origins are harrrrrrrrrrrd!

When the apocryphal verses “God never gives you more than you can handle”, “When God closes a door, He (sic) opens a window”, or “Everything happens for a reason” get trotted out, responsibility and action is being reassigned – and pathetically so. ISIS and ebola are killing children daily. These glib verses evaporate in tragedy’s midst. Just war theory will not save the refugees. Positive thinking won’t heal the terminally hemorrhaging. What to do?

Ferguson. ISIS. Robin Williams’ suicide. Gaza Strip. Ebola. Border refugee crisis. Ukraine. Syrian civil war. Boko Haram. Global warming. Just mentioning these words, if you recognize them and their context, evokes tragedy. What to do?

Act justly. Just action restructures theodicy, reframing tragedy’s identity and event such that beneficial change can occur. The challenge is then, what is just? And how does one act justly in one’s immediate context? How can I act justly against Boko Haram? Against the Ferguson police department? Against.. against… against it all? Well, I don’t have a good answer for that. But I know it’s not liking a cause on Facebook. That’s not just futile, it’s pathetic. And a poor excuse for spreading awareness about a cause.

But if we encounter God, then we encounter the commandment and requirement to act justly in reaction to that encounter. It’s that double bind of the duty to love. (It’s fucking annoying, I know.) The problem is, then, how does one subjectively act? Well, good luck with that. Because it’s our responsibility, in light of this framework of divine encounter, of our self to act authentically for the benefit of who has suffered injustice. I told you this summer sucked. So, go love and see what happens in the meaninglessness of it all. That means even if you get the shit beaten out of you.

Gawker: Police Fire Rubber Bullets and Tear Gas on Ferguson, Mo. Protestors

Let the Dead Bury the Dead

Death is exhausting. “Let the dead bury the dead,” recommends Jesus to the man, the man who’s lost his father. I lost my father three years ago. I felt his hand twitch one last time in the earliest hours of August 6. His slow, solitary death, alone with his family in a Fort Worth hospice, is shared with the flashpoint and collective horror of Hiroshima. What does one do with that juxtaposition?

Death is exhausting. I can barely fathom my father’s, let alone the thousands lives that… “Let the dead bury the dead.” How? What does that even mean?

He who has an ear, let him hear…

Grief is like a slow salve rubbed from one’s wet cheeks and eyes into the wrists and arms and heart.

Grief is like a gripped sponge with an unseen core of void and night.

Grief is like your best friend’s loss of hearing.

What is the Kingdom of God like? The Kingdom of God is like… it is like…

“As for you,” then says Jesus, “go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.” My father has died. It feels like yesterday. He has just died. It feels like… it is like…

But the Kingdom of God is a simile.

The Kingdom of God is like the blind spot in every gaze.

The Kingdom of God is like an impossible place and event, like a graveyard where the dead bury the dead.

The Kingdom of God is like…

grief relieved.

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