Tuesday, November 2, 2010

AAR: Meetings and Musings

Theologians and religious scholars of all stripes descended upon Atlanta this past weekend, and from Thursday afternoon through Monday night, my time and energy were consumed by the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. It was my first time to attend, and turned out to be an especially good experience. I had the gift of hosting some doctoral students from Aberdeen (to a man, of course, working under John Webster) who were a blast both to hang out with and to show off Atlanta to. Moreover, I finally got to meet various bloggers and distant acquaintances, as well as scholars, including Ben, Halden, Ry, Adam, Myles Werntz, Peter Kline, Nate Kerr, and others. With all of them, it was nice to finally be able to put a face to the name (or, better, to the persona presented through the texts of book, email, and blog).

The sessions I was able to attend were across the board exceptional. Here were some highlights:
  • On Thursday night, it was an early treat to hear Timothy Jackson, LeRon Shults, Craig Boyd, and Amos Yong respond to Thomas Oord and his work The Nature of Love, in a small gathering and open discussion at Emory. I found myself disagreeing with Oord in many respects (at one point I pushed him to consider the fact that his "noncoercive all the way down" metaphysics of God's love leads logically to pacifism), but he was disarmingly gracious in his reception and response to the shared critiques.
  • The next morning, Ian McFarland hosted Paul Nimmo at Emory, for a lecture on Barth's (potential) theology of the Eucharist "and the witness of reconciliation."
  • Friday night, downtown at the conference Thomas Oord hosted a "pre-event" as part of the "Word Made Fresh" progressive evangelical group. It was a packed house, and rightly so, to hear J. Kameron Carter and Serene Jones respond to Amos Yong's recent book, In the Days of Caesar: Pentecostalism and Political Theology. It was a rousing, engaging, autobiographical, almost congregational atmosphere and conversation. All three had rich thoughts to offer on all fronts, and though the rest of the conference was excellent, this was probably my highlight.
  • Saturday morning the panel of papers responding to Kathryn Tanner's Christ the Key (by Ian McFarland, Janet Soskice, and Hilda Koster) were all thoughtful engagements of Tanner, and it was enjoyable to hear Tanner respond.
  • Shortly thereafter, in a different session D. Stephen Long opened up a more casual and appreciative conversation with James K.A. Smith about his book, Desiring the Kingdom. I greatly enjoyed the challenges and questions that arose during this session, and hearing Smith respond got me finally to pull the book off the shelf and start it.
  • Saturday night, it was a delight to hear Christopher Morse respond to papers -- and, at various points, get to preachin' -- engaging his recent book, The Difference Heaven Makes. Though I remain unclear what talking about "heaven" does over against language of the "kingdom," Morse was hugely compelling and entertaining. I hope to be able to get to his book soon.
  • Sunday morning, Philip Ziegler's paper on Barth and Kierkegaard (specifically on the "promeity," i.e., the pro me character of their projects) was superb in every respect, and was reflective of Ziegler's overall professional and scholarly presence at a number of panels and sessions.
  • The panel on the Washington Post blog On Faith was interesting, though a bit plodding at times, and certainly showed its colors as a visiting presence at AAR; but it was worth it if only for the dynamic presence of Susan Thistlethwaite, whose rollicking wit matched the fact that she looks like she might be Maya Rudolph's mother.
  • Jeffrey Stout's paper responding to Bonnie Honig's book Emergency Politics was good enough on its own, but he stole the show when, in an answer to a question from the audience, he narrated the political story of Obama's fusion of campaign organization and supposedly "grassroots" administration from his compromise "with the machine" in June of 2008 up to the present, concluding with the word "disastrous."
  • Sunday afternoon, Matthew Myer Boulton read a paper entitled, "Conceiving God: Karl Barth, the Virgin Birth, and a Theological Poetics of Scriptural Interpretation." This was probably my favorite paper of the conference, masterful in the whole and deeply insightful in its multiple argumentative moves. Despite rumors to the contrary, I did not ask him to sign Butterflyfish liner notes.
  • Sunday night's session on apocalyptic included four different papers on Johann Baptist Metz, and Matthew Eggemeier's paper, which located Metz in relation to Nietzsche, was especially stimulating.
  • Monday morning, Ben Myers read a paper on George Herbert and sacramental poetics, which was predictably wonderful. (He has an excerpt up on his blog.) Note also that, in the presence of his self-admitted "favorite contemporary poet," Kevin Hart, Ben spontaneously recited the second half of Hart's poem "The Last Day." (Second note: Thomas J.J. Altizer was present and read a paper, and that was a unique experience entirely unto itself.)
  • Monday afternoon I listened to Adam Nigh -- one of my Aberdeen guests -- read his paper on "Scripture as the Divine Assumption of Fallen Human Language," which was both happily succinct and theologically constructive, each a sometime rarity at AAR.
  • After Adam finished, I left for another session, and heard Shelly Rambo's thought-provoking paper on the "spectral Jesus" and America's ideological myths. In the same session following Rambo (Dr. Rambo? Professor Rambo? Mrs. Rambo? I'm sure her students have all sorts of fun with that name), Adam Kotsko read his paper on Zizek, the body of Christ, and possible intersections with liberation theology (which he also has posted on his blog). This was another personal favorite of the conference, for its ingenuity, political implications, and surprising theological connections; I highly recommend checking it out.
I'll leave it there; it was a great conference, and I look forward to seeing everyone at San Francisco next year.


  1. And it was great to meet you, Brad — though I kept hoping we could talk a bit more, sorry we didn't quite manage it.

    Speaking of signing things: I had planned to bring one of Kevin Hart's books for him to sign, but (alas) in my last-minute packing for the trip I completely forgot! Thanks for coming to the session too, I felt relieved knowing there was at least one other poetry lover in the audience!

  2. Thanks for this good report, Brad--gives me a good window into what happened. I was sad to miss it.

  3. It's good to put a blog to the face! I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't recognize your name when you introduced yourself -- perhaps the AAR needs a new line on our badges identifying where we blog. (To me, you've just been "Resident Theology.") In any case, glad you enjoyed the paper.

  4. Ben,

    Yes, too bad we didn't have more time! I realized that I was both advantaged and disadvantaged in being from Atlanta: advantaged in wallet, time, knowledge, etc.; disadvantaged in not "being around" at the hotel all day. Wonderful to meet, though.


    Glad I could be of vicarious help sir!


    Ha -- yes, when you didn't know my name, I had the fleeting idea of responding, "Oh, I'm Resident Theology," then quickly decided against it. Your badges idea would be a significant help to the social awkwardness (compounded by academic awkwardness) of blog-related introductions.

  5. Hey Brad - thanks again for being the all-around coolest guy in Atlanta for us Websterians ("to a man"!). Showing us around, indulging us in some magic mushrooms (so to speak), and hooking us up with a place to stay was much appreciated - all that and you're a Tool fan as well! Well done, good sir - well done.