Monday, February 27, 2012

"Turn, Turn, Turn, Turning No More: An Eschatological Reflection on Ecclesiastes 3:1-11" Published in The Princeton Theological Review

The Fall 2011 issue of The Princeton Theological Review is out, and includes a contribution by me, a short essay titled "Turn, Turn, Turn, Turning No More: An Eschatological Reflection on Ecclesiastes 3:1-11." The piece is actually a revision and substantive expansion of something I wrote on the blog about three years ago.

This issue of the journal is "God, Death, and the Afterlife: Reflections on Time and Eternity," and includes articles and essays by David Congdon, Adam Kotsko, and others. You can find PTR's website here, as well as a PDF of the issue here. Many thanks to the editors for including my essay and for helpful feedback on the first draft. Enjoy.

Friday, February 24, 2012

On Cultivating Virtues in the Academy: Time Spent on the Internet

See previous entries in this series: Introduction; On (Not) Being a Good Reader; On Daily Prayer; On Practicing Sabbath.

- - - - - - -

About a month before Ash Wednesday, I was considering what I might give up for Lent. Specifically, I was reflecting on the amount of time I spend on the internet, a regular topic of consternation for me. As I'm sure nearly anyone reading this can appreciate, it is challenging to regulate, in a disciplined and intentional way, one's time spent looking at a computer screen -- much less the shape and purpose of that time, i.e., how much of it is productive or justifiably meaningful, or simply wasted or lost.

A few years ago I "gave up the internet" for Lent, but it was a largely fruitless affair. I made significant exceptions -- email, ESPN, other supposedly necessary websites -- and it only resulted in a climactic post-Easter binge, followed by a direct return to bad habits.

So instead of focusing on Lent, I turned to general usage practices. Even in that realm, though, I've tried and failed any number of times to set limits, boundaries, order to my time online. Sure, I use Freedom when I need to focus on reading or writing; and since my wife and I only own one computer, we have to share it, and that serves as a nice check on hyperlink perpetuity. Moreover, I proudly own the oldest cell phone of anyone I know, as an in principle resistance to the ability to check (or rather, be bombarded by alerts of) email, Facebook, etc. I also leave the computer (a laptop) at home, rather than bring it to class or coffee shop, precisely to facilitate and engender as "unplugged" an existence as possible for a 26-year old doctoral student in 2012.

Nevertheless -- and the force of the caveat cannot be magnified enough -- my life remains seemingly impregnably determined and ordered by a reflexive need to be plugged in, by that learned technological itch that demands habitual scratching. And if it isn't scratched, there comes that off kilter feeling: disconnected, disgruntled, increasingly anxious. You know whereof I speak.

Returning to my initial reflection -- which in itself was the culmination of at least five years of sustained thinking about the issue -- the exacerbating factor was (and is) that this picture of life seems utterly antithetical to the life of scholarship. How can a vocation constituted by reading and interpreting difficult texts, not to mention the hopefully concomitant enjoyment of a life spent in this way, be cultivated alongside an overriding habit that actively works against the sort of patience needed to read, and think, slowly, with care, over long periods of time? How can one, in other words, read even a single book with undivided attention when every 15 minutes involves a glance at the inbox?

This led me to a serious imaginative experiment: What would it take to learn the kind of virtuous habits that would decisively inculcate the ability not to be perpetually plugged in? to be undisturbed by the internet for hours at a time? to be purposefully and meaningfully disconnected -- or, better put, free -- from the besetting temptations of the itchy online trigger finger?

The last month or so has been my attempt, still ongoing, in trying to put this vision into practice. The happy report is that it is actually working, with substantive results.

The obvious qualification at the outset is that my, as it were, Internet Rule of Life is fit to who I am as an individual, to my strengths and weaknesses, temptations and non-issues. But I think it nonetheless helpful to share what has worked for me as something of a template to generate reflection and conversation with others.

The following, then, are my self-given guidelines:

1. No Google Reader. I finally came to realize that a super-aggregator of internet content is, for me, not a servant but a master. Or rather, had become a master, because it implanted the ever-present thought that some website or blog, surely, had updated, and would be all sorts of interesting reading, so why not check? Moreover, an aggregator like Google Reader facilitates the illusion that one can read much more than one is able, leading to one new subscription after another -- hence the ever-unattainable "(0)" that would mark, in theory, no stories unread. (And it if is reached, wait a minute and there'll be more.) I just could not coexist with a program like that and be sane in my online habits.

2. No blogs six days a week. This was the decision I wasn't sure I could actually live up to, given how many blogs I follow and given, however strange a thing it is to say, that I myself "am" a "blogger." However, this specific limitation turned out to be surprisingly easy, and for quite natural reasons: Blogs, at least non-professional ones, don't post new content that often. Besides, how important is it really to be able to be "current" with conversations happening on blogs? If being a week behind is concerning, then that is precisely the attitude this rule is set up to circumvent. And, eventually, to abolish altogether.

3. Only a handful of "regular" daily websites. It wasn't only blogs (and specifically theology blogs) that I gave up six days a week: it was almost everything. I limited myself to half a dozen or so websites that I "allow" myself to check each day, and that's it. (No need to name them except by genre: basically one website alike for news, politics, sports, culture, film, and theology.) This needn't be legalistic: If someone sends me a link, I'll read it; if I need information (the weather, movie times, directions, academic research, etc.), I'll look it up. But the rule is an intensification of #2 by design. There really is, humanly speaking, an infinite amount of worthwhile reading on the internet. And this way I choose at the outset -- like a magazine subscription -- what it is I will read daily, as an acknowledgement of the limited time I have for this kind of reading, combined with an openness to be directed to interesting things by friends and colleagues. Call this the temporal finitude clause.

4. Schedule for online activity. On a normal day, I have three windows available for time on the internet unrelated to work or personal demands. The first is in the morning, before I begin studying: I check my email, Facebook (which for me, unlike others, is not a time-sapper, but a quick skim of what's going on with friends), and the news. I try to limit this to about 20 minutes or less. The second window is lunch: If I'm not eating with others, I'll read articles from my daily websites during that time. Whenever I'm done, though, I'm done with reading on the internet until after dinner. Then it's left to personal discretion whether I ought to be doing something else more worthwhile (relationally, academically, or otherwise), or if it would be good to be online. If so, great; if not, then I keep off.

Without getting even more detailed, these four guidelines constitute my "rule." I have my own handwritten version of it on a small piece of paper taped above my desk.

So how has it been? In a word: fantastic. I am prone to this sort of Big Idea, thought up as a grand reordering of my life in an all-consuming way; so I was cautious in confidence that it would actually work. As was my wife.

But for whatever reason, it has. And it actually hasn't been that difficult. The main challenge was psychological: To accept not only that am I constitutionally unable to read everything that I would like to -- unable, that is, to be utterly and totally up-to-date and in-the-know -- but also to accept that, in fact, I will not read and know everything possible, or even try. (Less convolutedly: I had to disabuse myself of the myth that, even if I "can't" do it, I'll do my best . . . and maybe succeed in the process!) Once I moved past that obstacle, the plan became as liberating as I'd hoped it would be. The bulk of my internet interface has migrated to Saturdays, and even then my appetite is diminishing for e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g; just the good stuff, now, please.

Regarding Saturday, I was initially worried that it would become Internet Day, a weekly binge of exactly what I was trying to fast from the other six days of the week. But that hasn't happened either. As I said, the altered quantity and quality of my new ordinary diet is already having swift and happy consequences for what is appealing when the rules are suspended.

Finally, what of the results for my academic life? These, too, have been all to the good, matching my intentions almost exactly. For example, the amount of time devoted to reading actual books has increased manifold, as well as become markedly less schizophrenic. (For five weeks straight, I read consecutively, and without interruption, through I/1 and I/2 of Barth's Dogmatics from 7:15 to 9:45 every morning. Remember, if that does not sound like much of an accomplishment, that I am not a good reader!)

A second result is that I have time in the evening to spend with my wife or friends. I tend to finish by daily school work, or at least my reading, by early afternoon. I am then free to attend class or work on writing projects without anything hanging over my head for the rest of the day, and in the evening to attend to other matters -- again, time with others, or mundane business, or a lecture on campus, or (what do you know?) pleasure reading, online or otherwise. As a related result, then, my time spent reading for pleasure offline has increased, too: my non-novel-reading self is about to finish David James Duncan's whopping 645-page The Brothers K. And that, mind you, while taking four classes in my second semester as a PhD student.

In other words, not bad for a bad reader. And even better for a (recovering?) internet addict, even if the latter only by virtue of generational birth.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

David James Duncan on Why "Professional Baseball is Inherently Antiwar"

(And feel free to insert "basketball" for "baseball.")

"I cherish a theory I once heard propounded by G.Q. Durham that professional baseball is inherently antiwar. The most overlooked cause of war, his theory runs, is that it’s so damned interesting. It takes hard effort, skill, love and a little luck to make times of peace consistently interesting. About all it takes to make war interesting is a life. The appeal of trying to kill others without being killed yourself, according to Gale, is that it brings suspense, terror, honor, disgrace, rage, tragedy, treachery and occasionally even heroism within range of guys who, in times of peace, might lead lives of unmitigated blandness. But baseball, he says, is one activity that is able to generate suspense and excitement on a national scale, just like war. And baseball can only be played in peace. Hence G.Q.’s thesis that pro ball-players—little as some of them may want to hear it—are basically just a bunch of unusually well-coordinated guys working hard and artfully to prevent wars, by making peace more interesting."

—Kincaid Chance, narrator, in David James Duncan's The Brothers K (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), 517

Monday, February 20, 2012

Richard Beck on the Ambivalent Practice of Lent in Non-Liturgical Churches

Two years ago Richard Beck wrote a thoughtful and highly relevant reflection on the practice of Lent in traditionally non-liturgical churches, highlighting some of its more theologically problematic aspects such as spiritual individualism and what we might call the "cafeteria calendar" approach to the liturgical year. I called attention to it then, and I thought I would again now, in light of Ash Wednesday this week. Here's a quote to whet your appetite:
And it's this voluntarism--opting in or opting out--that makes me ambivalent. The observance of Ash Wednesday at my church is an optional deal. And this, as I experience it, exacerbates one of the problems of contemporary Christianity: Its individualized nature. Ash Wednesday at my church isn't communal. It's an add-on feature. Which strikes the wrong note for me. What ends up happening in my church is that some individuals or small groups celebrate Lent and others don't. For example, some people or groups give up something for Lent like the Catholics do. Others don't. And it's this lack of being on the same page, a very different vibe than the one I experienced in the Catholic church, which leave me cold. Of course, I could celebrate Lent. But I hate the fact that this is something that I, as an individual, choose to do (i.e., opting in). It's just the completely wrong vibe. I hate that autonomous choices sit at the center of the practice. I'm not celebrating Lent with my church.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Dallán Forgaill

This hymn, translated into English only in the last century, from a millennium-old Irish monastic chant, is a well-known favorite. Non-liturgical by upbringing, I was actually introduced to it by way of David Bazan's stripped-down version back during his Pedro the Lion days. In any case, for newcomers and old fans alike, enjoy.

- - - - - - -

Be Thou My Vision

By Dallán Forgaill (translated by Mary Elizabeth Byrne, versified by Eleanor Hull)

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tower:
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

To PhD Candidates Patiently Waiting: Well Wishes, Blessings, Convalescence

Just over a year ago, I wrote this:
In approximately five weeks, I will know where, if anywhere, I am going for doctoral work.

Three weeks later, my completed thesis is due to be submitted to my reading committee.

Five weeks following that, I will graduate from Candler School of Theology with my Master of Divinity.

And two weeks subsequent to graduation, if I have been accepted to a PhD program, my wife and I will be leaving our three-year home and friends and church in Atlanta for a new home elsewhere.

I am tempted to platitudes. Instead, let me just say that it is good to know that others also have been in this same position and have survived.
That was in the middle of one of the most excruciatingly stressful stretches of my life. Literally everything was in the air for my wife and me: my career, her job, our life in Atlanta, whatever future awaited us.

Though I ended up receiving good news just a couple weeks later, not everyone does; and that eventuality doesn't negate or mollify the period of absolute lack of control preceding it.

So let me now say to all those patiently (anxiously) awaiting word: You will survive. This is important, and you are not wrong to worry and pray and wonder and cry and repress and all the rest; but you will make it to the other side. Find good friends, some small community of support, and let them hold you up during this time. It is okay. You will survive.

God's grace upon the whole lot. And having invoked divine authority, let me add one more word: Avoid, at all costs, every rumor and nefarious website offering proleptic answers. Friends, that way madness lies. Trust me.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Peter Abelard

Reading a bit of Abelard this week for a class, I came across the following beautiful hymn, which, though well known to many, was new to me. This version is taken from A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham, edited by Eugene R. Fairweather (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006, 1956), 298-99. Enjoy.

- - - - - - -

Hymn for Saturday Vespers

By Peter Abelard (translated by John Mason Neale)

O what their joy and their glory must be,
Those endless Sabbaths the blessed ones see!
Crown for the valiant; to weary ones rest;
God shall be all, and in all ever blest.

What are the Monarch, his court, and his throne?
What are the peace and the joy that they own?
Tell us, ye blest ones, that in it have share,
If what ye feel ye can fully declare.

Truly "Jerusalem" name we that shore,
"Vision of peace," that brings joy evermore!
Wish and fulfillment can severed be ne'er,
Nor the thing prayed for come short of the prayer.

We, where no trouble distraction can bring,
Safely the anthems of Sion shall sing;
While for thy grace, Lord, their voices of praise
Thy blessed people shall evermore raise.

There dawns no Sabbath, no Sabbath is o'er,
Those Sabbathkeepers have one and no more;
One and unending is that triumph song
Which to the angels and us shall belong.

Now in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high,
We for that country must yearn and must sigh,
Seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,
Through our long exile on Babylon's strand.

Low before Him with our praises we fall,
Of whom, and in whom, and through whom are all;
Of whom, the Father; and through whom, the Son;
In whom, the Spirit, with these ever One.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Robert Jenson on How the Biblical God Avoids the "Universal Moral Disaster" of "Omnipotent Egocentricity"

"It is the fact of God's Trinity which requires that his concluding gift to us, should he make one, must be inclusion in his own life, the gift not of something other than God but of 'all he is' [Luther]. The triune God does not and indeed cannot beneficently affect us causally; for him, causal action, with its intrinsic distancing, would mean exclusion from himself and so cursing rather than blessing. The goal of all the biblical God's ways is the glory of God. Were an otherwise biblical God -- contrary of course to possibility -- monadic, his intention of his own glory would be a sort of omnipotent egocentricity, and the reality of God would be a universal moral disaster. But God's glorification of himself is instead supreme blessing because the triune God can and does include creatures in that glory."

--Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology: Volume 2: The Works of God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 311

Monday, February 6, 2012

Karl Barth on the Theme and Center of Bearing Testimony to the Neighbor

"When it is a matter of bearing testimony, there can be only one theme and center of what I say. And that is the indication of the name of Jesus Christ as the essence and existence of the loving kindness in which God has taken to Himself sinful man, in order that he should not be lost but saved by Him. This name, and in the strict sense only this name, the name of the Helper, is what we know about help in need, and therefore can and must speak. This name is the word which we do not grudge our neighbor, but with which we have to greet him as a future brother. Where there is genuine love for the neighbor this name cannot and must not be withheld.

"The only word which is praise of God and a witness to the neighbor is a word which is praise of Jesus Christ and witness about Him. Every word which is that is true praise of God and a true witness to the neighbor. Such a declaration of the name of Jesus Christ will be a full recognition of what Jesus Christ is and of what has been done by Him. It will be a critical word, unsettling, pointing away, excluding the claims of all other names in which we might seek refuge. It will always be a word of thankful adoration before the majesty of free grace revealed in this name. But necessarily it will also be a word of confession, i.e., a word in which our recognition of this name as the name of the Lord is irrevocably revealed. But it will depend upon and maintain that assertion of the name which the name has created for itself among men.

"That means that it will be a churchly word, i.e., a word proceeding from the Church and calling to the Church. And its churchly character will consist concretely in the fact that it is basically an expository word, the explaining and applying of Holy Scripture as the primal witness to Jesus Christ which underlies and sustains all the rest. It is when I speak a word like this to my neighbor that I fulfill my responsibility to him. I tell him what I know of the other side of my and, as I hope, his need.

"This other side of the need, if indeed there is this other side, i.e., if God is manifest to man, is simply Jesus Christ. That God should be manifest to the neighbor in his need, that his need should have this other side, is something which I cannot control or foresee. But God can make use of my service to make it true. I have to show myself prepared and ready for this service by not refusing to the neighbor my word of witness. I refuse it if I am silent or if I speak of things which are irrelevant. In the latter case my words are just words: I do not love my neighbor in deed and in truth. If my witness is a witness to the name of Jesus Christ, it is not just a word, but as a word it is the most concrete act, in the strictly literal sense it is the 'expression' of praise of God and love to the neighbor.

"That it is not in my power to give this work the efficacy by which it is to the neighbor the fulfillment of revelation, the imparting of the Word and Spirit of God, by which therefore his need takes on that other side -- this limitation belongs to its very nature as witness. We cannot try to transcend the limitation without destroying its nature as witness. We have to respect the limitation, especially if we do not want to cease loving our neighbor. But within this limitation there can be no doubt that we not only say the right thing but in doing so do the right thing to our neighbor when, because we are really concerned about him, we speak to him freely about the name of Jesus Christ."

--Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, 443-44 (originally a single paragraph)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Mary Karr (III)

If you read this blog, you likely know of my love for Mary Karr -- poet, memoirist, irreverent convert Catholic. If you know that, then you also surely know of my love for Christopher Hitchens (RIP). A happy pairing, then, to see that last month n+1 shared a (sort of) elegy, in the form of a new poem, by Karr for Hitchens. It's an odd but fulsome thing, in style as well as content. All the more reason to read and enjoy.

- - - - - - -

Elegy for Christopher Hitchens, Whom I Only Met Twice

By Mary Karr
I say mystery is the only certainty
That embracing nothingness
as hard as you did those big
bear arms around the dissipating void
so all the stars squeezed out the sides
you made Nietzsche look
like the crybaby punk
he actually was infected with syphilis
and so forth who said god
is dead and remains dead and we
killed him talk about
Oedipal guilt, which you
spat out like an apple’s
arsenic pit

The time I met you first
in London on a green lawn
under a tent with a crowd of swells
you snarled were a bunch of tits
I swear you made me want to start
drinking again and hissing
dragon-smoke from my throat

You were one of the big
right-wing boys who wore scorn
like a deb does a designer scent
and I hung on the edge of your small clutch
a newly baptized Catholic antique
come from a candlelit chapel an hour
spent talking to dolls since I never
was a child and must be now, must

for a time remain
on this side of the grass and you
that and ergo I speak free of your smart
smackdown: If you got to claim
you entered the Great Nothing
I hereby announce you went to live
with sweet baby Jesus
or else no punk gets to say
nothing though what anybody says
matters not one whit next to what
actually IS which is eternal
as you now are Nietzsche Eliot
old Philip Larkin—you now
know what they knew
and I know naught but loss
and its multiples the only
other certainty being mystery.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Glossing Stanley Hauerwas's Definition of Love

An oft-repeated claim of Stanley Hauerwas's is his definition of love in The Peaceable Kingdom as "the nonviolent apprehension of the other as other." The phrase has always struck me as helpful yet surprisingly passive in its force. Why not instead define love as "peaceable hospitality toward the other as other"? As Hauerwas is wont to argue, peace is a deeper reality than violence, and so ought not to be defined by being "not" violence. And the image of hospitality has much to recommend it over against that of apprehension: it is a central theme of the Christian tradition; it is an actual practice; it can be either individual or communal. Moreover, it evokes the sense of both active welcoming, a concrete positive action, and giving (making) space, a negative letting-be that retains the noncoercive component of apprehension as "perception." Finally, the phrase is clearly rooted theologically: in the act of God in the incarnation; in the being of God as eternally triune; and in the kingdom of God as inaugurated in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Spirit.

What's not to like?