Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Modern marvels

Two interesting, seemingly unrelated events occurred today. Noel talked to Jim Parsons, the actor who plays Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory. And my dad joined Twitter.

Sheldon has become quite a famous television character in the show's two seasons, at least among a certain community. Although he's portrayed as simply a particularly obsessive and socially tone-deaf scientist, people on the autistic spectrum (and their families) have become convinced that the character has Asperger's syndrome. I certainly see the diagnosis. The way Sheldon interrogates anyone who brings him Chinese food to make sure they got everything exactly right, or the way he tries to explain the possibilities of a potential friendship using a flow chart -- it all seems eerily familiar.

Sheldon, like Archer, is most comfortable with numbers and computers rather than people. On the other hand, my father has always been quite social. But he's a savvy adopter of technology, as well. I'm not sure what led him to create a Twitter persona -- media coverage? Facebook? -- but there he was this morning, sending me a follow request.

I wonder if he'll be a listener, or whether he'll join in with his own status updates. Who wouldn't enjoy seeing what their dad is up to several times a day?

Twitter skeptics -- and technophobes in general -- tend to decry the ascendency of mediated communication over face-to-face interaction. But when you move away from your family and friends, practically all your communication is mediated. As older generations start to adopt social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter, they're finding that these are ways to have more contact with the people you care about, not less.

For people like Sheldon, the mediation is essential; people are bewildering bundles of chaos without some filter to increase the signal and cut the noise. But even for the most socially adept among us, these tools can aggregate our loci of concern and allow us to stay connected with more people, more often.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Out of sync

It didn't occur to me until late last night that today would be an unusual day. Not only would I be delivering the lecture I was working on all last week, but I'd also be participating in our final recruiting day -- which involved delivering another lecture and leading two small discussion groups, one after the other. I left the office at 9:45 am to give a short talk as part of the recruiting day introductions, toting my computer and three huge folders worth of handouts in my bag, and I didn't return until 4:30 pm, after all the staff were gone for the day.

A schedule like this always makes me feel like I've dropped off the face of the earth. You don't get to check e-mail or browse the discussion boards or tweet. Any work you have to do gets put off until tomorrow. There's a sinking feeling that you'll have to pay the piper once you come up for air.

The worst part about the unrelenting schedule was that I delivered the brand new lecture to the freshmen, then immediately had to take off across campus to meet the prospective students for that lecture. The vacuum of feedback about that new lecture was unexpectedly crushing. I was anxious about whether it would work, about the content, about the format, about the tone -- about everything. But aside from a few friendly students who thanked me afterwards, I had no idea how it was received.

I went to give the recruiting lecture, and then immediately cloistered myself with the first small discussion group. In between the two discussion groups, a twenty minute break was built into the schedule, and I took the opportunity to quickly scan my inbox. When the break was almost up, one of my colleagues -- a senior faculty member with decades of experience, respected all over campus for her pedagogical wisdom -- stuck her head in the door.

"I just wanted to tell you that you gave an incredible lecture today," she said. "You don't know how much I needed to hear that!" I told her.

"No, it was substantive, it had a point of view, it was engaging ..." she continued. "You know, I've seen all the lectures you've given this year in that class and the one you give at this event. Really, you're the best lecturer I've ever seen on this campus."

What a statement -- especially to hear on a day like today. The second discussion section that began moments later took on a whole new cast. And I'm actually still trying to process the compliment. I have a high opinion of my lecturing skills, mind you, but those were superlatives I wouldn't have thought to claim.

In its way, that moment threw me as much out of sync as the atypical day had done. Maybe it's a good thing I've got one of my usual three-day weeks; I need time to process all this outlying data and settle back into a more Donna-like pattern for the rest of the semester.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Into the fire

Today's post on lace and leaves and sheer elegance is at Toxophily.

Spring break is ending. Tomorrow I'm debuting a new lecture on religious freedom -- one that I sense still needs a lot of work. But whatever happens will happen quickly; I'm headed out of town again on Thursday for my last trip of the spring. Montreal, bonjour!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

All the fun that fits

While Noel was taking his mini-vacation to Batesville, Arkansas, I broke out the Wii Fit. Much has been written about this fitness game, but after a couple of sessions, I now understand what's revolutionary about it.

Sometimes a product's concept just doesn't sound as game-changing as it actually turns out to be. How many people just couldn't fathom how a machine could make reading better than a printed book -- until they got a Kindle? (I think I've met most of them.) Similarly, even if one is inclined toward technological enthusiasm, it's easy to be skeptical about how good a video game could actually be at encouraging exercise.

But this is one clever package. First of all, although some complain that too much emphasis is placed on balance, I've got no issues there. Balance, posture, flexibility, and body control are areas I desperately need to work on. And that training targets the muscles at your core, those big groups that begin to tremble (if you're flabby like me) after only a few minutes of concentrated flexing.

And really, it's the incentives that make this irresistible. Games like hula hooping, step aerobics/dancing where you perform for a crowd with a bunch of other avatars, and slalom skiing let you accumulate points and set records (along with personal bests). After you spend enough time doing an activity -- or overall -- new activities are unlocked. And it's not hard to spend that time, since each session inevitably concludes with a push of the "play again" button while thinking "I can do better than that." Only when your muscles protest do you remember that you're not just playing a video game -- that there's a limit to how many times you can ski down that hill before diminishing returns related to your thigh muscles set in.

Exercise is all about getting up and doing it every day, over and over. And what the Wii Fit does brilliantly is to give an arc to that repetition. It feels like doing different things every day -- or doing the same things better, and getting rewarded for it. And given how many decades have been spent trying to make exercise into something that doesn't require superhuman willpower to keep doing, that truly feels like a revolution.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A case study

I'm alone with the kids for about 32 hours this weekend, because Noel is appearing on a panel at the Ozark Foothills FilmFest. And I really should be taking notes, because somewhere in my attempts at successful parenting surely lie lessons I could apply as an administrator and manager.

After a productive afternoon of Mario Kart, Hyper Jump and outside play, it was time to settle on a dinner location. Since it's important for the kids to have buy-in, I asked them where they'd like to go. Cady Gray immediately piped up, nominating our local barbecue joint. I contributed my suggestion of the local Mexican place (the one with the magaritas). Archer decided to throw in his lot with me, thanks to my heavy emphasis on agreeability during playtime this afternoon.

Cady Gray wouldn't budge, though. Archer the peacemaker suggested that we go to the barbecue place next time; Cady Gray immediately countered with the plan that we go to the Mexican place next time. Seeing how much it meant to her, I asked Archer if that was okay, and he assented. Problem solved -- barbecue for dinner it would be.

Only when we got in the car, I remembered something. The kids' standard dinner at the barbecue place is grilled cheese and fries. But they had told me that they went to the chicken finger place for lunch, and there they always eat ... grilled cheese and fries. As I was buckling them in, I reminded them that they can't have the same meal twice in one day. Again I proferred the Mexican option.

Cady Gray, unwilling to let go so easily, said that they could have something else at the barbecue place. Archer was on a different train of thought already, ready to abandon both and head for an as-yet-unnamed third restaurant. All I had to do, in the end, was make the case that a quesadilla with beans and rice is sufficiently different from a grilled cheese sandwich with fries, and my Mexican scheme won the day with smiling nods from all passengers.

Now if I could only figure out how to apply those skills to faculty meetings, there'd be no stopping me. Unfortunately, it's entirely possible that the motivating factor -- the magarita -- is the crucial ingredient.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Things I'm loving

  • Garmin nüvi 350. We're an early adopter on most technology. Heck, I have a Kindle 1.0. But I've never seen a need for a navigation system. It's been four years since we bought a new car, so we haven't had it come up as an option. And we take few enough car trips that the thought really just never occurs to us. But when this Garmin model was recommended in my beloved Cool Tools, it clicked for me. I got it for Noel for Christmas, and we've just been playing with it in advance of his trip to the Ozark Foothills Film Fest this weekend. It couldn't be more intuitive -- just select your state and street address (you don't even need to tell it the city in advance, and it auto-completes the street name after you've typed a few letters), and a voice suddenly begins telling you where to turn. I couldn't resist using it for a few trips around town today, and even learned a back way home.

  • Duplicity. After several weekends apart, Noel and I finally got to go out for a movie tonight. Our choice was this quirky corporate espionage comedy/thriller, which has been getting raves. And what a delight! Clive Owen is adorable, the screenplay is brilliant, and Tony Gilroy lends a smart energy to the whole affair. And I laughed every time Paul Giamatti came on screen. "Stocks are down, porn is up, and there's plenty of free parking!"

  • Wii. The good news about our tax refund, combined with a windfall from Noel's aggressive CD and DVD purging, allowed us to treat ourselves to our first video game system ever. Yes, prior to the Wii that entered our household today, the kids had made do with Noel's Super Nintendo. Much like the nüvi, a video game system is something I'd long resisted because we don't strictly, well, need it. But when the Wii came out, my barely repressed love of cute things and foreshortened plumbers came to the fore. And now, Wiiiiiiiiii!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A taste of summer

Ah, spring break. The campus empties; parking spaces are plentiful. Every tree is covered with pink, purple or white blossoms. Lawns are sprinkled with clover. Beds burst with tulips, impatiens, daffodils.

And I'm reminded that summer, that break of all breaks, is just around the corner. At our school, it's six weeks until the mortarboards are tossed in the air and the futons are wrestled back into the pickup trucks.

In summer, every day will be like the past three days. The calendar will be empty. Long hours will be spent in the office, tapping away on the computer or looking out the window at the quiet green space between buildings, with no students or classes to interrupt.

I love the slower pace of the summer. I love the frequent opportunities to talk at length with my fellow administrators. I love the chance to dream and plan.

I know I won't get as much done as I should. And by the time August hits, the excitement of the new students and new classes will hit, making the return of the regular semesters seem not so bad. But for the first time this week, it's possible to feel that summer is coming, and with it, a chance for renewal.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


I had the day to myself at work, thanks to (a) spring break absences by the rest of the faculty, and (b) Noel treating the kids to a morning in Little Rock. It's always more difficult for me to be productive when I'm unscheduled. But knowing that both kids would be returning to the office with me tomorrow, one kid would repeat the trip on Thursday, and I'd only have a half-day in the office on Friday due to Noel's trip to the Ozark Foothills FilmFest, I tried to get a start on one of the two big tasks facing me this week.

That task is the creation of a brand new lecture on religious freedom. I'll be giving it to the freshman class on Monday. When I woke up this morning, I immediately began searching for a hook -- something that would give me an entrypoint into the subject. I thought about it while dressing the kids, driving to work, grabbing breakfast. And then I sat at the computer, opened a blank document, and began typing -- tentatively. I had an idea, but it wasn't a very good idea. Still, I knew that I had to get started. I typed six or seven headings and a few subheads. Then I tackled the easiest part of the outline: quotations from state constitutions that mention reliance on Almighty God.

I didn't quite know how I was going to get from here to there, but I knew that I wanted to contrast Jefferson and Madison's determination to keep God out of the federal constitution with the state documents (including Arkansas's constitution, which disqualifies anyone who doesn't believe in a supreme being from holding office or testifying in court). So I went straight to Jefferson's Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom. I copy-and-pasted the whole thing into my outline so I could see which parts I wanted to highlight.

And then the minor inspiration that's desperately needed in these tasks finally struck. The statute had so many interesting points that I began composing brief commentaries on each of them. My outline lengthened, and the other points with which I had begun receded as the lecture began to be structured around the 1785 law.

I didn't finish, but at least I know the idea that will animate the presentation. All writers know that you don't always get to wait for that unifying idea before you have to write. We just feel lucky when one comes along sometime before the writing has to be done.

Later this afternoon, I went to the gym for the first time since October. (Really.) I had no idea whether I'd be able to complete a workout, even reducing my intensity back to levels appropriate for my lapse. And like the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which arrived just in time to save the work I needed to do from being completely worthless, the energy required for thirty minutes of aerobics turned out to be there for me.

Both tasks, though, were just beginnings. There's a lot more work to do on that lecture before it's ready for prime time. And even though a workout after five months is a big change from the sloth that preceded it, by itself it's worthless. I'm glad I accomplished something today, and I'm glad that the parts of those accomplishments that weren't completely under my control happened to work out. It's better than the alternative. But it's just one link in the chain. The forge will have to be fired up again tomorrow.

Monday, March 23, 2009

On the bookshelf

Thanks to my recent travels, I've been getting a lot of reading done. And probably not coincidentally, a lot of it has been about religion.

First up was The Believers, Zoe Heller's new novel about the family troubles of a gaggle of radical leftists. One of the most affecting subplots is about a daughter who begins to move toward Orthodox Judaism, much to her aggressively secular socialist mother's dismay. I loved it.

Then came William Lobdell's Losing My Religion, a suspenseful and sad memoir about the conversion then backsliding of the Los Angeles Times religion reporter, who found himself unable to maintain his faith in the face of the Catholic clergy sexual abuse scandals. I couldn't put it down.

And now I'm reading The Unlikely Disciple, Kevin Roose's account of a semester at Liberty University, where he finds the student body generally inspiring and the spiritual tone uplifting, but the atmosphere of absolute certainty (and gay-bashing) impossible to acclimate to. I'm stealing moments during my day to devour it.

Maybe it's that I, too, feel like I'm living in the cracks between faith communities. But these tales of the religious bonds forged among us and the religious differences that wedge us apart are deeply moving to me. I recommend all three of these books, no matter where you find yourself on the spectrum of faith.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


On the plane ride from Chicago to Little Rock last night, I had an engaging conversation with my seatmate, a senior basketball player and mass comm major from Missouri Southern. We talked about movies, the former president at my institution, religion (an occupational hazard, since you can't avoid the question "so what do you do?"), and preferred leisure activities. And on the latter, I had to admit, I like sitting on my couch watching TV with my husband, seasoned with the occasional restaurant meal out with my husband where we can have adult conversation.

Does that make me a philistine? I certainly get funny looks when I cheerfully admit to my academic colleagues that I watch reality shows and spend a lot of time on social networking sites. But little makes me feel more at ease than my little corner of the sectional, a microwaved heating pad around my shoulders, my MacBook Air on my lap, a beverage at my side, knitting within easy reach, and a TiVo full of shows I love.

And that's where I am right now, the kids having been corralled into bed. There's some work to do later -- I need to blog Breaking Bad for the TV Club -- but after three straight weekends away and too many nights spent at school during the week, my favorite leisure activity (or is that inactivity?) has been scarce lately.

Right now I'm not only enjoying my preferred mode of relaxation, but I'm looking forward to an entire week of evenings spent exactly this way, thanks to spring break. I am hoping to end it with dinner and a movie with my husband, but in the meantime, you can just pry me off the couch with a crowbar if you need me.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


I feel like I've done nothing but leave home and come back home for the last month. Here I am once again, arriving home hours after the kids went to bed, a suitcase full of dirty clothes and a weekend's worth of catching up to do.

But at least I have a cushion in my transition back to Conway life. It's only Saturday night; I can have my first Sunday at home all month. And next week is spring break. I don't have to go right back to class, although I do have to go to work on Monday. I can take the kids with me to the office, which will simultaneously satisfy their desires -- they've been asking when they could go back since Christmas break -- and give Noel a respite.

There's a lot I've been missing here. Archer's been going through a slight rough patch in his behavior at school, although it's probably nothing serious. I've been unable to participate in the handbell choir's rehearsals for the annual Easter performance, and it's strange to think that I'm going to be sitting it out unless I'm needed as an emergency substitute. My poor teaching assistant has had to lead class three Fridays in a row, and I know it hasn't been easy for her.

And although my travels aren't over (I'm headed to Montreal in early April), I've got almost two weeks before I have to head back to the airport. Even if it weren't spring break, I think it would feel like a vacation.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Travel writing

I flew from Little Rock to Atlanta today (by way of Dallas -- can't go anywhere without going through Dallas). On the first flight I sat next to a young woman who had a travel diary out on her lap. She had filled up many pages with handwriting. I didn't glance over enough to pick up any of what she wrote -- just the graphics on the pages: passports, suitcases, airplane and boat imagery.

It reminded me of the dozens of travel journals I kept in my youth. Mom and Dad took us kids on some trip or another every summer, and for every trip I kept a notebook. Some were actually just notepads; I remember one multicolored scratchpad, meant for tear-off notes on a desk, that spiraled around in a stacked helix. Others were spiral memo pads, and eventually I started using diaries and blank books. The habit continued at least through my European trip in college.

I wrote about what we ate, where we stopped, what we saw, what I read, what games I played with my brothers. Some of the entries were so cryptic that when I read them later, they seemed surreal and hilarious. I used to keep all these notepads in my desk drawer.

When we moved to Conway, my mom gave me several boxes full of old stuff from my room. I don't know what all is in there; it's all packed away up in the attic, waiting for a rainy day. But I know that some of those travel journals are in there. I can almost see some of the pages, covered with lopsided exclamation marks.

I'm sure that I've forgotten more than I remember, but I remember some of those early efforts very well. In my memory they are bound up with the Fawcett Crest Peanuts paperbacks I got my parents to buy me at rest stops, the pencil sharpeners and paperweights that I took home as souvenirs, the fold-out beds in the motor home, the bunks at Camp Whitbow, the back of the station wagon where we played magnetic backgammon. Travel and writing, travel and thinking, travel and emotion, travel and memory -- they've always gone together for me. And in this season where I am traveling far too much for my taste, at least there is that compensation of having time to reflect.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Rebel, rebel

Last week the students in my film class watched Easy Rider and chatted about the kind of cool rebellion that characterized the counterculture. In their blogs, they wrote about figures in their experience of pop culture that embody this same kind of cool. Why not click into a few that interest you and leave an encouraging comment?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Poetry and prose

On his last report card, Archer raised his writing grade from 3 ("proficient") to 4 ("advanced"). It's always fascinating to how his mind interprets the assignments. Here are a few samples from the latest batch he brought home. The last one is my favorite.

Winter Poetry [an acrostic]

With some
Ice skates
Now you are ready for winter,
Early to skate -- we're not
Ready yet! We have to wait 'til winter.


If I ruled the world I'd write a speech about kindness. And do kind things. And work for president.

Thunder Poem [instructions: "Write a poem telling how thunder makes you feel. Your poem does not have to rhyme. Give your poem a title and write your name at the end."]

How Far Away is the Thunder?

1-2-3-4-5 KABOOM!!
The thunder is 3 miles away.
Lightning. 1-2-3-4. BAM!!
1-2-3. Crash!! 1-2. BANG!

by Archer

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Education and enterprise

Since I got back home Sunday night from the Transforming Theology kickoff weekend, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the public forum held Saturday night. It was the second event of the weekend that was open to anyone who wanted to come and join the conversation. But it couldn't have been more different from the first one. Friday night five of the theologians who had been invited to Claremont gave brief presentations, and then the floor was opened for questions from the audience. The energy was low, the questions were few, and in general it felt like we had invited people in for a conversation we hadn't quite started ourselves.

Saturday night, however, Marjorie Suchocki -- in what can only be described as a stroke of genius that took real courage -- changed up the format. She asked everyone in the audience to write questions and pass them forward, and she read them aloud. Themes began to develop, and the ten members of the theology panel that night chose which questions they wanted to address -- two for each question, a call and response.

And what a response! Theologian after theologian took the podium and preached. They spoke out of their passion for the issues raised by the audience members. They provided specific resources through which the attendees could get involved. They showed that theology is a way to think through things that are important to us -- a method, a field in which reflection can be done about anything that's worth reflecting on. In contrast to the first night, where the subject matter was theology itself (and the church that presumably, according to the event's premise, needs it), on Saturday the subject was the deepest concerns of the people in the seats. And the theologians responded by showing how theology informs and motivates the way they care about injustice, poverty, AIDS, discrimination, pluralism, and other issues.

The difference between the two evenings reflected a division we struggled with all weekend. Is theology a product or a resource? For generations in the academic world, we have offered our accomplishments to those who want to come and buy. People planning to enter academia or the ministry were our customers. We wanted to equip them to do what we do, and we were secure in the knowledge that they needed us.

But I couldn't escape the feeling, all weekend long, that a different approach was needed. Do people need a finished product from us, something intended for a single use? Or do they need a pool of resources, a context carefully and complexly delineated and provided, something they can take for their own purposes? Do they need a theological world and a theological way of thinking that they apply to their own projects and passions?

To me, the two public forums made the point. We should be finding new ways to do our theology with anyone who wants to come and join us -- and being creative about how and where to gather, and whom to invite (new media, anyone?). If they come and find something they can take away, great. If not, we're doing what we have to do, anyway. But when we make the connection in a spirit of trust -- what do you care about? Here's what we have to offer -- and make a gift of our theology as the raw material for building meaningful lives and actions, we really have the possibility of transforming ourselves, our discipline, our institutions, and our communities.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Forgot to blog!

And now it's late and I've been writing for the last hour. So I'll point you to my How I Met Your Mother writeup at the A.V. Club.

And I'll record the pinnacle of Archer's spelling career in second grade -- the following sentence, which not only delighted Noel and me when he brought it home last week, but also was used by his teacher as the example on the test and correctly deemed by her best sentence of the whole week:
It's hard to imagine a world without crayons.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Theological snapshot

I spent 29 hours this weekend listening to and talking with the leading liberal theologians of our time – and some darn smart up-and-comers. Here's what I learned:
  • We hate the status quo, but we're suspicious that new pathways won't lead to the change we want.
  • Our undeniable complicity in the suffering caused by the status quo prevents us from believing we can be an essential part of the change that's needed.
  • An excess of caution on our part is leaving the field open for people who are interested in movements first, ideas second.
  • We believe in nuance and complexity, but suspect that communication in those terms is doomed.
  • Although we are believers, it's easier for us to talk about theology than God, hermeneutics than scripture.
  • We know too much to speak in simple ways. Questions posed to us exist to be subverted rather than answered.
  • Yet our resources are far richer than those of our rivals, if we had the courage to use them.
  • It is hard to challenge the orthodoxy of our side that capitalism and individualism are evil through and through.
  • The academic guild makes it difficult to bring together in an egalitarian fashion established senior scholars whose work is well known and young promising scholars who, to the former, are unknown quantities. It's not that the older generation are unwilling to listen to the younger; it's that we are engaged in a new conversation, and it's easy for the older folks to simply pick up with each other's ongoing and familiar work.
  • Among the finest people on earth (not an exhaustive list) are Harvey Cox, Marjorie Suchocki, Tom Reynolds, Victor Anderson, John Thataminal, Dwight Hopkins, and Darby Ray.
  • The reason I am so enthusiastic about the American academy in the field of religious studies is its unceasing generosity and openness. This quality has only become more evident in the last twenty years, and it will never cease to amaze me.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Transforming Theology day 3 liveblog

For those of you who wonder what happens at a gathering of progressive theologians, here's a blow-by-blow of the first panel of the last day -- quite a powerhouse group. The topic is "transforming theology for society."

Emilie Townes: Are we built to transform anything? We need to remember to live not in the old scars of history and the past, but in the freedom we deserve.

My take: Everything we do is transformative -- in the permutation of the past into the present, and the present into the future. We are the ones we've been waiting for. Our besetting sin is to think that it's the job of another, or that our actions somehow have to be special to have transforming power.

William Dean: Reinhold Niebuhr opposed the word "progressive" because it implies that we can make the world better and better through the exercise of our own inherent capacity. We've been too receptive of the secular proposals of our conversation partners, and not aggressive enough in telling them what we know: the sacred dimension.

My take: Is liberal (Dean's preferred word) any better? It doesn't imply improving the world, but it implies that exercising our own inherent capacity of free will and its results is not a means, but an end. And given that theology takes its reflective on culture and context of religious life, I'm not sure it's inappropriate for us to listen more than we dictate. It is religious people, not the theological enterprise, that are in a position to make proposals to secular people as equal partners in the conversation. (Of course, the spheres of religious people and theologians overlap, but it would be important to know what hat one has on at any given moment.)

Jack Fitzmier: Find the missing conversation partners as soon as possible. Academic theologians presume to speak for all theology. Practical theology is the antidote to functionalist theological curricula -- they're not here! The conversation will advance faster if we reflect on our questions in light of our practice in the church (as preachers, teachers, in the pew). We should make a pact never again to laugh at Sarah, the young woman who said at the public meeting that she was getting a Ph.D. in theology and would soon be unemployed.

My take: Wow. I knew Jack was frustrated at the character and task of this gathering. I wish this talk had been at the end of the day. Although I'm sure we will discuss Jack's criticisms in the next hour, they're going to be swallowed up by the rest of the day. Will they ring in our ears as they should?

Glenn Stassen: Where is Reinhold Niebuhr when we need him? An expression of rage against the last eight years of removing regulations, extra-judicial detentions and torture, war, and emboldening of terrorism, withdrawal from treaties designed to provide international checks and balances. What is the meaning of our naive trust in the structures of power to be righteous, as Protestants? On second thought, it's not Niebuhr with his 19th century Jesus and poor Christology we need; we should take his robust understanding of sin and marry it to Dietrich Bonhoeffer's understanding of Jesus.

My take: Were those of us in this room naive about the last eight years? And right after Emilie asked us to look forward, too. The atmosphere of confession, of naming our own sins, is beginning to be overwhelming. How is this going to give the heads of seminaries and divinity schools and the heads of denominations anything to work with? Is this the moment for liberal guilt run amok?

Glenn's presentation does make a point that gives me pause. The question is what Christian vision has the power to transform thise particular society with all its ills and promise. Glenn answers that the Jesus we need is Bonhoeffer's -- an excellent prescription, in my view. So the relationship between theology and transformation is this: theological elaboration of a Christian vision originated in the religious culture (Bonhoeffer did not invent that Jesus, but painted a particularly full and powerful portrait of him), imagined in response to the experiences and context of a particular religious way of life. That reflection can be rekindled, but there's no prior guartantee that it will transform. For that, we wait (as Barth says) for God to miraculously transform our words into God's Word.

Break for videotaping interview responding to questions posed by readers of the conference blog ... whoa, those were some tough questions. "Is God as arbitrary as life?" It's energizing and humbling to try to think in those terms. I think the plan is to put together everyone's best answers and throw it all up on YouTube.

I come back in as the session is ending, but in time to hear a participant once again call us to support the 9/11 truth movement. And they ask why progressive theology is irrelevant ...

Friday, March 13, 2009

Of lava and tabernacles

I don't know how to describe this event that has left me wrung out and empty another day. We are speaking in shifts of four and five, with a strict time limit of five minutes apiece, followed by an hour or more of group discussion. Four of these sessions occurred today after one that started us off last night (to a bleary audience of jetlagged theologians, at least one of which slept through most of it). Eating, drinking, more talking (always more talking -- what else are we good at?), and then to cap it all off, a public presentation/"dialogue" tonight with about 150 people who came to visit.

At various times during yesterday and today, I've wondered whether anything productive can come of this. I know that I'm writing down theological thoughts furiously, and I suspect I'll get something out of it in terms of an impetus for my own work. Does that contribute to "transforming theology for the church"? I don't know.

It's certainly exciting to sit next to Harvey Cox or Kirk Wegter-McNelly and carry on a whispered side conversation during a session. I've actually been a lot more active than I expected to be, making at least one comment (and sometimes more than one) at every meeting. But the utility and the outcome are cloudy. You can get more perspective from the liveblogging being done by Tony Jones and Tripp Fuller, from the perspectives of the emerging church and theological student body respectively.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dinnertime but not dinnertime

Greetings from California, where even though the student who drove us from the airport described the weather as "a little cool," at sixty-some-odd degrees it's a sight better than the frigid rain I left behind in Arkansas.

In about 90 minutes, I'll be heading over to Claremont Theological School for the start of the conference for which I was brought here. And then we'll just go and go and go. Until 9 pm tonight, and then 9 am to 9 pm tomorrow and Saturday.

That doesn't leave much spare time for other work or relaxation, and I guess that's just the way it's going to have to be. At some point I need to watch the second episode of Breaking Bad (which I brought with me on AMC's preview disc). At some point I need to read student work. Heck, at some point I need to actually write the short panel presentation I'm supposed to give tomorrow. But it's hard to tell when that will occur.

And blogging? Probably not in the cards. I'll try to check in daily with a brief update, but whatever substance occasionally leaks into this site probably will be taking a hiatus along with everything else.

Now to get down to business ...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

And the sky is gray

Yesterday it was 80 degrees. This afternoon sleet was bouncing off my car. A bout of wintry weather -- including frozen precipitation -- is coming through Arkansas today and tonight, but temperatures are supposed to stay above freezing. It's doubtful that my drive to the airport tomorrow morning will be affected.

For yes, I am off once again, this time to California, which I may reasonably expect to be sunnier than the currently soggy state of my burg. (Speaking of which: It was strangely exciting to see a few quick scenes from Conway on last night's American Idol, in the package for Kris Allen who is a student at my university. You know, for Arkansas we're a pretty major town, but boy did the place ever look dinky on TV.)

This will be the second time in less than a week that I'm on the 9:35 am LIT to DFW flight. But this time I won't be staying (sorry, Texas!). Instead I'll hop a flight for the Ontario, California airport north east of LA, a place I've been a couple of times in the last few years. I'm bound for the Rekindling Theological Reflection kickoff summit at Claremont School of Theology. This is one of a series of events launching a program funded by the Ford Foundation to rethink theological education. It's quite an honor to be invited, and I'm sure I'll learn much more than I'll contribute.

Our schedule has us booked from 9 am to 9 pm both Friday and Saturday, with an opening reception Thursday night. Not much time to relax and enjoy the California stars, much less see family and friends who happen to be in the area. But I'm looking forward to catching up on some work, blogging the second episode of Breaking Bad, reading, and knitting -- at least during my two days of travel. I anticipate a more solitary, less social trip; there are a few friends and acquaintances among the participants, but nothing like the folks I know and see yearly in Dallas. But solitude can be nourishing. We'll see what comes of it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


This morning Noel went to our local elementary school and filled out the forms needed to register Cady Gray for kindergarten. Thus ends a year filled with way too much anxiety over this simple transition.

It all began in early '08 when I began to confront the choice between enrolling Cady Gray in the full-time preschool class, or whether we needed to enroll her in a part-time class on the premise that she would be at her preschool for two more years, moving up to the full-time class in her last year. In order to answer that question, I needed to ascertain whether she would be eligible to enter kindergarten according to when her birthdate falls.

Here began the uncertainty. I heard from various friends that the legislature was trying to move the eligibility dates up. At that time the cutoff date was September 1. The proposal was that for fall 2009, the child would have to be 5 years old by August 15; for fall 2010, the birthday would have to take place on or before August 1. Cady Gray's birthday is August 25.

I anxiously monitored the bill, and sighed with relief when the eventual rules passed delayed the implementation by one additional year. Now for 2009, the date stayed the same -- September 1 -- pushed back to August 15 for 2010 and August 1 for 2011. Confidently, I enrolled Cady Gray in the full-time preschool class and made definite plans for her to start kindergarten in fall 2009.

But the anxiety was not over. Oh, no. I heard from well-meaning friends on two separate occasions that we had miscalculated. "She won't be old enough," they told me. "The dates have been pushed back." Each time I became consumed with worry that I had misread the information, or that something had changed. And while I could find evidence that the regulations were the way I thought, it was never absolutely definitive. Few school systems had any information on the birthday deadlines at all, and most of them were old. The state education website was no help. Only in little out-of-the-way places, poorly linked and unobtrusive, were the dates listed.

But every time, after much searching, I found it again. And all was well until a couple of weeks ago. I started to wonder when registration would be held, and once again, the web had no information. One of the teachers at Cady Gray's preschool said it would be sometime in March, but it wasn't until last week that a newspaper advertisement was posted with the schedule.

And this prompted another of the teachers to call me at my office. "Aren't you planning to put Cady Gray in kindergarten in the fall?" she asked. When I confirmed it, she said with concern, "You know she's not going to be old enough, right?"

"Oh yes, she is." I spoke the words carefully, thinking please don't put me through this again. We went through the whole thing with her birthday and with the way the law was passed, and in a couple of minutes the teacher was apologizing to me for reading her information incorrectly. I hung up with my heart pounding.

And so you can imagine my relief when I found out that registration had gone smoothly. Cady Gray will be one of the youngest in her class, which would give most parents pause. But she's been reading fluently for months, demands math tests from her brother, and loves learning and socializing with her classmates. She's so ready for school. And finally I can be sure she's going in August.

Monday, March 9, 2009


I paid special attention today to the songs that got stuck in my head. There were a couple of old standards. I typically spend part of the day humming "Truly Scrumptious" from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. While washing Cady Gray's face at bathtime, I became fixated on the line "Maggie, I wish I'd never seen your face" from "Maggie May."

But the song that maddened me most of the day was one I hear occasionally on one of the local rock stations. I didn't know any more about it until I looked it up just now. It's "Paralyzer" by the odiously-named Finger 11.

Now the song has a nifty instrumental hook, although the growly, shouty vocal is in a style that I typically detest. What lodged it in my head is the chorus, which has an very unusual lyrical structure. It's basically a couple of long sentences, no rhymes to speak of, just kind of wrapped around a roller-coaster melody line. I think the reason I can't stop singing it to myself when I start is that it's one complete thought. One clause leads to another with no break.

I don't know that I'm describing it very well, but if you've heard it, you probably know what I'm talking about. Is this as strange as I think it is, or can you give me some other examples?

Well I’m not paralyzed
But, I seem to be struck by you
I want to make you move
Because you’re standing still
If your body matches
What your eyes can do
You’ll probably move right through
Me on my way to you

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Inside and out

A while back I wrote a post about the odd effect of having one's worldview skewed because of a book. (At least I think I did -- can't find it in the blog search just now.) And just a few months ago, prompted by a conversation with a colleague, I wrote about not feeling life I have an interior life that's different from my exterior behavior.

Today those two ideas collided while I traveled home. I finished reading Washington Square, and experienced again the sensation of a mind full of ideas and emotions while alone in a place where nobody else shares that experience. And I realized that this is an important recurring occasion when I do feel as if I have an interior life.

So all of a sudden, I remember what it's like to feel your self overflowing its shell -- the depths of the self invisible to outside observers. It's like having a secret. Something is happening to you that no one else can see. You want to live inside your memories or your fantasies. When a moment comes back to you with a rush of emotion, you have physical sensations -- your gut twisting, or your skin tingling. The power of the internal to overwhelm sensory experience is suddenly, undeniably evident.

It's a troubling sensation for me only because I've come to rely on my externally-focused self in order to get things done. When I'm in these reveries that are so rare these days, provoked by memory or artistry, I can't imagine resurfacing for ordinary tasks. But my interior journey passed the day of travel for me in a pleasant haze, and serves as a reminder of that adolescent sense that my self was bigger than anyone could know -- something I haven't felt, or at least noticed, in quite a while.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

When the lights go down in the city

It's been a long day, and one that confirmed the success of this year's conference, for which I was partially responsible.  There's a sense of relief that whatever happens tomorrow, we've got the numbers that tell the story.  The hard part is over, and now it's just the cleaning up.

Looking out of my penthouse suite onto the flat, seemingly infinite lights of the city of Dallas and its suburbs, I think about my lifelong attraction to cities.   Their energy, their people, their institutions, their compact effervescence -- it's always drawn me.  I've never lived in a city -- only in suburbs and towns.   But when I take a vacation, I like to go to cities.  Public transportation, street-level shops, the grid plan -- they all speak to me of the overflowing vitality of humanity packed into an urban setting.

I love my Arkansas town that allows me to live next door to where I work, that puts schools within walking distance of my house, that places services a five-minute drive away.  But there's a city girl deep within me who would give it all up to live in a walk-up and shop at a corner market, eat ethnic food a few blocks away, decide to take a subway uptown to a movie or downtown to a show.  Everytime I go to a place where I see the lights and the skyline stretching away into the distance, I dream the city dream. 

It may be just as much of a fairy tale as the Disney stories Cady Gray loves, but I cherish it.  Somewhere in between my fantasies and the urban reality lies a city where I could live a different life -- more sophisticated, more adult, more significant than the one I have now.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Today I'm pondering

Some questions from a day on the road:
  • Somebody needs to do an in-depth investigation on the terror alert level.  It's been orange for more than two years now in airports -- but yellow everywhere else.  Why is it that I doubt it will ever go back down into the greeny-blues?
  • I haven't run across an exorbitant hotel soda machine in several years.  Seems like the buck or buck-and-a-quarter 20-ouncer is standard now.  Whither the $3 cans of my youth?
  • When did we, as a people, conclude that when we take a shower, we want to feel like we're standing outside in a gentle rain, rather than like we're getting a vigorous massage?
  • Someday I will develop that sixth sense that tells me: Hey, don't I usually get a bunch of documents for the board meeting we're going to be having?  Maybe I should contact someone to see if I was omitted from the mailing list for some reason.  When will that day come and save me from showing up at the meeting empty-handed while everyone else is rifling through stacks of papers?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The big D

Tomorrow morning, bright and early, I'm off to Dallas for the annual meeting of the Southwest Commission on Religious Studies. This has long been one of my favorite meetings, full of bright and friendly people, compact and easily navigable.

My pleasure in it is partly diminished and partly enhanced by my office as secretary-treasurer of one of the commission's constituent organizations, the American Academy of Religion Southwest Region. That position requires me to coordinate with the secretary-treasurer of the commission (always a pleasure) and oversee the ever-rotating executive officers of my organization. I arrange for the plenary speaker and wrangle the business meeting.

These duties can be nerve-wracking, minimal as they are compared to what my counterpart on the commission does. (Heaven save me from any office where I have to negotiate contracts with hotels.) Some of my enjoyment of the meeting is sapped away by having to cluck over the details, which keeps me away from the sessions where interesting papers are read and lively discussions of intellectual points are had.

But on the other hand, I'm always attracted to positions of responsibility, because it's so rewarding to make things happen. As nice as it is to be a tourist, it's a whole different pleasure to be a guide -- or a host. I received one of the most astounding compliments of my professional life this past week from a senior scholar I contacted about a nomination to the organization's executive line. He wrote that he'd always admired my grace interacting with others (and quoted Twelfth Night into the bargain).

Now that's a quality I've never thought I'd be able to brag about. Given the friction of my interactions with some of my colleagues here, I'm not sure it's one that some would ever consider ascribing to me. Yet from this man -- who is the very definition of generosity and graciousness -- it means the world. Maybe as I fumble through these obligations and responsibilities, I am not destined to alienate everyone. Maybe for some, my way of proceeding actually makes their experiences smoother, their lives momentarily better. That would certainly be worth the effort.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The camera eye

Tonight my film students watched Blow-Up, and much to my surprise, the reaction was far more positive than the one they gave Jules and Jim last week.  Actually it was just about flip-flopped; the men in the class found it far more interesting, while some of the women that enjoyed Jules and Jim were unhappy with Antonioni's version of the sixties.

For me, both movies -- maybe like all the movies I'm showing in class -- grab me in a similar way.  I find myself sucked in by the filmmaking.  The audacious way that the camera is used just makes my jaw drop.  Truffaut dances with reckless abandon.  There's no movement that is out of bounds.  Moving pictures were made to move!  Antonioni is suspicious of all that restlessness.  Doesn't it hide an emptiness, he wonders?  Yet he knows that his camera defines reality -- and he boldly accepts that responsibility, showing us exactly what he wants, how he wants.

I didn't necessarily plan for these two weeks to define European filmmaking, or to set the stage for the seventies movies that are coming up.  But how thrilling it is to give these students movies whose visual vocabulary, whose attitude toward their stories, and whose choice of subject matter change everything for the American filmmakers who followed in their footsteps.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Can women be cool?

In their blogs following last week's screening of Jules and Jim, the students in my film class took up the question of whether cool is something inextricably tied to the male gender.  (Present company excepted, of course.)  Our post-class discussion yielded opinions on two contrasting poles: (1) If a woman is cool, it is because she cultivates the toughness, detachment, and dominance characteristic of cool men.  (2) Any woman who achieves a certain level of popularity is de facto cool, because the people buying her records/watching her films/etc. consider her cool.

Here's what they wrote about when they got a chance to deliberate on the question in their own spaces.  If you see something that intrigues you, leave them a comment!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Back to the salt mines

Against all odds, CBS decided to show a new episode of How I Met Your Mother tonight, meaning I blogged about it.  Also I showed a movie to students this evening.  All that intellectual activity makes me feel far less guilty about pointing you to the A.V. Club for tonight's entry.  Read Noel's Big Bang Theory recap too, while you're at it!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

New year, new determination

I'm hoping that 2009 will be the Year of Home Improvement.

Already we've arranged for a badly-needed paint job on our eaves and trim. That will involve some repair on rotted woodwork. A couple of places where the roof is leaking in our overhang have also been discovered; that means that roof work will quickly follow the painting.

For Valentine's Day, Noel arranged to have our dining room chairs repaired and reupholstered, and they should be coming back any day. Depending on how much money we have left, the next step will be some work in the backyard -- clearing an overgrown garden plot, removing a gravel-covered area where an RV garage once stood, and hauling away the remains of a metal shed and a pallet compost enclosure.

I doubt we'll be flush enough to keep going after that unless our tax refund is a lot bigger than I'm anticipating. But what would be next, if we could? I'd plump for landscaping our front lawn, which is supported by railroad timbers that are falling apart, and from which every hard rain washes soil into the sewer system. But we also need a new shower enclosure in our bathroom. And once we clear the clutter out of our living areas, I'm ready for new carpets and new window treatments all around.

Sounds ambitious, I know, especially in a time when we're supposed to be cutting back spending. But here's the thing: In five years, our house is going to be paid off. We're going to need to do one of two things to keep the tax bill in check: buy a new house, or take out a new mortgage on this one. Either way, this place will need to be brought up to a reasonable person's standards. And personally, speaking as a person lucky enough to have disposable income and a decent credit score, I'm ready to keep going.