Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Writers' Rooms

So I've been writing. I'm working on a chapter which explores how the notion of "truth" is connected to the notion of "justice," and, seeing as how that means I've not been blogging much (or doing, really, anything apart from writing - my partner Sim is being absolutely fantastic about doing cooking and washing up), I thought I'd blog about where I do my writing.

Well, since I haven't really got that much interesting to say on the subject (my study is in a small upstairs extension at the back of our house, with skylights [that leak] and a window with a tree outside it, is full of books, folders and [for the moment unused] musical instruments... oh and I haven't cleaned it once since we moved in over a year ago), I thought I'd post some photos instead, a la The Guardian's excellent (and obviously much more interesting than mine) "Writers' Rooms." So, here we go on a tour of my study...

On the door is this picture. It is generally "where I'm at."

Then there are lots of book shelves without many books on them. Like this:

They're a bit empty because most of the books are all piled up around my desk so I can grab them quickly. Like this:

But there are some books that do make it back onto the shelves after I've used them. Like these:

And here's my window with the tree where the long-tailed tits make me happy when it's not going so well!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Shack: Concerning Closure and Inaction

So I managed to read The Shack by William Paul Young inbetween my other reading assignments (the fact that I am still reading is a rather dire situation considering I am trying to finish a first draft by the end of the month!). It tells the story of Mackenzie Allen Philips (Mac), the daughter (Missy) of whom has been abducted, her body never found. Four years after this horrific experience, Mac receives a note from God asking him to come to the deserted and isolated shack where Missy's blood was found. What follows is a meeting between Mac and God.

At the monthly discussion group that I go to at a local church here, Theologically Speaking, we reacted to the so-called "radicality" of the theology that permeates this fictional narrative, the disappointing "did it happen or not" aspect to the story, the lucrative nature of the publication of a book initially written for his children, and the level of "closure" offered by its ending.

We remarked that narration is a useful means of engaging readers with theological issues. But we felt that, in this case, we were very cognisant as we read of the fact that the story was intended as a vehicle for theology. We found that the story contains theology that was "radical" fifty or so years ago, remaining radical for only a certain kind of Christian (and atheist, given many atheists perceptions of Christianity).

We also felt that the narration itself suffered from a disatisfying ambiguity. We felt that we were comfortable with this story being a parable of meeting God, and that it did not need the "real-world" explanation ("it was all a psychological event caused by massive physical trauma") that was provided. Why not just tell the story of a man meeting God? Did Young really think that such a story would be unpalatable without a "get-out" aetiological option? We displayed a level of comfort and familiarity with parable as a means of communication and an understanding of the narratival nature of communication today that suggested that more readers than just us would have prefered a simple parable, uncomplicated by such ambiguities.

It left us disappointed and (too?) keen to ask whether or not the events narrated "actually happened." The point of Jesus' parables were never to get the listener to ask, "did this happen or not?" If that is the first question, then the point of the tale has been missed. This is how we felt about The Shack. The preoccupation with the "did this actually happen?" question, evoked by Young's decision to include a "real-world" explanation alongside a "religious" one, meant that questions of theology (the whole "point" of the narrative) were not asked immediately.

We were also suspicious of Young's motivations for publication. What started out as a story for his children is now a multi-million-copy-selling (some websites say 6 or 7 million) phenomenon of "grass roots" publishing. I have absolutely no problem with this aspect of the book. Good for "ordinary" story tellers using their own finances to fund projects they, their families, and their friends feel passionate about.

But, at the end of the book, there is a page advertising "The Missy Project." Rather than being a charitable organisation raising funds to support the families and friends of abducted children, The Missy Project (not to be confused with The Missy Project, a nonprofit organisation promoting awareness of brain aneurysm disease in children) is a means of promoting The Shack. Very far from a not-for-profit organisation, The Missy Project is precisely designed to increase profit!!!

The page advertises the fact that film producers are interested in purchasing the publishing rights - but only after a certain number of copies are sold!!! It then suggests ways of helping the book "gain traction in the wider culture," such as posting promotional jpgs on your websites and blogs, asking radio stations and podcasters to invite Young as a guest speaker, and, of course, buying it for your friends and families. The Missy Project site says: "Don't make it an advertisement, but share how this book impacted your life and offer people the link to The Shack website." Certainly don't advertise... but talk about how personally valuable you found the book and then link to a place where readers can buy it - as I've just done... How is that not an advertisement?!? Surely, by linking to in the first sentence of this post, I am engaging in precisely an advertising campaign for The Shack?

So I was personally disgusted that the book included a page advertising itself and suggesting ways readers could engage in the books' promotion, and not a page of information pointing readers to a not-for-profit charity where they could contribute to the support of families and friends of missing children, and to the individuals and organisations that help in the search.

Finally, I was also repelled by the ending of the book. Without revealing the precise nature of the ending and thereby "spoiling" the reading experience of those who have not yet personally bought and read a copy (follow the links in this post to purchase your very own book!!!), Mac and his family find a level of "closure" that, sadly, many parents of abducted children experience do not. Madeleine McCann's family do not have such closure. The parents of most missing children do not experience the levels of media attention and charitable funding that her parents have experienced - which leads me back to my earlier point about the (missed) opportunity that The Shack offered for raising awareness about means of financial support. The Find Madeline website includes a page linking to Missing Children Organisations throughout the world. Why do copies of The Shack not include a page of such information? Why does The Shack website not include such information? After reading The Shack, I was left with the distinct impression of an "it'll be all right in the end" theology. Mac's relationships, with his father, his daughter, his wife, the rest of his family, his friends, with God, are ultimately reconstructed, repaired, rebuilt, restored. He is no longer broken and shattered, but whole. No longer angry, but peaceful. I feel that such a "everything will be fine" theology is disingenuous and very far from the day-to-day experience of most people, including most Christians, let alone from the experience of those whose lives are marked by the abduction of a loved one.

I feel strongly that the purpose of this book was to use the experience of child abduction as a vehicle for theologising and for the promotion of a particular theological outlook that appears to promote "righteous" complacency in a divine plan rather than Just action for change.

Viewed in such a light, this book is in no way radical.

Please ignore the links I have made to places where you can purchase The Shack. Instead, please follow the links to the following missing children organisations, and donate generously.

Missing People
Parents and Abducted Children Together
International Centre for Mssing and Exploited Children
Missing Children Europe

Also, visit the Don't You Forget About Me channel on to view videos of missing children.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Greenbelt 2010

Further to Friday's post, according to Christian Aid, Greenbelt 2010 will be from Friday 27th August until Monday 30 August. Although I can't find any details on the Greenbelt website, Wikipedia is listing next year's theme as "The Art of Looking Sideways."

Friday, September 04, 2009

Greenbelt 09 Talks

Unable to get to Greenbelt this year (theme: Standing in the Long Now), I've been eagerly scanning the talks available on CD or MP3 download from the website. I'm looking forward to hearing Kester Brewin's talks in advance of his next book (hopefully available next year some time), as well as Mark Vernon (my partner Sim happened across his book, After Atheism, yesterday). And, as ever, Pete Rollins' contributions. In particular, I'm going to fork out for:

Lots of academics also give talks at Greenbelt - this year included Ursula King (Bristol, and SOAS) who I met when I organised an international conference on Gender and Spiritual Praxis in Asian Contexts at Lancaster in 2006, and Andrew Tate (Lancaster). Other academics that I know and whose work I use or have used that have also spoken at Greenbelt include Kristin Aune (Derby), Grace Davie (Exeter), Tina Beattie (Roehampton) and Jolyon Mitchell (Edinburgh). Greenbelt is a fantastic place for disseminating research and I hope to be able to do something next year... if my proposal(s) get accepted.

The (Shocking?) Shack

Over our summer hiatus, "Theologically Speaking," the theological discussion group that I'm part of at my local Anglican church, has been reading The Shack by William P. Young. Although I have very little time to read anything that I don't have to read for my doctoral studies, I'm going to try reading a few chapters of this a night, ready for our meeting towards the end of September (also when I hope to have a finished "first final draft" of my thesis for my supervisor to read!).
I'm not particularly looking forward to reading it. I've only ever read Brian McLaren's "Christian fiction" (A New Kind of Christian, The Story We Find Ourselves In, and The Last Word and The Word After That). I found the quality of writing rather disappointing, even though the theological perspectives put forward (not necessarily all held by McLaren himself - this is fiction, after all, and aims at provoking indepdent thought rather than instilling a particular line) were moving closer to my own position. However, I find the fragments of fiction in the work of someone like Pete Rollins (now collected here) and in the liturgical practices of communities within the emerging church milieu must more inspirational than I imagine any single sustained work of ficiton could be (as it often entails the systematization of perspectives into a unified narrative). Anyway, my presuppositions about The Shack (based only on a quick reading of a few reviews, see here and here for example) are that it is going to be theologically "daring" only from the perspective of conservative Christianity. I don't think it is going to be that radical - i.e. it is not so audacious to imagine God as a black woman - and so will end up, I imagine, coming off as a bit pedestrian from the perspective of my own thinking.

But, I stress, I haven't even opened it yet. I am prepared to be shocked by The Shack. In fact, I hope it does surprise me out of my own presumptions. It would be great for it to stimulate some thinking for me and, hopefully, in conversation with everyone else at my discussion group, it will. I imagine that some of the others at Theologically Speaking will also be hoping that The Shack doesn't still domesticate whilst seeking to radicalise. I'll have to wait and see. Anyone else read it?
[Post Update: Having read it, you can now read my reflections on The Shack here.]

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Review of Reading Spiritualities

The current issue (vol.23,no.3,Sept09) of Literature & Theology includes a review of the collection of papers edited by my supervisor, Deborah Sawyer, and fellow PhD candidate, Dawn Llewellyn, Reading Spiritualities: Constructing and Representing the Sacred.

Anna Fisk (University of Glasgow) writes that the editors' introduction is 'an excellent stand-alone map of where postmodern theological interpretation is situated today' (p.368).

She ends by commenting that,

'In her introduction to Is There a Future for Feminist Theology? Deborah Sawyer identifies feminist theology's tendency to work in a ghetto, separate from secular feminism and other branches of theology. Reading Spiritualities is a valuable example of resistance to that trend, asserting the continued relevance of doing theology with a political edge, yet without staying boxed in a room of one's own' (p.370).

But, more importantly, here's the bit about me:

'Katharine Sarah Moody examines the blogs of the 'emerging church' movement as an example of the wish to move from being 'passive consumers' to 'active creators' amongst Christians influenced by postmodernity. One major insight of Moody's study is that the censorship of readers' comments, and the hierarchy of credibility that exists amongst blogs and bloggers, may herald the return of textual 'authority over' in a new guise' (p.369).

Joking aside, Dawn did an especially great job not only being the primary organiser of the international conference from which these papers stemmed, but also putting together the collection and doing such a stirling editing job! Yay for Dawn!!!

Queerying Sociology of Religion Article

Further to the saga of publishing my "Queerying The Spiritual Revolution: Religious Mediation Among LGBT Christians" (see here, here, here and here), I've finally decided to go for it and submit it (once I've played around with the house publishing style) to the Journal of Contemporary Religion. Paul Heelas was very generous, as usual, in his advice and has given me the confidence to give it a go! So, watch this space...

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

External Examiner News

Also whilst we were away in Andalucia, I got the news from my supervisor, Deborah Sawyer, that Gerard Loughlin has provisionally agreed to be the external examiner for my viva, barring natural disasters and the like. Gerard is a Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. He likes telling stories and sex. Okay, so, slightly overfamiliar way of putting that... but you followed those links, didn't you?!? He's co-editor (with Elizabeth Stuart) of Theology & Sexuality. His doctoral research was on the philosophy and theology of John Hick (who features briefly, one might say fragmentally, in my thesis). He's a fan of interdisciplinarity, or "cross-dressing," as he puts it, so my positioning within philosophy, theology and religious studies (particularly the sociology of religion) is a location with which he is familiar. His research interests (Christianity, gender, sexuality, popular culture) clearly overlap with my own (both displayed in my thesis and in my MA studies on LGBT religiosity), but its his emphasis on narrative theology that is a particular reason he will be a really interesting dialogue partner (if that is what the viva experience actually is, rather than what it is just sold to us as!!!). My Chaper Six, "Truth, Theology and Fictionality" will hopefully be something he can sink his teeth into - but not too hard, I hope! He'll be a fantastic guy to (hopefully) get a reference from, particularly if I get to apply for research funding at Manchester with Graham Ward. Finally, Deborah says he's a really nice guy... Always, always, always a bonus.

Updates After Andalucia

So I didn't get all my holiday reading done. Mainly because it's quite hard to read when its 40 degrees. I did get through Dialogue and Deconstruction: The Gadamer-Derrida Encounter and Reading Derrida / Thinking Paul: On Justice, though. So I've got a few more texts to go (especially Realist Christian Theology in a Postmodern Age, which I got half way through about two years ago) before I feel more comfortable in moving ahead with my remaining chapters (mainly Chapters Four, Five and Seven).

While we were away, I did some good thinking on how I'm going to characterise the relationship between my different sources of empirical and theoretical data. I have both empirical texts (interview transcripts, e-questionnaires, and a variety of emerging church media) and theoretical texts (mainly by Jack Caputo and Jamie Smith, but including secondary literature by people like Gavin Hyman, Theodore Jennings, Bruce Ellis Benson, Richard Kearney, Robyn Horner, Merold Westphal, Kevin Hart, and Mark C Taylor).

My starting point is, of course, my empirical data. But because of the very nature of this starting point, my own reading of theology and philosophy has to follow the trajectories of my participants. Therefore, the theoretical texts augment the empirical ones, making in particular two strands clearer within the data. In the process, then, there is a massive amount of literature that I've only been able to dip into, including work by St. Augustine, Alain Badiou, Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Martin Heidegger, John Hick, Gerard Loughlin, Immanuel Kant, Soren Kierkegaard, Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Marion, John Milbank, Friedrich Nietzsche, St. Paul, and Graham Ward, etc.

My thesis is not "on" the work of any of these people. To an extent, it could be said to be "on" deconstructive theology, or Radical Orthodoxy, or, of course, the emerging church milieu. It might even be said to be "on" Jack Caputo and/or Jamie Smith. But I have to be clear that mine is not, for example, a thesis "on Derrida." Instead, I've been thinking about using the word "fragments" to refer to the other reading practices that I have had to engage in. This form of reading does not, for example, "do justice" to "Derrida." On the contrary, it probably does a lot of violence. This is similar to the way that Jennings frames his use of both Derrida and Paul in his Reading Derrida / Thinking Paul: On Justice. He writes,

"the procedure here adopted entails a certain violence to the texts both of Derrida and of Paul, for it requires extracting bits and pieces of their respective arguments in order to show points of convergence and illumination... I hope, however, that the violence of this reading is to a certain degree mitigated by its attempt to undo the greater violence that has come from the supposition that neither author is really concerned with the question of justice" (p.xii)

In the hope of "doing justice" to my empirical texts, I have done violence to the theoretical texts of several philosophers and theologians. As (a "fragment" of!!!) "Derrida" says, "in order to be just, I am unjust and I betray... it is unjust to be just. I always betray someone to be just; I always betray one for the other" ("To Forgive" in Questioning God, p.49).

Also whilst we were away, I also realised that a guiding structural question of my thesis is "how do non-propositional understandings of truth affect participants' relationships to religious propositions?" I had already worked out that Chapter Three, "Thinking Truth(s) Otherwise," moves from participants' considerations of religious propositions to ask whether this is even where religious truth is located and, further, to explore whether religious truth is (also) non-propositional. I had even created a three-fold structure for the closing section ("Non-Propositional Religious Truth"): Truth is God, Truth-Event, and Living in Truth. But, on a train (dictating to Sim, as I don't travel very well), I worked out that part of what my thesis is actually asking is how participants relate non-propositional understandings of religious truth to religious propositions.

In turn, this means that I've been able to much better articulate (should that be, "articulate much better"?!?!?) what I'm up to in some of my thesis chapters. So, the "Interlude" makes clear that a structuring question is, "what does non-propositional religious truth mean for religious propositions?" Then, chapters four, five and seven detail the implications of the non-propositional understandings of truth I enumerated in Chapter Three (Truth is God, Truth-Event, and Living in Truth) for religious propositions. So, Chapter Four presents the implications of "Truth is God" for religious propositions, Chapter Five details what "Truth-Event" means for religious propositions, and (part of) Chapter Seven demonstrates how "Living in Truth" relates to religious propositions. That means that I can clarify that, for the two strands in my data, "dialogue" and "deconstruction" become the respective guiding principles for non-propositional notions of truth to religious propositions. Well, I think that's clearer, at least!