Archive for March, 2013

One more hurdle cleared…

As noted back in January after I passed my Latin exam, yesterday was the date schedule for my oral qualifying exams. Preparation these last two and a half months has involved familiarizing myself with a bibliography of ~70 books (30 Roman history, 15 ancient Greek history, 15 medieval history, 15 relating to my dissertation topic), making sure I can talk with some authority about all of those areas of historical inquiry, as well as keep in my head the broad sweep of those histories, and produce (and be able to justify my choices for) syllabi for undergrad survey courses in ancient Greece and the middle ages.

Simple, right?

What I found during my preparation is that the hardest thing for me to do was keep the big picture in my head. This makes a lot of sense, really; most people start with a survey and then gradually narrow their focus. Because of how I got here, I really started with the details I was already interested in, and then had to figure out how to broaden my perspective so I could contextualize those details in a wider discussion. At some point I had to sit down, make a huge timeline from 753 BC to 1453 AD, divide it into periods, and force myself to refer to it constantly.

Anyway, without getting into a transcript of the exam, my committee members seemed pleased enough to tell me yesterday afternoon that I had indeed passed. The issue I describe above came up in their feedback, and what they said about definitely made sense and was helpful in terms of figuring out how to frame things in the future, but they didn’t treat it as a showstopping issue by any means.

It’s a step that feels very good to have done, and I left the room yesterday with both a sense of accomplishment (to say nothing of gratitude to my committee and everybody else who has helped get me here). So, on to the next step. I have a dissertation prospectus to defend now, and we’re trying to button that date down right now. It looks like it might be sometime during Orthodox Holy Week, possibly Holy Friday; we’ll see how it all shakes out. Once that’s defended, then I’ll be ABD (“all but dissertation”), and while I know this isn’t the case for everybody, the dissertation is the part I’m really looking forward to.

Your prayers up to his point have been greatly appreciated; your prayers moving forward are equally craved. I’m getting there, bit by bit…

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Introducing Red Egg Review

RERlogoLast summer, I was part of a conversation that was lamenting the state of some higher-profile efforts at Orthodox intellectual and cultural engagement. They tend to be reactionary, so the discussion went, they tend to be anti-intellectual, and worse, they tend to be filled with poorly-written reactionary anti-intellectual diatribes masked as legitimate intellectual engagement. I certainly have had my own experiences with various instances of this problem over the years, and while I’m not exactly the lefty that some of the other participants in the discussion were (here I must stress this as the money quote at that posting: “I am as strongly suspicious of a group claiming right-wing politics as being coterminous with the Christian faith as I would be of similar claims about the relationship of Christianity to left-wing politics”), I nonetheless shared many of the concerns.

Anyway, after the planning discussions seemed to point to a particular course of action that I didn’t think I would have much time to be actively involved with given my other organizational commitments and what I was trying to accomplish this academic year, I retreated into passive observer/occasional respondent mode. Then, last fall, the editors contacted me, asking if I’d be willing to write a review of Peter Brown‘s latest book, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. I could be, I suppose, referred to as a “great-grandstudent” of Brown’s; my advisor was an advisee of John Matthews, whose D. Phil. Brown supervised. For a seminar a couple of years ago my advisor was able to get a draft chapter of Through the Eye of a Needle from Brown for us to read, so I was already ostensibly familiar with where he was going with it, and I needed to read it for my exams, so I was happy to sign on.

I’m happy to announce that Red Egg Review is now live, as is my piece on the book. I haven’t had a chance to read all the other articles yet, but the other contributors are a great group of friends and colleagues; Daniel Greeson is a dear friend for whose wedding I was a groomsman, Davor Džalto spent a year here at IU and attended All Saints during that time, Terry Cowan and I got to know each other a bit at the 2011 Byzantine Studies conference, and while I haven’t met the others in person yet, among them Sam Noble is somebody I’ve been corresponding with for some time about various issues scholarly, Arabic, and beyond, and he’s one of the good guys, to say the least.

Anyway, it looks like those conversations from last summer have turned into something worth your time (whether or not my book review actually is, never mind that now, but it was a useful exercise for me, at least). I don’t agree with everything my colleagues throw out there, and that’s entirely okay; the point is not to present an ideologically monolithic point of view — neither Terry nor I, at least, would have been asked to be involved if that were the idea. Rather, the objective is to present a model of Orthodox Christian intellectual and cultural engagement where the participants are able to present, in a manner both honest and consistent with the Orthodox faith, a diversity of viewpoints, while also seeking to do so in a way not entrenched in unhelpful political or ideological narratives. At first blush, at least, it looks like they’ve succeeded with this initial effort, and I hope it just gets better from here. I’m proud to have been involved in whatever minor fashion; may God give the increase.

Just posted: Hansen and Quinn, notes and answers, Unit VII

As I promised when I posted the notes for Unit VI, for every $150 tipped, I promise to get the next unit posted within a week. Well, it’s taken two years and nine months to break that threshold, but it was indeed broken on Monday, so here you go – I have posted the notes for Unit VII. Many thanks to all of you who have taken the time to tip.

As always, if you’ve got corrections, questions, or comments otherwise, let me know — enjoy!

Center, periphery, and shaking the dust off one’s feet (long)

(Warning: long and rambly. Sorry.)

This has been a difficult semester.

I’m at the point in my program where I’m having to jump over the big hurdles; this is no bad thing on the face of it, because I don’t want to be in grad school forever, I’d like to have a real job before I’m 40, and there are certain funding realities that mean it’s in my best interests to get to candidacy/ABD (“All But Dissertation”) sooner than later. To that end, this year has been all about getting myself through those hoops. Fall term I spent getting my Latin back in shape, I got that exam out of the way back in January, and now I’m three weeks out from my oral qualifying exams. Assuming all is well there, then I have a paper that I need to rework into a dissertation proposal, and then I can defend that before the end of April. Once I’m on the other side of all of that, then there are certain kinds of doors I can knock on. I don’t necessarily have to go knocking on them, since I still have two years of funding left and I’m pretty sure that if push comes to shove I can get the dissertation done in one year, but on the other hand, we’ve now been in Bloomington ten years, and we’re very much feeling like our own internal sell-by date has passed for this town. It would be very much to our advantage, on a few fronts, to be able to move on soon, and some of the research/teaching fellowship opportunities that are out there once both Barretts have unlocked the PhD candidacy achievement would be more than helpful in allowing us to move on.

See, we’ve basically been here long enough that we’ve outlasted just about everybody who moved here within our first two or three years. It’s one of the very weird things that can happen in this kind of town; you come here for one reason, thinking you’ll be in and out in two years, three years max, and then life takes a turn that keeps you here. It can be very subtle, really; it becomes clear that there’s really not a ton here that can keep you sufficiently busy if you’re not on one of a handful of very specific tracks, but somehow there’s a center of gravity here that can hold you in place even when you don’t really want it to. (A friend of mine calls this “getting Bloomingtoned”.) Part of it is that it’s logistically a difficult town to get in and out of; you can’t just hop a plane or train and be on your merry way. Part of it is that it can seem like there should be plenty to do here if you can just come up with the right opportunity; some of those opportunities only cycle through once a year, and by the time you realize that they’ve passed you by for the year it’s too late to make plans to do something someplace else, so you’re stuck until the window re-opens. Maybe you manage to make one of those opportunities work, and then the next thing you know, you’ve looked up and four years have passed. Eventually, one way or the other, stay here long enough, and not only will most of your friends have left, but the avenues that bring new arrivals into your social circle will re-orient around other people.

We’re feeling this right now particularly keenly, at least in part, because of Theodore. We just don’t have any access to family out here; my mom is in Alaska, Megan’s is in Washington state, my sisters are in Arizona and Oregon, and Megan’s brothers are in Hawaii, eastern Washington state, and Chicago. (Chicago seems like it shouldn’t be that bad, but it’s a lot harder than you might assume.) The plan this academic year was that theoretically our respective teaching/research schedules were going to allow for somebody to always be at home; well, that didn’t quite work out. Flesh of My Flesh got a last-minute (like, three weeks into the semester) teaching reassignment that threw a massive wrench into our schedules, and what we’ve realized is that just about everybody we would have asked for help in terms of watching the Fruit of My Loins for an hour here or an hour there has moved on. Every day has really turned into a juggling act, and it’s been hard to manage with basically not much local social network left.

One of the other things that’s contributed to feeling this diminution of our social circle is the fact that we’re no longer hooked in to the parish that is ostensibly local to Bloomington. (You perhaps notice that I’ve phrased that somewhat circuitously. That’s intentional, and I’ll come back to that.) Since January, we’ve been going to Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church in Indianapolis; it’s one of the shorter drives, they’ve been very nice and welcoming, they’ve fawned over Theodore, and they’ve been receptive of what I have to offer in the way of chanting. They also only meet twice a month, which means that we’re not missing out on much by commuting. But, even being one of the shorter drives, it’s still an hour and fifteen minutes away, and it means that our contact with the community is by necessity pretty sporadic. Anyway, the upshot of all of this is that a couple of weeks ago, when all three of us got really sick simultaneously, a friend of ours in Indianapolis who, like us, used to go to All Saints, asked us — “Is anybody checking in on you guys?” I just had to shrug and say, who’s left to do so?

Last week, I found out that a good friend of mine, whose time here has been very much the definition of “getting Bloomingtoned” (he and his wife moved here to be close to family and to apply for grad school; the family moved away shortly thereafter, grad school didn’t work out, and they kind of got snookered into staying indefinitely, under somewhat less than ideal employment conditions, for reasons I won’t deal with specifically) and who has been waiting for the opportunity to go to seminary for the last seven years, will finally be going to seminary this fall, come hell or high water. Last I had heard, while certain necessities had managed to fall into place in the last month, they had decided to wait until fall 2014; well, no, they’re getting the heck out of Dodge and they’re doing it now. They’re done feeling stuck here; time to take the opportunity to move on. Another couple of friends of ours are also moving in May, we’ve only recently found out, but they just arrived last May. The wife was starting a PhD program in education and the husband was doing some exploratory things for nursing, and, well, let’s just say that none of that really worked out as intended. They still thought that they’d stick around Bloomington for a few years simply to try to be rooted someplace for a little while, but as I found out, in the last few weeks they’ve seen that that way lies madness, and they’re moving back to their home state in a couple of months. They are, in other words, determined to avoid “getting Bloomingtoned”. I am happy for all of those folks. At the same time, much of our small handful of remaining friends here is also moving on to greener pastures come May, and we’re really starting to feel more alone than we have in awhile.

But my point here isn’t really to complain; my point is to give a personal window into the weird way this town works. To use theoretical terms, the way center and periphery function here is a bit tough to wrap one’s brain around. One way to look at it is that Indianapolis is a center, and Bloomington is on the periphery; some might argue that actually Chicago is the center, Indianapolis is part of Chicago’s periphery, and Bloomington amounts to the outer reaches of the solar system. Well, maybe; I tend to think that Indianapolis and Chicago are both centers; culturally, my impression is that northwestern Indiana seems to rely more on Chicago as a center, and central Indiana seems to rely more on Indianapolis as the center (which is to say, it feels a lot like a slightly rougher-around-the-edges version of Ohio). But then, Bloomington is, in its own way, also a center — Indiana University is here, for example, which makes it a particular kind of center. It’s not what anybody would call a “world class city”, but it neither tries to be nor wants to be, and there’s enough activity here for there to be surrounding areas that consider Bloomington to be “town”, which means that Bloomington has its own periphery.

The trouble with Bloomington being a center is that, even at a mere hour away from Indianapolis, it’s a pretty isolated center. It’s a short drive that feels long, partially because you don’t actually get to make it on a real highway; you’ve got a couple of choices of state highways that, instead of overpasses, have intersections and therefore stoplights, it also feels long partially because so there is so little between here and there. Its nature as an isolated center has let it become something of a SWPL paradise for people who can afford it; we’ve got a food co-op with three (soon to be four) locations, we’ve got a whole street of different kinds of ethnic restaurants (no real Greek restaurant, alas), we’ve got culture provided by the university, we’ve got all kinds of green initiatives, we’ve got birthing subculture, we’ve got a winery, we’ve got homebrewing galore, we’ve got alternative schools, we’ve got biking, and we sort of have buses. This has sort of led to Bloomington’s own kind of parochialism; the feds are supposed to build part of the I-69 corridor going through here, and the SWPL folks do not want it in any form at any price. Probably if there were a commuter train between here and Indianapolis, that’d be one thing (and I myself would love such an option, because I hate the drive), but on the whole, they like Bloomington the way it is.

Well, fair enough, but then there’s a whole separate crowd that lives here, one that lives more than 2-3 miles from the university campus, that actually doesn’t see the university as the economic center of the town; they see it, rather, as mostly irrelevant at best and an unwelcome attempt to co-opt the kind of life they had 15-20 years ago. “The university is actually only a small part of the picture,” a lifelong resident told me once, telling me that the only people who see IU as rooting the activity of Bloomington are people who work for IU. “Bloomington’s main economic driving force right now is retirement,” he said.

See, 15-20 years ago, Bloomington’s economy was far more diverse in general; there were the quarries, there was RCA, there was Otis Elevator — you had a substantial blue collar sector, in other words, that could co-exist, however uneasily (see the movie Breaking Away), with the eggheads, the retailers, and the burger-flippers. All of that’s gone now, for all intents and purposes; my first year here, I worked for Kinko’s FedEx Office for a few months, and my manager was a guy who had worked for years in management at RCA. It was a great job; eventually the plant relocated most of the labor “south of the border”, as it were, and laid him off. They called him up the day after they would have had to bring him back at his old salary with full benefits and pension, and offered him his old job with no benefits, no pension, and half the salary. As he told me, “I had two words for them that weren’t happy birthday.”

So the question then becomes — how do you lure talented people here, and how do you keep them? You used to be able (I almost wrote “You used to could” — I’ve been here too long) to do it with the cost of living. The IU Jacobs School of Music voice faculty became known as “the graveyard of the Met” because they could offer star singers past their prime a salary that looked small, but in the context of a cost of living that was negligible compared to what they were used to in New York. But that was 50, 60 years ago; Bloomington now has the highest cost of living in the state.

The university certainly gets people here, both in terms of faculty and students, but a chunk of those people aren’t really here to stay. If you’re here for a terminal graduate degree, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that you aren’t going to be getting a job here. That’s just not how major universities work. It might have been a different story 30-40 years ago, but not now. There are exceptions, sort of; if the completion of your PhD times out nicely with a faculty opening, then you might get a yearlong Visiting Lecturer appointment while they do a search, but you’re not realistically going to have a shot at the tenure track position. That said, there are people who come here, fall in love with the place, and decide that they’ll be Dr. Broompusher just so that they don’t have to leave. If you’re really creative you can find ways to carve out niches for yourself, but often these can turn into ways of making a living as a self-promoter.

When I was working in support staff jobs for the university, one of the things I discovered was that a lot of longtimer secretaries and such had been gradually pushed further and further out to the outlying areas of Bloomington. Basically, if you work for the university, unless you’re faculty or in the professional track of administration, you can’t really afford to live anywhere near it — partially because East Coast undergrads whose parents are used to New York and New Jersey prices have bid up the cost of housing. We’ve experienced that a bit ourselves; the apartment that we lived in our first couple of years here was about a 15-minute walk to campus, and it was in undergrad party central. It was $850/month the first year (incidentally, only $100/month less than our apartment in Seattle); it got bumped up to $950 the second year, and then they wanted to jack it up another $100 the third year. We said no, and the very next day they were showing it. They ultimately rented it for $2,000 a month.

Anyway, the point is, Bloomington seems to function as a center, at least in some ways, and they’ve created some of their own periphery. But it’s also a periphery in its own way — it’s a periphery that’s sort of a center among other peripheries. One of the results seems to be that there is a lot of socio-economic elbowing and jostling here, and a lot of cultural discomfort amongst the different strata.

So — and this really is my main point — what do you do as a church in such a situation? Well, normally, the way this seems to work out is that people on the periphery go to their churches, people in the center go to their churches, and you’ve got different cultural groups instinctively coming together at their respective churches. You certainly see that here; you’ve got Primitive Baptist communities in some of the areas a half hour away, you’ve got Campbell/Stone and Pentecostal and Baptist churches out in the outskirts of Bloomington, you’ve got the conservative Catholic parish way out in the northwest corner of town, you’ve got the moderate suburban Catholic parish less than a mile away from the campus, and you’ve got the ultra-liberal Newman Center that hosts the Dalai Lama when he’s here (“St. Paul Outside the Faith” as I’ve heard conservative Catholics call it) right on campus. On the main commercial drag through the university’s part of town, you’ve got the big Methodist church, the Episcopal church, the Disciples of Christ church. And so on.

So where do the Orthodox fit into such a picture? Well, here in Bloomington, they kind of don’t. There is one Orthodox church here, and the idea is that it serves all the Orthodox in Bloomington and can be a home for Orthodox college students and inquirers for as long as they need it. That’s a lovely idea, but how does that work out in practice given the situation that’s here? And, again, it kind of doesn’t. The problem is that All Saints has intentionally located itself in the periphery; it’s six miles from campus, two and a half miles into unincorporated county. It’s at the intersection of a couple of country roads that are neither pedestrian nor bike friendly; I used to say that if I lived across the street I’d still drive. As a result, it’s not easily accesible from the center, and in the time I was there, I saw the demographic shift substantially away from the center and more towards the rest of the periphery. And yet, it’s ostensibly the church that is serving the center, even though, for all intents and purposes, it doesn’t, and it doesn’t really want to, either. You can’t really elide all of the geographic, socio-economic, and ethnic differences all at the same time with a little shoebox church out in the middle of nowhere; maybe in a perfect world you could, but we’re talking about human beings with human foibles, and it doesn’t really work that way. Anyway, the net effect is that being close to the center allows it to function as a central location for the other peripheries, but that means that it’s a very different culture and demographic than what you would have if it were actually in the center and serving the center. So, while there’s technically an Orthodox church with a Bloomington address, there isn’t really an Orthodox church in Bloomington.

The other tricky dynamic such a community has to navigate is one of long-term vs. short-term participation. There are people at All Saints who were born and raised in Bloomington and who will be buried in the church’s cemetery. There are people who moved there for school and decided to stay. There is the small handful of students that come and go. There are people who have moved there for various reasons, seen them not work out, and simply gotten stuck (“Bloomingtoned”). There are people like me, who came thinking we’d be here 2-3 years tops, 10 years later we’re still here, but we’re still planning on being gone sometime in the very near future — long-term short-termers, in other words. How do you work out issues of leadership within that kind of dynamic? In my case, I was on the parish council, the building committee, I directed the choir and chanted, I was OCF chair for a couple of years, and so on — and for everything I was involved in, I took the stance that, however long I’m here, I’m going to participate in decision-making as though I’m going to be here in 50 years. I took an approach of trying to build things that I would want to see still standing in my grandkids’ day, in other words. But should I have done that? Did I have any business taking the long view? Or does it simply throw off the balance if a short-termer, however long-term their short-term becomes, doesn’t defer on long-term issues to the people who actually will still be there in 50 years? Does it make any sense for somebody like me to be part of the effort to build a new church, for example, when I’m not planning to be around long enough to see it built? Are people like me just creating messes that other people will have to clean up? But then, what happens when the people who are going to be around aren’t willing to be involved?

What’s the priest’s role in figuring out such questions? It seems to me that there’s a complicated problem of priests not being able to afford to tell people with energy and ideas and willingness to participate that they need to sit things out, but at the same time, if the priest is letting those people spearhead projects that he’s not willing to take on or support himself, then at what point do such people just become, effectively, cheap labor in whom the “permanent” congregation has no investment?

I’ve mused a lot on this blog about mission and outreach. Orthodox outreach is something I care very deeply about; what I keep saying is, “If we actually believe we are what we say we are, we ought to be shouting it from the rooftops.” Taking mission seriously also, it seems to me, entails taking issues of community access seriously. How do you do that in a town like Bloomington? If you build a church in the center that is first and foremost for the center, probably people in the periphery aren’t ever going to care. In that sense, All Saints really is a mission to rural southern Indiana in a way that it couldn’t be if it were better positioned to serve the population center of Bloomington. But, at the same time, the way it has positioned itself, it’s close enough to the center to count as “the Orthodox church in Bloomington” even though it effectively isn’t, which makes it very difficult for anybody else to justify getting a mission started that would intentionally serve the center. The periphery folks have their church, and they’ve got it exactly the way they want it; it’s away from everything, it’s small, it’s relatively inexpensive, it’s low-maintenance, nobody bothers them, they don’t have to worry about a proliferation of the forces they keep away from (like the university) taking over. But then, since it’s the only game in town, you have the all-too-frequent phenomenon of certain kinds of inquirers or students walking in, realizing it’s not really intended for them, and leaving. Some of them commute to Indianapolis; some of them just don’t bother considering it further.

I was almost one of those people as an inquirer, ten years ago; not gonna lie. I walked in for the first time and really wanted to walk right out (this after getting lost on the way there because the directions on the website were unclear). I tried to make it work for nine and a half years, and it sort of did, for awhile. As I said, however, I’ve seen the demographic change while I’ve been there, and while there were still vestiges of the original self-conception as “the Orthodox church for all the Orthodox in Bloomington” 10 years ago, any sense of that is completely gone now. The families that started the church have moved away or passed on; there isn’t a second generation of those folks still hanging around. As a result, the demographic has narrowed, and it has also aged and moved outward. A new generation of converts is coming in, yes, but they’re coming in from even farther away, from points further southward. We have friends there, to be sure, and our very dear godparents, but that’s a different beast than fitting in to a community. The parish has developed, and continues to develop, a very strong identity as a church for rural southern Indiana; this isn’t a bad thing on the face of it, but it means that, after nine and a half years of trying to be part of the community, we find ourselves having to commute northward now, without a local community to speak of, at exactly the time when we find ourselves most in need of it. And we’re neither the first ones to have this problem here nor the only ones currently having to navigate it.

I should say that this isn’t an issue of university snobs not wanting to rub shoulders with the townies; that should be borne out by the fact that, as I said, we tried to make it work for almost ten years, and we were involved with community life on several fronts. The issue is that, sometimes, despite everybody’s best efforts, you just don’t fit in, and eventually you’re told, “Look, this isn’t going to get any better. It’s probably time for you to stop beating your head against the wall.” Also, as I said, we’re not the only ones in this boat.

The short-term solution, for my family, is making a concerted effort to get someplace where there can be a local community. This solution may neither be easy or soon in coming, so we just have to suck it up and deal at the moment. But what’s the long-term solution for this area, and what are the lessons here for others? For all I know, the lesson is, “Don’t let uppity college punks think they have any say in how we do things because it’ll just be an exercise in frustration for everybody”, but surely there’s something more constructive.

A final observation (yes, I know that coming from me that’s as empty a promise as hearing “Let us complete our prayer to the Lord” in an Orthodox service) — All Saints has been described to me as “an experiment in seeing if you can establish an Orthodox church somewhere where there have never been the usual reasons for having one”; that is, where there haven’t been groups of cradles who have established parishes. Well, to the extent that it has been successful, I’d argue it has done so by creating its own “ethnicity” that you belong to or you don’t. Maybe that’s what you have to do; I don’t know. The thing that’s very curious to me is that there have always been big groups of people here of ostensibly Orthodox heritage — Greeks and Russians in particular. I say sometimes that there is a big Greek community in Bloomington; they’ve started a church (the community that became All Saints was originally a group of Greeks and Arabs) and they’ve started several restaurants, but they’ve never started either a Greek church or a Greek restaurant. (Semi-untrue now — there’s Topo’s 403, but it’s less of a “Greek restaurant” and more of an upscale trendy place that happens to be somewhat Mediterranean-influenced.) There was a rembetiki concert here a couple of years ago that got around 200-250 of the Greeks in the area all under one roof; it made me very sad to hear one of them say, “It’s so nice to see everybody in one place. Maybe someday one of us will start a restaurant and we can all see each other there.” Also, the Russian Church Abroad had a mission here in the 1950s, but for one reason or another they never quite managed to keep it together. They fell apart in the ’60s, sort of re-integrated in the ’70s, and then fell apart for good in the ’80s. They started out with a building in the center of Bloomington and then moved out to the periphery, buying an auto garage out in the county. Then, as somebody told me irony-free, “the big money went with Antioch and we had to shut our doors.” (The infamous “Indiana listserv” was run by one of their minor clergy, who is now a priest in one of the “continuing” Russian Orthodox groups who didn’t like that ROCOR made nice with Moscow.) The people have been here (and are here); they just don’t seem to feel that they have any skin in the game — which, again, seems to me to be a problem with the periphery gathering in the center while simultaneously ignoring the center.

I don’t know what the answer is, and I don’t think I’ll be here long enough to see how it gets answered (noting that I’ve been wrong about such things before), but it seems to me that there’s an object lesson here. I’m just not sure what it is.

Two weeks and a day until exams. Please pray for me.

New journal article: “Sensory Experience and the Women Martyrs of Najran”

A bit over a year ago, I announced, along with an impending next generation, that my first peer-reviewed article in my more-or-less official field (late antique Roman history) had been accepted for publication. Well, the issue of Journal of Early Christian Studies arrived in my mailbox today, and they have also posted it online. If you’re interested in the piece, you can either access the entire issue via a research library’s subscription, or I’ve posted the pdf to my academia.edu profile. Onward and upward.

I should note that the issue includes an article by Jonathan Zecher, another former Seattleite and all-around cool guy whom I met via some mutual friends at North American Patristics Society last year (and with whom I had some other, unexpected friends in common); besides us punk kids, there is also an article by NAPS president Dennis Trout (it’s actually his address from last year’s conference), as well as Oxford legend Fergus Millar. All of that is to say, I find myself in unexpectedly good company — there goes the neighborhood, I guess.

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Some thoughts on the Justice League rumors

Both of my regular readers might have some inkling that Christopher Nolan has been one of my favorite filmmakers of the last twelve years, that on the whole I’ve loved his Batman movies, and that Batman has been one of my favorite literary characters since I was probably six or seven.

A Justice League movie is an idea that people have been circling around for several years. There was the TV pilot in 1997 that a Google Image search shows to have been pretty ridiculous looking; the animated series from Bruce Timm and Paul Dini was awesome, but I’m guessing that Cartoon Network in the long run decided it was backwards-looking and chasing after an audience made up of the wrong age group. I never watched Smallville, but the pictures that I saw made their Justice League look low-rent to say the least. After Batman Begins and Superman Returns there was talk of George Miller making a standalone film with a totally different cast (like Armie Hammer as Batman and Common as Green Lantern); obviously that never happened, and since then, non-Batman standalone films seem to have been the plan, but I can’t say that there has seemed to be an overabundance of confidence in those projects. Neither Captain Marvel (I refuse to call the character “Shazam”) nor The Flash have really gotten anywhere. Green Arrow was supposed to be the hero in a villain-centric prison-escape film called Supermax, but that went nowhere. Superman Returns showed that there was still something of an audience somewhere for Superman movies, but it wasn’t a solid enough hit to maintain confidence in Bryan Singer’s vision. I didn’t hate Green Lantern, but for a movie that had as its fundamental premise somebody with a ring that they could use to build whatever they could imagine, it seemed to be pretty unimaginative. Wonder Woman has had a infamously troubled path to the silver screen, with even Joss Whedon not being able to put together a package that could convince studio execs to pull the trigger (and then there was a TV pilot a couple of years later about which, it seems, the less said the better).

After the success of The Avengers last year, Warner Bros. predictably announced that they would be making a Justice League movie their priority after The Dark Knight Rises was done, but whatever idea that seemed to be pushing that forward fell apart a couple of weeks ago. We’ve been left with Batman being apparently done for now, Man of Steel still being something of a question mark, and a consolation prize of a version of Green Arrow presently on TV who is clearly the poor man’s Batman, but he’s still pretty scrappy and reasonably enjoyable to watch.

Then, last night, a rumor started circulating that even got picked up by Forbes: after the demise of the most recent iteration of the Justice League idea, Warner Bros. has handed the reins of the DC film universe over to Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, with Christian Bale likely in the mix to come back as Batman and Zack Snyder (director of Man of Steel300, and Watchmen). Nolan is producing Man of Steel, and a version of the Justice League rumor was going around about a year ago, but Nolan seemed to intentionally distance himself from the concept in interviews.

Is it true? I have no idea. My guess is that nobody wants to miss out on the money that Marvel Studios is raking in with their cinematic universe, and that if Christopher Nolan plays his cards right, he’s got guaranteed budgets and creative control for all of his personal movies going forward. How do you reconcile such a move with the end of The Dark Knight Rises? I’m not overly concerned about that; surely that’s an opportunity for creative storytelling. It’s entirely possible that it’s true right now in the sense that it’s the idea they’re trying to make the deals for; a denial down the road may mean only that they couldn’t get everybody to sign on the dotted line, not that it wasn’t what they were trying to do. (My plan B: Bruce Timm produces, Christopher Nolan directs, Paul Dini writes. It’ll never happen, but that would be my dream team.)

I’m somewhat less interested in whether or not it’s true than a couple of other dimensions to the story. First, it’s evident to me reading comments on the various re-postings of the story that, bluntly, geeks have short memories. It’s no longer a novelty that an A-list auteur is directing a film based on a comic book with a big budget and an Oscar-winning cast, so it’s time to rewrite history so that the auteur in question is an overrated hack whom everybody has always hated (going all the way back to that second-rate piece of celluloid Memento) and whose contributions to the comic book genre of films have been miscast and mediocre at best, self-important trash at worst, and, really, even The Dark Knight was a second-rate Heat knockoff that mostly sold tickets because of the death of one of its stars. The Dark Knight Rises went off in a different direction than they’d hoped (tying off the arc of the cinematic character rather than opening up ways to tell more of the comic book stories), so now the guy everybody was drooling over when he was announced as the director of Batman Begins is persona non grata. Like I said, short memories, and I can’t really say that I get it.

The other thing that I find intriguing is the apparent article of faith in some circles that a Justice League film can’t work, that these characters fundamentally will look silly next to each other on the silver screen, that there are too many storytelling problems introduced by having Superman and Batman in the same world, etc. etc. Somehow these concerns are a non-issue when you’re talking about Marvel characters (The Avengers, after all, includes a Norse god, a chemically-enhanced supersoldier, and a genius gajillionaire in a wearable energy source that makes a nuclear reactor look like a 9 volt battery), but when it’s Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, it’s irredeemably silly somehow. Nobody’s really been able to explain why the DC characters are different, they just are, apparently.

Thinking about it, I’d like to toss out a possible explanation, and that’s one of generation. The DC characters, as the prototypical superheroes, inevitably are first archetypes of a sort and characters second. For the Golden Age characters, the basic point of reference is the circus, a common enough cultural experience in the 1930s. The costumes are all more or less based on the strongman/acrobat model; Batman’s not wearing body armor in Detective Comics #27, he’s wearing a leotard. The types of characters are all basically that, types — Superman’s origin is all of half a page in Action Comics #1, and the point isn’t to give him a psychology, the point is to explain why he’s got super-strength. He’s a strongman; Batman’s a detective and an acrobat, a mixture of Sherlock Holmes and Zorro; Wonder Woman is a goddess, again in a circus performer’s costume; the Jay Garrick Flash is a combination scientist and and college athlete, dressed up as Mercury; the Alan Scott Green Lantern is basically a wizard-type of character. The alter-egos are also essentially types; Clark Kent is a reporter (the trappings of which very much date the character and are not easily transferrable to the popular imagery of journalism of 2013 — it’s more Matt Drudge than Cary Grant), Bruce Wayne is an aristocrat, Diana Prince a nurse — and the 1950s revamps of Flash and Green Lantern keep this going, with Barry Allen as a police scientist and Hal Jordan as the ultimate manly man of the 1950s, a test pilot.

By contrast, being a generation later, the methodology has developed somewhat, and while the Marvel characters all certainly have some basis in types — mostly the “scientist” type — from the get-go they’re made into more than types by flaws and deformity. Peter Parker is a geeky high school kid whose powers convince him just long enough that he’s better than everybody else for it to cost his Uncle Ben his life. Tony Stark is a genius weapons engineer and industrialist whose talents are turned against him. Bruce Banner set free his own inner demon. And so on. If, as William Faulkner once said, drama is the human heart in conflict with itself, then one can argue that the Marvel characters are fundamentally more dramatic.

From this perspective, the problem with the DC characters maybe becomes a bit more evident. The whole premise of the Hal Jordan Green Lantern is that he is supposed to be without fear; that rather makes inner conflict a tougher nut to crack, dramatically. (And the film was hampered by this problem — the cinematic Hal Jordan’s inner self-doubt, while perhaps more “cinematic”, completely undermined the foundations of the character. Ryan Reynolds did what he could, but the result was, rather than the human heart in conflict with itself, a movie plot in conflict with itself.) It also makes more sense why Batman has been the most successful of the various attempts, and in more than just one medium — of the Golden Age characters, he’s the one who actually has a personal internal conflict to resolve, and it’s an incredibly effective, primal one at that. Superman is much harder to make interesting in that regard; the 1978 film’s use of Jor-El and Pa Kent was a good storytelling move in terms of giving him an inner conflict, moral poles to bounce off of, and the trailers make it look as though Man of Steel will draw some of its drama from Philip Wylie’s 1931 novel Gladiator, one of Siegel and Schuster’s key sources, so we’ll see how that turns out — but at the same time, there’s simply no reason for Superman to be wearing body armor.

To me, however, none of that says “won’t work on film”, it just says, “You’ve got to do it with the best filmmakers possible” — filmmakers who understand the archetypes they’re dealing with, understand what it is about those archetypes that people connect with, and not use artificial and false storytelling techniques to try to re-engineer the characters. None of it says to me “Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman can’t all be in the same movie”, either; again, it just says to me that you need a filmmaker who knows exactly how each character fits into the story you’re telling. Zack Snyder seems to have a reasonable grasp of how ensemble casts in comic book movies need to work; again, we’ll see how things look after Man of Steel comes out.

Anyway, to me it seems like a good day when the big thing you have to complain about is that Christopher Nolan might produce a Nolan/David Goyer-written, Zack Snyder-directed Justice League movie. I guess we’ll see.

Amanda Palmer’s TED talk

I’m not a humongous fan of Amanda Palmer’s creative output. I like the idea of it more than I like its execution. I find her creative processes and chances to be intriguing, and on the whole I guess I’m glad that there are people trying to push the envelope of the present day economic model for the arts, particularly since I’m also somebody who is hoping that there are alternate funding models out there that can work. I’ve bought some of her music; as I say, it’s more interesting than enjoyable to me, on the whole, but the stuff that’s interesting can be pretty interesting. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m an Oingo Boingo fan from way back in the day, and her “punk cabaret” thing is sort of a de-professionalized version of the the same idea. Sort of.


Ms. Palmer’s TED talk appears to be tearing up the Internet, and there are a couple of things I’d like to throw out there about it.

First off, I recently attended a seminar by a political theorist who is proposing that, along with liberty and equality, dignity is the third necessary precondition for democracy to work — that is, there has to be some way that the intrinsic worth of the participant is going to be preserved in the democratic process. This is interesting to me on a number of different levels, but for present purposes, I will say that it seems to me to be a big part of Ms. Palmer’s point. What she’s saying, essentially, is that if you ask for something in a way that affirms the dignity of both the person asking and the person being asked, rather than demanding in a way that assumes you’re asking from a position of authority or begging in a way that debases yourself as the petitioner, but that just says, “Hey, one human being to another, can you do something that’s in your power to do?” — that is, presents the proposed transaction as something mutual and participatory — then you’re more likely to get what you’re asking for, you’re also more likely to broaden your social network in some way through that person, that person’s social network is reciprocally expanded, and they are likely to feel like they got something of value out of the transaction. It’s a really lovely idea, no question.

I have no doubt that there are game theoreticians out there who will have plenty to say about Ms. Palmer’s model. My amateur’s observations are this:

Crowdfunding amounts to the thought I think probably every college student has ever had — “You know,” they say to themselves, walking to their next class, “if I could figure out a way to get a dollar from every person on this campus, then my tuition bill would be covered.” It’s a perfectly sensible thought if you can just figure out how to do it — why shouldn’t it be easier to get $1 from 40,000 people than to get $40,000 from a single source?

Well, there are a lot of reasons, it seems, why it isn’t easier, but Ms. Palmer starts out by saying, well, that’s the model that I followed as a street performer, and I did okay enough to see it as being fundamentally worthwhile. Here’s the thing, though — what she doesn’t tell you is that she did it in Boston. In order for something like that to work, you basically have to assume a certain size city, with a certain density of people on foot, and you have to assume a critical mass of a certain kind of person with a certain amount of cash on their person.

To put it another way, you couldn’t really do it in Bloomington.

Second, Ms. Palmer presents it as a model of “all you have to do is ask and anybody can do this”, and I’m just not convinced that it’s at all that simple. She at once talks about the value of expanding one’s social network through the average person on the street while also downplaying her own not-inconsiderable non-Average-Joe social network. She’s married to Neil Gaiman, is my point. That’s wonderful that she can get a Neti pot delivered to her at a coffee shop within 5 minutes of Tweeting the need for same; if only it were that easy for me to find Theodore a babysitter that way — but that’s just not my (or my wife’s) social network. Our networks are largely outside of Bloomington, which means they’re not terribly useful for immediate and personal needs — that’s what happens when you live in this kind of town for ten years, all your friends move away.

(Mr. Palmer — er, Neil Gaiman — also has a talk floating out there online that I intend to comment on soon. All in good time.)

All of that said, there is absolutely an art to asking, and fearlessness in reaching out really is the first step. I have found in my own projects that, if you’re hoping that somebody can give you $100, it’s better to ask for $400 and have them give you $200 because they really are happy to help than to ask for $100, have them figure you don’t really need the money if you’re asking for so little, and they give you $50. That doesn’t work in all cases, but it works in a reasonable proportion of them.

At the same time, there is no bigger draw to my blog than the materials under the tab “Greek Resources”. I have put them up for free, there are a lot of links out there to them, and I have tried to suggest over the years — Hey, if you think there’s a value here, then it’d be great if you expressed that value somehowAnd, well, that’s generated all of I think $20 a year since I started putting them up. That’s fine; I’m not going to take them down, and I’ll keep plugging away at them eventually, but that tells me something about how Ms. Palmer’s economic model works — that is, there’s more to it than simply putting up what you got and asking people to pay what they can. Along those lines, the funniest moment in the movie Julie and Julia to me is when Julie’s complaining about what she spends on cooking, somebody suggests to her that she put a PayPal button on her blog, and next thing you know, gifts and checks just start rolling in. Yeah, it’s just not that simple, kids. Would that it were.

The Saint John of Damascus Society is about to try to crowdsource a particular creative project, or at least the first stages of it, and I will be very curious to see how it goes. I do have a particular social network made up of particular kinds of people I’ve gotten to know over the years, and while it can’t get me a babysitter, I will be very interested to see if it can generate support for something creative. We shall see.


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