Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Journal of Ecclesiastical History

I've recently taken over as one of the editors of this wonderful journal, which at the same time is an alarming responsibility, a significant workload, a source of endless fascination and - thanks to the rest of the editorial and office team - a consistent delight.

Lots of things going on with it: in particular, the Journal's remit is the whole of the history of Christianity, but it has traditionally been centred on some specific areas and periods, and we're trying to broaden the range, especially beyond the North Atlantic world.

But I mention it today because the October issue is just out (vol. 65 no. 4, for those who are counting): and, in what I hope will become a regular service, I want to flag up a highlight or two from it.

Of course all the articles are excellent (we don't publish anything else). But the one I want arbitrarily to highlight is by Hector Avalos, a campaigning and controversial figure in American religious studies: you don't write a book called The End of Biblical Studies if your main intention is to make everyone like you. His article in this issue of the Journal is characteristically combative. The subject is a precise and momentous one: what exactly did that monument to Christian virtue, Pope Alexander VI, say in the 1490s about the right of the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors to enslave the native peoples in the lands they discovered? One text in particular, the 1497 papal letter Ineffabilis et summi patris, has been cited to exculpate the papacy on this point. It has been read to imply that the Pope only allowed for indigenous peoples to be subjected or enslaved if they somehow voluntarily submitted themselves. Such a provision would of course have been completely ineffectual, but it fits well with a narrative that tries to distance the Church from responsibility for colonial atrocities.

That's not a narrative which Avalos instinctively likes, and this claim has roused him to do a terrific piece of scholarly detective work. The article is a precise and, to my eyes, devastating attack on this reading of Ineffabilis. Once he has translated the whole thing (not simply cherry-picked sections), and correctly identified the individuals involved and the political context within which they were operating, the attempt to defend the papacy's role vanishes like a mist. The letter was more about jockeying for position between the Spanish and Portuguese crowns, and in particular the Portuguese attempting to test the limits of the Tordesillas settlement which had excluded them from the western hemisphere. Who was allowed to enslave which heathen peoples was hotly disputed. The fact that Christians could and should enslave them was not in doubt.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Reformation Studies 2014

A belated report from the Reformation Studies Colloquium in Murray Edwards College, Cambridge (or, as I still instinctively call it, New Hall). I believe I should, for search-engine purposes, add the tag #RefStud.

I don’t think I heard a dud paper, but three of those that I heard stand out.
I am a longstanding fan of Kate Narveson, whose lovely paper on the emotional salience of the doctrine of assurance in English Protestantism had a warmth all too rare in histories of religion and theology. Once again, Kate demonstrates her humane yet rigorous engagement with her subjects. There aren’t many people out there who I’d rather hear speak about Puritan culture: and I don’t say that solely because this was a version of a piece due to be published in a forthcoming book on Puritanism and the emotions edited by Tom Schwanda and myself.

At ERRG, the ‘pre-conference’ for graduate students, I enjoyed a wonderful paper by David de Boer, a first-year doctoral student at the University of Constanz, whose description of Catholic efforts to rescue both images and relics (and to turn images into relics) during the Protestant iconoclasm in the Netherlands in the 1570s was one of the stand-outs of the conference. The issues are horribly complex: David untangled them beautifully. One to watch.
But for me, the stand-out paper of the entire conference (and, thanks to the curse of parallel sessions, I missed lots of them) was from Neil Younger, whom I taught as an undergraduate many years ago. Neil’s account of Christopher Hatton, who was Lord Chancellor under Elizabeth I, was revelatory: we always knew that Hatton was an antipuritan, but the extent of his unmistakably Catholic connections and patronage, including individuals involved in ummistakable plots against the queen, has not I think been revealed like this before. As a glimpse of the ambiguities of the Elizabethan regime and of the compromises forced on all sorts of individuals compelled to be a part of it, this was new to me. I hope we see it in print soon.

Friday, 19 September 2014

The UK: the gift that can keep on giving

In my Panglossian way, I want to cheer an ideal result from the Scottish referendum.

Having spent numerous nights awake worrying about this, I am personally delighted by the result, not because of all the ephemeral fluff about currencies, prices and economies, but because my own instinctive national identity – ‘British’ – has not been voted out of existence.

But I am also glad that it was fairly close; and particularly glad about the promises made about Scottish ‘home rule’ in the campaign’s closing days, promises which must now be fulfilled, and which seem to me to take account of the fact that this minority nation in the British confederation has, for the present at least, a markedly distinct political culture.

That will mean justice for Scotland, and will I think reflect what John Smith used to call the settled will of the Scottish people.

It might be a pathway to full independence at the second referendum which surely will come in due course: though my own private theory, on which I will blog at a calmer moment, is that this is neither the much-threatenened ‘neverenedum’ nor the much-claimed once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but rather a twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity, which won’t recede unless and until it is voted down a second time.

But I also think devo-max would mean justice for the English, who will now be forced to recognise that the effortless imperialism of their / our system, and its easygoing centralism and self-satisfaction, is unsustainable. (A 65/35 vote, by contrast, would have entrenched it.) The political upheaval which now beckons south of the Border is delicious to contemplate,

English politics is not corrupt in the classic sense: it is neither seriously venal nor actively murderous, which by either global or British standards makes it unusual. I fear, given the record of pre-Union Scotland and post-Union Ireland, that both of those temptations might have awaited a newly independent Scottish nation.

But if England’s historic contribution to the Union has been due process and the rule of law, Scotland’s contribution has been bloodyminded awkwardness, libertarianism and a willingness to face down oppressive systems no matter how historic their garb. Scotland is the country where tyrants are deposed whatever their tame parliaments say (hello, Mary Stuart), assassinated whatever oppressive splendour they have gathered (hello, James I and James III of Scots), or despised regardless of the powers they have officially accumulated (goodbye, Georges I-IV inclusive).

Each one needs the other. But in the present era, England needs Scotland’s culture more than Scotland needs England’s. What makes Britain worth persisting with is that mixture of order and rebellion: and we are, at present, more likely to be too quiescent than too rebellious.

So here’s the September 19 deal. Scotland remains part of the Union, for the present. But, sometime in the next decade, the UK as a whole will almost certainly vote on whether to remain in the EU or not. English voters (the Northern Irish and Welsh are almost spectators here) need to realise that if they vote the UK out, Scotland will very quickly vote to remain in Europe rather than in the UK.

Which is to say: if everything works out as I hope, the September 18 vote could save Scotland, England and indeed Europe as a whole from the petty-minded, sectional horrors that might otherwise confront them. If you voted no, feel proud. If you voted yes, feel proud too: you have shown the world that a country, Scotland, which values both absolute freedom and the rule of law is not to be taken for granted.

And if, like me and millions of other Scottish Brits and British Scots, you couldn’t vote this time, be patient. Your time will come.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Delenda est laptops

I read this screed against laptop use in classes with initial scepticism and then increasing belief. It goes against my generally nonconfrontational approach to life but I think I might give it a go.

Imagining Christianity

Fresh from a summer holiday, my rare annual chance to read the odd novel, and to this year's discovery: Maria McCann's The Wilding, set in 1670s Dorset, in which a young man who believes himself to be an upstanding citizen progressively uncovers a whole regiment of skeletons in the family closet and realises that he is simply sheltered and na├»ve rather than virtuous.

It isn't the perfect novel. I did find that the ending fizzled a little. But it's a gripping read. McCann writes both beautifully and compellingly, which is not an easy double. The characters are appealing, particularly the young hero - who, by the end, is considerably more heroic than he himself recognises - and his parents, who you can't help but love as much as he does. It does the historical-novel thing unusually well: it captures lots of atmosphere and subtle detail, and much of the plot turns on one crucial incident from the Civil War, but most of it is as timeless as most human lives are. There are no attempts to dress a history lesson up as fiction, and no walk-on parts from big-name characters. And I challenge you to read it without thinking that you'd rather like a mug of cider.

Still, my point is not simply to plug it but to pick out a more unusual virtue. I think McCann manages to get her hero's religion right. He's not a particularly pious young man, but his character is underpinned by the assumed religious framework that pervades his life, from which he draws considerable strength, and which - briefly, at one pivotal moment - he openly questions. She doesn't draw attention to it very often. It simply seems normal, and it adds to his humanity.

Is it just me, or is successfully pulling this off in a historical novel really rare? I have read a series of historical novels recently, all of which I have enjoyed, all of which fall down on this point. Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders, another rollicking post-Civil-War read, ends with the heroine sloughing off her religion. Jill Paton Walsh's Knowledge of Angels, a much better book, is about the struggle and inevitable failure of a cleric to hold onto his faith when confronted with an alternative. Even the incomparable Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies present Thomas Cromwell's religion as a species of modern secular scepticism.

I was beginning to wonder if the novel, as a genre, is capable of dealing effectively with characters who genuinely hold to and draw strength from their religion. Or is there a cult of individualism so deeply ingrained in it as a form that we can only construe adherence to truths beyond the self as a form of oppression? I struggle to think of many modern novels whose characters' religion is simply part of them (aside from those like Susan Howatch's Starbridge series, where that is the point). So McCann is a breath of fresh air. I've ordered her first novel, and may even get to read it before next summer.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014


Ex-Durham theology students go on to do all kinds of wonderful things, but I've recently come across one of the more wonderful ones. Rich Wyld, formerly a doctoral student here, now a C of E parish priest in Dorset, runs a delightful blog called Theologygrams, which mixes some serious and perceptive points with ladlefuls of straight-faced silliness. And he now has a book out, which if you have the faintest taste for Biblically, theologically or mathematically based humour (any one of the three) will make you laugh out loud. Buy a job lot now in time for Christmas.

This one (below) isn't in the book but will give you a flavour!

Liberation Theology

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The job presentation

Having blessed the world with my thoughts on the other stages of academic job-hunting, I’ve been asked for views on this too. It is now standard for most academic jobs in the UK to include a formal presentation followed by a Q&A, in addition to the interview. Typically the presentation is open to all academic staff and research students in the relevant Department. The audience will usually give their feedback to the interview panel at the end of the process. The panel isn’t bound by what the audience say, but they invariably take it seriously, and most of the time end up agreeing with them.

Some candidates self-destruct during the presentation, so much so that we only allow them to finish and to come to the interview out of courtesy. Some candidates ace the presentation so well that they nail the job there and then. From the couple of dozen I’ve attended and chaired over recent years, some tips.

1. Read the brief. Then, read the brief again. There is no standard form. You may, especially for a junior or temporary post, be asked to perform a teaching-related task, such as giving a lecture as if to a class of first-year students. You may (this is the Durham standard) be asked to give a paper on an aspect of your current or recent research. There may be some hybrid of the two, or sometimes, for posts with particular requirements, something more specific to that job. Make sure that you understand exactly what you’re being asked to do. If you don’t understand it, ask for clarification. And, if you can do it without being clunky, it can be useful to mention to the audience what your brief was: it’s perfectly possible that they haven’t all been told.

2. But also, don’t be fooled by the brief. They have asked you to do one task, but they will use your performance in that to assess your all-round suitability. Typically, the presentation is in practice used to assess both whether you are a good teacher and whether your research is high-quality. You may be asked to give a research paper, but the audience want to know that you are a clear, engaging and lively communicator who could safely be put in front of a room full of undergraduates. You may be asked to give a beginners’ lecture, but the audience want it to be fizzing with ideas and demonstrating your scholarly qualities too. This double bind is infuriating but it is also one of the things which makes the presentation such an effective test.

3. Stick to time. I’m sorry this should have to be said, but it does. If you are asked to speak for 20 minutes, ensure that you speak for between 18 and 21 minutes. Less is much better than more.

4. Visual aids: not essential but probably helpful. Of course it depends on the task and your own style, but simply speaking from notes may be braver than you need to be. But if you do it, do it well. PowerPoint presentations which simply list your talking-points are rarely a good idea: they work better for pictures, quotations or other material best delivered visually.

5. If you do an AV presentation, especially an online one such as Prezi, be in touch with the relevant person to ensure that it can be set up and tested in advance. Never assume it’ll be all right. Personally I recommend the method by which my old colleague Catherine Richardson helped to persuade us of her unflappable omnicompetence: showing up with a complete set of handouts in your bag in case the technology fails. It is a very nice demonstration that you are a safe pair of hands.

6. And anyway, don’t underrate the old-fashioned paper handout, which your audience can digest much more easily than they can a succession of projected slides, and which they can also take away with them. Get the organisers to confirm the expected numbers present beforehand, and then add at least 50%. Make your own copies and bring them if you possibly can: your hosts may offer to make them but (I say with a hot pang of shame, having once as a host done this to a candidate … sorry, again …) they may not actually do it. And don’t forget to include your email address on a handout. Even if you don’t get the job, you may make some worthwhile contacts.

7. Regardless of what sort of visual aid you use, make it look good. It is worth spending time on this, and indeed getting help from the people you know who are better at it than you. Something with high production values pleases and tickles and audience; it makes you look professional; and again, it reassures them that you’ll be a competent lecturer.

8. Proofread, both your visuals and what you will say. Slips in grammar and punctuation will always be noticed, and I am afraid they genuinely do undermine academics’ confidence.

9. To read from a text or to ad-lib? No clear answer, but this is one of the key questions. A droning, dull or inaudible performance can sink you immediately. So can a rambling, inarticulate, over-chatty or (I have heard this) half-shouted performance. Reading allows you to control your text and your timings much more, and also helps if you are nervous. Speaking from outline notes or even unprompted can be much more engaging, but risks either stumbling or being over-glib. Do what you are comfortable with, but if you have a full text, don’t forget that this is a rhetorical performance, in which delivery and eye contact are crucial, so rehearse it sufficiently that the text becomes little more than a prompt. (It can be helpful to print it in a large point size.) If you are ad-libbing, again, rehearse it often enough that you know what you are doing. If you are worried about how you will come across, make a video recording of yourself doing the presentation. It is excruciating, but an excellent way to confront yourself with whatever aspect of your presenting style doesn’t work very well.

10. Content is harder to advise on. You will have a brief to follow and multiple boxes to tick. But some suggestions. Unless you have to, try not to lapse into autobiography. The presentation which begins ‘First I will give you an overview of my research projects of the past five years …’ rarely stirs the blood. And try to give the audience something to take away with them: one really striking idea, discovery, image or interpretation which will be new to most of them, and which will persuade them that you are a good teacher, a strong researcher and an interesting colleague. Better to give them one thing in enough depth to show your talents than to skate over too much too quickly: leave them wanting more.
11. You are, probably, not a comedian by training. But if you have a chance to make your audience smile, take it. Again it helps persuade them you are a good communicator. It makes them feel more warmly to you; and, if you are nervous, there is nothing like a few grins from your audience to help you to relax.
12. Questions at the end. You can’t do much to prepare for these, but again they can make or sink a candidate. Often it makes sense to answer the room, not just the individual questioner: both to avoid getting caught on one weirdo’s hobby-horse, and to help you broaden out a question which may be uncomfortably precise. Of course, if you don’t know the answer, say so. But if you are directly challenged on something, don’t be scared to fight back. One recent presentation in Durham turned into quite a charged argument between the candidate and a lecturer about an abstruse point of detail. The consensus afterwards was that, although the lecturer had probably won that bout on points, the candidate had put up a good fight. He got the job.