Thursday, 27 March 2014

Church Times 'Best Christian Books'

So I am told, as a Church Times reviewer, that they're doing a feature this autumn on 'the best 100 Christian books of all time'. And they want suggestions. The criteria are:
Works should be of enduring value, influential in their time or after it. The list will encompass fiction and nonfiction, theological scholarship and popular titles, authors ranging from St. Augustine to Eamon Duffy to C. S. Lewis. (The only suggestion we will not consider is the Bible, divinely inspired authorship constituting an unfair advantage.) Among the categories to consider: mission and ministry, church history, theology, prayer and spirituality, the Old and New Testaments, liturgy and worship, literature and apologetics.
Now, there's a fun parlour game! What to nominate? I passed over the Prayer Book (which won't be short of friends) and Pilgrim's Progress (likewise). Here is my initial suggestion and rationale:
Philip Jacob Spener's Pia Desideria (1675). It's a short call to arms - or rather, to renewed piety: it was the book which kick-started Pietism, and is therefore indirectly (no, actually, pretty directly) responsible for modern Evangelicalism. What makes it so wonderful is that it combines two things which are almost never brought together. First, a moving call for moral and spiritual renewal: its insistence (which both Pietists and Evangelicals have too often forgotten) that to be a Christian means to follow Christ, not to be able to win doctrinal arguments. Against the hair-splitters and heresy hunters of his day, he warned that at the last judgement ‘we shall not be asked how learned we were’, but rather ‘how faithfully and with how childlike a heart we sought to further the kingdom of God’. And he added that if St. Paul were to try to follow one of the theological debates of the age, he would ‘understand only a little of what our slippery geniuses sometimes say’. BUT, he combines this preacherly idealism with a level-headed practicality about what should be done. In particular, he makes the revolutionary suggestion that Christians should not leave their spiritual fate in the hands of their ministers, nor of the political powers who usually dominated their churches, but rather take matters into their own hands. He recommended ‘the ancient and apostolic kind of church meetings’, that is, Bible study and discussion groups for mutual support and encouragement. Methodist bands and classes got the idea directly from him. It seems so normal now that it's hard to grasp how empowering and revolutionary it once was.
I think Spener deserves top-100 billing. But maybe just because I've been working on it these last couple of months. What other obscure gems want rescuing?

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Surviving shortlisting

Back in the day, when I was trying to get my foot on the first rung of the academic jobs ladder, a more senior friend told me: once you start getting interviews, you’re OK, because then you know your number will come up sooner or later. And it’s true, more or less. But how do you get onto those shortlists?

I’m shortlisting for four different posts this month. Typically there are twenty, forty, a hundred applicants who needed to be whittled down to four for interviewing. How do you make the cut? Some suggestions.

  1. Apply for the job that is advertised. No two academic jobs are exactly the same. Don’t just send a CV and a generic covering letter, which does not engage with the specifics of the institution you’re applying for and the particular requirements of the post. That’s one of the quickest ways to the bin.
  2. Write good English. I’m sorry, but it needs to be said. Most academic jobs have ‘effective communication’ or something of that kind in the person specifications. If a shortlisting panel is looking for reasons to exclude people (and usually, we are), this makes it easy for them. If English is not your native language, this is especially important. We can’t easily judge how fluent a non-native speaker will be, and for any job that requires communication with students this may be decisively important. If your written English is not flawless, have someone proofread your letter and CV for you.
  3. Remember that, in CV terms, less is often more. There are different CV cultures: in the USA, the comprehensive CV is often favoured, whereas in Britain we still tend to like the more selective one. But in any case, don’t include things for the sake of it. Maybe you have published thirty book reviews: if so, tell us that and perhaps list the journals for which you have reviewed, but don’t spend two pages giving us the full list. Or again, if you have non-academic achievements to highlight, be cautious. Make sure it’s relevant: often it is, often it isn’t.
  4. In particular: don’t fill your CV so full of detail that readers miss the good stuff. I have seen people who present lists of publications in purely chronological order, so you have to read down through all the book reviews and short notes to spot that, half-way down page 2, there is a major Yale University Press monograph. Make it easy for your readers to see what you need them to see.
  5. Don’t be ambiguous. Remember that panellists are suspicious and will interpret any ambiguity in the worst possible light. The most common case is where a publication is simply described as ‘forthcoming’. Forthcoming where and how? Is it something you are thinking of writing one day, is it appearing on a fixed date next month with a major academic press, or somewhere in between? Be precise: ‘under review with the Journal of Nonsense’, ‘under contract and due for submission on 31 December’, ‘in proof’, or whatever.
  6. Help readers to understand how good your work is. Panellists reading lists of publications are trying to work out if any of this stuff is any good. Where there are signals that you can send (such as publication in a major journal or by a major academic press), do so. If those signals need amplifying, do so: for example, if you have published in a competitive journal which some of the panel may not be familiar with, make sure that they know that that’s what it is. And if you want to quote from reviews, article referees’ reports, or whatever, do so: a nice phrase or two under an article can help persuade a panellist that this might be a quality application worth spending a tiny bit more time on.
  7. The same goes for your teaching. It is common to see CVs listing the names of courses or modules that applicants have taught. But those tell us very little. If you can, add something which indicates how good you were (feedback scores from students, for example) or which indicates the scale of what you were doing (so we know the difference between taking a few auxiliary classes and designing a whole lecture course from scratch).
  8. Don’t leave unexplained gaps. If there is a period in your CV of more than a few months when your movements are unaccounted for, people spot it and wonder – even though they shouldn’t. If you had a career break for family reasons; if you were in non-academic work for a period; or anything like that, say so. If you have something that you don’t want to reveal (like an extended period of ill health, a spell in prison, or what have you), then find a way of explaining the missing years which is not actively deceptive. But if we see someone who got their PhD ten years ago and spent eight years of the intervening time not publishing, the application will be binned unless the gap can be explained.
  9. Photos. Increasingly you see academic CVs with a cheesy photo of the applicant at the top. I know this is common in the business world. I really don’t like it: not just because some academics are off-putting to look at, but because it invites the panel to join the applicant in playing subliminal games of gender, age and racial politics. I don’t think it ever helps an application.
  10. And do try not to be actively weird or unintentionally funny. Most piles of applications contain one like this. One that springs to mind is the candidate who listed contact details for four referees, as requested, but added after one of the names: ‘(deceased)’. And then gave this person’s full postal address. Such moments help to brighten the committee’s day, but the CV that makes us laugh almost never makes the list.

Good hunting …

Friday, 20 December 2013

American dystopia

This year's slice of pre-Christmas cinematic tosh was the second Hunger Games film, which was better than you had any right to expect, and immeasurably better than the tedious second Hobbit.

I confess to a liking for post-apocalyptic dystopias, as long as they make some sort of sense (goodbye, The Road). And this one does, as long as you can swallow the implausibility of a dictatorship transmitting its oppressed people live on television to one another. (The regime appears to have misunderstood the phrase 'reality TV'.)

What struck me with this instalment, however, is how profoundly American this particular dystopia is. I don't simply mean the echoes of the American Revolution: thirteen (yes, it turns out there are thirteen) hardworking districts being oppressed by the brutal, decadent Capitol. Nor the patterns of American political conservatism that can be seen here: the conviction that what tyrants do is deny their people weapons. Plus the nicely-judged decision, ever so slightly flavoured with anti-UN paranoia, to call the brutal, faceless paramilitary police 'Peacekeepers'. Because in fact this story is not so easily politically pigeonholed: the final part of the trilogy makes plain that the revolution is not necessarily much better than the regime it replaces.

The most remarkably American feature of the story, however, is what is not there: the rest of the world. The stories are plainly set in some future North America. Now you would expect a tyrannical regime of this kind to use external threats (real or invented) to bolster its control; and you would expect rebels to be seeking foreign help. But there is, to my recollection, not a single hint in either books or films that the remainder of the planet even exists.

That gives the story a certain simplicity and even innocence. But it also seems to me to speak to an underlying theme in American political thinking, which is impossible but at the same time also admirable and enviable: the conviction that, in the state of nature as it were, the US is and ought to be a world to itself, whose character is itself a kind of Monroe doctrine, neither colony nor coloniser, free of entangling alliances. I appreciate that if you were the Marquis de Lafayette, you might be a little sore about that. But as national myths go, what's not to like?

Monday, 9 December 2013

Glimpses of North Korea

The kind of history I'm used to doing involves people who've been safely dead for a few centuries. But this project on global Protestantism comes right up to the present, and so sometimes close to the bone. I've just been finishing my chapter on Korean Protestantism, which is a remarkable story, but the really chilling and compelling stuff relates to what's happening north of the 38th Parallel.

Of course, we know almost nothing about religion in North Korea. Even a decade or so ago it was possible to believe the official line: that there was an 'opening' in the late 1980s, with two churches built in Pyongyang, hundreds of house churches, and representatives sent to the WCC. But the accounts given by the increasing numbers of refugees to make it out contradict that line too consistently and too profoundly to be ignored. Their testimony is that these are sham organisations created as magnets for foreign aid; and that public profession of Christianity (seen as an imperialist front), possession of a Bible, or any known contact with missionaries is lethally dangerous.

From the testimonies I've read, two elements stood out. First, Kim Yong's detailed account in Long Road Home: Testimonies of a North Korean Camp Survivor (Columbia University Press, 2009). This account left me with the sheer lawlessness of the North Korean gulag, which makes its Stalinist cousin look like a model of due process. There are no crimes, charges, trials or sentences, merely arrests. Kim was suddenly imprisoned midway through a successful career in the regime's bureaucracy because it was discovered that his birth family (he had been adopted at a young age) had been deemed to be traitors during the 1950-3 war. He spent much of the 1990s in Camp No. 14, mining coal for twelve or more hours per day, and only very occasionally saw daylight. Sixty workers shared a bare concrete room with insufficient space for them all to lie down at once. After a day’s mining came an hour’s ‘political struggle’, that is, written self-accusation and criticism of other prisoners’ conduct. ‘There was really nothing to confess, but we all had to come up with something in order to avoid severe punishment.’

Meanwhile all of them were slowly starving to death: their food rations were simply insufficient. It is unclear whether this camp and those like it were deliberately designed as death-by-labour institutions, or whether that is merely their effect. One sign of the extremity is that the camp was almost free of rats. Once, Kim was lucky enough to catch one, in the mine. He killed and ate it ‘head to tail, raw, without skinning it. The meat tasted like honey.’ He was eventually, and very unusually, transferred to a less severe camp: he is, in fact, the only prisoner ever known to have left Camp No. 14 alive. The more lenient regime of his new camp was marked by the prisoners' being given permission to gather grass to supplement their diet: and its lower security eventually allowed him to escape, in the bottom of a coal truck.

Second, the research in a report produced by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2008. As well as interviewing 'ordinary' refugees, they interviewed former members of the Northern security services who had escaped. Their stories largely confirm the extent to which religion in general, and Protestantism in particular, is seen by the Northern regime as an existential threat, and suppressed ferociously. This includes the deliberate creation of fake underground churches in order to trap would-be converts, and of course to foment distrust amongst believers. This much is perhaps predictable, and fits into the agenda which one might imagine USCIRF would be keen to hear (not that I doubt it). But there are some glimpses of something more complicated. One former security official described a remarkable visit to a high-ranking official’s house, at which the two of them and a third official ‘worshipped together in his house with the curtains drawn’. They read the Bible aloud and prayed for Kim Jong Il. The newcomer asked how they reconciled their faith with their official position:
They said that it was a heartbreaking job to catch Christians while they, too, were Christians, but they had to stay in their positions because their situation could turn even worse if an evil-minded person was in that position to ferret out believers. So they keep their positions and sometimes advise people to run away.

Not heroic: but there is a certain kind of plausible courage there. These are the sorts of perilous compromises which are made under those circumstances. In practical terms, there is virtually nothing outsiders can do about these horrors. But it would seem appropriate - and indeed, deeply subversive - to pray.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Bedtime at Bishop

A long day at Bishop Auckland again on Friday, much of it on the nuts and bolts of the redevelopment, which is all exciting but not terribly blogworthy.

But then, at the end of the day, a glimpse of a truly jawdropping object, just acquired: the Paradise Bed, which now seems, pretty clearly, to be the bed made for the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York in 1486. It would be nice to say it was the bed in which Prince Arthur and Henry VIII were conceived - and it might be. But it clearly dates from that era, is very high-quality workmanship, and is topped with separate white and red York and Lancaster roses. The united Tudor rose only became a viable symbol once the marriage was made and the prince born.

Best of all, though, is the headboard:

Adam and Eve for a marriage-bed might seem obvious enough, if not subtle. It's been suggested that Adam and Eve's faces are carved to resemble the royal couple, which is possible if not exactly conclusive. But the best bit is the text on the cartouche: 'The sting of death is sinne / The strength of sinne is the law' (I Cor 15:56). Romantic, eh?

Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Bay Psalm Book

Just catching up with the news of this book's record-breaking sale. Clearly the first-American-book-ever thing is the key selling point, which is fair enough. The fact that the book is intrinsically the most valuable printed work ever is a little incongruous. The shoddy quality of the printing has attracted some comment.

I confess I have some affection for this book, though I think not enough to shell out quite so many millions for a copy. English and New-English puritans of that period were much exercised about the singing of the Psalms: they generally denied that anything else could be sung in worship. The Psalms, being part of Scripture, are inspired, and so why should anyone sing mere human ditties in their place? (The obvious answer being that human-composed prose is regularly used in worship - prayers and sermons - so why not poetry too? The Bay book's editors fulminate against that argument without ever really managing to refute it, which I think betrays how emotionally fraught an issue this was for them.)

The more serious problem was on the other side: was it legitimate even to sing the Psalms? After all, that entailed translating them into verse, and verse necessarily entails paraphrasing or rearrangement to fit to a metrical scheme. The early Protestant versions, indeed, presented themselves as free paraphrases, not translations. But that means they're not Scripture, and if you have scruples about singing anything that's not Scripture ... what are you to do?

Well, obviously, produce a new metrical version which is entirely accurate. Enter the Bay Psalm Book, published in Massachusetts in 1640. The translators deny any 'liberty or poeticall licence to depart from the true and proper sence of Davids words in the hebrew verses'. Indeed, they make an elaborate show of how precise they have been, fulsomely apologising for occasionally omitting the Hebrew word usually translated as ‘and’, adding the occasional synonym, or even (contentious, this one) expanding a phrase to make it fit the metre.

‘If therefore the verses are not alwayes so smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect; let them consider that Gods Altar needs not our pollishings. ... Wee have respected rather a plaine translation, then to smooth our verses with the sweetnes of any paraphrase, and soe have attended Conscience rather then Elegance, fidelity rather then poetry.’

They're not joking. Here are a couple of stanzas of Psalm 23:

The Lord to mee a shepheard is
want therefore shall not I.
Hee in the folds of tender-grasse
doth cause mee downe to lie:
To waters calme me gently leads
Restore my soule doth hee:
he doth in paths of righteousness
for his names sake leade mee.

Or my favourite, the incomprehensible verses 6-7 of Psalm 2:

But I annoynted have my King
upon my holy hill
of Zion: The established
counsel declare I will.

That is, they square the circle of accuracy and metre by discarding anything like standard English word order.

It has hard not to find a chink of amusement in this tortuous verse. But there is something more serious here, too, I think: a deliberate anti-aesthetic, the Puritan plain style taken to its extreme, an attempt to prove that beauty lies always and only within. The book dares you to laugh at it. And clearly, four centuries on, it is still managing to be taken seriously.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Farewell to REF2014

Like many British academics, the last year of my life has been dominated by the horrors of the Research Excellence Framework, the quinquennial competition by which the UK government decides which universities and departments should receive funding to support their research. Like democracy, it is the worst possible system, only excepting all the alternatives.

There is not much that's edifying that can be said about it. But one set of statistics did strike me, once we had collated them.

Since 2008, this Department has awarded doctoral degrees to 114 students, which is pretty good in itself. But the more impressive figures are these: we know of 55 articles submitted to and accepted by refereed journals by our doctoral students while they were still here, and even better, we know of 45 - Durham Theology doctoral students who have gone on to secure their first academic jobs since 2008, 18 in the UK, the remainder in 12 other countries. Given that a large number of our doctoral students are practising ministers, retired people or others who aren't actually looking for academic employment, I think that's pretty good.

For all the flannel about fundraising and publications, I think one of the best indices of the health of an academic department is its postgraduates: not so much the absolute numbers, but how successfully it produces the next generation of scholars. And so I want to give us just the slightest self-awarded pat on the back.