Hauerwas Goes to the Movies (Week 3)

This post is part of a series on teaching religion in film using the work of Stanley Hauerwas. For helpful background, please see the posts from Week 1 and Week 2!

This week students read Chapter 2 in Hauerwas’s A Community of Character. This chapter–Jesus: The Story of the Kingdom–is arguably one of the most difficult in the book. Its vocabulary is complex and technical, and certain portions of the chapter presume a fairly sophisticated knowledge of ancient and modern christological controversies. That being said, the chapter’s thesis is relatively clear throughout: the story of Jesus is itself a social ethic that forms the community of those who would claim to follow him. Or as Hauerwas puts it:

There can be no separation of christology from ecclesiology, that is, Jesus from the church. The truthfulness of Jesus creates and is known by the kind of community his story should form.

I was impressed with how well the class handled this difficult chapter of an already difficult book. There were certainly some questions, but they were the right kinds of questions. The word cloud below was compiled from their essays. When I shared it on Facebook last week, one of my colleagues commented: “That’s a great Hauerwasian word cloud. You’re teaching a class full of resident aliens.” I agree, and I am proud of the progress they are making!

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As a means of exploring some of Hauerwas’s claims in this chapter, we watched Jesus of Montreal (1989), a classic Canadian film about a group of actors who write and perform a controversial passion play. If you can get past the bad perms, mullets, and seemingly-endless guitar solo montages, Jesus of Montreal is a remarkable take on the life and person of Jesus. Throughout this film the actor who plays Jesus in the passion play mirrors many of the stories of Jesus in his life. The actors he recruits, for example, are all found to be working at undesirable jobs – one is employed as a voiceover actor for pornographic films. His calling them from these jobs is supposed to resemble Jesus’ calling of the disciples. At one point, the actor who plays Jesus becomes agitated at the way an actress is being treated at an audition, and he begins flipping over tables and lighting stands and drives everyone out of the auditorium. This is a not-so-sutle reference to the so-called Temple Tantrum that features so prominently in the canonical gospels. At the end of the film the actor dies, and his friends allow the doctors to harvest his organs. His body becomes a source of life for others.

This is the most overtly religious film we have watched up to this point, and student reactions to it were mixed. Discussion after the film touched on a number of issues, one of those being the film’s extremely negative portrayal of the church or anything that would resemble organized religion. The Catholic priest who sponsors the passion play is a hypocrite who for years has been breaking his vow of celibacy, and at the end of the play when the actors are encouraged to start an acting company to honor their deceased leader, they are encouraged to do so by a lawyer who clearly is meant to represent a sort of Satan figure. The implication is clear: “Jesus = good; church = evil.”

This undercurrent provided interesting fodder for discussion, especially in light of the weight that Hauerwas puts on the church as the community formed by the story of Jesus. Hauerwas would argue that the church as it exists today does not look as it should, of course, but this is quite different than claiming it to be evil, inspired by some sort of demonic force.

Even in light of these tensions, I think students found the film to be a helpful (if slightly literalistic) illustration of what Hauerwas means when he speaks of a community that is formed by the story of Jesus.

Hauerwas Goes to the Movies (Week 2)

This is the second post of a series on teaching religion in film using the work of Stanley Hauerwas. For helpful background, please see the first post from last week!

This week students came to class having read Chapter One in Hauerwas’s A Community of Character. In this chapter he outlines his “10 Theses Toward the Reform of Christian Social Ethics” in which he argues for the centrality of narrative to Christian social ethics and the formation of a community (the church) that can exist in a way that is faithful to the story of Jesus. “The primary social task of the church,” he maintains, “is to be itself–that is, a people who have been formed by a story that provides them with the skills for negotiating the danger of this existence, trusting in God’s promise of redemption” (10).

Hauerwas is not an easy read, and I was impressed by the number of students who seemed able to navigate this material with little to no difficulty (I should note, by the way, that of the twenty six students currently enrolled in the class, only a small handful are religion majors; most are taking this course as an elective or to fulfill a religion requirement in the core liberal arts curriculum). One student made the astute observation that what Hauerwas seems to be doing in this chapter is advocating for a sort of “secret clubhouse” mentality among Christians. While I noted that he would likely not want to frame the matter in those terms, I think he would at least agree with the sentiment: the church is a distinctive community that certainly exists within the world, but that exists as an alternative to much of what the world has to offer. And this distinctiveness is one of the things that makes the church the church.

Below is a word cloud that I generated from the first crop of essays (FYI – I will remove the word “Hauerwas” from future clouds):

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One of the things that students either loved or hated about this chapter was Hauerwas’s use of Watership Down to illustrate what he means by the role of narrative in the formation of communities. I think many were thrown off by the fact that the characters in Watership Down are rabbits – they thought this silly and not particularly fitting for a sophisticated theological treatise. Others just didn’t think that the stories did much to illustrate his point. Some loved the analogy, however. I only discovered about two days before the class started that Watership Down was made into a film. I’ve not had a chance to get a copy of it yet, but I will be interested in taking a look at it as a possible starting point for future classes.

After our discussion at the start of class, we watched Big Fish (2003), a wonderful film that illustrates the profound power that stories can have in the construction of one’s worldview. I gave the students a few questions to think about as they watched: When we talk about the importance of narrative/stories in the formation of our worldview, to what extent is it essential for these stories to be “true” stories What do we even mean when we talk about a story being “true”? Does this mean that it has to have happened in exactly the way that it’s told? And finally, I asked them to pay special attention to the role that mythology plays in this particular film.

Our discussion after the credits rolled was short (class only lasts so long) but fruitful. Students seemed to really enjoy the film, and one commented that it helped her to understand what Hauerwas had been arguing in the chapter they read for that week. I was pleased that she said this (without my prompting!) because that is, in fact, the goal of the class: read a difficult theological text and use film as a medium to better understand that text. Two weeks in and we are on the right track!

I’m a bit late posting this, and I plan on having my reflections on Week 3 up in the next few days.

Hauerwas Goes to the Movies (Week 1)

This semester I am teaching a class on religion in film. It’s my first time, and as I admitted to my students during our first session, I was initially unsure about the direction I wanted to take.

I knew that I didn’t want to show a bunch of overtly religious or “spiritual” films, mostly because I assumed (rightly, as it turns out) that these were the types of films that students would be expecting to see. But I was also concerned that these types of films wouldn’t encourage the type of critical reflection that I want to encourage. Colleagues of mine who have taught similar classes, for example, have recounted to me the experience of screening a visually powerful film like The Passion of the Christ and then witnessing a certain blindness to its serious theological issues because of the emotional response that it engenders in its viewers. 

After I moved away from the overtly religious / spiritual I found myself gravitating toward films that emphasize the importance of narrative in the formation of their characters: stories about stories.

As a more theological supplement to this emphasis on narrative, I thought something by Stanley Hauerwas might be fitting. I surveyed a few options, and ultimately I settled on A Community of Character because of its clear and consistent emphasis on the power and function of narrative in identity formation, specifically as it relates to the concept of Christian identity. “The church,” Hauerwas maintains, “does not exist to provide an ethos for democracy or any other form of social organization, but stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kind of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ.”

As anyone familiar with his work can attest, reading and understanding Hauerwas well is no small task, and I am confident that this book is going to be a challenging one for my class. My students are currently working through the introduction and the first chapter.

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of blog posts on the experience of teaching a class on religion in film in this way. Each week I will plan on posting the film that we watched that week, the reading assignment from Hauerwas, and a summary of student reactions to both.

Stay tuned if you are interested!

SBL/AAR 2015: A Retrospective

Today is my first full day home from the 2015 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion. As is typically the case, I find myself in the aftermath experiencing a combination of exhaustion and exhilaration and, incidentally, in the mood to write a blog post (more on why at the end).

I gave two papers this year. One was on reading the death of Moses through first-century eyes and in light of the Synoptic transfiguration narratives (available here). The other was an intertextual analysis of some central themes in the Gospel of John and The Polar Express (available here). Both went well. I IMG_0698encountered some pushback on the Synoptic paper, but it was the kind of pushback that you want; several in the audience questioned parts of my analysis and offered some helpful avenues for further explanation that I’d not considered. Both of these papers happened on Saturday, more or less back to back, which made for a long day. But in retrospect, it was nice to not have them hanging over my head for the rest of the conference.
I also chaired a Christian Apocrypha session on Monday afternoon, where I got to hear phenomenal papers by Alexander Kocar (Princeton), Meghan Henning (University of Dayton), Andrew Mark Henry (Boston University), and Mark Bilby (Claremont). Tony Burke (York University) gave a response, and we closed with some discussion. I very much enjoy the Christian Apocrypha group at SBL, and not just because of my research interests. I like it because it’s relatively small, so you have a chance to get to know those who attend. And in the sea of humanity that is the annual meeting, a bit of familiarity here and there never hurts.

The book room is always a highlight, of course. This year there were actually two book rooms, on two separate floors, which was far from ideal. The “main” room upstairs housed the big publishers (Oxford, Eerdmans, Baker, Wipf and Stock, etc.), and the other room downstairs had the software people (Logos, Accordance, etc.) as well as a few other publishers (Notre Dame, etc.). I actually had no idea that the downstairs room even existed until late Saturday afternoon. I can’t remember ever seeing a divided exhibit hall like this, and I hope whoever organizes that aspect of the meeting will avoid similar situations in the future.

My goal this year was to avoid purchasing books that were not directly relevant to my teaching or research. I was actually able to avoid purchasing anything at all, but not because I didn’t find anything worth purchasing. Several publishers that I visited were interested in sending me on my way with gratis examination copies. From Oxford University Press I received a copy of Mark Noll’s In the Beginning was the Word, and from Baker I received Introducing World Religions: A Christian Engagement. And Fortress Press provided me with a new desk copy of a text I’m using next semester: Rhoads, et al., Mark as Story (3rd edition).

I also quite by chance ended up dining with Markus Vinzent on Sunday evening. We chatted for over an hour about his intriguing hypothesis on the origin of the canonical gospels, namely, that they are all in some form drawing from Marcion’s Gospel. He very graciously tracked me down the next day and gave me two of his books: Christ’s Resurrection in Early Christianity and the Making of the New Testament (Ashgate), and Marcion and the Dating of the Synoptic Gospels (Peeters). I will look forward to reading through those and then, hopefully, posting some sort of review/engagement in this space.

One of the best parts of the annual meeting, of course, is reconnecting with old friends and meeting new ones. This year I was fortunate to be able to spend time with colleagues from graduate school, many of whom were giving papers or interviewing for jobs. I also got to meet in person several colleagues who were, until this weekend, only digital colleagues. Over the past two years or so Facebook and Twitter have clearly emerged as accepted and effective means of networking.

This leads to a question that I’d like to respond to briefly right now, but hopefully address further in a dedicated post at some point in the next few weeks. The question is that of blogging and other social media and the degree to which young scholars (graduate students, untenured faculty, etc.) should be involved, if at all. I attended the final twenty minutes or so of a session on blogging (James McGrath’s summary is here) in which several panelists argued that young scholars should not be blogging. Two reasons were cited: 1) it’s a time suck, and 2) it can attract controversy.

I agree wholeheartedly that social media can be an enormous waste of energy. Blogging in particular can demand long stretches of time that could be better spent working on other, more meaningful writing (journal articles, conference presentations, etc.). And I’ve also watched graduate students come close to committing career suicide with tweets, blog posts, etc. that aren’t particularly well thought out. Simply put: social media can be dangerous.

Yet at several points this weekend, even after attending the blogging session, I found myself advising younger colleagues to build up their social media presence. Because at least to some extent, many of the dangers of social media are avoidable ones. I say “to some extent” because there’s always some risk involved in putting yourself out there. And really, that is the case regardless of the medium: one could say the same thing about a book review, conference presentation, or journal article, and we nevertheless encourage these.

It is both possible and wise to limit the amount of time you spend engaging in social media, as academia requires that you commit a substantial portion of your energy to other, more scholarly pursuits. But I do think that social media can be a valuable tool for the young scholar, if used carefully and with an acknowledgment of its limitations. More on that in a future post, I hope (the previous four paragraphs are little more than a knee-jerk reaction to the question, so please read as such and mind the gaps).

For now, time to enjoy another cup of coffee. See you next year in San Antonio!

Using Timers for Productivity

One of my favorite bits of culture from The Office is the Wuphf, an initiative spearheaded by the great Ryan Howard. What Wuphf allows you to do is link all of your communication devices so that when one receives a message, they are all notified. The keepers of one Office Wiki describe Wuphf as follows:

If you send a Wuphf, the message goes to the recipient’s home phone, cell phone, email, Facebook, twitter, fax and homescreen at the same time, the idea being that if someone has a really important message they can send a Wuphf and know the recipient will receive it quickly.

I chuckle when I think about the Wuphf because it isn’t that far from reality. When I receive a text message, for example, my phone buzzes, my iPad lights up, and my laptop pings. It’s utterly obnoxious.

But even aside from the synchronized alert phenomenon (which I could turn off if I really wanted to), all of us are bombarded throughout the day by various sources of distraction that vie constantly for our attention: e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, text messages, academia.edu alerts, the occasional phone call (does anyone even talk on the phone anymore?), etc.

Some days, the amount of activity on the screens in my office makes it nearly impossible to accomplish anything. Some days, I can’t read, write, grade, or answer e-mails for more than one minute without being beckoned into another medium. On these types of days I find it helpful to do what I think of as a hard reboot – focus on one task, and only one task, for a manageable amount of time.

I accomplish this by using a simple timer app on my laptop. I like the Alinof timer because it is free and no frills, but really any timer will work. I choose a task for myself, be it writing, reading, grading, cleaning my office or answering e-mails, and I set my timer for 20 minutes and turn off alerts on all my devices. Until that timer sounds, I do not allow myself to do anything else outside of the task I assigned myself.

(This method is of course similar in many ways to the Pomodoro Technique, in which you divide your work into short chunks of time that are separated by scheduled breaks. The chief difference, at least for me, is that this is something I do only when I reach a point of desperation. Those who use Pomodoro tend to view it as a way of structuring all of their work time. I know several people for whom that works well, but it doesn’t work for me.)

As it turns out, you can accomplish quite a lot in 20 minutes. Assuming you keep a handle on the number of e-mails in your inbox (for me it’s a compulsion), 20 minutes is enough time to get your inbox to zero. It’s also enough to write a blog post or a page on that project you keep neglecting, grade a handful of essays, or organize your desk. When the timer sounds, I am often so pleased with what I’ve accomplished that I will set it again and keep going on whatever task I was working on. And after a few of these cycles, I typically find that I am much more focused, so much so that I eventually forget to reset the timer.

York Christian Apocrypha Symposium 2015, a Retrospective

This year I had the privilege of giving a paper at the York Christian Apocrypha Symposium, a conference on apocryphal literature put together by Tony Burke and Brent Landau at York University in Toronto.

The conference itself was relatively IMG_0354small —  19 presenters and a handful of others in the audience — and it was therefore a nice change from the utter enormity of the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, which has grown to the point of being almost unmanageable. Quite a few of us live-tweeted the presentations under the hashtag #YCAS2015. And James McGrath was diligent about live blogging all of the sessions, which you can access below:

Panel 1; Panel 2; Panel 3; Panel 4; Panel 5; Panel 6

Notes on Bart Ehrman’s keynote address on forgery are available here.

And an overview of the final panel on the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is available here.

IMG_0351As it turns out, this was actually the last year for the York Symposium, at least in its current form. There will be another symposium in 2017, in Ottawa, under the auspices of the newly-established North American Society for the Study of Christian Apocryphal Literature (NASSCAL). The current board of this exciting new group has some fantastic ideas for future initiatives, and I would recommend joining if you are interested in the Christian Apocrypha.

*The first photo is of the last panel of the symposium, on the reception of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. Pictured from left to right are Brent Landau, Carrie Schroeder, James McGrath, Mark Goodacre, and Janet Spittler. The second photo is of Tony Burke introducing Bart Ehrman before his keynote.