January 7, 2012 / The Church & Postmodern Culture
This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in …
August 23, 2010
Reflections on the
Summer of 2010
Daniel A. Siedell
Classes start next week. As I hustle to put together course syllabi for the fall
semester my work this summer has forced me to reconsider the contours of my
academic vocation. We academics
live in bubble. We live in a world
in which seminar rooms, the lecture hall, faculty meetings, academic
conferences, and “close readings” of the latest commentary on the
work of this philosopher or that theologian, tend to take on an exaggerated
gravity and relevance.
We believe that we’re engaging, critiquing, or transforming culture in
the seminar room and we surround ourselves with those who believe
likewise. We are rarely forced to
leave this bubble in order to test whether our work has, could, or even should
have value outside this admittedly narrow professional world. For many of us the most challenging
form of cultural translation in which we will have to participate this coming
academic year will be to explain our work to a colleague in another department
before or after a committee meeting.
Even for those academics who see beyond the bubble, the relationship is
often a one way street, in which “we” are the ones delivering truth
to power, “we” are the ones who are engaging, critiquing, or
transforming whatever needs engaging, critiquing, or transforming “out
there” in the world, or in the Church. Rarely, however, does what happen “out there”
challenge or test the value of our commitments, the relevance of our work,
outside the hermetically sealed envelope of tenure and promotion, sabbaticals,
leading student study trips abroad, and, perhaps most perplexing to the world
“out there,” summers off.
My summer was framed by two stiff challenges to my work that
will significantly alter my academic vocation and perhaps even its
content. The first was my
participation in Veritas Riff, the
brainchild of Veritas Forum Executive Director Dan Cho, Silicon Valley
consultant Curtis Chang, Rice University sociologist Michael Lindsay, and Christianity
Today editor Andy Crouch. Veritas Riff invited thirteen early to mid-career scholars to
Cambridge, Mass. During the third week of June to participate in a series of
seminars and meetings intended to challenge us to think more expansively about
participating in and shaping the cultural discourse in different and broader
ways beyond the limits and comforts of academia. The group featured, among
others, a philosopher at Cornell, theoretical physicist from Oxford, political
scientist from Vanderbilt, sociologist from Harvard (who received the news that
she had been given tenure during our meetings), a Duke physician with a dual
appointment in the Divinity School, an op-ed writer for the Washington
Post and former speechwriter for George W.
Bush, and John Skeel, who holds an endowed appointment at the Law School at
Clearly informed by Crouch’s Culture Making, and Lindsay’s The Halls of Power, the meetings were intended to give us encouragement
and the resources to take our projects outside our disciplinary silos and into
the larger and more messy and challenging arena of cultural work. I certainly had my doubts about Veritas
Riff and I spent several months considering
whether I should even participate.
Although we were all coming from academia, the Riff organizers made it
clear that this was not an academic conference. It was recognized that we were most definitely in academia, but the meetings drove home the fact that
we should not be of academia.
John Skeel focused on one of these devices, our improv
lessons led by L.A. actor Marianne Savell, and offered a humorous account in an
op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal (Read
it here.) The improv exercises and the Second
City metaphors were intended to force us academics, who have been trained to
regard our bodies as means to get our brains from one class or meeting to
another, to consider how and in what other ways we communicate. The basic theatre and acting exercises
we were taught can be helpful tools for us as we step outside the confines of
tweed jackets and Burkenstocks into a world in which first impressions and
non-verbal communication play fundamental roles in creating the space necessary
for the positive reception of our work.
Skeel’s description of these exercises seem to have captured the
imaginations of some very serious-minded evangelical bloggers, perhaps overly
influenced by James Davison Hunter’s new book, To Change the World, who think that Veritas Riff is evidence of the low brow anti-intellectual gene
resurfacing in evangelicalism.
(Read some here.)
The person that tied the Veritas Riff together wasn’t Tina Fey, it was the prophet
Daniel. Mark Lamberton, Director
of the Lloyd Oglivie Institute of Preaching at Fuller Seminary and former
pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, led daily meditations on the
book of Daniel focusing particularly on his faithful witness at the highest
levels of secular power. In
addition, Andy Crouch offered a meditation on power drawn from St. Paul’s
journey to Rome in the Acts of the Apostles. Crouch and Lindsay also offered disarmingly honest
discussions of the challenges they faced in their own work as they sought to
expand the scope of their projects.
The stiffest challenge to our academic comfort zone,
however, wasn’t the improv, it was from Jody Hassett Sanchez, former reporter
and producer at ABC News and CNN and President of Pointy Shoe Productions, a
documentary and long form production company that explores issues of faith and
culture. She studied each of our
projects and interviewed us formally about our projects on camera. She then gave us brutally honest
feedback about the form and content of our deliveries. It was during this excruciatingly
painful process that I realized not only the potential of my work to reach an
audience beyond academia, but also how ill-equipped I am to do it.
I cannot be content to let our work be defined entirely by
the academic institutions that shape me.
Especially for those of us concerned with serving Christ in culture, we
must find ways to test our ideas, commitments, our projects outside our
academic bubbles. Although I
believe that my writing about paintings has relevance outside academia, Veritas
Riff has shown me that it is not obvious
and that I must continually put it to the test beyond the seminar room, lecture
hall, or conference.
The second stiff challenge to my academic vocation came
during my two-weeks at Whale & Star, the Maimi-based studio of artist
Enrique Martínez Celaya, where I serve as Director of Special Projects (see www.whaleandstar.com). However, I will reflect on this
particular experience over at my blog in the weeks to come.
by Daniel A. Siedell
Daniel A. Siedell
Daniel A. Siedell is Director of Theological & Cultural Practices at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Previously he was Professor of Modern & Contemporary Art History at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He is the author of many books and essays on art, including God in the Gallery. He is at work on book on Christianity's influence on modern art with Bill Dyrness to be published by InterVarsity Press. Follow him on Twitter at @DanSiedell.