New JCRT

A new issue of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory is out, featuring my review [pdf] of Less Than Nothing.

Fear of the Future: Rehabilitating the “Temporal Cold War”

The film First Contact marks a decisive turning point in the Star Trek franchise’s approach to time travel. Previously, the emphasis was always on preserving the past, which had led to a glorious future. Even at great cost — as in the classic episode “City on the Edge of Forever” — the timeline that had produced the optimistic semi-utopia of Star Trek had to be restored. That emphasis on future greatness continues even in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, whose somewhat contrived plot centers on the hard lesson that present short-sightedness (such as letting whales go extinct) can affect the future in ways that might not even make sense to us now (such as an alien force that had befriended the whales laying waste to earth when they can’t find them). Even if Voyage Home marks a shift, it’s still within the same basic frame of rehabilitating our own accidental behavior in the past.

The new element in First Contact is the malevolent intention of the Borg in disrupting our timeline. A completely unpredictable force, which at that point in history humanity had had no dealings with, blasts out of the future and takes over — and while Captain Picard et al. are able to set things back on the utopian path, humanity’s great hero, warp-drive inventor Zefrem Cochrane, knows that his discovery and fateful voyage were part of a conflict between two mysterious powers from the future.

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Call for manuscripts and new book series announcement: INTERSECTIONS: Theology and the Church in a World Come of Age

Series Announcement:

Intersections: Theology and the Church in a World Come of Age

Published by  Noesis Press (Davies Group, Publishers)

Description:

Theological discourse typically teeters between obscure, abstract thinking suitable only for academics and direct “how-to” writing: how to preach, how to evangelize, how to educate children and adults into the faith, how to lead for financial stability, how to teach happy relationships.  Obviously, neither the abstract nor the practical are unnecessary or unfruitful; however, creative, constructive theological voices fruitfully inhabiting the in-between spaces of the abstract and instructional, who engage and converse with the practical aspects of church life have become rare.  Furthermore, theological writing which inhabits this liminal space is sorely needed in our secularized and secularizing world, vital to those seeking a “metapoietic” condition in a post-Christendom world—one that takes seriously the Gospel, the church, and the world “come of age” in science, technology, literature, and the arts.

The titles in the forthcoming Intersections series are envisioned to be short monographs or edited collections which offer fresh and bold perspectives on theology, practical theology, church practice, and religious issues beyond organized religion, by individuals with clear commitments to and entrenchments in the academy and religious assembly.  Of particular interest to the series are short monographs which introduce important figures in academic theology or philosophy to a pastoral or seminarian audience with clear application for religious life, or collaborative works between clergy and academics.  Intersections series titles will be written for scholarly clergy and seminarians, for those who take academic theology and religious life seriously, who welcome and are searching for theological thinking and writing that refuses to rehash old mistakes, blindly retreat into doctrine, or insult its audience. Read the rest of this entry »

Peer review: What’s the alternative?

In what is increasingly becoming a tired schtick, Rebecca Schumann rehearses the most inflammatory cliches about academic practices — in this case, peer review. David Perry’s response reflects my own experience: I’ve had a generally good experience, but I’ve heard about friends who had a much harder time.

Schumann suggests that anyone submitting to a journal should be required to do a “constructive,” timely review of an article for said journal before their piece will be considered. The gap here is that the same editors who let people get away with harsh reviews are going to be in charge of assessing the required reviews — why would we expect anything different? It’s also striking that the solution to the badness of peer review is to get more people to do peer review (especially in the case of the “crowd-sourced peer review” solution she also discusses). Yes, I agree: the solution to the problems of the system is a good version of the system without the problems.

I would like to gently suggest that there are factors other than the badness of reviews themselves that contribute to the bad reputation of peer review. First, it makes sense that an increasingly high-stakes “publish or perish” mentality would lead to a higher volume of lower-quality material. Many articles that I’ve reviewed struck me as simply needing more incubation time — including the time and distance necessary to say, “Okay, so I’ve done all this exposition… but what am I trying to say here?” Students who let the deadline sneak up on them are not the only ones turning in “papers in search of a thesis.” And in some cases, I honestly think the editor should have simply rejected the articles out of hand without involving me. It’s not the author’s fault, but I can understand being irritable when you’ve volunteered your free labor and your input isn’t actually warranted.

Second, the high stakes involved amplify people’s usual defensiveness of their own work. This may lead to an overdiagnosis of “harshness” of tone and an exaggerated suspicion of the reviewer’s motives — isn’t it a little convenient that peer reviewers are so often presented as promoting their own work and viewpoints? We’re all willing to call bullshit when blog commenters say that we’re just afraid of how right their views are and can’t tolerate dissent. There’s always going to be something uncomfortable about getting criticism of one’s work from an anonymous source — I mean, I was sweating bullets when a very close friend was reading my draft of Creepiness, and I can’t imagine how nervous I would have been if it were a total stranger — and while some reviewers may come across as unduly harsh, maybe you wouldn’t read it that way if you knew them personally. The disadvantages of anonymity go both ways.

So here’s my proposal: get rid of the anonymity. Turn the process into a genuine dialogue between peers rather than a high-stakes, up-or-down evaluation by some random person. You could even require people to do some peer review on their own beforehand and submit a signed statement from one or two readers along with the piece. To make sure people aren’t constantly relying on the same two people, you could make it a norm for CVs that your initial reviewers are included in the listing for any peer-reviewed work. If you want an independent assessment, have a named peer reviewer respond to the full package.

Yes, there is potential for abuse with this system, in that it could amplify “old boys network”-type effects — but my #slatepitch position is that many of the cruellest and most pointlessly time-consuming aspects come from pretending that the profession is an impersonal meritocracy and feigning ignorance of the importance of reputation and social networks.

On Zizek’s plagiarism

A former student wrote to ask what I thought of the recent evidence of plagiarism in an essay by Zizek. I replied that Zizek’s own explanation of the incident, which can be found here among many other places, struck me as plausible — indeed, I’d add now that it isn’t hugely different from what traditional academics might ask a research assistant to do for them.

Overall, I’d call this unintentional plagiarism due to laziness, rather than actually trying to pass off someone else’s ideas as his own. If he turned in the essay for my class, I’d give him the chance to rewrite.

Sorry: Another one of those “thinking out loud” posts

I apologize if these posts about future plans are too self-indulgent. Perhaps they could be viewed primarily as a way of coping with my own anxiety, and thus you should feel free to skip them. Hopefully there is some value, however, in seeing how I think through my long-term planning.

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What if the gates of hell did prevail against it?

A theological hypothetical for all those armchair ecclesiologists in the audience: what if literally every Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bishop suddenly died before they were able to ordain any new bishops? How would apostolic succession be preserved or “retconned”? Would Anglican orders suddenly turn out to be “good enough”? Would priests be upgraded to bishops? Is there already a contingency plan hidden in the depths of the Vatican?

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