July 2012

Master classes. Every where I look there seems to be one. There’s a growing trend by intellectuals with, um, largish egos, or indeed unhealthily high opinions of themselves, to announce that they will offer ‘master classes’. Forget seminars, lectures, papers, toilet chatter … now it’s a ‘master class’.

So I have decided to offer one of my own. It is to be called ‘The Matriarch’s Muff’ – a careful biblical analysis of certain terminology. The problem is that I am not quite sure when and where to unleash it. I had thought of the Bible and Critical Theory seminar, soon to happen in Auckland (1-2 September). But the presence of a few too many – how shall I say it – matriarchs suggested that may not be the best venue. I then pondered it for the University of Otago, down Dunedin way, a few days later. But the problem here is that there will be a significant number of, well, Presbyterian patriarchs present. This prompted the observation, ‘not even Dunedin is yet ready for the Matriarch’s Muff’.

So when and where do I unleash the matriarch’s muff?


In the opening days of that festival of misshapen bodies and non-political politics known as the Olympic Games in London, one item stood out among the commentators: the inclusion of the ‘Industrial Revolution’ in the opening ceremony. Such ceremonies are, of course, blatant efforts at reasserting political myths, so we can hardly blame them for trotting out a few items of creative imagination. Still, the assumption is that the ‘Industrial Revolution’ actually happened in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As if born of the innate ingenuity of English entrepreneurs, this ‘revolution’ is supposed to provide the key to our modern, mechanized world. Even Marxists like Eric Hobsbawm have been caught up in the fervour, calling this and the bourgeois Frenchie one The Age of Revolutions (1962).

What a load of crap. Already for some time now, historians have been warning us that there is ‘scarcely a concept in economic history more misleading’ than this one (John Nef, already in 1943). Or, the ‘industrial revolution has, in fact – no mean achievement for a historical theory – done a lot of practical harm’ (Colin McEvedy in 1972). Instead, technological change and development was taking place over a much longer period, over a wider zone, and in phases of slowdown and jumps. Further, to single out industrialisation as the key is simply to miss the function of machinery and technology within a more comprehensive economic framework.

Then again, myth, especially political myth, is impervious to however many facts one might throw at it. A bit like attacking a fortress with a slingshot.

So I have a spare copy of volume 7 of the The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (Sheffield, 2010). It covers tsade to resh. Spin me a good reason why you should have it and it’s yours, free of charge.

So I’m unpacking my library once again, after completing the tiling and hauling out the bookshelves (all made from old timber). And what do I find? The Official Slacker Handbook. A question from this gem:

Before exiting the employee toilet at work do you instinctively:

a) Wash your hands thoroughly?

b) Check your gums for signs of receding?

c) Acquire several rolls of toilet paper that have helpfully been left out for you?

Is Cave’s Murder Ballads the best music to listen to while engaged in research assessment? You see, I am one of the major assessors of the quality of religion research in Australia. To put myself in the right frame of mind, I thought this bright and cheery album would do the trick.

With a year passing since the dreadful attacks by Anders Breivik in Oslo and on the island of Utoya, not a few have noticed how deeply Germans seem to have been affected. For a goodly number of Germans, something seems to have shattered in their souls. They have been obsessing about the events of a year ago, spilling tears, lamenting the loss of a mythical peace-loving Norway (despite the fact that Norway was at war at the time), feeling that the small Germanic nation in the far north has fatefully stepped out of the Garden of Eden. Why?

I would suggest that Norway comprises, subconsciously and even now, the heart of the mythological Aryan utopia. Here is the pure, untainted Aryan race; here one may find the old myths that speak of human origins above the Arctic Circle rather than among those Semites of the Fertile Crescent; here blond, broad-shouldered men and wide-hipped women frolic in the mountains, forests and fjords; here peace, equality and justice prevail. ‘Subconscious’ of course, but one may trace these lines in the rediscovery of the power of myth in the 18th and 19th centuries, the argument that the Nordic myths spoke of a Herrenvolk that originated in the north, all of which mutated (when it became less than respectable to hold such opinions openly) into the Indo-European hypothesis.

University of Newcastle, 5-6 October 2012

Venue: The Lockup, former police station. We will meet in the prisoners’ exercise yard …

Since the ‘religions of the book’ centre on calls to personal and social transformation (Hebrew shuv, Greek metanoia, Arabic tawbah), they have given rise to repeated radical and revolutionary movements. This radicalism continues, even in the context of the privatized and individualist faith of the West, but also in Eastern contexts, such as the Taiping Rebellion in China. The political and legal definition of such an act is ‘treason’: conspiring to overthrow the ‘state’, whether the political state or the states of our social and individual lives.

Theology is also notorious for supporting the status quo (see Romans 13). Thus, theology is caught between political reaction and radicalism: the same theological system – whether Christian, Islamic or Jewish – can foster support of an oppressive status quo and yet undermine that state. Or, one theological system – notably some forms of Islam – may challenge the dominance of another, such as Christianity (see Qur’an 5:51).

This tension between religious reaction and radicalism, which takes place within and between theological traditions, is the focus of a two-day conference at the University of Newcastle, to be held on 5-6 October, 2012. It is part of the ‘Religion in Political Life’ project at the university. We will include speakers who bring new perspectives to this discussion, especially from Asia.

Topics include but are not limited to:

1. Permutations of theological treason in Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

2. Internal and systemic tensions between religious radicalism and conservatism.

3. Events when religion’s treasonable resources were deployed to overthrow the ‘state’.

4. Theological dimensions of Islamic-Western tension and misunderstanding.

The symposium will bring five international experts to Newcastle to present papers at the conference. The speakers are Zhang Shuangli (Fudan University, Shanghai), Geng Youzhuang (Renmin University, Beijing), Chin Kenpa (Chung Yuan Christian University, Zhongli, Taiwan), Ward Blanton (University of Glasgow) and James Crossley (University of Sheffield).

Please send paper proposals to me by 14 August.

There is no registration cost for the conference and food will be included, but you will need to get here and find a bed. Recommended accommodation includes The Grand Hotel, the Novocastrian and the great YHA, right by the beach.

To whet your appetite, here’s the Lockup’s exercise yard:

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