Friday, August 31, 2018

I used to write letters: John Newton, William Cowper, and 18th-Century Blogging

A recent visit to the Cowper and Newton Museum in the town of Olney has me thinking about the 18th-century equivalent of blogging, and the impoverishment of new technologies.

Olney was on our list of out-of-the-way places to see, partly because we went on a John Newton kick a few years ago and read through Newton's 1793 Letters to a Wife by the Author of Cardiphonia, and then his more well-known 1764 volume, An Authentic Narrative of some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of John Newton Communicated in a Series of Letters to the Reverend Mr. Haweis, Rector of Aldwinckle, Northamptonshire, and by him (at the Request of Friends) Now Made Public.

To these letter collections published during Newton's lifetime, we can add another one and a half volumes in Newton's collected works, as well as a few others compilations that did not make it into the collected works.

Portrait of Cowper by William Blake in the Museum
William Cowper I knew only as a poet and hymn-writer who struggled with depression, so it was a bit surprising to find that the Cowper and Newton Museum is mostly about Cowper, with only one room devoted to Newton--perhaps for tourists like us who come to Olney because of Newton. The emphasis on Cowper is no doubt partly because the museum is located in the house where Cowper lived for almost twenty years (1768-1786), but during the 18th and 19th centuries, it was Cowper who was the celebrity author and letter writer.

The museum is filled with Cowper memorabilia--his sofa, his chair, his personal wash-stand, his handkerchiefs, and replicas of his rabbits. This approach feels a bit dated now, more than a century after the museum opened, but it works well because Cowper was famous for writing about everyday life, and the personal artifacts are frequently matched with Cowper's own descriptions found in his poems and letters.

In the back of the garden behind the museum is Cowper's writing nook, which he described in letters as follows:

"I write in a nook that I call my Bouderie; it is a Summer House not much bigger than a Sedan chair, the door of which opens into the garden that is now crowded with pinks, roses and honeysuckles, and the window into my neighbour's orchard. ... It is secure from all noise, and a refuge from intrusion."

"As soon as breakfast is over, I retire to my nutshell of a Summer House which is my verse manufactory, and here I abide seldom less than three hours, and not often more. In the afternoon I return to it again, and all the daylight that follows, except what is devoted to a walk, is given to Homer."

The definitive edition of William Cowper's letters is the five-volume Oxford University Press edition of The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper.

You could say that Cowper and Newton wrote letters because they couldn't blog. Despite their personal address, letter writers often hoped for a wider audience. At least since Cicero, the publication of letter collections was an established practice, much like books that begin as blogs today. But the shift in technology has also led to a fundamental change in writing (and reading) practices. Now that communication is instant and potentially unlimited in scope, and the epistolary genre is all but obsolete, what have we lost?

Sunday, August 26, 2018

What is גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב for?

This blog has always featured a motley assortment of topics aimed at a variety of different audiences, or none at all. It began eleven years ago as a commonplace collection of quotations, shifted to a travelogue about our June 2007 trip to Turkey, and then, toward the end of its first year, morphed into a biblio-family-blog blend that combined pictures of my infant daughter with an analysis of scholarship on the meaning of Ioudaios. I eventually phased out (most of) the family photos and tried to make sure that my posts retained some sort of connection to biblical studies, ancient Judaism, language-teaching pedagogy, "productivity software," or scholarship in general. But I still let arcane posts about Zotero and work-in-progress on Josephus, Romans, and Luke-Acts sit cheek-by-jowl next to the occasional devotional reflection, comments on the weather in Saskatchewan, and the tribute I wrote for my mother's funeral--assuming that my readers, whoever they might be, could read what interests them and ignore the rest.

The world has changed over the last decade. As Peter Davids recently wrote, "We live in anxious times with all types of black and white thinking, herding, and other anxious behavior." My world has changed too, and it has occurred to me that this combination of the personal and the academic might be a liability. However much I still feel like a newbie, I am no longer a young scholar, fresh out of grad-school. Perhaps I should adopt a more professional posture, curate more responsibly, and project an image that contributes more directly to my own advancement or some greater good. If I want to be taken seriously as a scholar, it may not be in my best interests to comment on my personal life or my personal faith. (I am afraid this concern has affected what I choose to include here more than it should.)

On the other hand, academic posts can also be misunderstood. When I suggested a few years ago that ancient Jews could dine with gentiles without violating the law, someone commented: "Who cares? How does this help life in the real world? Is this seriously where our donation dollars are going?" I deleted the comment because I had concluded from a previous encounter that the commenter was not open to the possibility of conversion that genuine conversation requires. But I also jotted down what I would have said in response:
When I teach the book of Acts in my college context, concerns about the text's relevance to the 'real world', whatever that is, are front and center. I can assure you that the question I addressed in my last post has an impact on my understanding of Acts, and as a result, on how I teach the book. Moreover, it is because I hold Acts to be God's word, in the Christian sense, that I think the text merits careful attention. Asking "who cares?" too quickly may indicate a lack of respect for the Scripture God has given us. I don't feel obligated to connect all the dots on my blog, and you are under no obligation to read what I post if you don't care about the subjects I write about. The blog is not always addressed to a lay or college-level audience, so don't assume that my musings here accurately reflect what or how I teach in the classroom.

Consciousness of the liability of blogging in an anxious age has led to greater self-censorship on my part, and has occasionally contributed to a sense of paralysis as I wonder who I am writing for and why I am writing blog posts at all, especially when I should probably spend my time working toward publications that matter more. For the moment, however, I plan to continue, for a few different reasons: At a basic level, the act of thinking aloud in public sometimes helps me write. Contemplating an audience encourages me to work through ideas and get them down on "paper." The immediacy of publishing a blog post helps stave off the despair that presses in when I contemplate larger projects that are years from completion. And sometimes I have something to say that I hope people will read and benefit from. The blog is, finally, an attempt to practice in another medium what I try to do in the classroom, modeling what it might mean to think critically and live faithfully at the same time.

For a related post about the blog, see my "Ten-Year Blog Anniversary."

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Mary Beard on Leadership and Power

Mary Beard's tiny book, Women and Power, should be required reading for anyone who reacts negatively to the word "feminism," or who wonders what all the fuss is about. As one would expect from a noted classicist and public intellectual, it is particularly helpful in tracing how classical ideas about gender continue to influence contemporary discourse, not least on Twitter. It is also a cracking good read (though a little crass).

What I want to reflect on here, however, is not so much gender as leadership. In her Afterword, Beard says that she would eventually "like to try to pull apart the very idea of 'leadership' (usually male) that is now assumed to be the key to successful institutions, from schools and universities to businesses and government" (p. 94).

Beard's initial attempt in the book itself is embedded in a passage that is difficult to excerpt:

"... But this is still treating power as something elite, coupled to public prestige, to the individual charisma of so-called 'leadership', and often, though not always, to a degree of celebrity. It is also treating power very narrowly, as an object of possession that only the few - mostly men - can own or wield .... On those terms, women as a gender - not as some individuals - are by definition excluded from it. You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb ('to power'), not as a possession. What I have in mind is the ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually. It is power in that sense that many women feel they don't have - and that they want." (pp. 86-87)

This is one example of how questions about gender can get at issues of wider relevance for people in general. Perhaps I'm mistaken, but when I hear "leadership" I think of the elite power "coupled to public prestige" and "individual charisma" "that is now assumed to be the key to successful institutions"--and I want to run the other way. To be sure, some people do need to be in senior leadership and management positions, people in those positions can exercise a great deal of influence, and it is important for such people to be trained. Bless them. Good leadership development will presumably stress service more than public prestige and personal charisma. But viewing everything in terms of leadership in the conventional sense can still exclude other people, and other ways of encouraging "the ability to be effective" and "to make a difference in the world."

Beard, Mary. Women & Power: A Manifesto. London: Profile Books, 2017.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Panacea Society: A 20th-Century Millenarian Movement

Just down the street from the John Bunyan Museum is a large property that was once the headquarters of the Panacea Society, and is now home to the Panacea Museum. I was anxious to get to our next destination, so we only had time to take a brief glimpse at a few rooms in the museum--long enough to be thoroughly intrigued.

At its peak in the early 20th century the Panacea Society had over 70 residents living in the community in Bedford. According to the Panacea Museum website, eventually "[o]ver two thousand people became members of the Panacea Society" from around the world.

The society is most well-known for an advertising campaign to pressure 24 Anglican bishops to open a sealed box of prophecies left behind by the 18th-century prophetess, Joanna Southcott:

Before her death in 1814, the 64-year-old virgin had announced that she was pregnant. This news became a national sensation, and thousands of her followers made clothing for the promised child, Shiloh, the second-coming of the Messiah:

(Read Genesis 49:10 for the details.)

No child materialized, however, and Southcott died 10 months after announcing her "pregnancy."
Fast-forward to 1919 when Bedford resident, Mabel Barltrop (1866-1934), a widowed mother of four children, announced that she was Shiloh. Mabel changed her name to Octavia and, together with twelve female apostles, founded the Panacea society.

One of the society's main occupations was advocating for the opening of Joanna Southcott's box. True to its name, the society also advertised a panacea:
"The cure was ordinary tap water over which Octavia had breathed and prayed. ... [D]emand from non-resident members prompted the development of a new method of transferring the healing power believed to be in Octavia’s breath. In a ceremony Octavia first prayed then breathed over long rolls of linen, which were then cut up into one-inch squares. Anyone applying for healing would be sent one of these small squares of healing linen. They were instructed to keep the linen square in a jug of water, and pray each time they used it. ... [O]ver 120,000 people have applied to the Panacea Society for healing since it began. Members of the Society meticulously archived the extensive correspondence from recipients of the healing squares replying whenever possible and the resulting archives are a fascinating record of faith and health from around the world."
In 2012, when the last member of the society died, the religious movement officially ended. The society--now with considerable financial assets--changed its name to the "The Panacea Charitable Trust," and transformed the Bedford property into a museum. The Trust's dual aims are to support the study of the Panacea Society and other similar millenarian groups and to contribute to needy causes in the Bedford area. (Christopher Rowland once served on the board; Justin Meggitt of Cambridge University is currently board chair.)

The Panacea Museum also hosts art exhibitions, though we didn't make it to the floor that held this one:

If I ever return to Bedford and have my druthers, I will give the John Bunyan Museum a pass (with all due respect), and spend my time at the Panacea.

Further Reading: As you would expect, the Wikipedia entries on the Panacea Society and Joanna Southcott contain basic information. The Panacea Museum website has a helpful overview of the society's history, but for some reason a much more detailed biography of Mabel Borthrop preserved on the Wayback Machine is no longer included on the site (HT: Wikipedia). I also consulted Stephen Coates's piece on Joanna Southcott's box.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

On the Comparison of 17th-Century Christianities: John Bunyan and Nicholas Ferrar

After visiting Little Gidding we drove 25 miles south to the town of Bedford and stopped for lunch by the River Great Ouse.
Our reason for stopping in Bedford, aside from the pleasant picnic spot, was to visit the shrine of another 17th-century protestant saint, whose best-selling book begins as follows:
"As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream." 
The Den, I assume, was inspired by the Bedford County Jail where John Bunyan was imprisoned between 1660-1672, and where he began to write The Pilgrim's Progress:

The actual jail, of course, is long gone. Visitors today can view a replica in the John Bunyan Museum that stands next to a 19th-century Bunyan Meeting church building, a few blocks east of the old jail site:

In addition to the model jail cell, the museum houses a selection of 17th-century relics: This key may have belonged to Oliver Cromwell, this block of wood may have come from the Bedfordshire barn where Bunyan preached--that sort of thing. There is also a door that really was removed from the Bedford County Jail when it was demolished in 1801; whether the door goes back to 1672 is another question. The museum also includes a library of Bunyan's works published in a wide variety of modern languages.

In many ways, Nicholas Ferrar (1592-1637) of Little Gidding and John Bunyan (1628-1688) of Bedford could not be more different. Nicholas's father was an elite London merchant, members of the family were friends with royalty, and Nicholas served in parliament before the move to Little Gidding. John Bunyan's father was a tinker, just well-enough off to own his own cottage and provide for his son's basic education. Nicholas Ferrar was a Cambridge-educated scholar who was ordained by the future Archbishop of Canterbury. Bunyan was a nonconformist whose refusal to give up preaching without a government license led to his twelve-year imprisonment. Despite their differences, both shared an unwavering commitment to the proclamation of the gospel and to ordering their lives by their common faith.

My historian spouse reminds me that Bunyan and Ferrar also belonged to different generations. The English civil war (1642-1651) that came between the death of Nicholas Ferrar in 1637 and the adult re-baptism of John Bunyan in 1653 changed England dramatically. Bunyan's imprisonment must be understood in the context of a sudden shift from toleration of nonconformists under Oliver Cromwell to an official attempt after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 to enforce conformity to a single church. (I don't know enough to comment on non-conformity and toleration before the civil war--but the shift from toleration back to official prohibition is one significant difference.) In any case, even though they both lived in the 17th century, you can't directly compare Ferrar in the 1630's with Bunyan in the 1660's anymore than you can juxtapose the 1950's and the 1980's. Conditions for existence had changed. Who knows? The same might be true of Judaism(s) in the Second Temple Period ....

Monday, August 6, 2018

Little Gidding and Gospel Harmonies

I keep a separate blog for family and friends who might have an interest in our little UK adventures, but I decided that my posts on our recent drive around the countryside have enough to do with the general biblical studies / academic nature of this blog to justify including them here. This is the first installment:
Unless you come on pilgrimage "to kneel where prayer has been valid," following the "broken king" Charles I or drawn by the famous lines in T. S. Eliot's poem, there is not much to see or do in Little Gidding beyond inspecting the tiny church, parts of which may go back to the building that was standing when Charles visited in the 1640's (see the links here and here).

I didn't notice a pig-sty, but in other respects T. S. Eliot's description of Little Gidding can't be matched:

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull façade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world's end, ...
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
- From T. S. Eliot's "Little Gidding"

To be honest, we came to inform curiosity not to kneel, but out of respect for those who were already there when we barged in, I didn't get many pictures of the inside of the church:

The "Four Quartets," of which "Little Gidding" is the final part, has long been one of my favourite poems, and it was neat to be able to pick up a copy and skim through "Little Gidding" on location. Perhaps I will find that "the purpose is beyond the end [I] figured, and is altered in fulfilment."

At any rate, I am also fascinated by the story of the religious community that drew King Charles to Little Gidding in the first place.

The property was purchased in 1625 by Mary Ferrar, the widow of one of the founding members of the Virginia Company, and her son Nicholas. They were joined by her other son John, her daughter Susanna, and their extended families. Nicholas was ordained as a deacon by the future Archbishop Laud in 1626 and soon established a devotional routine based on the Book of Common Prayer that included daily services for the whole family--matins at 6:30 a.m., the litany at 10 a.m. and evensong at 4 p.m.--as well as hourly prayers and a night vigil with readings from the Gospels and Psalms. According to the Little Gidding Church website,
"To instruct the younger members of the extended family in the gospel story and to develop their manual dexterity, Nicholas devised a Harmony of the four gospels. This Harmony provided the narrative for the hourly gospel readings. To create it, individual lines were cut from the four gospel narratives and pasted together on the page to make one continuous text. The pages were also illustrated with engravings, some of which Nicholas may have brought back from his continental travels many years earlier. When King Charles heard of the Harmony’s existence, he sent to borrow it, returning it only when the family agreed to make another for him."
I like telling my students this story to show that studying a synopsis of the Gospels--with parallel passages laid side-by-side--can be a devotional practice.

The best information we located about Little Gidding is in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entries on Little Gidding, Nicholas Ferrar, and John Ferrar. Less authoritative, but free alternatives may be found here, here and here.

Our next destination, via back roads and rolling hills, was Bedford.