Monday, May 20, 2013

lessons from an academic conference

Last weekend I attended the American Academy of Religion (Eastern International Regional) Meeting held at the University of Toronto.  Over the course of two days, there were over 100 scholars presenting talks on various aspects of religion and I was one of them.  The topics ranged from transformation in pilgrimage to photographs of Old Colony Mennonite life to Hindu texts to mysticism in the book of Job to Buddhist art practices to imagination in the Muslim context to conservation of sacred materials to the philosophies of Derrida and Balthasar to imperfect martyrs to sexual metaphors for the reign of God to church planting in Germany to pews vs. chairs to cancer as the apocalypse.  And that's just a small sampling of the breadth of material that was offered for our learning pleasure.

For those of you unfamiliar with academic conferences, let me explain how they work.  First, these meetings are meant to be opportunities for conversation between students, teachers, and researchers on a particular subject - in this case, religion.  To this end, most of the people attending a conference are presenters as well as audience members.  Aside from a few plenary sessions which feature keynote speakers, the presenters are speaking to a relatively small crowd (a dozen or less was the average at this conference).  The schedule is usually divided into panels, each lasting one-and-a-half hours and featuring three presentations.  Each presenter is allowed 20 minutes to present their paper (most read from a written text and add comments as they go) and then there are about 10 minutes for questions.  Since most of the people at these meetings are quite knowledgeable, the discussions can be quite complex and in-depth.

In general, I have a great time presenting at these conferences; they challenge me to communicate my findings and ideas clearly and concisely, and the questions always help me see where I could expand  my knowledge and improve my communication skills.  In addition, by attending various presentations and talks I always learn a lot about areas that I would never have the time (nor inclination) to study and these sessions make me not only better informed, but a better student of life.  Perhaps most importantly, I meet a lot of scholars and learners from across the world who are interesting, intelligent, amusing, and usually have rich stories to tell. Over the years, I have learned some important lessons from attending these conferences:

1.  Listening is more important than telling people what I know.  At all of these conferences there is usually some time to socialise.  Being an introvert (and many scholars are) this can be challenging, but I have found that it is quite easy to talk to strangers at these meetings.  All I have to do is ask them what they are studying and away they go: everyone loves to talk about what they are passionate about.  Unfortunately, some will go on and on and on without ever including me in the conversation or noticing that I have lost interest.  A few people, no matter what the topic being discussed, always bring it back to their area of interest.  It seems to go with the territory when people are so invested in a specific field of study.  Others are better at involving people in a dialogue and I have made some very mutually beneficial connections.  It would be a shame for me to go to a conference and spend the whole time talking about my pet topic.  I would consider myself no richer for having done that.  So at each conference, I tend to look for someone standing or sitting alone; I walk over to them, ask them a question, and listen.  Sometimes it gets boring (at which time a trip to the snack table or the bathroom is usually a good exit strategy), but most times, I meet a wonderful human being who is interesting and has something to teach me.

2.  Numbers are not the main thing; making contact is.  At this last conference, the panel I was part of was scheduled for the last slot of the day.  This is not so good for attracting people because some attendees inevitably have to leave early and most are fatigued by that time (which means they skip it).  When our session was scheduled to begin, there were four people in the room:  two presenters (the third one was absent due to medical reasons), the chair of the panel, and one attendee.  It could have been a bit discouraging, but the mood in the room was decidedly jovial, casual, interactive, and upbeat.  By the time I got around to giving my presentation, a few others had joined the group and it was a lively, appreciative bunch who asked good questions and were very attentive.  One of them was a board member for the larger AAR body and frankly, it was an honour to be able to present my ideas to her and answer her questions.

3.  Analytical thinking is best when combined with humour, life experience, relationship, and prayer.  A fellow scholar once asked me how I turn off my analytical/critical process when I am in a church/devotional setting because otherwise it must be distracting to spend the whole time picking apart the talk and critiquing the theology of those sharing their spiritual experiences.  My response was that I don't.  I never want to shut down one part of me; I believe that would be like trying to walk with just one leg or at least a few toes missing.  In an academic setting the critical/studious/analytical side of me is at the forefront, gathering information, making observations, and trying to find a reasonable explanation for the material I am engaging with.  The intuitive/devotional/spiritual side is chugging along beneath the surface, tracking what is going on and at various times, thankfully, offering up quite amazing insights and ideas that analytical me could never come up with.  When I am in a church/informal setting, the roles reverse.  For the most part, I try to listen to the heart of what is being offered, to recognise the motivations behind the words.  The analytical side of me still churns out theological critiques and dissects anything that seems to be uninformed or contradictory. When these critiques surface in my mind, I thank "analytical me" for the data, evaluate whether or not it is a loving and generous gesture to add these thoughts to the conversation, and if not, put the data aside for later consideration.  There are times to teach/correct/analyse and there are times to put on love above all else; one should not get the two mixed up.

Anthony DiStefano, a teacher in a secondary Catholic girls' school, writes about his frustration at students who don't seem to care about learning "first things."  He says: "The first impulse of the teacher in me is to lecture, to assign readings, to target their intellects with the clear draughts of sound doctrine, but this is a mistake.  The correct 'answer' is love, and not just saccharine niceness that merely affirms but rather the kind of commitment that...led the Son of God to pour himself out for the world." [1]

Academic conferences always cultivate a healthy humility in me because one is surrounded by so much knowledge and experience.  And if I take the time to listen, I will also find wisdom, prayerful hearts, and generous spirits.

Matte from Montreal


1. Anthony DiStefano, "And the Word Became Text," How Balthasar Changed My Mind, edited by Rodney A. Howsare and Larry S. Chapp (Crossroad Publishing Company, 2008), 57.    

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Conference Season.

Hey all. Our Matte Downey was at the American Academy of Religion (Regional) this past weekend and the Annual Society of Vineyard Scholars meeting has just passed. I'm keen to have reports on both of these events. My own efforts are being put into preparing for Congress in Victoria at the first of June and teaching Eschatology at Saint Paul University this month. We also have more regional pastors gatherings happening. Thanks Matte for the excellent report from the Atlantic Regional Gathering. There is a lot on the go - it might disrupt the flow of blog posts around here for a bit. If you were at any of these meetings or gatherings (or even others that I'm not aware of) and you can give us your thoughts we'd love to hear it.

Also I'm still looking for an environmental activist to participate on a panel I'm organizing in Victoria. The topic is eschatology and ecology. I have two other scholars representing different streams of thought on the subject (I'm bringing in an evangelical perspective). The panel is Monday, June 3rd from 7-8:30PM in room B135 of the Cornett Building (UVic). Even if you don't know someone, would be great to have you drop in for the session. Should be a rich conversation.

Frank - Ontario Region

Monday, May 6, 2013

why we get together

A street in Saint John, NB
Dean and I just came home from a long weekend away.  He took 2 days off work, I pressed pause on reading for my exams, and we drove to the Atlantic Vineyard Family Gathering in Saint John, New Brunswick.  We spent 20 hours in a car, paid for 3 nights in a nice hotel, spent significant $$$ on gas and meals in restaurants (I meant gas for the car, not gas in a restaurant, but interpret it whichever way you like) so that we could sit on hard plastic chairs for hours in a dimly lit room with other people, many of whom we hardly know.  Why would anyone do this?  It's a good question.

Why do we as followers of Jesus go to such effort and expense to gather together for conferences, regional gatherings, and even weekly meetings?  There are a few answers to that question.

1.  Because we can.  It sounds simple, but not everyone has the freedom to gather together to worship loud and long, and to pray openly to Jesus Christ, and to speak at length about the implications of a life spent loving Jesus.  We are rich in freedom and resources in this part of the world and that is not something to take for granted.

2.  Because we like each other.  The Vineyard in Canada has some of the most generous, funny, talented, likeable people I know!  I genuinely enjoy the people I have met through these gatherings and I look forward to seeing them again each time there is an opportunity.  And making new friends!

3.  Because we need each other.  Following Jesus is not something we do alone, solo, in private.  Everywhere that Jesus went, groups of people were present.  Not only because we are naturally social beings, but because community and relationship are at the heart of God, implicated in the nature of love.  We receive encouragement from others and many times we have encouragement to offer. Together we learn and understand things better, together we see things from a more informed perspective, and together we are more whole than we are separately. 

4.  Because Jesus did it.  He gathered people together not only to teach them how to embrace him as the way to God, the truth incarnate, and the very essence of life, but to embrace each other.  Much of what Jesus taught had to do with how we treat each other, how we live in our world.  Jesus came to be among us because this is what God does: he moves toward others, he closes the gap, he comes to the places we live, he promises to be present where 2 or 3 are gathered. 

The verse that was the starting point for the Atlantic Family Gathering this past weekend was John 1:14 from The Message:  The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.  We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish.

In his talks, David Ruis echoed these thoughts (and told some good stories, too).  We come together because we can't do it alone.  We come together to be present for each other.  We cultivate a culture of friendship out of which we serve and teach and love; no one is more important or more valued than the other.  One of the anecdotes he told was of a famous actor who was a part of their church family in Hollywood.  One Sunday morning, the actor left his seat during the meeting and when he came back a few minutes later, found that it was occupied by another person.  The actor remarked to a friend, "This is the only church I know where an A-list celebrity can get up to go to the bathroom and come back to find his seat has been taken by a homeless person!"  And he said it in a positive way!

David also offered some helpful principles based on his own experience of trying to live out Jesus' example of "moving into the neighbourhood."  The provision of God is enough; let us not be held hostage by our weaknesses, our limitations, our lack of resources.  Let us make proximity a priority, being present, really present with one another.  This is very different from using the poor for a photo op or taking advantage of the famous or exploiting the rich.  Jesus came to be present with us, and this act of humility, this life lived as a human being, was more compelling than any sermon or talk or directive he gave.  Let us keep a godly perspective on our impact, having eyes to see where God is at work in small and unique ways instead of evaluating success by numbers.  Let us not grow weary or give up easily, but cultivate perseverance and faithfulness with the people God has put in our lives.

If you weren't there to see, hear, touch, feel, and taste the experience of those few days together, exploring how to live out what it means to love Jesus in our neighbourhoods, no problem.  Simply look around you, gather a few people together, maybe feed them some food, listen to their stories, pray for them, offer to be their friend, and let love move into your neighbourhood.

Matte from Montreal