Saturday, July 1, 2017

notes from the Society of Vineyard Scholars conference

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The Canadian contingent at Society of Vineyard Scholars, Yale Divinity School, 2017
Ever since I began graduate studies, I have presented at least one paper at an academic conference every year. Most years it is multiple papers at multiple conferences. Each paper represents weeks of research, writing, and editing as well as considerable time putting together a slide presentation and practicing the talk out loud to make sure it falls within the time limit. I have traveled as far as Switzerland and Scotland to present papers, but mostly I attend those which are easy for me to get to. One of the reasons for sticking fairly close to home is that I have to pay for the privilege of presenting my work to learned colleagues. Aside from a few travel scholarships I have received, the registration, travel, accommodations, and food expenses have all come out of my own pocket.

One might wonder why I invest all that time and money into traveling to a conference where I am one of the speakers. One answer is that it puts everyone on a level playing field: graduate students present their work alongside published authors and well-known professors. It also keeps the registration fees reasonable (can you imagine the cost of paying an honorarium to everyone who presented their work? At my most recent conference, this would be almost 70 people!) Another response is that it is a privilege to present my ideas to those who are uniquely qualified to critique them. My work is better because of these opportunities to get honest, informed feedback, especially in the question time after a presentation. The receptions and shared mealtimes are also rich with opportunities. At one such gathering, a seasoned professor gave me a strategy which helped me handle my rather hefty comprehensive reading list. Another time, I was able to encourage a young student who had just begun to study religion and felt totally out of place at the conference. There are so many opportunities to give and receive at these events. In essence, presenting work at an academic conference is an opportunity to be part of the dialogue in my discipline and to invest in my ongoing education.

In many ways, academic conferences represent what a local church community should look like. Everyone comes with something to give, to share, to offer. Everyone comes to learn from each other and willingly welcomes questions and receives input. Everyone invests considerable time and effort into bringing their best to the community, making the time together rich and vibrant and exciting. It is a coming together of service and delight where all are challenged to do their best.

I recently returned from the Society of Vineyard Scholars Conference at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut. It was so refreshing to be able to sink deep into a gathering where connecting with Jesus was as important as presenting original, stimulating, scholarly work. In addition to the presentations, panels, seminars, and plenary talks that one would expect at an academic conference, I enjoyed dinner at the local pub with friends from afar, took in a guided art gallery tour led by a local sculptor, heard a moving spoken word poetry performance during a wine and cheese reception, worshiped to jazz music and an indigenous-inspired liturgy, prayed for colleagues, stayed in a host home where three young children greeted me every morning, and was able to meet with a spiritual director. In every session, event, or in-between time, I was treated as a valued participant.

The organisers of the conference were very intentional about making space for everyone to shine: we moved smoothly from technical academic dialogue to artistic expressions to interdisciplinary engagement to discussing works in progress to moments of silence and lament to moments of joyful feasting and laughter. No realm of life was considered unholy or unworthy of being represented at the conference. I often say that the church could learn something from the academy, especially how to engage respectfully with others, how to challenge and encourage at the same time, how to disagree with grace and humility, how to call each other to do good work, and how to listen and learn. However, due to my experience at the Society of Vineyard Scholars, I believe that the academy would do well to learn from the church as well, especially how to honour the least among us, how to worship and pray as we reason and research, how to make space for diverse expressions of the glory of God, how to serve with joy instead of demanding recognition, and how to invest in the kingdom of heaven instead of the reputation economy.

To give you just a taste of what went down at this year's Society of Vineyard Scholars conference, I will briefly mention one thing that I brought and one thing that I received. There was so much more that happened, but you will just have to come next year and experience it for yourself.

What I brought: I presented a paper entitled "The Language (s) of the Kingdom: academic writing, parables, and spoken word poetry." In essence, I argued that academic language which favours critical objectivity and distance is not the best vehicle for inviting people to encounter the living God. Metaphors, word pictures, and parables make up much of Jesus's dialogue because this type of language draws people in, asking them to engage by doing the work of discerning and understanding and connecting and imagining. Here are a few quotes from that paper. The first is from Eugene Peterson and the last two are mine.

“The Hebrews and Greeks made one word do the work for which English employs two. Shamayin (Hebrew) and ouranos (Greek) mean either the visible sky over us or the invisible realm of God invading us, with the context determining which sense is being expressed. But whichever sense is at the fore, the other is whispering in the background, making its presence felt. English, by using ‘sky’ for what we see and ‘heaven’ for what we don’t see, eliminates the whispers. Clarity improves, but comprehension thins out. We eliminate ambiguity, but we also erase the irradiating lines of metaphor that shoot out illumination in several directions at once. The biblical ‘heaven’ (shamayim/ouranos) doing double duty for the visible and the invisible, keeps our imaginations at work making connections between what we see and do not see, both of them equally real, each a reminder of the other.” [1]

"By using parables which link unlikely subjects together, Jesus is redefining the popular notion of kingdom. His hearers (and most of us) would associate kingdom with sovereignty, power, and might. So why would Jesus compare his kingdom to someone who sows good seed, a mustard seed which grows, and yeast which expands? [2] Allow me to offer a few thoughts. First, mustard seeds and yeast are rather small and insignificant, yet both grow disproportionately large in comparison to their humble beginnings. The story of the sower also hints at inauspicious beginnings: a master sows good seed, an adversary sows bad seed, and both seeds are left to grow while the master patiently waits for harvest time. People walking past the weed-infested field would likely deduce that it belonged to an inept or lazy farmer. In these parables, Jesus is shifting the idea of kingdom away from categories of power, might, and outward signs of success to the divine qualities of humility and patience."

"I came to academic writing from creative composition. To me, it seems counter-intuitive to lay out my thesis right at the outset and expose my methodology for all to see, like I did at the beginning of this presentation. Why would anyone bother listening past the introduction when I have already given it all away in the first minute or two? I prefer to craft a story which includes an element of mystery, revealing the characters and the narrative bit by bit, one scene at a time (one could say, one parable at a time). A good story can never be captured by a thesis statement, because there is no room for the characters to develop and interact, and no space given for the reader to be drawn into the world the writer has created. Because of this, I believe that academic writing, useful as it is in many ways, cannot adequately reflect the drama of divine/human interaction. If we want language which can carry the weight of paradox, the breadth of complexity, and the depth of encounter, we need metaphors, word pictures, rhythms, and polyphony. In other words, we need poetic narratives."

What I received: Last year at SVS I attended a women's breakfast. We gathered around tables, ate yogurt and biscuits and fruit, and listened to each other's stories. Then we wrote our names on small stones, along with a word which represented an ongoing challenge or desire in our lives. We tossed the stones into the middle of the table, and as we left, each of us picked up a stone, pledging to pray for that person until we met again next year. I had no idea who picked up my stone over a year ago because it was all a bit of a jumble as we tidied up and rushed off to the next session. This year when we gathered for the women's breakfast, someone whom I have only met a few times came up to me and told me she had been praying for me this past year. As we stood together in front of a bright window in the early morning, she began to recount the words she had spoken in her prayers. I don't remember exactly what she said, but I do remember that as she spoke, her voice began to tremble with emotion. I was moved by her tender compassion for me and her deep commitment to my well-being. I got a little teary myself as we shared that sacred moment which represented a year's worth of life and service. I marveled at how we are supported and cared for and brought into the presence of Jesus through the faithful prayers of others, even though we are often unaware of it. I was given a gift of grace each day this past year. I know that now.

This year, I had to leave the breakfast early to prepare for a session, so once again I have no idea who took the stone with my name on it. But I do know whose name is on the stone that sits near my kitchen sink. Every day I hold that stone in my hand and ask God to hold my colleague close and bless her. 

Matte Downey
Vineyard Montreal

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[1] Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), 169.
[2] Matthew 13.

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