2009 AAR :: the good, the bad, the unsurpassably entertaining

I woke up in Montreal this morning, and still made it back to NYC for class at 2:30 (even if a bit road-weary and goggle-eyed from the drive). While I certainly cannot say that I enjoy the AAR—at least not without adding some serious qualifications—I am glad to have gone, mainly for the opportunity to (re)connect with folks in the theological world whom I don’t often see. Here are the highlights of the conference from my perspective:

The good:

My gold medal goes to Sarah Coakley’s excellent paper on Aquinas, Christology, and the proper uses of apophaticism. Her paper said twice as much any other presentation that I listened to in about a third of the words. I wish that Denys Turner had taken up her provocations a bit more seriously.

The bad:

I have a lot of respect for Miroslav Volf, and I’ve heard him speak with eloquence and profundity. But in the session responding to David Kelsey’s massive new book on theological anthropology, Volf’s presentation was quite a disappointment. He began by admitting that he hadn’t read the book in its entirety (to be fair, it wasn’t clear that all the other panelists had either) and continued by telling us that for that reason he would not be able to offer any substantial critique. He then analyzed the title for about ten minutes, and finished with a provocative assertion of tension between the goodness of creation and the theological implications of accepting an evolutionary narrative.

The unsurpassably entertaining:

Of course, the session starring Zizek and Altizer turned out to be just as entertaining as anyone might have hoped. Altizer was unfortunately married to his written presentation; after his over-the-top delivery he refused to answer questions or make additional comments. Zizek, on the other hand, was hard to peel off the microphone. He spoke at greater length and in greater detail (with greater clarity) about his theological interest than I’ve heard or read elsewhere. In addition to being positively hilarious, his exhortations about prayer and personal commitment to the struggle of a particular tradition (without ironic/cynical/intellectual distance) were the closest thing to a preaching of the gospel that I heard in the two days that I attended. I imagine that mine weren’t the only cheeks shifting nervously in the chair at that point in the talk.

Despite his protests, his theological turn is far from orthodox (for a start, his trinitarianism is modalist), but I can’t help but feeling that Zizek must be counted as a theological ally in the face of the collusion between late-capitalism and liberal humanist optimism. Including Zizek only makes the theological conversation richer.

9 Replies to “2009 AAR :: the good, the bad, the unsurpassably entertaining”

  1. Eric,
    wish I could have been there to hang with you and Adam and take it all in. I spent my money on the Jesus Radicals conference this year but hope to join y’all next year in Alabama.

    I’m not familiar with Zizek? Can you clue me in? Any good podcasts to listen to or articles to read?

    Will you and Carolyn be in Colorado in December? We could have some fun times. Jess will be too round in the belly (did you know we are expecting a boy in March?) to go snowshoeing so its my turn this year! Also, I think that you may be able to catch both Gracie and Kristin if you time it right.


  2. Hello Tim,

    Congratulations to you and Jess on another wee one on the way! I don’t think that we’d heard yet. Adilyn will have someone to beat up on! (Just what she needs I’m sure).

    We missed you up in Montreal, it wasn’t quite the same without you. How was the Jesus Radicals conference. I was poking around their website the other day and was curious about how their conferences go. I might try to throw something their way one of these years if the theme matches my interests. Was it fruitful? Who impressed you?

    Carolyn and I will be around Colorado over Christmas, from about the 19th through the 3rd, Carolyn goes back to NY first, I’m sticking around until the 9th. We should definitely get together for a hike somewhere in there. Are Gracie and Kris going to be around during that window? Do you know?

    For what it’s worth, Zizek is: Slovenian, Marxist, Lacanian-Freudian, and dabbles in just about every academic discipline he comes across. You might search for him on you-tube; he’s got a few short bits that are quite funny and will give you a taste of his style. In the last ten years he’s taken a growing interest in Christianity, to the point now where he declares himself a Christian “unqualifiedly.” However, he remains a staunch atheist, leaving the rest of us to puzzle over just how “unqualified” his Christianity is. He really is a Marxist true believer, working for the revolution (which, I must say, is refreshing after reading a number of half-hearted whiny Marxist ‘critiques’ of capitalist oppression), who will say things like: “the only way to be a true atheist, the only way to fully embrace Marxism, is to go through the experience of Christianity.” He’s got my ear mostly because of his dogged opposition to a facile liberal humanism and foggy ‘post-modern’ sentiment.

    Good places to start would be either Adam Kotsko’s “Zizek and Theology” or, in Zizek himself, “The Puppet and the Dwarf”


  3. Eric,
    thanks for the response. We’ll be here the whole time y’all are and look forward to catching up. I can’t speak for Gracie or Kristin. Gracie just moved out of our (new) house into her own apartment so we are unfortunately seeing a bit less of her these days. I’ll make sure to ask her about her plans though. Kristin is coming down for a visit tomorrow so I’ll let her know about your visit.

    Jesus Radicals was interesting for a variety of reasons. I’d love to talk about it with you. I was beginning to grow skeptical about my own white, middle class idealism right before I went and had suspicions that the conference would be largely attended by young, white, middle class folks like myself. I was right, and it was disturbing. A lot of (so-called?) refugees from Evangelicalism who are somehow still in Evangelicalism – many of them in their early to mid-twenties. A fair amount of Catholic Worker people – most of them around my age (early thirties). And a smattering of totally random folks. This African-American liberation theologian/activist guy took many of us to task, and not without good reason. Anyway, I look forward to conversing about this subject.

    I am in the midst of writing a piece for submission to Commonweal. It is a reflection on my journey to the Church and my experience in it thus far. I’m sure I’ll be sending it to you and Adam in the next week or so for much needed editing.

    Thanks for giving me several places to start with Zizek. He sounds fascinating.


    1. Thanks Tim,

      Yes, please do send the piece you’re working on my way, I’d love to read it regardless, and I’ll be happy to throw out an editorial comment or two along the way.

      Interesting to hear about the demographic of the Jesus Radicals conference. Sounds quite similar to the evangelical theology group or the reformed theology group at the AAR, only a bit more disaffected. I’m curious to hear the substance of what the fellow took everyone to task on. Was it something along the lines of an idealism that doesn’t ever gain traction? Was it drawing out implications of the racial homogeneity of the meeting? Anyway, we should chat about it sometime.

      I’ll get in touch with Grace and Kristin at some point as well, but if you see them, let them know that we’ll be in town.

      Peace, Eric

  4. I’m currently working on my 8th book by Zizek and I think that the best place to start with him is his primer on Lacan in the “How to Read” series. It introduces those unfamiliar with psychoanalysis to a lot of the key terms and concepts that Zizek employs and, IMO, is much more accessible than “The Puppet and the Dwarf”. In fact, if the short book on Lacan whets your appetite, I would suggest moving from there to the longer “In Defense of Lost Causes” as it is more coherent (and, IMO, exciting) than both “The Puppet and the Dwarf” and “The Fragile Absolute” (which tend to show up more often in Christian circles, as Zizek spends more time engaging the Christian tradition in those books).

    Also, it’s important to note that Zizek isn’t just a Marxist — he is a Marxist-Leninist!

    Hope all is well with you, Eric.

    1. Hi there Dan,

      Thanks for pitching in a few more recommendations and clarifying some confusions. I haven’t read Zizek’s introduction to Lacan, so I can’t agree or disagree. Lacan shows up so often in his work (usually unnamed) that it would be a good place to start. In part, that’s the value of starting with a book like Kotsko’s; it gives you a heads-up on some of the moves that Zizek makes repeatedly. I had the great benefit of a professor who knew his Lacan well enough to give a few lectures that enabled my classmates and I to make some headway with the Lacanian technical terms and concepts. I have a sense that most theologians simply read over the passages about the objet petit a and the structure of feminine jouissance in order to get to the parts in which they can get some more theological traction.

      Hope that you are doing well these days too. Glad to see that you read Taubes recently. That is a wonderful book, huh?

  5. Maybe I am in over my head! Phrases like “object petit” and “feminine jouissance” are totally foreign to me.

    I have been reading a good bit of fiction these days. I just finished Shusaku Endo’s devastating yet strangely comforting masterpiece Silence as well as Dostoevsky’s Demons. The “missing” (and mesmerizing) chapter in Demons, entitled “At Tikhon’s” is much shorter but in a way analogous to the famous “Grand Inquisitor” chapter in Brothers Karamazov.

    I hope to soon finish Rowan Williams’ book on Dostoevsky entitled “Language, Faith, Fiction” or something like that. If I can get the book back from one of my friends, that is.

    Kristin and Gracie came over for dinner the other night (yes, I’m lucky) and we discussed holiday plans. You might be able to catch Gracie in January since you’ll be here longer than Carolyn. Kristin acknowledged sporadic attempts between you, Casey, and her to organize something. We’ll see what materializes.

  6. Of course, I shouldn’t leave off my reading list many of Adilyn’s favorites, including “I’m Going to be a Big Sister”, “Grandfather Twilight”, and “Bird, Butterfly, Eel”!!! She also loves National Geographic!

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