I got my parents fancy tablets over the last year, but I handed them over with trepidation. After all, my parents may be young at heart, but they are certainly old enough to be considered in the risk category for sending “FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: This doG is so cute FW:F” emails three times a day. As it turns out, my parents use their tablets to read novels or look at maps of the night sky and I am spared having the quiet guilty feeling that follows creating an email filter to mute the people whose DNA built you from scratch.
Which made it all the weirder that D.L. Mayfield implicated me in some lame-ass blogging round-robin where writers talk about their (ugh!) writing process. I must conclude with her that I would hate it if it wasn’t so darn interesting. Plus, being compared to Joel Osteen and N.T. Wright is a compliment a sane person could not ignore.
Before I begin, it probably doesn’t need stating but for completeness’ sake, let me state it anyhow: I am not a writer. Sadly, this increasingly describes my method:
1. What are you working on?
I am always working on an academic project. I am a PhD student in Theological Ethics, so that dominates my writing, and my reading, and it schedules when I eat, how much I sleep, which World Cup games I get to watch, and pretty much everything else in my life.
This week I am writing a short presentation on a part of a book written by the Christian ethicist Oliver O’Donovan. There is a sort of intense summer-school in Cambridge at the end of the week that I am presenting it at, in the company of Ollie himself. My sense is that whatever about my presentation, Prof. O’Donovan wouldn’t like me to call him Ollie.
That lovely, small, tidy and compact writing task, is a welcome respite because this spring was dominated by me having to construct a fairly comprehensive “uncontentious” history of the Irish economy since 1922. This turned out to be a small book-length project that lays out a chronology of the different eras of economic policy that have prevailed in my homeland, along with a more in-depth engagement with four critical industrial sectors and a brief contextual discussion of how social spheres relate to the economy.
If this sounds boring to you, it is because it is boring. But it is an essential preliminary ground-clearing for my larger project. What I think I have demonstrated is that Irish economic policy is embedded in culture, which is another way of saying we choose to build the world we find ourselves in. I also argue that Irish economic policy is shaped by political decisions. Those political decisions are often not made in Ireland, which is another way of saying we live in a globalized world. Simple.
But the straightforward answer to the question is that I am working on a PhD thesis that will seek to present a theology of wealth. If Jesus wasn’t messing when he said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for rich people to get to heaven, then you and I are screwed. I hope to re-read the parables of Jesus through the eyes of earlier Christians, who lived and worked and traded and sold and prayed and worshipped in an age before capitalism. My suspicion is that we can only re-connect with what Jesus says about material abundance if we get our heads out of the assumptions of capitalism. Our wealth is perverse. Mammon literally bends our ability to see reality clearly.
The PhD thesis is not an end in itself. I am training to be a Presbyterian minister and my goal in all this research is that I would be able to go back to the pulpits of Dublin and help me and my friends make sense of their anxieties and have joy in the real treasure of the Gospel. So always in the back of my mind I am sketching out two popular books about the topic, one for Christians who don’t have the time or energy to read something loaded with 83 pages of endnotes and another, briefer work for people who don’t even agree with me that a Jewish carpenter is the saviour of the world.
2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?
I am a pretty successful student for someone who has never specialised in anything. I have a degree in Computer Science and a Masters in Sociology and a degree in Catholic Theology and now I find myself in a very Protestant university department studying Theological Ethics, a sub-section of theology that I couldn’t properly define for you if you demanded a justification for my existence right now.
My comparative advantage within my genre (we call it a “field” in the academy, dontchyaknow!) is that I might be able to draw on all that superfluous fiction reading and watching of movies and playing of computer games to talk slightly more clearly when in the company of the mythical “Average Joe”.
I could talk more about the strangeness of my various motivators within the academic sphere, but that would definitely be “inside baseball” talk and far outside my remit in terms of talking about writing. Suffice to say, whatever about my writing, my thinking consists of a loud shouting match between all these dead intellectual friends of mine, who quite often directly conflict with each other.
3. Why do you write what you do?
I write what I do because I am a religious nutjob. More precisely, I have a vocation to be a preacher. I did not volunteer for this job and I can think of many other jobs I would be more comfortable in. I don’t just mean defensive lynchpin in the Manchester City midfield either. I could be a lawyer and I think I’d be very good at it. I think teaching primary school might be the sweet-spot for me. But those rational and practical concerns have melted away because I have been gripped by the realisation that there is a God and he is astonishingly compelling and I want to introduce people to his upside-down wisdom. I encountered his grace and that is why I write what I do. I study theology because I hope to spend the rest of my life sitting with people studying the Scriptures and experimenting with how to put it all into practice. And I write because I find that the theology I get to study is almost as beautiful as the God it’s all about.
Theology literally means talk about God. I write because I love to talk with people about God.
4. How does your writing process work?
I am literally paid to read books and eventually write something. I have an office, which I share with two other trainee theologians. We usually work Monday to Friday, 9-5, with three breaks through the day for lunch or coffee. One Friday every month we doss off work early and go to the pub and another Friday everyone else in the department is invited to our office to drink whiskey, but for the most part we work like it is a job in a normal office and we egg each other on gently to be productive.
Productive means that I try to read 100 pages a day and write 1000 words. If that sounds simple, you haven’t read much from the last generation of British theologians (if any of them are reading this, of course I don’t mean you!). I do actually sometimes fall asleep at my desk. I rarely get to consider a day productive based on these metrics. If anyone in the office achieves any of these standards, they get the right to a purple Snack bar, which is a delicious piece of chocolate-covered cardboard that I inexplicably love and my colleagues have grown to rely on as rewards. You can only get them in Ireland, and when friends visit they refresh our stocks. We have a fridge crammed with them.
When enough reading and note-taking is done, I go into a batch-writing mode for days on end and the words flow quickly and editing takes place in dialogue with Wife-unit and then later, critically, my supervisor. Hemingway talked about writing as sitting at the typewriter and bleeding. When I graduate to writing fiction, or if I ever dare to try to write for non-academic publication, then that may be true for me. But as it is, my life is so ordered around investigating the narrow little part of reality that is my PhD project that when deadlines approach, I’ve been quietly cogitating on the topic for a very long time. This is one of the reasons I am so rarely here on this blog anymore. Before I was a PhD student I blogged very regularly but now I tend to either blog upon request, when someone asks me to write about something or when I have hit a wall in a day’s productivity.
I realise this isn’t making me look very good. My blog writing process consists of unjamming intellectual constipation and my academic writing process consists of accumulating enough fragments of insight to trick people into thinking I’ve made an argument. But I refer you back to my Calvin and Hobbes cartoon up above. And if that doesn’t work, I’ve got this fancy powerpoint presentation to show you…
I am now meant to tag some other people into this Ponzi scheme of navel-gazing. The first person I pick on will have to be Patrick Mitchel, who is my friend, and a theologian who teaches at the Irish Bible Institute. He has been on sabbatical for a semester this year, so I’d love to hear what is up with him.
My other victim is Alison Chino, who is my Arkansan friend in Aberdeen. She is married to my officemate and she probably keeps the most impressive blog of anyone I know. She is a travel-writer, who shares her kitchen genius and aspects of her life, in between persuasively encouraging me to get over my antipathy to this grey city by writing about the beautiful walks she discovers.
Now I will stop writing, and go watch Belgium play USA, while thinking about how to tell D.L. that she spelled my name wrong…
Your Correspondent, Starts as close to the end as possible