Of Words and Worlds

Beyonce tweetMost years in late May, scholars of early Christian studies from across the English-speaking world (and beyond) gather in Chicago to report on the discoveries of the last twelve months. I’ve just returned from this year’s installment, the Annual Meeting of The North American Patristics Society. (The program of the conference can be found here.)

This tends to be an inspiring and unusually friendly gathering, with a multi-generational and multi-cultural mix of scholars keen on helping each other make sense of the ancient sources, and often pleasantly curious about learning from one another’s different scholarly and cultural traditions. There is something quite marvellous about finding that the one person who can help you to make progress with a burning question represents a different sector of the human population – half your age, or twice your age, or hailing from a cultural tradition utterly unlike your own. Many (though not all) of the formal sessions involved scholars from the regions whose ancient history we study – Syria, Egypt, Italy, the Black Sea, to name a few.

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 21.51.32A number of colleagues tweeted quite vigorously during the conference, and their tweets can be found on Twitter using the hashtag #NAPS2016. But it seemed only fair to share a few highlights on more accessible media.

I’ll proceed more or less chronologically. In two of Thursday afternoon’s sessions, the students and colleagues of retiring historian James Goehring, honored a teacher and friend who has taught all of us to see Egypt in Late Antiquity in a new light. (Carrie Schroeder has made a Storify site for these sessions – many thanks, Carrie!)

The first plenary lecture was given by AnneMarie Luijendijk of Princeton University, who invited colleagues into the vivid world of early Christian papyrology, with a presentation on the papyrus Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 23.41.22treasures recovered from the garbage deposits of late Roman Egypt, especially Oxyrhyncus. Entitled “From Gospels to Garbage: Christian Reading Practices in Late Ancient Egypt”, AnneMarie’s lecture reminded us with dazzling skill and charm of how the material reality of ink and papyrus – and the paradoxes of survival and destruction – lie at the core of almost everything we know about the ancient world.

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 21.47.28For me, one of the most thrilling parts of the conference came on Friday, which I spent running a workshop for early-stage scholars who have not yet begun their doctoral dissertation. These young stars brought to their work a contagious level of energy and excitement about ideas; in addition, they were able and willing to give one another frank and friendly constructive criticism that would be the envy of their senior colleagues. I was also delighted, given that the gender balance of the Society’s membership hovers at around 25% women, to find that eight of the twelve students who competed to join this workshop via a blind review process turned out to be female. Enhancing its diversity with respect to religion, culture, race, and gender is something that the Society is committed to working on – for 2016-17, Board Members Tina Shepardson and Young Kim (winner of this year’s Book Prize – congratulations!) are coordinating efforts in this area, so please let them know if you have suggestions.

There were two further special thrills on Friday. In the late morning, Professor Susanna Elm of Berkeley gave the Presidential Address, “New Romans: Salvian of Marseilles and the Governance of God,” which will be published next year in the Journal of Early Christian Studies.

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 21.40.37

It was a magnificent performance, not least because Susanna found the connection between Salvian’s fifth-century musings on the fall of the Roman Empire and the turbulent times Americans are living through. What did it really mean to live at a time when literate people could see that civilization was falling apart all around them, and honestly wondered whether the chaos was a sign that the end of the world might be coming?  Salvian’s Treatise on the Government of God is a call for courage in the face of the unknown.

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 00.48.14Then, on Friday evening, we had the opportunity to hear about the work of one of our most intrepid colleagues, the Rev Columba Stewart OSB, Executive Director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Collegeville, Minnesota. Since 1965 the Library has been sending its representatives all over the world to photograph ancient, medieval, and early modern manuscript collections held in monasteries around the world, so that scholars will be able to learn from these precious collections even in the event that they are destroyed.

ColumbaThe project was established in the aftermath of World War Two, when so many libraries were burned or bombed, and with civil war threatening so many of the centres of ancient Christianity the mission seems more urgent than ever. Columba has been travelling back and forth across the globe from Mosul to Timbuktu, working with monasteries and other custodians to create a digital “backup” of priceless collections.

ErinFather Columba is a speaker of great charm and simplicity, and he was able to help us to see, for a moment, the small but some how important part that each scholar plays in “Preserving Words and Worlds,” which was the title of his talk. (For an audio podcast in which Father Columba speaks about the Hill Museum and Library’s preservation  work,  see here.)

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 00.32.21Finally, on Saturday, we heard a very different kind of talk from Professor Carol Harrison of the University of Oxford. Her theme, “Sounding Silence: Music and the Ineffable in the Early Church,” was the “harmony of the spheres” recognized by the ancients, and listening to her together was close to a shared experience of the deep order of the universe as one could possibly imagine for a group of scholars sitting in a Chicago hotel ballroom on a Saturday morning. The talk was rich with the words and insights of the ancients – above all, Augustine – on the connection between word and sound, sound and soul, soul and universe. It has to be said that Professor Harrison’s own gift as a speaker allowed us to feel that we had been carried across the centuries quite rapturously on a wave of sound.

By Saturday afternoon the “Patristicians” had begun to disperse. Posts began to appear on the Twitter feed from colleagues on their way home: Iowa and Indiana, England and South Africa.  Now the flesh-and-blood friends and colleagues have returned, again, to being names on a page, or on a screen, and we will read one another’s work with interest and impatience. But only for a year! My successor, Jeffrey Bingham, has already started laying plans for a certain gathering to be held in May of 2017…

* * *

As Vice President of the Society for 2014-16, I was responsible for the academic program for the May 2016 Annual Meeting. I am immensely grateful to friends and colleagues from all over the world who contributed their work and good cheer to the occasion. Special thanks go to Susanna Elm, the Society’s outgoing President, to Brian Matz and LuAnn McNaughton for organizing the practical arrangements which made the conference possible, and to Young Kim and Tina Shepardson for their help in preparing this year’s academic program. Working with each of you has been a pleasure from start to finish!



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