Sunday, 6 April 2008

The last theologian: a short story

Forgive me for this silly mood – but in a playful moment yesterday I felt like writing a little story:

The Last Theologian

Maxwell C. McKim, Professor of Extinct Religious Thought at Harvard University, is the world’s last theologian. He sits each day at his desk in Robinson Hall, bent over manuscripts and spine-cracked monographs and long neat boxes lined with index cards. His work is nothing if not scrupulous. He arrives at 8.15 sharp each morning, Sunday through Friday. Switches on lights, computer, percolator. Stands by the window overlooking Harvard Yard and takes his morning coffee. Commences work at 8.30, reviewing yesterday’s index cards before proceeding to the day’s research. Breaks for coffee at 10.50, resumes work at 11.05. A cold lunch at 1, then down to the manuscripts room at the Library, where he remains surrounded by the dust of old books and the glow of dead languages until late in the afternoon. Sometimes a single malt Scotch around 5, then back to his desk till 7 or 8 before walking the two blocks home. Through discipline, tenacity and hard work (and, I might add, a good dose of creative genius) he has established himself as a scholar and thinker of the highest order.

You will no doubt have heard of Maxwell McKim’s – it is not too strong a word – revolutionary book on The Formation of Latin Tonsure Ceremonies in the Late Seventh Century. And you will surely have read about his acclaimed two-volume study on The Epistle of Pope Hormisdas to Emperor Justius: A Literary Analysis of the Pre-History of the Filioque Schism – a study for which the author received (back in the days when the discipline of theology was not yet extinct) the coveted Pelikan-Loeb Award for Distinguished Writing on Theology and Classical Languages.

And for the past twenty years, ensconced in that tidy Harvard office, Maxwell McKim has been writing his life’s great work. Two volumes have appeared already, and he is now making serious inroads into the third. By the time it is completed, this six-volume work, The Influence of the Cyrillic Alphabet on Christian Liturgy: A History of Interpretations in the Latin Tradition, will have defined the entire landscape of the field of Studies in Extinct Religious Thought. Although few perhaps will have the requisite technical learning to read the whole work through, the first two volumes have been widely praised for their extraordinary analytical acuity and their exhaustive treatment of the primary sources. (Indeed, as one reviewer noted, these primary sources “would, for the most part, have remained completely unknown were it not for the author’s immense and unremitting archival labors: we owe him a great debt.”)

Maxwell McKim’s reputation as a leading scholar is, of course, complemented by the considerable fame attached to his standing as the world’s last theologian. The tragic circumstances surrounding his sudden propulsion to celebrity are of course known by everyone, and need not be rehearsed here. How he attended, as always, the annual meeting of the Global Theological Academy in Los Angeles. How he was scheduled to give the plenary address that fateful evening, a keenly anticipated speech on the hellenisation of Slavic thought in the writings of St Methodius. How his departure for the Convention Center that night had been delayed by a chance encounter at the hotel bar. (Recognising a woman’s accent, Maxwell McKim had struck up a friendly conversation in Finnish, and twenty minutes and two martinis later found himself back in his room, his best suit crumpled and her pelvis grinding him hard against the mattress, while he glanced furtively at the clock beside the bed.) How afterwards, chiding himself for this lapse in punctuality, he had rushed from the hotel to the Convention Center, knowing that he was already running a full ten minutes late. How he had seen the orange glow and billowing smoke, the streets torn red with screaming fire trucks. How Maxwell McKim had stood transfixed a block away while that capacious building – crammed full with all the world’s theologians, all come to hear him speak – had erupted in a violent conflagration, before collapsing with a roar and the hideous shriek of twisted metal. How they had told him the next day that there were no survivors, that he had no remaining colleagues, that the accident – caused, it was later discovered, by some stray cigarette ash falling on a publisher’s display table – had eliminated his entire scholarly discipline, root and branch. Worst building fire in United States history, and perhaps the worst academic disaster since the big faculty strike of 2011.

As soon as one calls to mind these sad events, one can only feel inspired by Maxwell McKim’s remarkable example of fortitude, steadfastness and courage in adversity. When he returned to Harvard the following week, he declared that his research would continue to schedule in spite of the tragic demise of all his colleagues. When universities everywhere closed their divinity schools, Maxwell McKim remarked that he was, under the circumstances, perfectly content to be relocated to the history department. (Initially, several divinity schools remained open under the assumption that fee-paying doctoral students could continue their studies just as well in the absence of any faculty. In what was to become one of the most celebrated academic scandals of the century, a large British university continued to run its theology department successfully for nearly three years before one doctoral student noticed that her supervisor was no longer around.) When Harvard later appointed Maxwell McKim to the newly founded Chair in Extinct Religious Thought, he declared that he would perform his duties with all the passion and commitment befitting the world’s only living theologian – and the ensuing decades of research have shown that he is as good as his word.

It is true that rumours have begun to circulate that Maxwell McKim will never live to complete his great history on the liturgical significance of the Cyrillic alphabet. Two large volumes completed in the past twenty years; four volumes still to be written. But although our author’s retirement is fast approaching, there is, I believe, no good reason to doubt that he will indeed complete this work – and probably a good deal more besides. His contribution to scholarship has already been enormous. But once his magnum opus is complete, the full scope of his impact will be simply incalculable.

In short, when the history of our century is written, I am convinced that Maxwell McKim will be remembered as not only the last, but also the most eminent theologian of his time.

19 Comments:

Craig Bennett said...

I truly enjoyed that little read Ben.

Perhaps you could expand it into a full on novel...wait there is a series there.

I particularly liked how you drew the distinction of his being a academic theologian with no concept of sin...

Patrick McManus said...

what a sad story (the book titles especially)

WTM said...

Ben, this is great! I wonder if some place like "Christian Century" would want to publish it...

The only plot hole is that PhD students advanced in their programs at the time of the catastrophe would be able to fill in for the dearly departed faculty. Perhaps you need to get them into the building as well; perhaps for a workshop of some kind required by a universal accredidation network.

Shane said...

(Recognising a woman’s accent, Maxwell McKim had struck up a friendly conversation in Finnish, and twenty minutes and two martinis later found himself back in his room, his best suit crumpled and her pelvis grinding him hard against the mattress, while he glanced furtively at the clock beside the bed.)

I'm apparently going to the wrong conferences.

kim fabricius said...

Newman wrote that the essence of a university is the quality of the relationship among its students, "who are sure to learn from one other, even if there be no one to teach them"; and that, as the goal of education is the equipping of students for living, not researching, he could quite easily imagine a professorless university, one "which did nothing over that which exacted of its members an acquaintance with every science under the sun."

So theological departments should not be closed simply because there are no theologians left to teach, rather it should be done as matter of principle. As Stanley Hauerwas observes: "the attempt to make theology a subject among other subjects cannot help but make theology something it is not. Theology properly understood as knowledge of God means theology cannot be restricted to one 'field.'"

Thus I would advise Professor McKim (any realtion to Donald?), over a few martinis, to make that move to the history department. Preferably at a Finnish university.

Macrina said...

I just have one question: Why do you call him a theologian?

John Hartley said...

OK, I recognise this is a Palm Sunday short story, and indeed it did cause me to lose my faith (in the terms of a recent sermon you posted). So when do we expect the Easter post-script which will tell us what sort of faith in theologians we should have?

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

bruce hamill said...

Ben you should get out more... I'm worried that that office of yours is just too tidy and peaceful... or is it all this thinking about apocalyptic is sparking the imagination.

cruciality said...

Ben. Thanks for the laugh. I needed that tonight!

jprapp said...

Ah, the end of theology: “.. that capacious building – crammed full with all the world’s theologians, all come to hear him speak – had erupted in a violent conflagration, before collapsing with a roar and the hideous shriek of twisted metal.”

A great riff.

But, really, the “last theologian?”

Sure, the entire theological corpus will be tried by fire, and, “if any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15).

But, c’mon. Only trained theologians were there. That’s not the end!

To someone who loves “Moby Dick,” a question - to just what formal school did Melville go to learn his infinite sea of feeling?

I mean, c’mon, do it right.

Have the falling cigarette SPEAK to the theologians – "Towards thee (theologians) I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering (school of theologians) ... to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned theolgians! Thus, I give up the spear (spark!)!"



Jim

jprapp said...

... p.s., sorry if the reference was too vague.

Twas Captain Ahab, to the whale, in Moby Dick:

“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear.”

Anonymous said...

There's some commentary on this story here: Louth on the division in theology.

kim fabricius said...

Hi Anonymous,

Be very careful: in describing and lamenting the departmentalisation of theology, Louth appeals to Eliot's thesis of the "dissociation of sensibility" - which implicates Ben's beloved Milton as a baleful influence on post-seventeenth century English poetry! Moreover, one of Ben's favourite novels, Moby-Dick, is, in turn, inconceivable without Paradise Lost. There are those who say that Eliot had it in for Milton more for his Puritanism and his politics than his poetry.

CSPellot said...

Ben,

How long has "Eminem" been floating in your mind? I'd find it hard to believe he just popped up into your head and you just wrote a story.
Is "Eminem" the liberal theological archetype?
I prefer to think he is crazy, purely mad. Which in my view makes for the genius of your story.
Do you think the last paragraph serves your story well? It stroke me as a bit odd not necessarily because of content, I guess I still need to figure it out. However, I'm also tempted to think that it simply states that all who consider him as such, especially the "most eminent" part of it, are just as crazy as he is.
Gracias for a great story and an even better character.

CS

jprapp said...

That theological divisions vie as exaggerated pseudo-species later to “sink .. to one common pool” (Melville), or to Mozart’s common grave, I see no reason why the generative results in theology differ much from reproductive results in biology, where dissociation like meiosis ache through variation unto variety. “For God does speak – now one way, now another – though man may not perceive it” (Job 33:14).

Jim

Macrina said...

Ben, my apologies, I should have provided that link to my post myself but was technologically challenged and in a hurry and then forgot. Thanks to anonymous for doing so.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these comments: loved the Melville (Moby-Dick is my favourite novel!). And yes, CSPellot, the narrator of this story was intended to be at least as despicable as the the character.

Anyways, I'm already planning a sequel: perhaps "Maxwell McKim Goes to Church", or "Maxwell McKim Steals a Manuscript". Stay tuned!

David Williamson said...

Vonnegut lives!

svend said...

Very entertaining. And so, so saddening. It's such an intellectually and spiritually impoverished world we live in where these stimulating and fulfilling pursuits seem so inherently eccentric and comical.

Things are a bit better for those of us over in Islamic Studies, where "obscure" theological tomes still can have a direct impact on the world and therefore have perhaps a smidgen more street cred. (The downside is that a lot of this interest is geared towards more effectively targeting Muslims.)

I wonder if theology has a bit more contemporary relevance in people's minds in the Orthodox world thanks to Caesaropapism, something we Muslims can obviously relate to.

There is a solution, though. Bring back Canon Law.

Imagine, Catholic "sharia" in most of the Western hemisphere. And eventually it would have to rub off onto Anglicans, too.

The phone would be ringing off the hook with for you guys. I say petition Benedict.

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