Would Jesus Tweet? A Guest Contribution from Dr Damian Powell

Many of you will know the story of the good man and the parrot.    The good man, being lonely but full of love for others, bought a parrot from the pet shop, and brought him home full of promise.  The man had been told that the parrot was not just an excellent mimic, but capable of extempore and indeed independent thought, and might be drawn into serious discourse with the right approach of affection and sound stimulus.  So the good man began to coax the parrot to talk.

At first he tried simple things -  a bell, a wooden frame for the parrot to wander up and down, and he kept the cage clean and tidy.  But sadly the parrot did not respond.  Indeed it seemed, to the good man, to have taken on a slightly melancholy countenance in the week since leaving the pet shop.    Unperturbed, the good man determined to shower love and affection on the parrot, and to stimulate the much longed for conversation.  A bird walking wheel was carefully placed inside the cage, and then a mirror for the parrot to admire itself in.  To the man, however, the parrot only seemed to grow more morose, more forlorn, day by day.  Eventually, in desperation, the man became angry at the parrot.  His love and care rejected, he quizzed the parrot on his lack of gratitude.  ‘I have tried so hard to give you everything, to keep you busy and happy and content.  And yet never once have you seemed happy to me.  You have not uttered one word.  I don’t understand – what is it that you want? ‘

The parrot looked at the good man, and uttered his first words.  The parrot said this:  ‘I want… FOOD’.

How do we find food for the journey?  As educators in residential colleges, how do we feed our people, not just in the literal sense, but also in terms of their minds and their hearts and their vision of themselves, of others, of what can be redeemed and what is truly valuable?   What in modern life gives us food for the soul?  What distracts us?

As my friend and colleague Andrew McGowan reminds us in this place from time to time, the Bible is a series of books, written over many centuries and then gathered together  - with some surprising inclusions, and in slightly different versions.  From the stories and songs, the meter and rhyme of the psalmist, through the national, pseudo-historical narrative of the book of Samuel, through prescriptive Pauline urgings to form just communities in cities such as Ephesus, the word prevailed.  And as aural traditions were redacted and refined in writing, in copper, papyrus, vellum, paper, copied and collated, bound, and printed, this book of words was always at the cutting edge of technology.    The collection of books, the Bible, sits on the lectern, and for believers it has carried the load of collective memory in its stories, for over a thousand years, in much the same way.  A book as a vehicle of communication is a reminder of an age when the university rank of reader (now sadly largely dissolved into that of associate professor) was literally that – a person who would read from a book to an audience of students, when the primacy of the book itself as a vehicle for the dissemination of ideas, over distance, was almost undisputed.

But can this be said to be true today?  As a late adopter of many of the new technologies, I am very aware that I am increasingly unrepresentative on anything.  My students tweet, post, skype, update, upload, blog, and poke - while my children move fluidly among the multiple realities of experience inhabited by the very young.  In a blink of an eye they click from the sound of a friend in North Melbourne to an image of a friend in Finland, then to a cartoon, then to the Boston bombing, and from there to a love song.  So one might ask: if Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase ‘the medium is the message’ means, in part, that we are what we do, then what is to be made of all this doing?

In a recent article entitled ‘MOOCs of Hazaard’, Andrew Delbanco pondered what changing methods of communication mean for the university, where in his words ‘online courses are particularly well- suited to the new rhythms of student life.’  ‘On traditional campuses,’ he tell us, ‘many students already regard time offline as a form of solitary confinement. Classrooms have become battlegrounds where professors struggle to distract students from their smartphones and laptops. Office hours are giving way to e-mail.’     Leaving Delbanco, I find my own struggle with the eternal inbox has changed forever the way I think about a college day.  I still make it to breakfast to talk with students most mornings, but I can easily imagine a world where a desire for more and more communication might overwhelm those last remaining spaces in which we come together, as any college should, just to sit and talk.  In the college space, we leave the world of narrow university instruction, for what Ralph Waldo Emmerson called ‘provocation’ – the chance to be challenged, and changed, by another point of view, face to face.

But what face are we able to present in a world where everybody projects a perfect self? I’m not sure, but something inside me still wonders if we are letting Mr Zuckerberg take us on a merry dance, with little thought of where we might end up, in our hearts and in our relationships with one another.  Sadly, I know that many a university student, just as some of my middle aged friend, is broken inside but posting endless glories on facebook.  It might be therapeutic to do so; I just don’t know.  We have to remember that the Luddites who smashed machines in the British midlands at the onset of the industrial revolution were not scared of technology per se – they were scared of what it would do to their communities, to their sense of community.  And, maybe, they had a point.  The changes forced on agrarian communities by the industrial revolution were not all bad, but few people had much choice in what happened to them.  The technology drove the change, and society changed in turn.  My questions about the equally dramatic revolution now in full flow, one which places social media at the front end of more and more social communication, is that people don’t feel empowered to get off or step back.  My fear is that we are rapidly entering an age of endless distraction.  My fear, in short, is that we might become a society which favours endless, largely pointless communication over social communion.  This is a state of being which one song called ‘living in my United States of Whatever’.   The lyrics could be a paraphrase of a conversation overheard on a street in Toronto, or Melbourne, or Ballarat.  ‘Then this chick comes up to me and she’s all like “Hey aren’t you that dude’ and I’m like yeah, whatever!’  It’s a style of communication on endless repeat around the planet as we speak – which is ok as long as a vocabulary still exists to imagine a the finer grain, the warp and weft, of the world in which we take our part.

Now if, as John brilliantly imagined it, in the beginning was the Word, then the force of language to shape our minds and break our hearts was ever thus.  Words redeem us and can destroy us all, and our ability to take them seriously means that we must enjoin the idea of communication to our need for communion.  I sit in meetings more and more often where people are watching two screens at once, walking out to answer phones which are emails and reminders and calendars and text messages and which never allow us to be together any more.   We all run the risk of always being, even if just slightly, somewhere else other than where we actually are.    In a more primitive technological age back in the last century, I remember myself penning a mental email to a tutor, when it dawned on me that the person to whom I was working up my text was sitting just opposite me at High Table.  I was so busy working through my endless inbox that I had stopped being present.  People used to stop to gather in places like this to listen to stories in a book.   People used to pause and gather to break bread at the end of the day and share their stories.  This was part of the rhythm of life over the course of their lives.  What of the rhythm of our lives, or our students, or our children’s?  To what personal, to what social, to what theological end, are we opting for change?  I am deeply grateful that in my college we still dine together, and tell our stories – but I am also aware that we are a deeply privileged group, and perhaps increasingly disconnected from the norm.  As I sometimes tell my students, maybe the only chance you will get to sit down like this with a hundred other people after college is if you end up in prison – which by the way I don’t wish for them, or for any of you.  What I do wish for us is time and space to share what we have in common, time and space to think deeply about our lives, with gratitude for what we have and for each other.

Would Jesus tweet?  Of course I don’t know.   But I do fear that like the parrot, pampered and preened and distracted near to death, we might be offered everything all at once and yet not what we need. Not food for the journey, just endless distraction parading as content.  Not communion, but endlessly distracting communication, much of it well meaning and much of it essentially pointless.  How we place this set of books, how we place this space, and how we place ourselves and our traditions within this brave new world is a challenge – but more importantly it is a choice, which at least deserves a conversation as we conduct this massive global experiment.

[From a sermon given in the Chapel on April 21 2013]


A Long Way From Greece and Rome: The John Hugh Sutton Collection

[Remarks from the opening of an exhibition from the John Hugh Sutton Collection at the Ian Potter Museum of the University of Melbourne]

John Hugh Sutton (1906 – 1925), 
The Fleur-de-Lys magazine, 1925. 

To live and work in a University involves many privileges - even if we are this week in the familiar territory of looking to decide which 2% of them we can dispense with... Not the least of these is the company of talented students, whose potential teachers and other staff have the opportunity to catalyse, but from whose energy and insight we gain as much as we give.

Occasionally however even such an apparently invincible community of raw talent and energy experiences tragedy, as ours did with the recent deaths of two students of the University in an accident on Swanston St. When John Hugh Sutton died after being thrown from his motorbike in the grounds of Trinity College in March 1925, the event certainly struck hard not only among his friends, but among teachers. 

It was not such a remarkable thing at the time for the most accomplished students to be reading Classics, as he was. Trinity, not uniquely among the Colleges I admit, had great strength in the area; my first predecessor Alexander Leeper who retired just before Sutton came up, had won the Berkeley Gold Medal for Classics at Trinity College Dublin three years before Oscar Wilde did the same; Leeper's translation of Juvenal's Satires is still available - for your Kindle, even!

Sutton had been widely regarded by those who taught him at Melbourne Grammar School and here as one of the brightest minds of his generation. There is even a small body of written work which gives some hints of that - peppered with classical allusions, but focussed on modern themes. In nuce at least Sutton was the embodiment of that classical scholar of the time, who read the works in the original languages but was ready to apply their insights in contemporary terms. My picture of the John Hugh Sutton we never knew was thus not a successor to Cecil Scutt, but an essayist, a rival to Vance Palmer or Donald Horne perhaps, someone who knew how to think about the present in the light of the past - a "graduate attribute" in which this or anyUniversity should delight.

The commemorative gift that laid the foundation of University's collection of antiquities which we delight to see tonight was itself a bridge between past and present, but also between continents and civilisations.

We are, after all, a long way from Greece and Rome. 

Ancient authors were more interested in the Antipodes you might expect, but did not imagine us or Australia's inhabitants of the time in very complimentary terms. Authors like Herodotus and Ctesias among the Greeks and Lucian and Seneca among the Latins drew images of the Antipodes and its inhabitants as inversions - sometimes literal, standing us on our heads as it were - or moral or ethical, as people whose views and habits were the reverse of those valued and practiced in the world of classical order.

Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt (Horace, Ep. 1.11) is closer to the truth; "those who race across the ocean change the sky, not their being". Few budding classicists in this part of the world have failed to wander through these references with some amusement or curiosity; but the Europeans who did arrive here may have been influenced, as colonists were in other parts of the southern hemisphere, by notions well embedded in schoolbooks from the renaissance that those who lived in these parts were not simply culturally other, but something worse. It is well for us to have acknowledged also this evening the traditional owners, whose own rich culture is now far better appreciated and studied.

Of these challenges there is much more to say; but for now the generosity of Sutton's family and of others, some with us tonight, has enabled many students to connect with the ancient world with an immediacy that has a unique quality because of its unlikely character. 
Convex pyxis with lid, Corinthian, c. 590–570 BCE, 11.1 x 13.2 x 13.2 cm. The University of Melbourne Art Collection, John Hugh Sutton Memorial Bequest, Classics Collection. 1929.0007.A&B 
The collection was a sort of MOOCS of the early 20th century; containing not only a number of very significant ancient artefacts, but casts of sculpture and electrotype copies of coins, it had a sort of "virtual" quality and sought to provide the antipodean classics student with a sense in image and form, not just in words, of one of the worlds which has spawned our own.

So this exhibition offers us a view of at least two things; that ancient world where Sutton had begun to learn to think about the modern and distant one where he lived; but also how those a century ago thought about those things. We need not be uncritical of either; but many of us I suspect believe that we have much more to learn, about western culture itself but also about beauty and truth and justice, from the study of these objects and those who made them. With thanks to the Potter Museum and all those whose work and generosity has made this possible, It gives me great pleasure to declare this exhibition open.