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A World Transformed – A Conversation with Lisa K. Deam

Lisa Deam Christian PhD Author Speaker Writer TeacherRecently, former postdoctoral fellow, Lisa K. Deam released her book, A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps (Cascade Books, 2015).  Deam’s work brings her study of medieval history and theology to her exploration of spiritual practices for twenty-first century readers.  Intrigued by this new book, I sat down (virtually) with Lisa to find out more about her work.

Mary Beth: When did you first become interested in Medieval Maps and how did that interest develop into this book, A World Transformed?

Lisa: For my dissertation, I studied a 15th-century chronicle that included a map of the world as one of its illustrations. The map was “old-fashioned;” it was a type that was popular around the year 1300. This led me to investigate the tradition of medieval maps. At first they seemed rather quaint—monsters at the edge of the world! Jerusalem at the center! But they helped me to understand the manuscript I was exploring. I gradually began to realize that the features that seemed so strange were also spiritually compelling.

Here’s the way it began. One Sunday, at the English-speaking church I attended while living and researching in Brussels, Belgium, the pastor said in his sermon that our lives are like circles. We all want the circle of our life to be perfectly round; no one wants a squashed, lopsided one. So we draw and redraw the outline of our circle. We smooth it out here, only to find that it’s bulging on the other side. We rush to fix it, but now it’s caving in somewhere else. We run frantically around and around the circle, unable to keep the outline round and smooth.  In the meantime, the center of the circle doesn’t move at all. It is the only fixed point, the only source of stability in our collapsing world. The center of our circle is, of course, Christ Jesus. We should fix our eyes on the center, not the circumference.

The pastor’s message reminded me of medieval world maps. They, too, are circular in shape. They have a circumference and a center. Not just any center. Their center is the city of Jerusalem, where Christ was crucified and resurrected.  At that point, I began thinking of the maps not just as a representation of the medieval worldview, but also of a Christ-centered worldview that could shape my own life. When I finished my dissertation, I couldn’t get these beautiful maps out of my mind! I began writing and speaking about them, and soon I realized there was so much to say about their worldview that I needed to write a book.

A World Transformed (cover)MB: The process of developing and writing a book does not always go smooth nor is it a straight path.  To borrow from your book, it can be quite the “journey.”   How did you get from a pastor’s sermon in Brussels and a dissertation to this book?  Are they all connected?

L: As you say, it’s a long way from an insight or idea to an entire book! The Lilly Fellows Program helped me begin that journey. At the beginning of my fellowship, we fellows were asked to choose an image that symbolized our scholarly and spiritual journey thus far. Having recently finished my dissertation, I thought immediately of medieval maps. The maps worked well for this exercise since they are divided into three continents, each with a distinct character, which provided three spaces in which I could plot the different areas of my life; all three are centered on the sacred city of Jerusalem.

At the end of the year, I returned to medieval maps to write the reflection that the first-year fellows presented in Colloquium. Here I further developed the metaphor of medieval maps as an image of life and faith. It was wonderful to combine two sides of my life that had previously been kept fairly separate—the scholarly and the spiritual.

The LFP helped me to discover a new way of thinking and writing that integrated scholarship and faith. I began to write essays that intertwined the two. Eventually, I combined this type of writing with my belief that medieval maps have something to say to a wider audience, not just academics. I wanted people in my church to know about the maps and receive encouragement from them. I began working toward the goal of writing about medieval maps for a general audience. But it was years before I was finally able to organize my thoughts into a book that really worked!

MB: You begin A World Transformed by talking about “spiritual GPS.”  How did you develop this idea and why are medieval maps relevant to today’s readers? 

L: The idea of a “spiritual GPS” came about as I was trying to make a connection between today’s readers and maps of the Middle Ages. We use maps all the time to orient our movements and to get us where we want to go. But what about a map for where we want to go spiritually? Isn’t that the journey for which we need the most assistance? My argument is that medieval world maps provide orientation for our journey of faith.

Then I realized that we don’t actually use maps, at least, not the folded paper ones–we use GPS units and other satellite devices and apps. To show readers that medieval maps really are relevant today, I compare them to GPS units. There are some interesting comparisons (and contrasts). GPS units organize the world around us and our movements. But is our spiritual world organized that way? Should we be at the center? It bears thinking about.

MB: Whether we use (or don’t use) maps or GPS to find our way in the world, your work gives readers a way to consider their spiritual path (or journey) through tangible, tactile objects.  In particular, I am thinking of your fifth chapter, “Journeying to Jerusalem.”  You articulated some of these ideas in a different way in your piece in The Cresset, A Packing List for Jerusalem.”  Can you say a little more about how you use the material culture that is a map to get at spiritual journey? 

L: Let me answer by picking up on your term “spiritual journey.” When we think of spiritual journeys today, we often use the term “pilgrimage.” In fact, we are encouraged to do so by the Hereford Map, which prominently features several pilgrimage destinations. Yet for the people who saw this map, pilgrimage meant something quite different than it does to us. When I delved into medieval pilgrimage accounts, I was struck by how physical and, well, worldly, these journeys seemed. They were filled with battles with weather, animals, other human beings, seasickness, tedium, and fear—to name a few things. I’m almost surprised that anyone ever went on a pilgrimage! To me, these very real and physical journeys help us understand what we face, give up, and battle as we make our own journey to the cross. My take is that if we’re going to borrow a term from the Middle Ages, we should explore what it meant in the Middle Ages. Pilgrimage is one example of how medieval maps give us an entree into cultural practices that in turn can shine a light on how we practice faith today.

MB: Who do you hope will read your book? 

L: Thoughtful individuals who want to be intentional about their journey of faith will, I think, enjoy the book. It will give them a new way of seeing and practicing some of the classical spiritual disciplines. But I also hope that individuals who have never read about spiritual disciplines (or maybe even about Christian history) will be surprised to find themselves in its pages. I hope they’ll be drawn in by the language and imagery that medieval maps give us to express our faith and our doubt. I think I’m preaching to the choir in this forum, but I always encourage potential readers who might be wary of the book’s historical focus to let themselves be surprised by the marvelous, monstrous Middle Ages!

If you wish to learn more about A World Transformed and Lisa’s work, check out her guest post at Caryn D. Riswold’s Patheos blog, FeminismxianityAnd if you are in the Mooresville, NC area May 13, head on over to the Centre Presbyterian Church from 7 – 9 pm for Lisa’s book party.

Posted by Mary Beth Fraser Connolly

A Little Time Away

No, I will not launch into Chicago’s “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.” Rather it is that time of the summer when the LFP office closes up shop for a couple weeks as we (the office) take some time out of said office.  We try to stagger when we are away, so we are not all gone at once.  But, we close down our computers, shut up our blinds, put our out-of-office message on our emails, and water our plants in the vain hope that they will still be alive upon our return.  The trick is shutting ourselves down from the day-to-day activities of the business of the LFP.  (There is always an email we could answer, a conference planning detail to check on, or something.) This, I think, is the trick of everyone working everywhere. (I do not claim it to be a problem unique to us.)  It is hard to stop.

John Singer Sargent, Girl Fishing

John Singer Sargent, Girl Fishing

Academics, on the other hand, look to their summers as the potential time to turn their attention to their research projects, that article they wanted to finish, or books they wanted to read in preparation for a course they wish to try out in the coming fall or spring. Shutting off, taking time away, going fishing, if you will, is difficult.  Those in the classroom have all those students, that correcting, class prep, and committee meetings to occupy them during the school year.  Administrators have an equal number of items on their To Do Lists during the year as well.  The summer, that Mythical Summer of Productivity calls us all.  This will be the summer I do everything that I intended to do! (Ha.)

But we try, because time with our spouses, partners, friends, children, parents, nieces, nephews, dogs, a really good non-academic mystery, whatever, is a good thing.  Time away, even if it is a long weekend, even if one finds herself dipping into work while on vacation (guilty as charged), if one is lucky to get that break, is helpful.

So we, the LFP office, have hung up our Gone Fishing sign as of today. We will be back in business before you know it.


By Mary Beth Fraser Connolly

Best Practices and Ideas about Education: From the LFP Colloquium

Here in the Midwest, the spring semester has gotten off to a snowy, cold, and somewhat halted start.  Valparaiso IMG_20140213_095036283University started the term on time, just barely, but closed operations just before the semester began due to snow and cold.  We closed the other week during that latest cold snap – when temperatures were in the single and at times negative digits.  To say that we are eager to leave winter behind just might be an understatement.

We want to hasten the end of winter. We are eager for the next thing, especially when it might mean warmer temperatures. (There’s talk that we could get into the forties by the end of the week!) While this all seems reasonable where spring is concerned, this attitude also fits with our general hurried lives.  We rush to work, only to rush home again.  We hurry through meals, catching a bite for lunch as we may grade papers, meet with students, prepare for classes, get something, anything, accomplished that work day.  For those of us who have become imprisoned by our technology, we check our phones for mail, text messages, twitter feeds, and intriguing dog videos. (Oh, is that just me?)  We have so much information to process, whether news, students’ papers, our own research, or important and insightful blogs like this one.  We skim; we only hit the headlines.  We learn in graduate programs to “read” a book for the argument, to check the notes, and see how it will help or challenge our work.  We assign pages and pages to our students, as we pass on our own tried-and-true methodologies to become a part of our disciplines.  To what end?  What are we teaching are students about reading and ideas, when we model behavior that runs counter to a thoughtful, slow, and deep reading of texts and other sources?

LivingRoom 1This semester, the LFP Postdoctoral weekly colloquium has returned to a question of previous years – “What are the practices and ideas about education that I and my students bring to the classroom?” What exactly do we hope to convey to our students over and above the subjects or material for individual courses?  Are we teaching or hope to teach our students to be more than efficient processors of information who then can compute, repackage, and spit out information right back at us?

The readings for the term have returned to a few familiar texts and articles and brought in some new material that speak to recent trends in the academy.  We began our semester with Mark Schwehn’s Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America.  We read selected chapters including “Adam’s Education” and the Conclusion – “Adam’s Exile.” Collectively, the group sought to determine to what end do we foster critical thinking among our students?  Or put more plainly as our discussion leader did for that day:

Hence, we teach students to critically examine stories [in this case, Genesis], including the ones they inhabit, thus leaving many of them, including the most thoughtful of them no doubt, no place to live, at least temporarily. What more do we owe students when we give them the tools for such iconoclastic work?

Are we challenging our students, who may or may not be Lutheran, Catholic, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or nothing at all, when we teach Genesis, to reconsider their origin stories, for a different one that is spun by professors in the academy? (At Valparaiso University, freshmen, both in Christ College, the honors college, and in the general population read Genesis.) Or are we providing them with the space to inhabit the text and consider its meaning or truth (that is an intentional lowercase t)?

This led us to our later readings, where we considered how we read and study, and how we encourage our students to develop best practices, or right attitudes towards study.  This fit with our other conversation about what exactly is the role of the university to inculcate virtues and values among its students.  We turned to Paul J. Griffiths’ “Reading as a Spiritual Discipline,” in L. Gregory Jones and Stephanie Paulsell, The Scope of Our Art: The Vocation of the Theological Teacher, and David I. Smith’s “Reading Practices and Christian Pedagogy,” in Smith and Smith, Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith & Learning to tackle the first question and next Julie A. Reuben’s “The University and Its Discontents,” The Hedgehog Review (Fall, 2000) and Mark W. Roche’s “Should Faculty Members Teach Virtues and Values?:  That is the Wrong Question,” Liberal Education vol. 95, no. 3 (2009) to debate the second.  

Why do we read?  Does it have a benefit to us as individual scholars or provide any greater significance? Do we read simply to acquire information?  This, Paul Griffith’s argues, is an academic model which he challenges as “not aimed at and does not lead to God, or true art, or effective happiness, or moral transformation.” (Griffiths, 39)  Griffiths is not against acquiring information, but there is something more he requires of us as readers if we are to truly develop our reading “as a spiritual discipline.”  Smith, for his part, considers how we can encourage our students to have hospitality for texts and in his chapter provides unique examples from his own teaching of German literature where he has done this.  Griffith asks about reading practices as a Theologian; Smith demonstrates how he has used literature and his classroom in dynamic ways. (In one class he begins by starting class by walking in and sitting down reading, not saying anything to his students.)

LivingRoom 2As is our nature in colloquium, we drew from our readings to get at what might or might not work within our own disciplines and classrooms. As a historian, I wondered how I can spend time with one text, slowly contemplating its significance.  Can I, for example, spend an entire semester on one text?  Sure, but is that what I do as a historian?  Our group, made up of historians, theologians, a poet, musicians, and English literature scholars, all come to these ideas form different directions. I have a hard time seeing how I can follow Griffiths’ or Smith’s models and do my job.  But does this mean that I do not have a right attitude or hospitality for texts? I argue that I do, as I treat all my sources with respect and charity.  I will never fully understand the past – most historians will agree that they cannot determine with absolute certainty based upon their available sources the motives of people, societies, and cultures of the past.  But we try to get close.  We can do this by taking our primary documents seriously and approaching them with a right and honest attitude and not put into the sources something that is not there to fit our own agendas.  This translates into how we treat our students.  Do we put our fingers on the scale to push on them our own agendas, either political or something else?

That is a tough question, one which we tried to address in Rueben and Roche’s articles.  Are we to teach values and virtues in Humanities and the Arts, as Rueben’s argues what has happened since the 1970s in the academy?  Are virtues and values the moral purview of religiously affiliated institutions?  Can as Roche suggests secular scholars and institutions teach students something about values and virtues?

Of course this lead us to a rousing discussion of what do we actually mean by virtue and values.  We have not solved all the problems of the day nor answered all aspects of this semester’s question.  Next, we turn to selections from Atul Gawande’s Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science (“Introduction” and “Education of a Knife”) and Daniel F. Chambliss, “The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers,” Sociological Theory vol. 7, no. 1 (1989).  After this, we will move to David Foster Wallace, “2005 Kenyon College Commencement Address,” Emily Temple, “’I Urge You To Drop E67-02’: Course Syllabi by Famous Authors,” and Katie Roiphe, “The Extraordinary Syllabus of David Foster Wallace: What His Lesson Plans Teach Us about How To Live.”  We will follow this up by returning to a recent, old favorite, Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do before we spend time reading and discussion Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.  This play was read last year by our Fifth Cohort of Lilly Graduate Fellows.  The members of the colloquium will have the privilege of seeing a production of this play in April put on by our own Valparaiso University Theatre Department.

From Gawande to Bain and to Stoppard, we seek to answer what are the best practices for us as teachers.  What is it that we hope to learn? What conclusions will we draw at the end of the term?  For those of you reading along with us, what conclusions are you drawing?

Posted by Mary Beth Fraser Connolly

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