Blogger of the Month for November 2008
Jim West Interviews Roland Boer
Roland Boer authors the Stalin’s Moustache blog at http://stalinsmoustache.blogspot.com/.
JW: Thank you for taking the time to suffer our questions and submit to this interview. It’s greatly appreciated. Let’s begin right off with your background. You have a PhD from McGill. Do you care to tell us what your particular field was and your dissertation title?
RB: It was actually in Hebrew Bible within the Faculty of Religious Studies. I decided on what I wanted to do when I got there (with a Commonwealth Scholarship in hand). The morning after I arrived, I went around and spoke to three people, one in New Testament, one in theology and one in Hebrew Bible. I felt I would get on with Robert Culley in Hebrew Bible best, so decided to do that. The reason I had these options was that I had written an Honours thesis (for a Bachelor of Divinity) that covered Hebrew Bible, New Testament and Qumran, and then a Masters in Philosophical Theology where I engaged at length with Marx and Hegel. The dissertation title was Jameson and Jeroboam: A Marxist Reading of 1 Kings 11-14, 3 Reigns 11-14 and 2 Chronicles 10-13. It became my first book after some revision and basically brought together my earlier interests.
JW: You mention an MTh. Tell us about that.
RB: That was the one on Hegel and Marx. I’d become interested in Marx through studies of political and liberation theologies, so decided to read the man himself. But then you can’t do that without reading Hegel as well. I pulled out all the big themes of theology – creation, sin, redemption, eschatology and so on – and then bumped them up against Hegel and Marx.
JW: You’ve done more than a fair bit of writing. In fact, you’ve done so well at it that you’ve received a number of monetary awards. Congratulations on that.
RB: Thanks. I’m actually a full-time researcher and writer, so you’d hope I would get a bit of writing done. One of the traps with that, at least in Australia, is that there is usually no tenure for full-time writers. So you need to look for grants to keep on doing it. That’s changed now with my new appointment at the University of Newcastle, who have given me a more permanent position (they basically accepted my job description). I still get grants, but that is to pay research assistants and travel.
JW: Can I be your research assistant and get a travel grant to work in Australia for a month or so? I’m kidding (only sort of). At any rate, you have also had the honor of lecturing around the world. If it’s fair to ask, what location was your favorite and why?
RB: It’s a toss-up between Greenland and Taiwan. The Taiwanese were incredibly good hosts, the food is fantastic and it’s opened the door to translations of some of my books into Chinese I’m really looking forward to going back and to doing some work in mainland China. But Greenland was a completely different experience. It’s a spectacular country where you can get around only by ship or plane (I prefer the former). I saw whales from my study window, snow storms, the Northern Lights, and got to know some fascinating people. About five or six years ago, after more than a decade of traveling to North America, I decided there were more interesting places and people in the world to visit (no offence!). That’s where Taiwan, Greenland, Bulgaria, Serbia and Russia come in.
JW: Please describe your current academic appointment.
RB: I’ve said a bit about this earlier, but I have been at Monash (in Melbourne) for nine years, so it is time to move on. It has been full-time writing for that time and I’ve mostly worked at home, which is 1100 km (660 miles) away. The new position is at Newcastle, which is a bit closer – about 30 minutes away by bicycle. I am actually going to be a research professor in a theology department! That should be fun.
JW: Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, do you mind telling us your particular viewpoint of God and faith?
RB: Now that’s a curly one. I was brought up by parents who emigrated from the Netherlands (I was born a Dutch citizen) and who brought their Reformed faith with them. I have moved a long way from that, although I still have arguments with my father over biblical and theological matters. I like the ritual of a worship service, especially the way it marks crucial, liminal moments, but I need to lobotomize myself when it comes to some of the content.
JW: Are you married?
RB: No, but I used to be. Wendy, my ex-wife, and I get on really well, but only because we don’t live together.
JW: Do you have any children?
RB: Yes, four of them, as well as a daughter-in-law. They are Sam (26, who’s married to Karen, 25), Tom (24), Stephanie (19) and Amanda (17). They see me as useful when it comes to money and tease me about my age (I’m a few years away from 50). I enjoyed them as kids, suffered (and still suffer) with them as teenagers, but really prefer them as adults. They are good company.
JW: What is it about biblical studies that drew you to it?
RB: Like many people, initially it was part of a religious commitment, but even then I was puzzled by all the problems you find in the Bible. I know it back to front, since my father used to read the Bible every night after the evening meal. He would censor the bits he thought our sensitive ears should not hear, so we would race out after dinner and find the offending passages. I think it’s still those wacky, unexplained and fascinating parts – you know, the ones with sex, treachery, murder, mayhem and blood – that interest me most.
JW: I imagine, in that light, that you spent a lot of time as a teen in the Song of Solomon!
RB: Oh yes, there and in other places. I guess that’s why I ended up writing a few bits and pieces on the Song of Solomon that offer pornographic readings with a good dose of Lacan, or make use of Annie Sprinkle as another angle on Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, or offer a queer reading of Chronicles. I’m thinking of putting these various essays together in a collection called Fleshly Readings. Some of the essays are called ‘The Second Coming’, ‘Night Sprinkles’ and ‘Yahweh as Top’.
JW: That will certainly raise an eyebrow or two I imagine! I’d better move on to another topic. How do you see your blog, which is quite good, fitting into your work?
RB: It’s simply a way to practice another type of writing. Over the last year or so I have begun writing quite regularly for magazines and other popular media, so the blog is another way to explore that side of writing. I must admit I resisted for a while, thinking I didn’t have the time, but now it seems like an ordinary part of the day.
JW: What got you into blogging?
RB: I think I have answered that in the previous question. What I find really interesting about it is that you enter another world of discussion and debate. It is more relaxed in many ways, and you can get away with a lot more.
JW: At present (as I write these questions) you’re engaged with Mike Bird, a blogger of some fame himself, in a discussion of things theological. Do you enjoy such engagements?
RB: Absolutely! I try to keep it tame, but I do imagine an online journal calledThe Polemical Review: A Journal of Defamation, Slander and Libel. It probably won’t get off the ground, especially since a book review I wrote recently (it will remain nameless) was pulled by a refereed journal since they were afraid it would bring about a defamation case. And you really do want to keep your friends and not meet your enemies in court.
JW: Which blogs do you enjoy?
RB: Yours, for starters (seriously).
JW: Well you are highly intelligent, so no one can blame you for that choice. But which others?
RB: I enjoy the satirical ones, such as those by N.T. Wrong and the Guild of Biblical Minimalists, but also the ones that engage in debate. I would like to add more links to Leftist blogs, since I also read those (I am a socialist, after all).
JW: You’re very interested in Stalin (as the title of your blog would lead one to believe). And you obviously think his ideas still have relevance. So what is it about Stalin that most Westerners misunderstand?
RB: That’s a bit of a tease. I often say that Stalin’s day is still to come, but don’t really mean it. He was a dim-witted thug and an ugly one at that. I don’t think his ideas have relevance, since they don’t amount to much. A lot of world leaders might be described in a similar fashion. But most people are more multi-dimensional than we think. He had a fantastic moustache, one that rivaled Lenin’s goatee of history. Since 1989 a lot of the archives have become available in Russia and complete reassessments of the Second World War are beginning to happen. One of those is that the Russians really won the war, that the Western front was a sideshow and that Stalin was a brilliant wartime leader, mainly because he allowed a group of talented generals to do their thing. I like this provocative comment from Norman Davies (it’s on my blog): ‘To make so many mistakes and to rise from the depths of such defeat to go on to win the greatest military victory in history was a triumph beyond compare … Stalin … saved the world for democracy’ (Europe at War, 1939-45). He might have been a good wartime leader, but he was a dreadful peacetime one. But then so was Churchill.
JW: When you aren’t reading, or writing, or lecturing, or biking across the country, what occupies your time?
RB: I like to travel, especially by ship. Recently, we (Christina and I) traveled to New Zealand and back by freighter ship, and we plan a longer voyage around the world in 2010. The whole experience is fantastic, even the storms (we went through a Force 11 gale). You get to experience a different way of life, are allowed everywhere on the ship and mix with the crew. Arriving at a destination by sea reminds you that this is how people have done so for millennia, and they will probably have to do so again as cheap oil runs out.
JW: Tell us something about yourself that we might find surprising. That is, do you sing Opera or are you an avid golfer, or, like James Crossley, a fan of professional wrestling?
RB: Nothing so interesting. In summer I swim every day since I live about 15 minutes (by foot) from the beach. I also gather old wood and make bookshelves and other bits of furniture, and I do the same with bicycles. Last year I found a few old ones in Copenhagen and then Amsterdam, spent a day constructing a working bicycle, rode it around for a few weeks and then gave it away. So I have started doing the same here.
JW: Thank you, Roland, for your time and for your answers. We hope lots of people make way to your blog. They certainly will find it enlightening and witty.
RB: Thanks Jim.