Austin City Limits and MLA

Today I presented my paper on Zinzendorf and the concept of spiritual bliss at the Modern Language Association annual meeting in Austin. The session got off to a rough start. Another session was double-booked for the same room, and when we announced that post-WWII American literature was next door, half the audience left. We were just getting organized for the session when word came that the convention center was being evacuated. We weren’t told why, but the rumor was that it was a bomb threat because at that same time MLA was sponsoring a protest march against guns on campus. Thankfully, nothing came of the threat except we started more than 20 minutes late for a 75 minute session. So, the three of us read our papers very quickly and had no discussion after.

The day started nice. I’m staying at the Hilton (conference rates), which has a roof-top heated saline pool. So my usual morning exercise was much more pleasant. Quite different from the Bethlehem Township Community Center pool! The air was so chilly that steam was rising from the pool and I swam in a lovely fog with clouds overhead. Then breakfast at a café near the convention center. After that was the plunge into the MLA. Most of the sessions are about things I know nothing about, but I sat in an interesting session on Byron in 19th century America. I’ve never read much Byron, but he was quite the cultural icon of the day. So many American students were affected by Byron that it was considered a disease. All these sensitive, melancholic young men sitting gloomily at parties proud of the fact that their love was unrequited. Byron’s poetry, though, also played a role in the formation of the National Parks as Easterners hoped to preserve the wilderness for ramblers and seekers of the sublime.

My session had a paper on laughter in Puritanism (they were mostly against it) and novels on happiness within a slave society. I spoke about Zinzendorf and the Moravians of Bethlehem who believed that joy or bliss was a mark of grace and evidence of conversion. Zinzendorf argued that the best path to true morality was spiritual bliss because a heart that is purified by Christ seeks nothing other than Christ. In some ways he and Byron were talking similar language, but when it came to morality they were worlds apart. True happiness for Zinzendorf comes in the soul’s union with the Creator who is the Savior.

In a few minutes I’ll be meeting a former student of mine from Wake Forest who is working on his doctorate. We used to discuss theology over beer in Winston-Salem.

Okay, we had several beers and talked about politics. Then I went to a southern comfort food restaurant called Moonshine Patio with a scholar from Germany for meat. Now we’re heading to Sixth Street for music.

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