Inspired by the interviews in the Paris Review and Bomb magazine, “The Questions” in Sports Illustrated, and the regular interviews on the blogs of Tom Peters and Guy Kawasaki, Comment has asked a diverse group of mentors for their stories.
Comment: How would you explain what you do to an interested nine-year-old child?
BW: I’m a writer and I look after our little house here in this coastal rural village while my wife works and supports me.
What I do is to write and speak and I also help other people by reading what they have written and help them improve it. The really curious might ask “What do you write and speak about?” To a nine-year-old I would reply by saying something like “Social things.” That would be a platform for answering any further questions. I could probably also say that I have spent many years teaching in the university and these days I am living quietly in order to do more reading and writing. I might say that I write books.
Comment: What first drew you to this work?
BW: There are two sides to my answer. What I do and what I do with regard to caring for nine-year-old curiosity. In this respect my work on Hunches a few year’s ago led me to wonder whether Mark’s gospel is actually the later-in-life compilation of a young person’s eyewitness experiences with Jesus in His ministry. If so, then the whole book would seem to revolve around that famous statement of the Teacher “Let the children come unto me . . .” On that particular day, the Kingdom of God was to be understood by the adults, learning that God’s beloved Son was pleased to enjoy Himself with the children. I’ve actually worked that out further in a little story called Mark’s Tale. Now if that insight is correct, then Jesus was also willing to entrust the message of the Gospel—of the One for whom they had been waiting for so long, to women and to children—to nine-year-olds. I came to this insight only some time after I had started on my Hunches project. So I will leave you to note Who may have led me to this mind-freshening understanding of that dimension of what I call my “work.”
But the second side of my initial answer is to say that writing and composition is what I have done from a very early age. Even before primary school I was writing and reading and, later, during school years that expanded to summarizing, composing, editing, and debating. Later on, when I became a university lecturer and was viewed as a professional thinker—a theorist—I learned to enjoy the same kind of laborious work—sitting in a library with a pile of books and working through a list of references, taking notes, reading, summarizing, and composing essays.
I don’t exactly know his motivation, but my father at one point was very insistent that every day after school I spend an hour or two writing down what had been learned at school that day. This meant summarizing the day and re-working the maths sums, rewriting the dictation, and giving an account of other lessons. I think my father wasn’t too sure why he suggested we do this and there was a lot of aggravation amongst us three brothers about it and they seemed to get away with ignoring what seemed an eccentric requirement. But somehow I avoided the tension by enjoying the task. I also discovered that there was joy to be found in that kind of routine writing and book work. Then there was also the Scripture Union discipline and, later, Search the Scriptures—which I absorbed from church-life, and Christian fellowship at school. For this, I found keeping a regular notebook of what I had read and reflected upon in the Bible to be a useful and regular part of everyday life.
It seemed to be taken for granted somewhere, somehow, in my upbringing that literary skills were not only basic but the source of great enjoyment It is also relevant to note that my older brother is a well-recognized poet.
Comment: As a novice, what were your most valuable learning experiences?
BW: Having learned such literary habits, it was interesting to observe myself “going through the motions” in my composition for school work and university. When I first heard the aphorism, “I didn’t let my schooling get in the way of my education” (from Mark Twain), I felt it applied very well in my case. School seemed to equate education with itself which was ridiculous because I had learned so much from home and church and just by living in my neighbourhood. And there was always so much more. Sometimes, but only sometimes, I would write essays that seemed to write themselves. Once or twice that has happened for a school essay and I knew it was good. At other times the writing with which I am deeply satisfied has not been published. So I am prone to wonder whether my most valuable learning experience was the realization that valuable learning is also possible at school.
At senior school, in preparation for university, I studied sciences and maths and got high marks. I could have entered medicine. One time I spent a whole night on a calculus problem (where would the golf-ball end up in relation to the hole if it was launched with X momentum and en route in 25k/hr SE winds hit a lady who was walking from point y at 10k/hr etc). It would not resolve. I took it to school and was given top marks. When I asked the teacher about this she said my answer was complete except for the final (minor) calculation.
I felt deeply that I needed an education and was persuaded that this goal was possible if I took social science. When I began to study sociology at university, I was bemused by the assumption that one’s enlightenment depended upon forgetting everything else I had learned up to that point in time, and simply imbibe the new perspective of the social construction of reality. In this confused context the most valuable learning experience was a second-year sociology essay on the incest taboo which took weeks of sweat and for which I got a very low grade with tutor’s sarcastic comments: “You pass because you give well documented pseudo-attention to the theorists you go through the motions of considering . . .” After confronting her about this, I began to see that it was her dogmatic standpoint that was basic to such a comment and my eyes were further opened to an inability of secularized sociology to have any real pedagogical sensitivity to those who had hitherto studied “natural science.” Thus sociology could not provide me with the education I thought I needed, let alone engage in genuine discussion with those who were not dogmatically committed to a neutral and objectivist viewpoint.
Comment: What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
BW: I really do not know. I wonder why that is? Maybe it was when I had a National Service military obligation that had been waived because I had indicated an intention to study theology. But I had begun to wonder whether the college I had nominated was equipped to provide a genuine theological education. It was pointed out to me that of all the colleges available it alone included Hebrew on the curriculum. And so I spent a year studying Hebrew which is a good backup at times for reading the OT. But on thinking it over I would say that the best advice came from a few Bible verses. One from my mother: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened; neither be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). One from a sermon I heard as a young Christian: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. But God is faithful and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (I Corinthians 10:13). And one from one of the first exegetical studies I ever made: “You are the salt of the earth …you are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14) Together, these three “favourite” verses provide “best advice” in that they simply remind me of who I am, that life is God’s gift, and that forgiveness is God’s reprieve so that we can enjoy Him forever.
Comment: From what sources do you draw inspiration for your work?
BW: I find myself listening to well-crafted lectures. In these days of “mechanical reproduction” (which is more apt now than when Walter Benjamin first coined the phrase) I can listen again and again to well crafted lectures, read well-constructed essays or portions of books that I return to again and again, or listen to some pieces of music—I like string quartets. But as inspiration for some of the writing I do, I simply marinate (is that the word?) in a writer or thinker whom I suspect has something worthwhile to say. But sometimes I think it is worthwhile to simply dwell for days or weeks, if necessary, on a paragraph. I spent a lot of time studying Talcott Parsons’s sociology. Many have concluded that I must have found his work inspiring. I did not. The more I studied, the more curious I became about why his work did not inspire me, despite the fact that he must be given full marks for effort. His was a mammoth contribution. One of his students, Bernard Barber, as much by his friendship as by his well-crafted literary style, has been a great encouragement to me in my “theoretical” work in the history of 20th century sociological theory.
Comment: What rituals and habits structure your workday?
BW: I walk six to eight kilometres around the area where I live every day. This, too, is a source of inspiration. I also have formed the mental habit of allowing for “creative interruptions. My writing projects are never at such a point that I can’t be interrupted and return to them later—as I considered the questions for this interview I was “interrupted” by a former Japanese PhD student who asked me to read over and improve his draft address for his book launch on Japanese sojourners in the modern global labour market.
Last week, J? in Budapest wrote and asked me to help him edit fourteen essays for the English edition of the European Mirror for the Hungarian Foreign Ministry. This was a wonderful exercise, educating me on the “inside” of Magyari European integration. David, an older friend who has recently started to read Abraham Kuyper, comes around regularly (and so it was easy for me to ask him to photograph my “work place”). Google makes it possible for me to regularly talk with scholarly colleagues: Robert in Suva, John in Liverpool, and Mark in Leeds. I also talk regularly with Keith in Iowa and Alan in Wellington. And so, I try to work in a way that allows “creative interruptions” to be structured, or to structure themselves, into my working day, my working week. But I don’t go out of my way to invite interruptions.
Comment: What are your favorite tools?
BW: Pen and pencil are the preferred tools for relaxed composition. There is the keyboard and the screen, and there is also the record player and sound system—I listen to vinyls—and the telephone, but there is also the pathway I follow on my daily walk. That’s a very useful “tool,” except sometimes the tide is out so I walk along the edge of the sea.
Comment: Tell us about a project that delighted you.
BW: We had a regular, ecumenical prayer service that I used to attend with about three or four others. It had been an important part of the weekly calendar of events for both local churches and I was glad to attend although I was not a member of either church. When it folded the group decided to keep meeting in the homes of one of the group and it has since become a much valued, Thursday morning discussion group. My fellows are all retired clergy and considerably older than I. They are in their eighties and I am in my middle fifties. We discuss all manner of topics and it is also a place where I test some of the arguments I have been working on in my “working” time at the computer keyboard—that’s one “project” which the four or five of us enjoy. I’m learning a lot about the deep-down concerns and frustrations of this group of eighty-year-olds about the steady decline of their churches since they were my age. How can Christianity pack some power back into its punch?
In recent times, via internet and Google, I have become Australian editorial consultant for the Fiji Daily Post. The Fiji Daily Post has been in the frontline of opposition to the military dictatorship in Fiji. From time to time the editor takes my writing, or an essay from some other writer with whom I am in email contact, and they publish it. It is a challenge to have my daily work become an active part of the efforts of others working for justice in the southwest Pacific. As I have mentioned above, I spent two whole years reading through Mark’s Gospel and Acts to develop an on-line commentary to help young parents pass on the Bible story to their children. All of these and more are some of the “projects” in which I have been involved. As a writer, I don’t know that it is my task to spend much time trying to persuade publishers to invest in my scribbling. I have the perhaps quaint idea that a publisher who has read my work will eventually come along and offer to publish it. To do it any other way seems to involve chasing my own tail. Part of the “delight” is simply learning patience which is one of the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit. But the availability of the internet certainly makes it possible to develop worthwhile distribution networks.
Comment: How do you plan your work?
BW: The “big plan”—if I might call it that—is somewhat retrospective. That is, I have gained necessary resources in time and space by leaving the employ of the university and by the rearrangement of our family life when we bought a little house in this quiet village. I prefer to work for six or seven hours every day for five days of the week. That means a daily routine and “getting on with it.” How can I say it? I plan my work one step at a time—one page at a time. There’s never any problem about identifying a specific problem. My experience of twenty-plus years of teaching sociology has presented me with plenty of complex problems that need to be addressed. One big one, if not the over-arching meta-problem—concerns the place of the scientific analysis of society, not only in relation to our everyday life, but also in relation to all the other possible scientific analyses of things. That problematic provides a pretty large canvas, or framework, or plan from which to make some or other written contribution.
Comment: How does your work connect to other aspects of your life?
BW: I’d have to say that I am so grateful that I can do what I have been doing now for almost a decade with the support of my wife and family. They tell me they are really pleased that I seem so happy in my work. It really is like gardening—and in truth when I put aside a few hours to tend to our trees and garden beds, I find myself refreshed and inspired to turn again to the proof-reading, the composition, the letter-writing, and the reviews.