I spent the past weekend participating in an academic conference I regularly attend (Society for the Scientific Study of Religion). I have a number of friends and colleagues who attend and we had a good time together. But I have to tell about one session at the conference.

The conference organizer – who did a great job – was looking for conveners for sessions several months back and I volunteered (trying to be a good citizen and all). I ended up convening a session with four papers, none of which seemed to go together very well. But I can usually find something interesting in a paper, so I approached the session positively. I contacted all of the presenters about 2 months in advance and asked that they send me a copy of their paper a couple weeks ahead of the conference so I could read them and have some questions/feedback for them. I got virtually no response. One presenter did finally send a half written paper about a week before the conference, which I dutifully read. Otherwise, nothing. That’s really not that big of a deal, but so it goes.

I arrived to the session with plenty of time to help them get everything set up. As is often the case these days, one person had a laptop and the others all loaded their presentations on to that laptop via thumb drive so we didn’t have to switch laptops mid-session. Everything seemed to be going well. The first presenter gave his quantitative presentation – no problem. The second presentation was a combined presentation with two people giving parts. It, too, was a quantitative paper. Again – no problem (though one of the presenters had a very cool, thick Texas accent). Then we get to the third paper. This happened to be the one I read. It was an ethnography of a rock and roll church (basically, a church with electric guitars and rock music). She started in on her presentation and got about 3 or 4 minutes into it when the laptop went apeshit on her. Unlike most laptops when they lose power, this one didn’t just shut down – it started flashing psychedelic images on the screen. I figured it was the power (which it was – the power cord had come out somehow), but commented that it was a nice backdrop for a presentation on a rock and roll church. The laptop owner (the first presenter) rushed up to the front to fix the problem while the presenter continued. About 2 minutes after the laptop went psychedelic on us, a member of the audience fell out of his chair completely and landed rather hard on the floor. Everyone was concerned, but he picked himself up and said he was fine, that he had just fallen asleep! The laptop came back to life a couple minutes later and normality was returned to the session. Temporarily…

The third presenter finished her presentation then passed the laptop on to the fourth, whose presentation was fine until almost the last slide, when she flashed one word on the screen – paraclete. Paraclete is Greek for “comforter” and is often used to refer to the Holy Ghost, which is how she was using it here. Her talk was on succession issues in megachurches. At this point she paused and said (paraphrasing), “We cannot underestimate the importance of the Holy Spirit in succession issues.” I almost choked on the air I was breathing in – huh? This is an academic conference, right? Since when do we pretend we can quantify the Holy Spirit? Unfortunately she felt so strongly about the importance of the paraclete in leadership succession that she spent a good couple of minutes on this rather bizarre element of her talk. This is the first (and hopefully the last) time I’ve seen this approach at this conference and I wasn’t the only person there who was uncomfortable. Bizarre!

Anyway, that was definitely the most “lively” session I attended. I do have to mention one other incident that is sticking in my mind. The conference was in a hotel in downtown Tampa. As I’m just learning, there are not a lot of great restaurants in downtown Tampa open on Sundays or during conference hours, so my colleagues and I had to scout out the area. Sunday, after the conference had ended, we went out to lunch. I was walking with Mike Nielsen (whose Psychology of Religion blog I recommend) back to my car after lunch when we saw a homeless person (who looked pretty beat up and run down) fishing for a cup in the garbage can just outside the restaurant we visited. Both Mike and I started toward him, but Mike beat me to the punch – he gave the man his drink and the man graciously accepted it. Send some kudos Mike’s way when you get a chance. He is one of those rare individuals who studies peace, non-violence, and justice and practices what he studies in his everyday life.

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