Rev. Dr. Christopher Rodkey is our first in a series of storyteller profiles, where we’ll find out how creative people use paper and other analog tools to do their thing.
Rodkey is a theologian, author, and Pastor of St. Pauls United Church of Christ in Dallastown, Pennsylvania, which he describes as a “theologically progressive and liturgically traditional Protestant church in York County, PA.”
Rodkey also teaches philosophy part time at York College of Pennsylvania, where I too teach classes.
We met earlier this past semester when he and I shared an adjunct workspace on campus. He noticed I had a Hobonichi Techo with a Story Supply Co. sticker on it and remarked, “Oh, I didn’t know Story Supply made one that size.” This of course struck up an interesting conversation where I introduced myself as one of the founders and he introduced himself as one of our Kickstarter backers as he pulled a Pocket Staple notebook of our his shirt pocket.
The conversation then moved to pencils and fountain pens, and we, of course, became fast friends.
What follows is a little Q & A with Rodkey, regarding the role paper and analog tools play in his writing and preaching.
SSC - So, what's your story?
RODKEY - As a pastor, I am always amazed at the variety of tasks involved with the job. Since the beginning of the month, I am teaching, reading, writing, preaching, personnel supervision, grief ministry, working with children, officiating funerals, baptizing children, serving communion to the homebound, pre-marital counseling, graphic design, ecumenical work, social media evangelism, selecting music, anointing the sick, coordinating rental agreements, attending children's birthday parties, hospital visitation, preparing for the welcoming of new church members, denominational and connectional work, and publicly engaging some social justice issues. I also have an intern who is preparing for ordained ministry working with me right now whom I am loosely supervising. I'm sure there's something I've forgotten about! But I really like that I have these varieties of interests and I like being on the go.
As a scholar my academic interest is philosophy of religion, in particular how philosophy intersects with pastoral ministry. Theologically, my research focus and hermeneutic nexus is "radical theology," which is the theological tradition that arose out of the more radical aspects of the ideas of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, the death of God theology, and today, postmodern and political theologies. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the influence of Paul Tillich upon the death of God theologian Thomas Altizer and the radical feminist Mary Daly.
My most recent book was published earlier this year, The World is Crucifixion, which is a collection of sermons. I have two major editorial projects in the mix at the moment. Radical Theology Handbook, which is under contract with Palgrave Macmillan, and I'm working with another young theologian, Jordan Miller of Salve Regina University on this project. The other is a new, critical 50th anniversary edition of Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton's Radical Theology and the Death of God. I probably have four complete book manuscripts sitting on my computer—a new preaching book, a book on the Gospel of Mark, a book on Freemasonry and religion, and my dissertation—but I simply don't have time to work on all of these things. I write for fun and as a hobby, too, so sitting on my computer is just fine for the time being.
SSC - Tell us a little bit about your stationery origin story. When did you realize that paper more than just paper?
RODKEY - In high school I was obsessed with comic books; I still am a big fan of sequential art. At one time I thought I was going to become a comic book writer and began drawing my own comics, which were really like storyboards with dialogue. I quickly learned that the kind of paper one uses and the drawing tools made a big difference in how the final product would look, especially when the page is photocopied. I still have a copy of the one complete comic book that I composed, Hapless Violence Comics and Stories #1. It was totally juvenile—one of the characters was called Woolly Mammogram, a noble pachyderm who in retirement from adventure dedicated herself to educating the public about breast cancer. But, to your question, I started purchasing different pens and pencils to create zine-like comic art.
Aside from this, my handwriting was always mediocre, and this also posed some problems. In college I moved away from using special pens to take out my teenage aggression in comic form to using nice pens for note-taking and research preparation. I was a philosophy major, and the Nietzsche expert in the department was into ink pens and ritually prepared his pen for daily tasks. I made the switch to inexpensive fountain pens and found that it made my writing neater and helped me take pride in my writing when it mattered. As a gift to myself when I finished my Ph.D., I purchased a nice Levenger fountain pen at the Levenger outlet at the legendary Marshall Fields department store in Chicago. The pen uses cartridges, which is convenient and not messy; I like the Waterman blank ink. It's held up alright, and I use it daily. My use for it is purely pragmatic rather than aesthetic, and it does its job.
I use a kindle occasionally to read, but I love paper books and I usually use a good pencil in my hand to read and take notes in margins of the book. I know book purists say not to write in your books but books are a mean to an end rather than the end of knowledge. Some of the books I have read over and over again—my NRSV Bible and Nietzsche's The Gay Science, for example—are marked up many times over. I sometimes use pen, but this is only when I don't have a good pencil. I suppose the idea is that I could erase my marks in the book, but those marks are important for me to go back to or use when I'm teaching a book in the classroom.
SSC - What are some interesting ways in which you use analog writing tools to tell your story?
RODKEY - Everyone in graduate school thought my research preparation methods were crazy, but they're just old-fashioned, I suppose. I wrote all of my graduate work, including my dissertation, and largely write today, by taking notes on 3" x 5" note cards, with citations for the material on the top of the card. I then outline my writing by arranging cards on a table and move them around as I work through them in my writing.
I believe I was taught to do this in elementary school; we had to write a term paper in fifth grade, I believe. I wrote it on comic book collecting. But I remember the librarian at the elementary school teaching us to research our topics in this way. This was tedious and time-consuming, and not doing it the "right" way was awfully tempting. But I kept doing it and it worked for me. What I loved later about this practice was that I could just take my note cards with me to the library with a pen and take notes on a variety of texts and books, and leave the books behind. And I could carry around the cards anywhere I went and work a little here and there on my papers. This was especially helpful when I was in divinity school at the University of Chicago, where I worked something like five jobs at any given time. Some of the jobs had significant down-time—the best was just sitting in a hallway at the university to make sure no one stole electronic equipment out of a few classrooms and locking it up when the anime club was done for the evening—so I could write very quickly and make use of my time well by spending the time writing, rather than searching through books while in the writing phase of composing a paper or an essay while simultaneously determining how to put all of the ideas together.
In short, if I read something I think I can use later in a sermon or in a writing project, I make a note card and file it into a folder for later use. I intend at some point to write a book on the history of the sacrament of confirmation, and I read things here and there on the subject and write some cards. I also have a distant project on the philosopher Lessing that I don't have time to do at the moment, but I'm reading stuff for leisure on the subject and take notes. And I always use my fountain pen to ensure that I'll be able to read my own writing five years from now when I finally get around to doing this.
The other thing is that given how busy I am in my profession and in my family life—my wife and I have four children—I keep a notebook in my pocket nearly all of the time with my to-do list. I check it regularly to keep me focused on what I have going on in the day or week. I check off things as I work on them and cross them off as I finish them, and usually start a new list for the following week. This is something I started doing in college to keep me focused, because I have a really bad short-term memory. I rely on this practice, and there is something satisfying about taking the fountain pen and crossing things off. As it happens, this is what I use the Story Supply notebook for. It's the perfect size and holds up well, and the paper is just right for using the fountain pen.
SSC - What's in your bag or on your desk right now? What's a typical Everyday Carry for you?
My wife and children just bought me a new daily carrying bag for my birthday a few months ago. The bag is little smaller than the 20 year old courtier bag I had been using previously. My laptop, a heavy legal-size padfolio, a pen and pencil, my Levenger fountain pen, and of course, note cards. There's probably fifty cards with notes in there and maybe 100 blank ones. I usually carry some other things related to my work, right now I have some pages that I copied from Hans-Dieter Betz's huge book on the sermon on the mount, since that has been my preaching theme for the past few months. I also carry with me a small camera bag with a small bottle of wine, some communion wafers, cups and oil for any time I might need them for pastoral work.
I carry, of course, my Story Supply note book in my bag or in my pocket, which keeps my to-do list.
SSC - Walk us through your typical day. What's your process look like?
RODKEY - My daily schedule is varied and rarely fills a pattern, and I try to keep track of my work time; if I have evening church meetings, I "comp" myself some hours later, so the schedule is never the same. When I'm sitting at my desk writing a sermon, I have my note cards, an outline on a legal pad, and maybe a few books around. I actually have a first-generation kindle (the one with the free 4G internet) that I use for quick Bible reference that is propped up using the leather case that came with it when it was gifted to me; I use this so I don't have to switch between windows on the computer for Bible reference and I don't need to have another book open on the desk. For a typical sermon, which is usually 2,500 words at the very shortest and 5,000 words at the longest, I start with an outline, I put numbers on my cards that reference different parts of the outline, and I just start writing. About half of the time the sermon goes in a different direction or takes a weird turn, but I keep going until I feel like the main points of the outline were at least covered, even if it didn't turn out the way I initially thought.
When I finish a sermon that I intend to preach the following Sunday, I usually like to have a first draft completed by Wednesday so I can have a sense of how this sermon fits into the liturgy, music, and ritual of the day, and get promotion out on the sermon on the street sign and on social media. My wife, Traci, usually reads it and gives me helpful feedback; usually she is the one pushing me to make the sermon more pointed, more radical, more provocative. I might make some quick changes after that but I am anxious to not get hung up on details; preaching is not writing an essay. I print it out in giant font, maybe two sentences per page, and ideally I am able to rehearse it from the pulpit, and make changes and revise it while speaking out loud from the pulpit. I put slashes between my words to remind me to speak slowly, since I speak fast, and pause with every page turn, which is the idea behind the big letters. After the sermon I make some revisions, which make the sermon more like a polished essay, for future use either as a sermon that is preached again at some point or for publication.
I have only on occasionally preached without a manuscript. It's strange because I can teach a college course with hardly any notes, but when it comes to preaching I feel a greater responsibility to choose the right words. People are today very impressed with preaching that doesn't say much but is performed without notes. I take the moment of interpretation that occurs in worship too seriously to speak impromptu or without a great deal of preparation. Spoken words can inadvertently do violence, and they can heal, so I take a lot of care in how I say things from the pulpit. The computer is really the second-step between writing ideas with pen and paper and speaking on Sunday mornings.
SSC - Okay, obligatory "desert island" question. You only get to have one paper and pen/pencil combination for the rest of your stationery using days, what's it going to be?
RODKEY- I’m a fan of your products, and while I like to write with ink pens, high quality wooden pencils like the ones you carry are perfect, and a good paper notebook, like the ones you make.