Derek Nelson ’99 delivers his talk entitled “Glory and the Dovetail” on September 28, 2023 in Salter Hall. | Courtesy of Communications and Marketing

Last week, the 43rd annual LaFollette Lecture returned to campus, delivered by Professor of Religion Derek Nelson ’99. The talk, titled “Glory and the Dovetail,” explored a vast spread of topics, from woodworking and architecture to the literature of John Updike, while supporting the overarching theme of religion and its purpose throughout history. 

The LaFollette Lecture, the most significant faculty lecture of the academic year at Wabash, is a time-honored tradition dedicated to delving deeply into the speaker’s field of study as it broadly relates to the humanities.

Bachelor staff sat down with Nelson after his lecture to investigate his creative process and inspirations, his philosophy of the material world and his fascination with woodworking.

You connect many seemingly unrelated things in your talk.

I talk about several seemingly unrelated things. Thank you for paying me the compliment of saying they were connected, I’m not quite sure.

What did preparation for this lecture look like? Were these connections in your head before you were asked to do the lecture, or did these connections come to you only in the process of preparing?

The relationship to the material world is part of an ongoing interest of mine that has to do with the history of technology, and has to do with environmental sustainability and ecotheology. But it was never as specific as the history of one particular woodworking joint going back to ancient Egypt, so I had a great time thinking about a new angle of an existing interest. The second part, the main part is really new, I have not published anything on this. As I sort of joked in the lecture, if you say something truly new about the New Testament, it’s almost certainly wrong. Only very haltingly does one propose a quite new reading of a well worn text. If it were in a scholarly journal, I would say a lot more about why I think this stuff is interesting and what I think about the presence of God in the world after the Ascension. I have lots of ideas, so trying something new was a fun challenge for me.

You have such a specific lens that you look at things with, this fixation on the material world. Which came first: this strong connection with what’s tactile and tangible or your intellectual attraction to religion?

The intellectual attraction to religion definitely came first. I remember a specific instance where the former came to mind. It was a new syndrome that’s described in medical journals and I read about it in The New York Times maybe eight years ago. It’s called something like hypoplasticity dyspraxia. 

Nelson’s lecture explored a vast spread of topics, from woodworking and architecture to the literature of John Updike, while supporting the overarching theme of religion and its purpose throughout history. | Courtesy of Communications and Marketing

That sounds familiar. 

It’s becoming more and more common. It’s literally a kind of brain damage where fine motor neural development doesn’t happen because kids are just swiping left and right on iPads instead of playing with blocks. There’s something significant about touching and reacting and being reminded, “This is my arm, these are my hands, this is mine.”

These neural processing disorders are related to a growing estrangement from the world of material stuff. I just remember reading that article and thinking, “Oh my gosh, we’re damaging our brains because our connections to the material world are so tenuous and optional.”

You have a very nuanced position where you’re able to poke at the foundations of Western philosophy and modernity without rejecting them outright. I appreciate the way you straddle that line, especially when talking about modernity.

I had a very important teacher, Rosemary Radford Ruether. She was a leading feminist theologian, and she wrote a lot of books criticizing the dominant Western intellectual theological tradition, which I learned a huge amount from. Her students didn’t get the same education in that tradition that she did, so she was able to reject it, but keep certain parts that she thought were valuable. I didn’t think that she gave her students as good an education as she herself got, because she taught almost entirely from the point of view of the critique. Instead of “here’s the thing now I’ll critique it,” It’s more like, “here’s the critique, and it’s going to be a long one.” I’m not criticizing her, I just noticed that. So what I want to say to my students is, “We’re not living in the Enlightenment anymore, but here’s what it was. Here’s the alternative, which wasn’t very good either.” I do try to say “yes, but” or “yes, and” and not just shout.

When did you first begin woodworking?

Young. My dad was a carpenter, his dad was a carpenter, so it’s always been in the blood. Winters are long in Minnesota and you’re not doing a lot of house building, so there’s lots of tinkering and fixing stuff. I remember I got a pretty high score on my toolbox in 4-H woodshop when I was in fifth grade or so. I had to really talk my dad into letting me use his horribly unsafe miter saw for that project. He also had higher standards than I did, so I had to fight him off from taking over and doing my project for me. I’ve never had that kind of attention to detail. You know, if something can be really nice with 10 hours of work or perfect with 100 hours of work, I’m gonna pick really nice. 

Why should more people learn carpentry? What are the personal benefits that learning this skill can offer?

There are millions! You become self-sufficient, at least dependable enough to be a resource to yourself. It also feels really good to work with wood. I think it also expands the horizon of time. We think about an Ikea table as a three year solution until you can buy something better. Our experience of time is so attenuated and so atomizing. This dischronicity is a philosophical term I’ve been working with and thinking about, meaning that we don’t have arcs anymore, like you can’t understand your life in terms of a progression. Worrying about things in a postmodern world makes everything short term and disposable.

What does the honor of the LaFollette Lecture mean to you, both on a personal level and a professional level?

On a personal level, I think it’s having your name added to a list of wonderful people, including important mentors. I didn’t mean to criticize the two that I mentioned in the lecture as much as I probably did. I think professionally, It was a chance to put a marker in the ground and see if some of these new ways of thinking old thoughts are gonna produce much fruit. This is an area that I’m interested in, but I’m having a really hard time writing this ecotheology book. It keeps getting bigger and changing and I end up having all kinds of theories about everything, including multi-page rants about the metric system!

You provide some negative examples in your talk of the lectures that you didn’t enjoy as a student; what is a prime example of a LaFollette lecture done right? 

I think Bill Placher’s was just really excellent. Everything he did was excellent. His was really about method, which is, in a way, what the LaFollette is asking you to do: to think about your discipline. Not the particular areas that you study, but rather what one is actually doing when one is studying literature or theology or music. 

To close this out, is there anything here that you think is important that I’ve missed?

I like this event because it’s not just the lecture, it’s throwing the dinner as well. Seniors are there before the freak out of comps, but you’ve had a lot of experiences with these faculty. We’re coming together not just for a party; think hard, and then celebrate.