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Rob Bradshaw has done a typically thorough job of the August Biblical Studies Carnival. He even managed to find a post from my meager output, but there are lots of good things you will not have seen as well :)

Photo by Dick Rochester

I have been doing a lot of writing in the last few months (one reason for less posts here) much of it to tight word counts, I was delighted to find my own advice still (despite Mike’s comments) rings true – at least to me ;)

In our intro class, students write a summary of the message a biblical text had for its intended audience. This should be one or two sentences and less than 50 words.

Writing a summary is like packing for a journey, some people want to take everything! Then it is an exercise in writing tight. Most students write much as they speak. In speaking we include padding – unneeded words and phrases that allow us time to think. Writing tight involves removing the padding.

Googling “tight writing” produced lots of advice, but many writers could not practise what they preached. (Several high ranked hits were written on contract, to raise the word count for the writer ;)

So, here’s Tim’s guide to writing tighter

Don’t repeat yourself

If a word occurs several times in a paragraph some of them may be unneeded. Using two words where one will do (tautology) is wasteful: “tightly stretched” only says the same as “stretched”.

Focus

Writers should have something to say. They should say it. Often, though, we also want to say other things. Tight writing omits such diversions. It keeps focused. The asides that often pepper this blog in brackets or as footnotes are examples that should be cut. (Except I like the effect, and am not trying to save words and do help the reader by using parentheses to mark the digressions off from the body text ;)

Don’t be passive

Good Grammar checkers (like MS Word used to have) hate passives. They are correct. Passive sentences are longer, and usually less clear: “The ball was kicked by John” vs. “John kicked the ball”

Cut conjunctions

Long sentences usually waste words, needing extra coordination. Several short sentences work better.

Very that

“That” is often unnecessary. It can often be pruned, it sometimes signals other words that1 can be pruned. Extra adjectives are also an easy target “very” for example usually adds little. Karen Luna Ray offers this sentence: “See how many unnecessary words that you can remove from this very lengthy sentence that I am writing..” Which becomes: “See how many unnecessary words you can remove from this sentence.”

To be or not to be

The verb “to be” often encourages wasted words. Compare: “She is a powerful writer” with “She writes powerfully.”

Avoid adverbs

Often we employ adverbs when a stronger verb does the job better. Suzanne Lieurance compares:

Flabby: She smiled slightly at the photographer.
Fit: She grinned at the photographer.

Above all, rewrite right

Paragraphs, and even sentences, are seldom  written right first time. Edit cutting flab. Read your text aloud. Read it silently. Each reading will show fat to prune.

Have a sit down and a nice cup of tea

After a break (better a good night’s sleep, but a cup of tea will do), edit again. Cut again!

  1. Though notice sometimes it IS needed ;) []

One of the more depressing outcomes of a post-infection fatigue is the things one is reduced, but lack of energy to do better, to eating. Come lunchtime, I was hungry, from a morning dutifully preparing my paper for the symposium: “Doing Theology in the Light of the Trinity“, later this week. But I have barely enough energy to prepare words, none to cook food. In the freezer there were some “Chicken Tenders”. I remember them, they epitomise the phrase “cheap and nasty”. That’s why there was still the remains of a small packet – after trying them I had not (previously) been desperate enough to have a second go.

I won’t shame the company that produced them by naming them here, but they taste and look like mechanically recovered meat from roadkill. I’m tired, lacking energy to cook, I grilled a few. The first was as bad as I remembered, mushy, mild and flavourless except for the excess of pepper, with the slight crunch (where they had not absorbed mushy softness from the “meat”) of breadcrumbs to redeem them.

In desperation I drizzled the remaining monstrosities with some decent olive oil. It was a revelation, the “Chicken Tenders” were still as unappetising as ever, but the zing of the oil made the meal quite edible, almost satisfying. No wonder chefs drizzle olive oil over everything! If it can almost redeem those cheap and nasty “Chicken Tenders” it must do wonders for real food.

Colombo Theological Seminary, a fine interdenominational seminary teaching in English, Sinhala and Tamil both in Colombo (the capital) and in centres around the country (in both Sinhala and Tamil areas) is looking for a theological librarian to work in their Colombo main building.

Colombo Theological Seminary is a fine institution and Sri Lanka a really beautiful island full of friendly people so this would make a dream appointment for someone that would also enable them to serve the church in a place where Christian churches are one of the few community institutions that really cross the ethnic and political divides that led to the many years of civil war.

If you know a theological librarian who is willing to travel and work in a beautiful tropical location please pass on these details:

 

Rhett has a typically sensible and thought provoking post “New” which begins with the strange obsession academia has with “new”, leading in disciplines that deal with a limited corpus of texts and ideas, like biblical studies or theology, to bizzare thesis topics and many silly claims. (Read Rhett’s post!)

From where I stand (often in front of a class of beginning theology students, sometimes Christians studying to be counselors or teachers, even more often in churches or Facebook chatting about this and that) the problem is not so much an obsession with “new”  as one with “simple”.

Fact/FictionChristians are taught from Sunday School upwards a simple approach to a simple Bible. The Bible says it, it is so. This is typified by the habit of citing “verses” to settle arguments.

Relevant Children’s Ministry has a post today also, “Are We Blurring the Lines Between Fact and Fiction When We Teach Children?” This begins with a terrifying statistic

 A recent study says that children who attend church have a harder time distinguishing between what is fact and fiction in life.

The study by Cognitive Science was based on research with 5 & 6 year olds who do and do not attend church.  An example – kids who attend church would be more likely to believe a talking animal they see on television is real.

They go on to ask what seems like a sensible series of questions about whether several of the things we do in children’s ministry risk confounding fact and fiction for these children. Their questions are good ones (and I hope my reply did not seem to suggest that we should not consider them) but I think they miss the more basic point.

The “line” between fact and fiction is already blurred. Thinking about historical biography and good fictional biography of historical personages shows this. Children, and adults too, need to be able to think critically, not merely “know” the line between fact and fiction.

Christians claim the Bible is their source of authority (different Christians give different roles to tradition and contemporary revelation by the Holy Spirit alongside Scripture). Yet few people I meet (who do not have Bible College training) can explain well and sensibly why Paul’s advice that women praying or speaking in church ought to cover their heads/hair (1 Cor 11) does not mean that Christian women today ought to wear hats in church. The answers range from the antinomian: “it’s out of date, that was his culture, it is not ours”, to the weird: “Gal 3:28 means we ought to treat men and women the same” – so men should wear hats also?! Almost none can go on from their explanation to also show how Paul’s teaching in this passage applies today! By one route (temporal snobbery) or another (bash your opponent with a “better” Bible verse) Scripture is denied and therefore devalued.

We need to teach our children, and our adults too, to think critically about Scripture (as well as about other things, don’t get me started) else the Bible will lose what little authority (as more than a tribal totem) it still retains.

[NB this is not my attempt to respond to Rhett's post, that's in the comments there. Nor is it my attempt to show you how to approach reading a passage like 1 Cor 11 today, I'm gradually doing that as simply and briefly as I can in monthly articles in the NZ Baptist and at Reading the Bible Faithfully.]

Please note the scare quotes, Richard Beck is not an outsider, in church he is a committed leader, in the blogsphere he is a powerful voice. Yet, the debate about gay marriage has been framed and is largely conducted in the light of stances taken by professional biblical scholars, systematic theologians, ethicists and pastors. Richard is a psychologist, but one with a fine and catholic understanding of the Bible and christian tradition. As a psychologist one of the striking features of his theological writing is how he keeps rooting it in experience.

With that introduction (though I have been linking to Beck since 2006), here’s why you should read him today in The Icons of God in Marriage: Nature and Election he reframes the debate about gay marriage in ways that I find interesting noting what each “side” does to talk of the image of God in marriage. I had not thought about it that way, and I think the thought is worth more time for reflection.

No, it’s not a post about Moses, nor have I transgressed into the smaller Testament. Rather it’s a post pointing to a post. One that is well worth reading. I have for a long time been upset by the patently untrue claim that “people today” are using “literally” to mean its own antonym. It just did not ring true, nor did it really seem to describe what I hear happening.

Jeremy at Parableman has a fine clear and well-documented (except without proper academic references :( post explaining what’s wrong with the claim, and giving a better explanation for the usage people complain about. Including several fine quotes some from well respected writers of times past, like the one from F. Scott Fitzgerald which I used as a title. Go! Read!

For several years now Jim West has been posting from time to time about progress with his huge project as he knocks off book after book of his For the Person in the Pew Bible commentary series. This began in 2006 with the ambitious Jeremiah: for the person in the pew, the Pastoral Epistles, Matthew and Micah were finished that same year and the flow continues. In recent months Jim has announced a deal with Logos that will see the series made available in that convenient format. This development needs more pre-orders before it can get off the ground (this is Logos’ clever way of ensuring a profit before they commit to the work of adapting such a large project to their format). Jim has therefore been (uncharacteristically?) indulging in self-promotion as authors without commercial publishers must, and also asking others to help him in this task by posting a notice of his work.

I am happy to do this, and agreed to prepare a notice (less than a formal review but more than a mere puff) of his “Ruth” from the volume Ruth and Lamentations: For the Person in the Pew (Quartz Hill Publishing House, 2007). This task was less easy than I expected. Here is what I wrote:

Preparing even a brief notice (let alone a full review, which this is not) of a commentary written by a friend is a dangerous business. One is more tempted to be either too harsh or too accommodating compared with reviewing the work of some stranger. One error is unfair to the author, the other to the reader.

Reading Jim West’s little commentary on Ruth (in the 2007 volume on Ruth and Lamentations) I found myself applying higher standards than I would use for a stranger’s work of this scale. (I know the quality of Jim’s scholarship and the breadth of his reading, how could he miss out this, or that!) Yet to express such reservations would be unfair to Jim. His work is a very short (some 7,000 words including the text from the ASV) set of notes aimed at “the person in the pew”. By and large it explains what such a reader needs.

As well as the brief explanatory comments this goal is achieved, to a considerable degree, by carefully selected extracts from ISBE articles covering key ideas: marriage in Israel, the Moabites, gleaning, grace in the Bible, and kinsman (go’el). These are likely to be really useful for readers. The selection within the articles of the material to quote has been made with a view to its usefulness for reading this Bible book, so they are more helpful than a copy of ISBE itself would be.

Yet I have two quibbles. The origin, and nature, of these excursuses as extracts from the ISBE is not made clear enough. I don’t think the intent to avoid burdening the reader with cumbersome apparatus is sufficient reason to omit marking quotations clearly and noting their origin. The selection of terms to cover also is open to questioning, why was hesed not included when grace (hen) was, surely hesed is a key motif in Ruth? The first of these quibbles is serious, and because Jim is a friend I find it difficult to draw attention to such a weakness.

The format, Bible text with very short explanations, is popular. The use made by beginning students of the short edition of Matthew Henry or Adam Clarke’s commentary demonstrates the perceived need. I have reservations about the format though. Such short comment risks merely repeating the text in other words without space to explain. More than most authors of this genre, Jim has avoided this danger, indeed he manages deftly to introduce and suggest conclusions about several complex interpretational issues. In the 30 or so pages on Ruth, the issue of the sexual innuendo of chapter 3 provides a good example.

So, based on this small sample, should “the person in the pew” purchase these commentaries? On the positive side they offer a quick, clear explanation that does not seek to avoid or disguise interesting or difficult features of the text. To get the same level of understanding without them would mean more work and/or more expense. On the negative side the comment is very brief, and so inevitably questions many people in the pew will want to ask will be omitted. Yet the Ruth section (and, from a glance not a thorough examination, also Lamentations) offers enough to resource most of the immediate needs of a home group or Bible study.

Later than most of the (vaguely) interested public1  I finally watched “Noah” on one of the flights the other day.

I won’t comment on the story, or its relationship with Scripture, other have done that well. Nor will I offer erudite comments on the legend of the watchers – I’m not competent. I want to focus on ideology. Again even within this category, I won’t comment on the radical “green” claim that humanity is a blight upon creation, others have. I’ll focus on the blatant misandry. Consistently in this film the men are against life, whether “goodies” or “baddies” those who kill or seek to kill are male. Indeed when humanity’s anti-file tendencies are in view we are named “Man”. By contrast the women consistently seek to preserve life.

I despise such blatant and crude stereotyping.

  1. Only vaguely because I have little interest in “biblical” films, which almost always spoil fine literature making it clumsy film, and on the whole I feel SciFi (the genre descriptor which seems best to fit this film) also works better as text than film. []

 

Seattle Municipal Archives from Seattle, WA – W.H. Shumard family, circa 1955

A few days ago the Vatican published a working paper “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization“. This paper results from international consultations stemming from Pope Francis’ convocation of an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to treat the topic: The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.

The discussion document reflects the current catholic (and Catholic) concerns over pastoral issues like increasing frequency of cohabitation, blended families, divorce and remarriage, gay marriage… The document has been welcomed not least because of its desire to base the discussion on Scripture and in a concern for mission. Despite the perception of Pope Francis (who in a sense commissioned the document) as a radical theologian my first impression of the document (after sharing in the two reasons for welcoming it mentioned above) is sadness that it is not “radical” – that is it fails to return to reexamine the biblical roots of Christian teaching about family.

Indeed the section on “God’s Plan for Marriage and the Family” sadly fails to ask what the Scriptures teach about “family” but rather presumes an answer to that question by beginning and basing everything on marriage. Whilst biblical teaching about marriage is undoubtedly (as the document understands) founded on Genesis 2, that is not true for biblical teaching about family. The assumption that marriage + children produced by that marriage = family is a modern Western assumption that was not shared by the authors of Scripture.

As I explained briefly in my paper for the NZ Christian Network (in 2006 ) “Families in the Bible” there is no word or expression in either biblical Hebrew or Greek for the nuclear family. Indeed the words and phrases which get translated “family” in both Testaments refer to something broader (in the present including a wider range of relatives, uncles, aunts, cousins etc. not just mother, father and their children) and deeper (including ancestors and perhaps descendants e.g. “David’s family”). The exercise of looking for the word “family” in English Bibles, and then examining the Hebrew and Greek expressions thus translated, makes it abundantly clear that the writers of Scripture had no conception of (or at least had no interest in talking about)  nuclear families. When Scripture talks about family it is always the extended family that is in view. Any talk of nuclear families is a modern overlay on the Bible.

Beyond that, once we examine the families that the Bible actually describes, we soon discover that they are not merely extended, they are messy. Blended families are not a new phenomenon, just look at the Patriarchs.

Going beyond this Scripture does not anywhere present an image of an ideal family as an exemplar to copy, indeed I suspect all the families in the Bible are presented as broken (composing as they do a broken sinful world). On the other hand, it does present a series of virtues which ought to be shown in family life. The centre and heart of this cluster of virtues is hesed that faithful loving loyalty that God shows to us and which is also modeled by Ruth, Boaz, Tamar and other biblical heroes of the family.

By thus starting from the “modern world”, understood to mean the Westernised world, and importing its ideas onto Scripture while silencing Scripture’s own teaching, this discussion document does a disservice to the catholic (in the sense of “everywhere”) Church. By this rejection of Scripture it risks merely reinforcing the individualistic “modern” Western tendencies that it somewhat timidly criticises.