Articles for the Month of May 2010

Is biblical scholarship science or an artistic performance?

Jean-Philippe Rouchon - Chef d'orchestre by Augustin Rouchon

For the article I am writing I am looking closely at various proposals for understanding the structure of the book of Amos. Once again I am struck by the variety of positions scholars can take. The issue of course is the evidence we use to convince each other. We weigh that evidence differently.

For example Klaus Koch and colleagues grew to scholarly maturity in a world dominated by Form Criticism, they place great emphasis on the use of introductory formulae, and on changes of genre. So the phrase “Hear this…”

  • 3:1 שמעו  את־הדבר  הזה
  • 4:1 שמעו  הדבר  הזה
  • 5:1 שמעו  את־הדבר  הזה

They believed, as the process which produced the chapter divisions also believed, that these three introductions represented three blocks of material. (But note already some selection has gone on, similar phrases that lack the “this” do not mark sections in the same way:

  • 3:13 שמעו (also starts a sentence and a speech unit)

However the example in:

  • 8:4 שמעו־זאת

seems to start a unit, and includes “this”… Other information has come into play. There are similar issues, but perhaps even more ones that require judgment of an aesthetic kind when one looks at the “woe oracles”.

See: Klaus Koch, Amos: untersucht mit den Methoden einer strukturalen Formgeschichte, Alter Orient und Altes Testament 30 (Kevelaer: Butzon und Bercker, 1976)

Similarly a number of other scholars have proposed chiastic structures for all or part(s) of the book. These chiasms are sometimes similar to each other, though with interesting differences, but often they use different cues, and arrive at different results. Some rest mainly on verbal repetitions, others put more weight on repetition of themes, or content (like “a judgement against Israel”). In evaluating these we again rely on a sort of aesthetic sense, scholar X’s chaism convinces because it provides a “reading” of the passage, or the book, that “feels right”.

See: Jan de Waard, “The Chiastic Structure of Amos V 1-17,” Vetus Testamentum 27, no. 2 (1977): 170-177; a similar idea was proposed independently by Claude Coulot, Propositions pour une structuration du livre d’Amos au niveau rédactionnel Revue des sciences religieuses, extrait (tome 51, n°2-3, 1977) ([s.l.]: Revue Religieuse, 1977); J Lust, “Remarks on the Redaction of Amos V 4-6, 14-15,” Old Testament Studies 21 (1981): 129-54; N.J. Tromp, “Amos V 1-17: Towards a Stylistic and Rhetorical Analysis,” Oud-testamentliche Studien XXIII (1984): 56-84. Who all examined chiastic structures in 5:1-17, but compare Widbin, R Bryan. “Center Structure in the Center Oracles of Amos.” In Go to the land I will show you, edited by Joseph E. Coleson, Victor Harold Matthews, and Dwight W. Young, 177-192. Eisenbrauns, 1996. Or compare David A. Dorsey. “Literary Architecture and Aural Structuring Techniques in Amos.” Biblica 73 (1992): 305-30 with  de Waard, Jan, and William A.S. Smalley. In A translator’s handbook on the book of Amos. Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1979 on the book as a whole.

To be sure, both the form and the chiastic scholars attempt to support their arguments with scientific-sounding arguments, but in the end it is an aesthetic judgment which schemes are found convincing. The standard processes of scientific scholarship (like “blind” peer review) perhaps work well in the sciences and social-sciences, but do they work for more “artistic” fields? Could we rely on two other conductors to judge the worth of a third conductor’s reading of a particular piece? If we did musical performance would become much more tradition-bound and less exciting!

In the end we judge such performances by a complex process that includes the views of professional colleagues, critics and the general concert-going or CD-buying public. Perhaps such a process is also at work long term in biblical studies? But in the short-term, we play the peer review game, and perhaps also try to game the system to get our readings heard ;)

See: Paul Nikkel on Deinde “Trying to stay open-minded” and “An Open Return” the link to the DOC file that contained his ideas on open review in more detail seems to have been lost in the restructuring of the site.

Woman in White review

Free Listens has reviewed an interesting Librivox project I was involved with a while back. (This recording has also been getting good reviews on

The Woman in White is a mystery novel, told like a court case in the voices of different “witnesses”, so for the Librivox recording we used different people for these characters retelling the story. That probably makes the nineteenth century prose an easier listen than it might otherwise be. The novel has also been adapted into a musical by Andrew Loyd Webber, and filmed several times. Two recent books have also provided a “sequel” and a reimagining of the story.

Several of my other recordings have been getting 4-5 star reviews on :) Including the old (poor quality) Just So Stories I think so far the new Librivox version is un-reviewed…

On applying Tim’s not-reading to the Bible

I’ve been too busy today trying to incorporate dead and still living German scholars into my reading of Amos that I have not read my RSS feeds, but I took a few minutes out to Facebook, and saw Bill’s post “Y Jnny Cnt Rd d Bbl“. He mentioned my how not to read books (Thanks :) and also a Christianity Today article and Johnny Can’t Read the Bible. He discusses the interesting thought that clerical attempts to assist ploughboys [to borrow an idea apparently shared by Wycliffe, Tyndale and Luther among others] to become more biblically literate, may be by their nature self-defeating.

This caused me to reflect on how well my not reading advice works with the Bible (it is after all intended for not-reading modern academic and scholastic writing) sadly, or perhaps happily, it does not really work with the Bible. Or only to a limited extent… Clearly the start of the whole thing in Gen 1-3 is a big help, perhaps the end in Rev 21 also assists us… but looking the start and end of most books do not really help, and there is no table of contents provided, nor pictures or diagrammes :(

NZ is currently enjoying such an attempt, Bible Society New Zealand, Scripture Union and Wycliffe Bible Translators New Zealand are encouraging people to read 100 “essential” Bible passages. To which I (as the very model of a modern cleric) am offering 5 minute audio reflections.

In preparing these I have been reminded how interesting it is to compare the way the four Gospels each begin and end. The podcast of that 5 minute bible study will not appear for another month, so here’s a link to a special preview edition of the file ;)

Christian diasporic life

As part of my preparation for co-teaching a course on Isaiah and Empire next semester I am reading (as opposed to not-reading)

[amtap book:isbn=0800632249]

He briefly discusses Jewish diasporic life and contrasts this with Zionism, and then moves on to consider various resources for Christian diasporic (as opposed to Constantinian/imperial) theology and life. His suggestions include the “Armenian diaspora… Anabaptism, in its modern Mennonite, Amish, and Hutterite manifestations, as well as Tolstoyan and related Russian nonconformism…” (p.11). Now, maybe he addresses it later, but it seems to me he misses a major stream of Christian non-Constantinian Nonconformist (in its original as well as, sometimes, modern senses) life. Surely English Nonconformism from the 1600s onward until relatively recently should not be overlooked in this project!

I vividly remember being told by an Anglican clergyman, representing the self-perceived dominant culture, telling me as a Baptist teenager in a “Religious Education” class at school, when he was asked asked about the eternal status of persons not baptised (in the Church of England) that “He was sure God made some sort of provision for people like that.” Out of such experiences a strongly “diasporic” in Smith-Christopher’s sense understanding of my life and faith was inculcated in me in opposition to the dominant discourse, as well as in my socialisation as a “Nonconformist”.

I realise that in New Zealand, the land where I am now a citizen, Baptists have not had such a strong sense of being a minority, and in the USA where many readers live, some strange (to me at least) sorts of Baptist have become almost an establishment church, but that hardly negates centuries of life and thought in the land of my birth…

How to avoid reading books

[Repost from old blog, to allow reference here in a later post.]

Good students avoid reading books. To explain this I need to start by describing how average students read, so you will understand what I mean.

Head scratching by a r b o Many of us read wrong!

The average student faced with a book reads it. They begin at the beginning (or more likely at chapter one – which as we shall see is never the right place to start), and slowly – but only sometimes surely – plough through until with a sigh they finish the chapter. Little information and few ideas are retained, the words have mysteriously passed from eye to brain, only to drain out through the pores of the skin to be join the other lost words in linguistic limbo. Such reading is the next best thing to useless. That is time spent in “uselessness” would have been invested more wisely, for wasted time often pays a surprising dividend, time spent reading this way seldom does!

Having described how one ought not to read books, and hinted at why, let’s think about how to avoid reading books. The aim of the smart student is to read as little as possible but gain the maximum intellectual benefit from what one reads.

I’ve always been a slow reader, I try to cope by “reading smarter”.

One way I do this is to “waste time” overviewing something before reading it:

Contents list

Even if it is only chapter titles, this page or two should give you a fair idea of what the book is about and how it is organised – a few moments (1mo is shorter than 1min but much longer than 10secs) spent well on the contents list means you can already make intelligent guesses about where to find what, and even join a conversation about the book without sounding totally stupid.

At this stage, if you glance at the foreword (that’s the bit before the first chapter – it often tells you what the author though their book was about, and so is often vital reading!) – and the conclusion (yes like detective stories serious textbooks demand you read the ending early on!) you should be able to write a summary of the book in a few sentences – this is a skill worth practising for when you become a teacher, because then with all that marking you will no longer have the luxury of actually reading books ;-)

Go on, write the summary down! At the very worst you can look back at it later and shake your head over how naive you were before you understood the full complexity of the topic ;-)


Look first at beginnings, endings and headings to try to get an idea of what the each chapter is about and how the different parts fit in.

Then skip through the material, not actually “reading” but reading a bit here and there to firm up your idea of what it is about and where it is going. By now you should be able to join a conversation about the chapter and sound like you read it!

Essential “reading“: they say a picture is worth 1000 words (1Kw in metric measures), well it is true a well chosen picture is worth 1Kw, though badly chosen pictures are worth-less (however, they are fun to look at, so worth wasting time on ;-) charts, tables and diagrams are usually (even when badly done) worth at least 1Kw – so spend time on them!

At this stage you should be able to write a brief summary of the chapter – yes, just like you did for the book earlier.

Moby's important reading by ktylerconk The right way to read is much like the way we "read" the newspaper or a magazine!

Important “bits”

Then read carefully the bits that you think matter most. Seldom (using this approach) will you actually “read” all of a chapter, but you will get a good idea of what is in it – often better than if you had scanned each of the words!

I find if I try to read page by page that it goes in my eyes and out my ears. If I try to read that way page after page it is all forgotten five minutes after I scanned the page. Such reading is a waste of time – don’t do it!

Sometimes with this scheme you will end up reading nearly everything twice – but it will be a chapter or book that really matters. Sometimes you will end up not reading some pages at all – but you will know where they are if you need them “one day”!

In summary

Do a survey of the book, or chapter (much as suggested above – playing about till you know what it contains, and where things are) then actually read carefully the “bits” that matter to you.

Another contribution to the already copious and comprehensive literature concerning transparency as a feature of imperial clothing

Photo by janetmckI am nearing the end of the literature review section of my article on the Structure of Amos. There is nothing like such an exercise to encourage one to examine the nature and worth of scholarly publication.

As an undergraduate student, newly converted to a quasi-literary or historical discipline (Biblical Studies) from the rather different disciplines of Psychology, I eagerly explored the arcane works to be found in the Theology Library (then just across the road in Pusey House), sometimes when unusually excited by an idea I even supplemented them with the wonders available in the Bodleian (a little further away but still a pleasant stroll).

[One of the major delights of study at Oxbridge, in addition to the marvelous erudition of one’s fellow students, and entertaining excentricity of one’s teachers, and even sometimes the reverse, is the freedom from the lecture courses that lesser institutions inflict on unwary students. This freedom allows the exploration in depth of ideas that catch one’s interest :)]

Regularly in such exploratory missions, endeavouring to map this new (to me) terrain of biblical studies, I wondered at the capacity of any collection of renowned scholars whose books and articles I pulled from the shelves to fail to agree about anything, much.

This capacity had ceased to amaze me, but still amused me, when I wrote a brief review article comparing Hayes little: [amtap book:isbn=0687010403] and Andersen and Freedman’s huge :[amtap book:isbn=0300140703] Amos commentaries. [Incidentally now the relative prices amaze but do not at all amuse me. How can a 250 page paperback cost more than a 1000 page hardback?] Both claimed to present clear evidence allowing the reader to reconstruct, following the tram lines laid down by the omniscient authors, the details of the ministry activity of the prophet Amos some seventeen hundred years earlier. The confidence with which the author of the short book could assert that Amos had enjoyed a very brief but powerful ministry, while the authors of the 1000 page tome assured us that his ministry was long and complex, was dazzling ;)

In those days my own “publications record” had no effect whatever on my employer’s income, and little on anything else. Since then the NZ government has introduced a clever scheme to get more accountability for all the pennies they rather stintingly dole out for higher education: the successive Performance Based Research Funding exercises. Since this generosity extends to private as well as public institutions, provided only they can demonstrate that they conform to the goals the government sets, have good retention and pass rates, get most of their graduates into employment etc… I get “assessed” by these exercises. We do not know the marking schedule, have no idea of the details of the criteria by which each of us will be judged and found wanting, but we are fairly sure articles in International Journals count quite a bit. Wouldn’t you find something with which you could plausibly disagree given such motivation?

But wouldn’t it be so much better for the world if scholarship (at least in the humanities, where research does not mean killing animals or smashing atoms, or anything else that is quantifiable, or will lead to a clear and evident improvement in human economies) were measured and rewarded by some more meaningful criteria?

[amtap book:isbn=0687010403]

Weird sects

Otagosh posted a brief extract from a book with an interesting title:
[amtap amazon:asin=1569757844]
Basically in the quote the author compares her experience in a weird sect (the one founded and run by the Armstrong dynasty Herbert and Garner Ted) and an extremely evangelical denomination, the two experiences were alike in frightening ways, not least the desire in both places to believe that your group alone knows all the truth.

How odd, Jesus said: “But when the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.” Truth in the Spirit is a journey, one which evidently does not end in this life, because no one here and now knows “all truth”. Yet humans so love to feel superior that they keep demeaning themselves by following plausible and implausible leaders who claim to offer it!

Women reading men’s Scripture: help wanted

Doing the podcasts on the E100 readings has made me even more aware of the need to provide some ‘casts that provide short introductions to some of the deeper issues in reading Scripture, like that of  God as cold-blooded killer. I am currently preparing the audio comments on Proverbs, that most male of books, and realise that I need a podcast on women reading men’s texts.

I wonder if any women readers would be willing to give me some very brief (just a few sentences) soundbites about one or more of the strategies you use. That I can edit together (ideally without any comment or even linking phrases from me, though the second aim may not be possible) to make a 5 minute podcast. (Of course if I got lots of takers it could be more than one podcast ;) Or is anyone willing to do a guest 5 minutes on the topic on her own?

It would mean either you recording yourself, or me phoning or Skyping you and recording, unless you are in Auckland… You can either be an anonymous voice, or identify yourself and be listed on the “credits”, as you wish.

I phrased the title as “Women men’s reading Scripture” because

  • I am interested in ways of reading Scripture not merely the Bible – the difference being (in my mind at least) that one can read the Bible with only academic interest, but one reads Scripture because in some sense the text has divine authority.
  • I am interested in how you read in practice, to offer practical help for others, not in how “Feminists” read, though “you” (the reader) may be thoroughly Feminist – I am sure I have not explained this well, but hope that you know what I mean…
  • Some parts of Scripture are more men’s than others, the Song of Songs is less oriented to a man’s perspective than Proverbs to take two extreme cases, it is how you read the more male gendered parts that I think could be most helpful…

To volunteer, or to talk about the possibility, either use the (public) comments, or to do so in private email me.

Magical Manukau

Mysterious Manukau: Auckland's less beautiful harbour of an Autumn morning

After working for a while I went to get breakfast, on my way back I drew the blinds, a magical mysterious autumn morning across the Manukau harbour. I left my porridge (even though it is with delicious Goji and Cranberries, Almond and Honey again today) and took a photo. Autumn is such a nice season :)

The Manukau may be (as most people say) Auckland’s less beautiful harbour, certainly it lacks fancy yachts and ferry boats to island vinyards, but who can resist views like this.

Of course this harbour suffers from mud flats :(

Mud flats at low tide, in autumn

Here are some at low tide, so you can see them at their worst ;)

It’s enough to make an Atheist thankful, though who to I am noit quite clear even after listening to the podcast on ABC about the recent Atheist convention where apparently thankfulness was a recurring theme.

Mission trips again…

Tim teaching on the Thai-Burma border

This is my third contribution to the mission trips conversation. This particular conversation (and there are/have been of course many earlier ones ;) was started by Vinoth Ramachandra’s post: Who Says “No” to “Mission Trips”? If you have not read that read it before reading on…

I was pointed to that post by y colleague Jonathan who offered a characteristically thought-through and rich metitation, so I responded here and here (I neglected to make explicit – for anyone who is a casual visitor here – that I have an interest to declare). Since writing those posts I have seen another response (from someone with a stronger declared interest) the Kouya Chronicle‘s “Short Term Mission Trips: Just Say No?”

On a lighter note Lingamish offers thoughts on Clownin’ for Jesus. And among the various comments to all these posts I found Judy’s particularly good at stating the case for good mission trips, so I’ll reproduce it here:

Tim, I agree with what you say, but I think there are some legitimate things that people can do in short term visits that are more than being tourists – they just shouldn’t be called “mission”.

First, my denomination takes groups of young people to Aboriginal communities in the north and centre of Australia, and to villages in various parts of South East Asia and the Pacific. They spend time being oriented to the culture beforehand and more time being debriefed afterwards and a couple of weeks staying in a community. We call it Faith and Cultural Exchange and the desired outcome is that the young people will get an exposure to eachother’s culture. I am not sure that we ever bring young people to stay in our urban communities, though – which is the logical extra. The young people come back radically changed and energised to work for justice and many of them are involved as leaders in working for justice a decade or more after their visits.

Second, people in local churches get together to go to various places to do building projects. My region has a relationship with a theological college in PNG and every year they take an architect, a qualified and experienced builder and a team of volunteers over there to do more work on their buildings. They pay for their travel, they pay for their food and they raise money to cover the cost of building materials. The architect and the builder went over to scope the project in consultation with the locals before it started and as a result, the students at the college have far better accommodation and teaching facilities than they had four or five years ago. The volunteers find out a bit about the local culture because many of the locals can speak English, but what they are doing is equipping local people to do mission, not doing mission themselves and I haven’t heard people talking about it as mission.

Does this sound reasonable to you?

It does. More than reasonable, it offers fine examples of the good that short term visits by rich-world Christians to other Christians can achieve. These good things should not be thrown away. I’m not asking for that. “Merely” stressing that people on such short term visits need to be prepared, appropriate people, and need also to understand that the goal is not so that they can give, so much as that they can learn. And all this needs to be achieved in ways which do not result in the sort of sadness that Vinoth Ramachandra describes so well. Anyone thinking of involvement in this “business” should read his post and have conversations along similar lines at both ends of the trip (starting point and destination). Such trips are not a “right” they are a privilege! They should be earned not by cash but by behaviour and through relationship.

PS: The always interesting William Black has added a (long but thoughtful) post: Short-Term Missions – Boon or Curse