Articles for the Month of October 2010

Theological education: some autobiographical reflections (ii): Revolting students

This post follows my Theological education: some autobiographical reflections: Childhood.

I arrived at University determined to use the opportunity of life away from home to explore existence without God or church.  I was studying psychology, keen to see how the scientific method, with its empirical and experimental openness, could throw light on the mystery of human behaviour.  However, despite my intentions, by a series of random events, or through divine providence (you decide), I ended up agreeing to attend the Baptist Students’ Group’s opening meeting. Well, at least there’d be free food, and more women than men :)

I found a bunch of late-sixties student radicals. They questioned things I’d never dreamed of examining, tested everything intending only to retain what stood the test. Within days I was reading the (then popular) “death of God theologians”. What nonsense, the divinity whose death they were gleefully if sadly admitting was not God, but merely a god. Those little convenient powers that humans invent, keep in their back pockets in case they will be useful on rainy days,  and then discard when umbrellas are invented. This wasn’t God. Through reading deeply of the “death of God” I discovered I was a latent, if confused, theist. And worse, that God had his claws in me, and I could not escape in any of the (then) usual ways. I was hooked, and the shape of my future life (all unknowingly to me at the time) was foreordained.

But first I had to learn about sectarianism and about the church…

The truth about NZ?

Jim West has some funny ideas. Not least about NZ, he really should visit us some time, that way his comments would not look like dilettantism ;)

Just the other day, you’ll find it only 39 pages back in his archives (at a mere fifteen posts per page), he posted a piece about New Zealand’s Hobbit Crisis… For anyone concerned that we have all taken leave of our senses comes timely news of the:
The 2010 Legatum Prosperity IndexLegatum Institute logo

About the only puzzling feature of the table is that the Aussies beat us again, but we’re used to that and can always trot our Muldoon’s most often repeated quote like we always do…

PS: do notice that the category in which we topped the world was education. No wonder all the world’s best brains migrate down here :)

Theological education: some autobiographical reflections: Childhood

Apparently this is what Guardian Angels look like. (Photo by anslatadams)

It’s a wonder my faith survived (at least until now) the processes and adventures of my theological education.  Perhaps it is a tribute to sovereign and prevenient grace.

I was brought up in a Christian family. At first we were Brethren, then when the local hall closed (lease expired and a carpet seller wanted to move in) my parents having no car, we became Baptist. The church was middle of the roadish for Baptists in the UK at the time. So I remembered later (when I came to read John Robinson’s Honest to God for myself, and thought “how sensible, but surely everyone understands that God – being the creator of everything – can hardly live somewhere in the sky”) a blistering sermon one evening against Robinson and any notion of being “honest to God” about our faith.

However, the big crunch issue for me was Science. From almost as soon as I could read serious books (age 7 or 8 I guess) I was a huge fan of Science. Evolution and its more up to date, and excitingly still being discovered, cousin stellar evolution and the possible Big Bang enthralled me. These ideas made so much good sense, and they were based on evidence and open to discussion.

[Big bangs especially enthralled me, and each Guy Fawkes’ Day my friends and I tried for bigger and bigger ones, using cigar tubes and the gunpowder from fireworks. But that’s another story.]

At church, it seemed to me, I was expected to believe that God made the universe in one week (working on Saturday because making a universe with untold millions of stellar systems was a big job even for God). God even apparently planted fossils and other artworks so as to mislead us into believing that the whole process had taken him many many millions of years. I never understood why God did not want us to know what a big job it had really been, so my first niggles of doubt were born.

It was Religious Education (the only compulsory subject in the UK education system at the time) that planted the deepest questions though. We had an ardent but not very pastoral Anglican priest. He taught us all about some strange characters called J, E D and P  who apparently did Moses out of a job by writing the Pentateuch (but not being God, it took the four of them much more than a week). It was dull stuff, and I did not hear much of it. But one day somehow it got interesting. He spoke warmly about how God gave each of us our very own “Guardian Angel” when we were baptised. That stirred me up, I knew many of my friends were already baptised, and were even soon to be “confirmed”, but I was a Baptist, and not yet legally or in the eyes of the church an adult and so not baptised, yet. (Actually I was still not biologically an adult, but that is another story.)

So I asked the obvious question. “What happens to people who have not been baptised as Anglicans, but who go to other churches?” The reply shocked me. “I suppose God makes some sort of provision for people like that!”  Not that I really expected or wanted my own Guardian Angel, such imaginary creatures hardly fitted into my chrome-plated scientific worldview. But to be called, scornfully “people like that” and in front of a entire class of my peers!

That was it, I was at war with the Anglican Church, and all other forms of superstitious nonsense from that very day.


Image from BecomingJewish.Org

Jonathan (my always stimulating, still just, but soon moving on, colleague) of ξἐνος pointed me to a piece in the NY TImes by Lisa W. FoderaroIn a Digital Age, Students Still Cling to Paper Textbooks“. This may be, and much of it reads like, the traditional claim that “books won’t disappear anytime soon”, digital technologies and books are different, and the new cannot replace the old… Cant that has been around at least since the first enthusiast on the other “side” proclaimed with equal evangelical fervour the death of the codex. It is different from the run of the mill in a couple of ways.

First it is based on research. Among other things this gives hard figures. For example: “three-quarters of the students surveyed said they still preferred a bound book to a digital version.” Which of course is a resounding vote of confidence in the codex textbook, especially in view of the fact that a couple of years ago the figure would have been over 99%.

It’s the implied competition and contrasts between e-textbooks and paper ones that interested me.The three paragraphs I quote below came, in reverse order (with just one paragraph from the original left out) which I think enable me to make a reverse case.

“Students grew up learning from print books,” said Nicole Allen, the textbooks campaign director for the research groups, “so as they transition to higher education, it’s not surprising that they carry a preference for a format that they are most accustomed to.”

This familiarity factor is gradually diminishing as students come into the system with less familiarity with print codex works as a major part of their previous study. Already some of our first year students (younger than the average, and straight form school) only use print books if we encourage them to. Most of these students’ assignments are written using resources available on the Web, if I am lucky through Google books. But often from websites of pastors sermons, or reprints of devotional classics.

Many students are reluctant to give up the ability to flip quickly between chapters, write in the margins and highlight passages, although new software applications are beginning to allow students to use e-textbooks that way.

But of course the very things these students are reluctant to “give up” are precisely the things that any decent e-text should make easy! Non-sequential access is what hypertext is all about, commenting and user annotation are easier and more flexible in an electronic environment, and highlighting is basic. It is only publishers rushing shoveleware onto the market repurposing existing titles into containers that are designed to mimic a dead tree that makes current e-textbooks unresponsive and equally dead!

“I believe that the codex is one of mankind’s best inventions,” said Jonathan Piskor, a sophomore from North Carolina, using the Latin term for book.

Duh! Of course it is. It revolutionised the world almost as much as the invention of writing. That’s why we may expect that the next big step forward, e-text, will be equally (or at least nearly) as revolutionary.

So, who is interested in a Free Open Source Old Testament Textbook?

How did that make you feel?

Mark Meynell (All Souls, Langham Place) has a fine list of 20 questions to ask when reading a novel. The list is introduced by an interesting post, but if you just want the list you can scroll down to the Scribd window. It’s good thoughtful stuff that could enrich our reading (at least for the “we” who usually “just read” ;)
Incidentally, Mark’s opening rant about contemporary Western education focusing on feeling is thought provoking. He concludes:

As a result in western culture, we learn to feel, we don’t learn to think. And narratives are one of the means to engaging our emotions… and thus we get hooked. Why else do advertisers spend so much time on creating ‘product narratives’? More worryingly, why else do campaigners put so much effort in creating a ‘political narrative’ for their electioneering candidates?

That did not fit my education, but then I’m a dinosaur, whose formative years were early in the second half of the twentieth century ;) But more importantly it does not fit my knowledge and experience of non-Western cultures – love of stories, and of the emotional roller coaster a good story takes us on, his human and not at all a product of post-modern failures of confidence in meta-narratives.

What do you think?

He who paid the piper, can not hear the tune without paying again

Evan and Jim have responded vigorously to my post below: Secret societies: biblioblogging in Religion Bulletin. Evan points out that:

An annual individual print subscription to the journal is 35 USD in North America, 17.50 GBP elsewhere. What’s your trouble? Do you get TIME magazine for free or something? How is this set-up any different than most any other publishing situation out there

Oh, I agree, if scholarship is a commodity to be bought and sold $35 a year is a snip.

Except, who paid for the writing? Who pays the scholars who did most of the editorial work? In both cases the answer is: “Not the ‘publisher'”. Often the answer is taxpayers and/or church members, with a contribution from students. Shouldn’t such people, let’s call them the general public (for want of a more specific general term ;) get to actually see the results of the work they paid for?

Zotero gets freed from Firefox

Don’t get me wrong, Firefox is still my favourite browser, the only one I use regularly, but it is brilliant news that Zotero will (thanks to a new project Zotero Everywhere) become available for the other major browsers, and as a standalone app. This is a significant step, and makes a flexible, simple yet powerful, free bibliography manager even more free :)

Zotero already works on PC, Linux and Mac. It already cooperates with Open Office and MS Word, and I believe in Linux (at least) with a LaTex front end. Now it is becoming even more platform agnostic. Great news!

Secret societies: biblioblogging in Religion Bulletin

Secret Society, after Harold Lincoln Gray by Mike Licht

Jim West and a number of other well known bloggers on biblical studies related topics have “published” articles about blogging, they appeared in Religion Bulletin:

  • Blogging the Bible: A Short History  Jim West
  • Biblioblogging Our Matrix: Exploring the Potential and Perplexities of Academic Blogging James McGrath
  • The Benefit of Blogging for Archaeology Robert Cargill
  • Why Do I (Biblio)Blog? Roland Boer
  • Biblioblogging, ‘Religion’, and the Manufacturing of Catastrophe James Crossley

You can find it here. However these articles are “published” in the technical academic sense, that is they are announced, but not made available, except to a privileged select few. In this case subscribers to the journal in question or those willing to pay per article.In such specialised usage “to publish” means something close to the opposite of its everyday usage, referring as it does to secret arcane gnosis shared only with a circle of initiates and patrons.

Recently this secrecy that shrouds academic “publishing” has weakened many journals are now collected in substantial electronic journal collections and available through libraries. Sadly. as far as I can see Religion Bulletin is not available in R&P (Religion & Philosophy), ProQuest Religion, or Academic Search Premier. So I can’t see these probably fine articles, and therefore I cannot comment on their content.

Thus academe seeks to protect its sacred and secret arcana from profanation. There is an irony when the topic of the “publication” is a medium as open to public review and scrutiny as blogging is “published” in this way ;)

PS: As part of academic systems that play the secret society game, and reward scholars from hiding gtheir work from the public, I do not blame these bloggers for “publishing” in this way, we all play the games we are employed to play. But it is, I think, worthwhile pointing out from time to time how bizarre and ritualistic the academic game has become in the early 21st centrury. When publishing technology offers the potential to make “publish” really mean “to issue publicly”!

Letter from Burma

Photo of U Win Tin from The Irawaddy

The International Herald Tribune features an opinion piece by one of the most significant pro-democracy leaders in Burma (aka Myanmar). In a message smuggled out of the country U Win Tin (a colleague of Aung San Suu Kyi) first explains for the incurably optimistic how the “election” there next month is merely window dressing to ensure that the military dictatorship can claim to be a legitimate government. Then closes responding to to the incurable optimist’s next question:

One might ask what is the solution, if it is not the election. It is dialogue, which we have been calling for for many years. Meaningful political dialogue between the military, the National League for Democracy led by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, and ethnic representatives is the only way to solve problems in Burma peacefully.

The military has no desire to talk. But if the international community seriously exercises strong and effective pressure on the regime, the combination of pressure from outside and peaceful resistance inside the country will force the regime to come to the dialogue table.

I wish that our friends in Europe would abandon their dream of expecting something impossible from the election, and start taking serious action against the regime with the aim of starting a dialogue. They should begin by creating a U.N. commission of inquiry to investigate human rights violations in Burma.

Win Tin

Win Tin was one of the founders of the NLD (with Suu Kyi) and is still a member of its central committee. He was a political prisoner for about two decades. His brave words should be heard! Since the “election” is approaching fast please link to the opinion piece, and perhaps encourage others to write to their representatives urging a UN Commission of Inquiry.