Articles for the Month of February 2011

Literature and e-books

Brilliant photo by The Daring Librarian: Gwyneth Anne Bronwynne Jones hinting at the possibilities of e-readers.

The Books and Publishing blog (it comes from the organisers of the annual Book Conference and the International Journal of the Book) has reprinted an extract of an article from the LA Times, using the title “E-books are good news for the literary world”. B & P is a fairly conservative blog, linked closely to traditional publishing, so as you would expect the main “good news” seems (in both their extract and the full article) to be that e-books provide yet another distribution channel for “real books” and that they are more popular than Twitter, and therefore the world is not after all going to hell in a 140 character handbasket.

Their comments are “moderated” so I am not certain if my comment will be published, and anyway most of you probably don’t read either B & P or LAT, so I’ll repeat it here:

Of course e-books and other e-publication possibilities are good news for the literary world. Duh! Wasn’t the codex (which made texts smaller and easier to carry, print (which made them cheaper) so if earlier communications revolutions were good news how could electronic text (which makes “books” both cheaper and more interactive in many ways) be anything else?

Of course the codex was bad news for the spindle turners, and print for the scriptoria, perhaps e may not be good news for traditional publishers (as long as they remain merely traditional publishers).

And that last bracketed comment points to the key failing of e-books so far. Even Amazon singles (which could break open traditional genre restrictions) does little to make text more interactive. So far most of what we have are codexes that imitate scrolls, print that looks like manuscript… but change will come and with change the “literary world” will be renewed and revitalised.

In other words, the real good news for the “literary world” (which is a far larger and more vibrant creature than the traditional publishing industry) is that e-publication is growing, is already breaking down traditional economic restrictions on genres of literature and is showing signs of promise that it will begin to breqak down the walls that separate writers from readers as well as those that separate readers from each other. That is indeed “good news for the literary world”. Though it may not be for traditional publishers, unless they cease from dreaming of the past and begin to dream the future. Those who look only to the past are doomed to repeat it.
And that indeed is the conclusion of David Ulin’s article:

Here, perhaps, we have the true lesson of the Pew findings — that even in the digital world, we want more connection rather than less. This, I think, is what e-books have to offer: the promise of immersion, enhanced or otherwise, just as their analog counterparts have always done.

Though I read almost to the end before getting clues that he would end like this ;)

How could Jo(e) in the pew deal with the Canaanites? (Part Two) 1 Sam 15

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1526/1530–1569) via Wikimedia Commons

In comments on the previous post Jeremy raises the question of 1 Sam 15. Which seems a worse problem. There (1 Sam 15:2-3 ) Samuel, in God’s name, instructs the newly anointed king, Saul, to slaughter all the Amalekites. He explicitly orders that non-combatants like women, small children and babies be included in the massacre. Saul then wages war on the Amalekites, successfully, but takes spares Agag the Amalekite king and the best of the flocks and herds (1 Sam 15:9) keeping the best and slaughtering what was not “good”.

Samuel then chases after Saul and is greeted by the bleating of sheep and the lowing of cattle, which Saul claims that “the people” have “spared” (1 Sam 15:14-15). It becomes clear that Saul’s sin is twofold, first he has become so great in his own estimation that he not God is the arbiter of his actions (1 Sam 15:17), secondly he has “swooped on the spoil” (1 Sam 15:19).

A Karen family after their home and paddy rice burned by Burma Army troops (photo Free Burma Rangers)

Saul’s wrong, which seems to be the point of the story, the reason it is told, is that he places himself over God, and that he is greedy for spoil.

Saul’s sin then is unexceptionable, pride in one’s own authority or  greed for spoil and self-advantage 1 Especially when, as the commander, one seeks to transfer the blame to others? are wrong. What is left totally unacceptable in the story is Samuel’s claim that God orders the killing of a whole people.

There are a number of possible approaches here:

Firstly one might claim that this again is hyperbole. Despite the specifications this might be an extreme case of Ancient Near Eastern war language. This is probably true, but the specification not to spare babies makes it an unsatisfactory answer as this draws attention to the claim that God commands war, and war does inevitably involve innocent suffering.

Secondly, one might consider the possibility of God’s commanding warfare. Here I can only say that while in comfortable, middle class Western contexts a God who takes sides and even commands war may seem “uncivilised”, if thought of from the perspective of the brutally oppressed in many other contexts such a God would be considered a saviour. Such people pray that God will intervene to protect them from the physical and economic violence of the oppressor.

Thirdly, and more radically one might notice that here we have a narrative. In this narrative it is Samuel who repeats to us (and to Saul) God’s commands. Clearly we must not always take the words of  characters in biblical narratives as truth. Characters often lie. They can even lie about what God has said (see 1 Kings 22) where on one of the two occasions (1 Kgs 22:15b cf. 1 Kgs 22:14; or 1 Kgs 22:17) Micaiah does not tell accurately what God has said.

Perhaps most radically one might ask whether the biblical writers have correctly understood and interpreted what they tell us. This option is not open to an American fundamentalist, who needs to assert that Scripture is inerrant. It is a possibility to be considered on other views of Scripture. Or equally ask whether we have perhaps not understood and interpreted correctly! The details of Scripture are often difficult and complex, what matters is perspicuous. It is perspicuous throughout the Bible that God is loving and merciful. Can such a loving and merciful God command desperate warfare? Given the broken, spoiled and desperate world that we see around us, probably. Was this such a case? I do not know!

In the light of all this, what also seems perspicuous to me is that the message of this story is NOT murder babies and commit genocide, but do not claim absolute authority and do not be greedy for advantage. Messages like that were the reason this story was told, to take other messages from it is to abuse the story.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Especially when, as the commander, one seeks to transfer the blame to others?

How could Jo(e) in the pew deal with the Canaanites? (Part One)

I can’t get away from those pesky Canaanites recently, their latest intrusion into my quiet existence came when someone asked my colleague who is responsible for the training of pastoral leaders what Carey was doing to prepare pastors to help their congregations deal with such “difficult” questions about the Bible. It’s a good question. Not least  because the hot anti-Christian blogs and hotter atheist bestsellers have spotted it’s potential.

God told the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites, the argument goes, so God is not loving and forgiving but a genocidal maniac  like Slobodan Milošević only worse because God should have known better. Deuteronomy 7:2 is a prime example, and it hardly matters which translation you read, they are all as bad as each other:

The fall of Jericho by Jean Fouquet (1420–1480) from Wikipedia


and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.

NIV 1984

and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy


When th/e LORD your God hands these nations over to you and you conquer them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaties with them and show them no mercy.


and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.

And it’s not just the modern ones: KJV

And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, [and] utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them:

The Young’s Literal is the only one to suggest that “exterminate them” might not be quite what God was saying:

and Jehovah thy God hath given them before thee, and thou hast smitten them — thou dost utterly devote them — thou dost not make with them a covenant, nor dost thou favour them.

So, how is the average pew sitter to cope?

1. Cotext

First: Never, ever take a few words or a verse all on their own look at the text around! In this case already in the verse we can see something strange is happening… God apparently says “Exterminate the Canaanites [the verse before helpfully specifies several different nations that are to be specifically included] and while you are at it, make sure you do NOT make treaties with them. Either one part or both parts of this verse are not intended to be taken literally.

The immediate cotext 1This is a specialised term for the text around the text, what people often mean when they say “context”, but by context I’ll mean all the other “stuff” around a text, what linguists call “pragmatics”. in this case (though often you have to look wider at the passage, chapter, or sometimes whole book) gives us clues. (At least) one of the two things God says in this verse is not to be taken literally.It is difficult to see how “do not make a treaty with them” could be understood any other way, so perhaps it’s “Exterminate them!” that is non-literal. In fact such expressions are common among sports fans, and even in talking about the more aggressive board games, in our world should alert us to the possibility that this language is not literal.

In a comment on a previous post of mine on this topic Thom pointed out that simply spotting that these texts are not literal does not let God “off the hook”. We are still talking about war, if not genocide. I have not forgotten this comment, I will return to it, but in a later post. In the next post I want to turn to the even bigger question of how we “read” God’s speech in the Bible…

Notes   [ + ]

1. This is a specialised term for the text around the text, what people often mean when they say “context”, but by context I’ll mean all the other “stuff” around a text, what linguists call “pragmatics”.

Philip Davies on Psalm 137

Philip Davies is a hugely entertaining and lively speaker and always a provocative writer. I don’t agree with much that he has written, no one agrees with everything he writes, not even Philip agrees with everything he writes. (Perhaps?) But he has written one of the best interpretations of that horrible Psalm (137) that I have read: By the Rivers of Babylon. You should read it!

HT: Zwinglius Redivivus

Liminality? Well transgressing boundaries…

I do not like boundaries. (Well except the ones I erect to keep the animals in ;) It is fun to cross borders, things are different on the other side. Travel broadens the mind.

So, for my latest Librivox reading I’ve tried two of La Lontaine’s Fables both from book 9. Both were fun, and both, for an anglophone, mind-twisting. I read:

05 – L’Écolier, le Pédant, et le Maître d’un jardin – 00:02:48
[mp3@64kbps – 1.3MB]


08 – Le Fou qui vend la Sagesse – 00:02:23
[mp3@64kbps – 1.1MB]

But what a shame that so few people try to experience the “otherness” of Scripture by learning to read in Hebrew or Greek (or Aramaic, but all that effort for just a few chapters may be more understandable laziness).

PS for my English readings of other really good literature (one example which involves transgressing borders is Kipling’s American Notes) here’s the list so far.

Suspicious and humble readings of texts of terror

One of the greatest pleasures of blogging is “meeting” people (and their minds) that one does not run across in everyday life. There are dozens of you who read this with whom I have had serious and valuable interaction over the last few years, but whom I (almost) never meet face to face. One of the more recent additions to that list is Gavin at Otagosh. We’ve been discussing hermeneutics recently. One of his recent posts has been niggling away at me over this busy period (the busyness is why I have not written before).

[amtap amazon:asin=160899323X]Stark choices (8) is part of a series drawn from Gavin’s reading of Thom Stark’s The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong, a book I haven’t yet read, but which seems (“listening” to Gavin read it) really thought provoking and often sensible. Reading chapter 9 Gavin poses the question:

So how do we deal with the “texts of terror” in the Bible, or even just the terminally embarrassing ones?

He then dismisses three possible approaches in turn. The first is allegory. Now when I was very young “everyone” was against allegory, such an approach to Scripture had no place in the modern world. Now, admittedly there are many dangers and problems with allegorical approaches. But can we dismiss them outright. Should we not ask of a terrible text why it was repeated, and why it was included (in the book and then in Scripture – for OT texts included by two different faith communities). If we ask that question we may (I think often should) come to the conclusion that the text in question was maintained precisely because it allows of an allegorical interpretation. If that is the case then how can we fail to read it allegorically?

[OTOH I am in thorough agreement with his quote from Stark: “such readings are profoundly disrespectful to the actual victims of genocide, and to their survivors and descendants… In effect it makes us the equivalent of Holocaust deniers.” At least I am if one changed “are” to “risk being” at the start of the quote – it is really important, it seems to me, that if one risks reading allegorically one commits to taking seriously the possibility that the text has a historical foundation and the consequences of that possibility.]

Thomas Muntzer (picture from Wikipedia)

He then dismisses Canonical Readings. Again there’s a good Stark quote: That such readings “seek to discover the macro-narrative that underlies the minutiae. The important thing is the forest, not the trees“. Apparently, though Gavin does not in this post explain how, in such readings “the diverse voices of scripture are lost, and the problematic texts are swept under the rug.” 1 Again he is quoting Stark. I really fail to see that this is the case, Childs bases his apporach precisely on spotting the different voices, and noticing how their editing together works in a process he calls “canonical shaping”. Or, thinking of another (much older) group of canonical readers (the Anabaptists) who stressed that we should notice the big picture and not get bogged down in minutiae. I’ve quoted Menno Simons before, but this captures the thought well:

The Word is plain and needs no interpretation: namely, thou shalt love the  Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and  thy neighbor as thyself. Mt. 22:37, 39. Again, you shall give bread to the  hungry and entertain the needy. Is. 58:7

But at the same time as Anabaptists were saying things like this Thomas Muntzer used the slogan “Bible, Babel, bubble”.  Or less elliptically once wrote:

I affirm and swear by the living God: he who has not heard the righteous, living word of God out of the mouth of God, [and can discern] what is Bible and what is Babel, is nothing but a dead thing. However, the word of God penetrates the heart, brain, skin, hair, bones, limbs, marrow, juice, force, and power. 2 Münzer, Thomas, and Michael G. Baylor. Revelation and revolution: basic writings of Thomas Müntzer. Lehigh University Press, 1993, 57.

In such a way a canonical reading can both attend to the forest, recognise the trees, and even sometimes reject some tree (or perhaps merely someone’s understanding of that tree ;) in the name of the forest.

On the third approach he rejects, Subversive Readings, he again quotes Stark saying:

If Jesus’ language was a subversion of the official transcript, the reality is that his language has only been subject to counter-subversion by the ruling elites ever since.

As Gavin adds “Who could deny that?” but I don’t quite understand how the fact that Jesus’ (and more generally the Bible’s) subversive moves have been counter-subverted by the powers across the centuries should make such a reading unacceptable? (Maybe, when I have time, whenever that might be, I should read Stark myself ;)

Notes   [ + ]

1. Again he is quoting Stark.
2. Münzer, Thomas, and Michael G. Baylor. Revelation and revolution: basic writings of Thomas Müntzer. Lehigh University Press, 1993, 57.

Fig Ice-cream

It won’t win any ice-cream beauty contests, the texture is rough cast, parents will look askance at any spills, but Fig Ice-cream is just delicious. Of our table of four yesterday Fig was the clear winner of the taste competition, one wife had chosen Passion Fruit but on hearing her husband’s raving about the fig stole his.

Fig Ice-cream is simple to make and tastes both addictive and sophisticated.

Fig Ice-cream Recipe:

Ingredients (for about 1 litre):

  • 6-10 dried figs (I’m sure fresh would be better, but on the rare occasions I get fresh figs I will scoff them all in other ways, and for ice-cream dried figs are pretty good) I suggest about 6-10 but do experiment.
  • 4 eggs (you won’t be cooking them, so free range are definitely best as well as kindest to the chooks ;)
  • 300ml cream
  • sugar to taste


I do everything except final mix and freezing in my food processor bowl so the order matters, but if you like to use several gadgets just be sure the one you use for the egg whites is clean and dry.

Chop the figs fairly small, remove the stalks. Separate the eggs, whip the whites till really stiff (I then put them in the ice-cream container), whip the cream when the peaks are stable put the cream also in the ice-cream container. Now zap together the figs and egg yolks, add sugar till it is nicely sweet. Add to the ice-cream container and using a spatula fold the three mixtures together.

Freeze (if you are a perfectionist control freak who does not want a figgier layer at the bottom, or is afraid that despite the eggs ice crystals will form you will take it out of the freezer after an hour and fork it to mix again – however, I caution you not to, there won’t be crystals, the figgier layer is so tasty, and thirdly this extra beating just removes air and makes it more hard and solid – yuck!)


Podcasting lectures is really easy

My hi-tech expensive phone, I won't show the MP3 player as it is old battered and tacky, but also works ;)

Judging by a conversation with a colleague today, and by John’s comments on my previous post teachers often do not realise just how easy podcasting lectures is, or that they almost certainly already use all the equipment necessary. So here’s a recipe, with equipment list and step by step instructions:


  • Mobile phone or MP3 player which can record and connect to a PC. My two year old Nokia 3120 Classic – current price 100 Euros or about US$135 and my six year old cheapest available then MP3 player (some more modern even cheaper MP3 players lack tghe facility to record but the SanDisk Sansa Clip can, and Amazon sell them for <US$30)
  • Access to a computer with Internet – since you are reading this you already have that for sure.
  • The capacity to go to the Mobile Media Converter site and download and install the program. (If you think this is difficult ask your grandchildren!) You will also need Audacity if you want to be really clever and edit the podcast.(NB this is probably not necessary but will give you extra bragging rights in the staff room ;)
  • If your institution does not have a course system you will also need either iTunes or a blog – but I am assuming your institution already has Moodle, or something like that.

There, the equipment list was not too frightening, and the cost is less than $50 in the worst case. Now for the instructions.


  1. Practice finding the “record” feature on your phone or MP3 player (these can be fiddly so allow 30 mins). Check the battery well BEFORE the  class.
  2. Remember to take the phone (preferably in silent mode or with the SIM card removed, it is embarassing as well as spoiling the recording if the lecturer’s phone goes off ;)  or MP3 player with you.
  3. At the start of class (but ideally after the faffing around at the beginning) switch it to record. Place the phone or MP3 player on the lectern (for males in your shirt pocket may perhaps work better with some equipment or if you move around a lot).
  4. Switch the record function off at the end – you DO NOT want to record your harassed replies to the students who ask questions after the class has finished!
  5. Shift the new file to your computer.
  6. Open MMC, select output format (MP3 is good ;) and drag the audio to it. (With some MP3 players you miss out this stage.)
  7. Upload the new converted file it to the course site.
  8. Sit back and enjoy the student appreciation and be the envy of your luddite colleagues – you are now a Fully Fledged Digeratus (or Digerata).
  9. Get ambitious and remove the odd bits you don’t want to podcast and/or the first six “ums” and “errs” – this means using Audacity, but the editing task is easier than it sounds. Just find the wiggles that represent the bit to cut, highlight them (one by one) by dragging with your mouse, and press delete. Don’t worry about mistakes as Audacity has an undo feature. You are now an Advanced Digerata (or Digeratus).

Podcasting lectures

Photo by pmarkham

John Hobbins is a fine scholar, and a great teacher (at least judging by what I see on his blog, which is basically our point of contact), but I just could not understand a passing comment in his recent post: Teaching “The Bible and Current Events” Online for he wrote:

I am not actually teaching the course online (though once I figure out how to podcast the lectures, I may do that).

Kiwis are used to making do, the national mythology sees Kiwis making aircraft before the Wrights from no.8 fencing wire, so, to podcast a lecture I just use my cheap mobile phone to record, placing it on the podium in front of me. I then convert the AMR file to MP3 using the free Mobile Media Converter, just drag the file and drop it, the program outputs it after conversion with a new name, it is as easy as that. The program works across platforms (at least Win and Linux – but I think Mac also). I then upload it to the class site, done.

[Sometimes I get hi-tech and edit out the faffing around, I use Audacity also free and also cross-platform for that.]

Using my phone instead of a fancy gadget means I have no need to do complicated technical stuff like noise reduction. It is simple, quick, easy and just works.

Starting tertiary study at Auckland?

Photo by Wesley Fryer

The stats suggest readers of Sansblogue mainly don’t live in Auckland and are more likely to have children (or even grandchildren) of an age to start tertiary study than to be in this position themselves. However, in case you (or someone you know) IS starting tertiary study in Auckland this year do attend (or suggest they attend) the afternoon Scripture Union and TSCF are organising at the University of Auckland this Saturday. It’s geared to new students heading off to universities and other tertiary institutions “who want to think about their faith in this new context.” It also offers tips on study skills and surviving in the new environment. So a great chance to increase your chances of successful study.

When: 05 February 12:00 – 16:30

Location: OGGB5, Owen G. Glenn Building, University of Auckland (12 Grafton Road)

Details here: Transitions Brochure

HT: Greenflame