Articles for the Month of May 2012

Books are hot (Marshall McLuhan)??

Photo by pcorreia

There’s a provocative little discussion on Edge “What do you think Marshall McLuhan would have said about ebooks? How do they change the message of books?”

You may pick other takeways, but mine is the thought from Douglas Rushkoff (neatly reversing/correcting Clay Shirky) on how McC’s famous “hot vs. cold” distinction among media might play out. As he explains:

cool media are ones that require active participation, and usually hit more than one sense at a time. Hot media are more engrossing, and less participatory. McLuhan saw radio as a hot medium, because it was high fidelity but hit just one sense—hearing. It was so hot, in fact, that Hitler was able to stoke his mob this way. Television, on the other hand, was a cool medium. It was grainy back then, and required more participation in order for the viewer to resolve the image.

Which leads to the provocative thought:

The book is engrossing and uni-sensory, so it counts as hot in its current form. No participation, just engagement. We are swallowed up by the book. As the book becomes more digital, we tend to click around more, we have hyperlinks, we even have the ability to discuss the book with friends and peers as we read. These all contribute to making the book a more participatory and cooler experience. We can have more distance, we are alienated from the passion of the text to some extent, and we are connected to other readers.

The heresy of democracy

There’s a day event at Carey soon Baptist Church and Leadership. So it was interesting to come across this post from five years ago. Much has changed, Rhetspect has died, or moved on leaving no forwarding address, yet, I think I’d still stand by my dinosaur vision of what leadership ought to mean among a people called Baptist.

Why “Baptist”?

Rhett (of the Rhetspect) has a post (Feeling Strangely Warmed) in which he comments:

People, I think usually just end up in denominations, and then often work backwards and try to justify (to themselves as much as anyone else) why they belong there.

Baptists, endearingly, seem to be quite honest about this. There is no major over-arching vision statement or document of beliefs. On most theological issues they give a pretty wide berth. As I have said before, it’s a great ecumenical approach.

Having said that, I find the whole congregational governance thing a bit hard to stomach. It’s just a bit reactionary for my tastes. But perhaps that’s because I was once involved in a Baptist church where we voted on everything down to the copy machine budget.

So first, as a Baptist (not quite, but nearly, life-long) I’ll be – I hope – endearingly honest about this, I am (still) a Baptist precisely because of the congregational and Christ-centeredness of Baptist life. The picture of “voting on everything” simply misunderstands. In an ideal church meeting (which does not exist, see Genesis 3) we would vote on nothing. The Church (the local gathered community of Jesus followers) would pray, discuss, argue, debate, and finally recognise, which way the Spirit is blowing and follow.

In the real world, we often often end up voting. That’s because of contagious heteropraxis [If you don’t understand see Rhett’s Feeling Strangely Warned and substitute “praxis” (doing) for “doxy” believing.] what I mean is that we hear of congregations voting, and our society votes, we’re democratic, so the church copies the world. When we do, we think of Church as “democratic” what a heresy! We should be pneumocratic, governed by the Spirit of Christ. And that’s why Baptists should be Bible centered, because we know the mind of Christ through the Scriptures that witness to him.

So, Rhett (and anyone else ;-) if that’s “reactionary” then I’m an old reactionary – boots and all!

Reviews and the society of scholarship

Photo "anger" (some rights reserved) by Jeff Hester

Photo "anger" (some rights reserved) by Jeff Hester

RBL (the SBL’s Review of Biblical Literature) is an innovative and interesting journal. It fulfills the important, but unglamorous, scholarly task of organising and publishing reviews of new book-length work in the field. So far so useful but ordinary. RBL has also pioneered the electronic publication of these reviews while retaining a print edition. 1 RBL’s URL is a clear indication of how early it was in adopting the electronic medium. It has used the flexibility of this mode of publication to open reviewing and the selection of works to review wider than traditional journals.

  • Any SBL member or other scholar can request a book (from the list of titles offered by the publishers), and if their CV looks suitable, review it. Traditionally the book re views editor searches round their circle of friends and acquaintances for someone who “might be interested”.
  • More than one review can be published for the same work. Traditionally each book will get at most one review in any particular journal.
  • Because e-publishing is speedy RBL is also “timely” it usually gets reviews out much closer to the publication date of the work than any print journal can achieve.

You get the picture, RBL is an early adopter and enthusiastic scholarly institution. Mark Goodacre has a post (RBL Innovation: Scholarly Rejoinders to Reviews) which draws attention to a new departure from standard journal practice that could have far reaching impacts on this unglamorous aspect of scholarship. Mark summarises the development thus:

SBL Review of Biblical Literature is allowing authors their right to reply in its blog.

The blog format enables authors to add their thoughts on their reviewers in the “comments” and the regular RBL newsletter has begun to draw attention to these.

He and his commenters speculate on the impact this right of reply may have on reviewing and scholarship in general. After pointing out how often authors feel aggrieved by a reviewer’s obtuse missing of the point, or unfair presentation of their work, 2 Thinking of the effort and time that goes into writing a scholarly work there are understandably powerful emotions driving these feelings ;)   Mark goes on to say:

I must admit to mixed feelings about this.  On one level, it could help to hold reviewers to account.  But on the other hand, it is part of the academic experience to learn to cope with reviews of your work with which you may disagree.  I wonder if the ease of a blog-comment response will encourage too many authors to respond too quickly and too negatively to critiques of their work that may — on reflection — help them.

Moreover, sometimes discretion is the better part of valour.  If you have an unfair review, it’s sometimes better not to respond.  Knee-jerk responses all too often end up looking petty, pompous or self-indulgent.

To me this is where the potential impact of this seemingly innocuous move in a quiet backwater of scholarship is really interesting. The location, on a “blog” that seems hardly visited and serves merely as a convenient RSS feed for lists of new titles reviewed, is obscure. Yet the phenomenon it recognises and enshrines in the practice of the scholarly “guild” is revolutionary.

For the practice of an author having the capacity to reply to a review already exists, if not on the journal’s site then at least on their personal blog authors now clearly have the “right of reply”, and are increasingly beginning to take it up.

This makes this aspect of scholarship, up to now one of the most impersonal in a culture (Western Academic) that has erred on the side of aiming to remove humanity from the humanities (“objectivity” anyone?) more social. So, in this brave new electronic world of scholarship we will need to learn are a new set of social skills. Too intemperate a response or any response at all that seems “wrong” (nitpicking, ad hominem etc…) will presumably lower the writer’s standing as a person. And this “personality” will no longer be hidden away in “real life” where fellow scholars do not follow one home.

Up to now this social aspect of scholarship has been by an large confined to conferences, now it is slowly entering everyday life. Interesting times :)

Notes   [ + ]

1. RBL’s URL is a clear indication of how early it was in adopting the electronic medium.
2. Thinking of the effort and time that goes into writing a scholarly work there are understandably powerful emotions driving these feelings ;)

Can Jim West pull off his trick?

Jim West has a post which he seems to think defuses one common argument used in debates about issues like gay marriage. He wrote:

If you apply the OT legislation concerning homosexual behavior – that is, a man shall not lie with a man as with a woman, than you have to stop eating shrimp and you have to stop wearing garments of mixed fabrics’.

The problem with this argument is that it fails to distinguish moral law from ritual law.  As such, and as a failure to understand genre, category, and purpose, these arguments are flawed and inappropriate.

Sounds good. Sounds scholarly… But will it work?

To be fair to Jim this is a longstanding and very convenient Christian approach to eating their cake and having it around still too. The problem, gay marriage apart, is that there are a ton of Old Testament laws Christians (even those who claim to be faithful Bible-believers) don’t want to follow. But even more they don’t want to be accused of cherry-picking the Bible – a horrible sin.

Along comes a fine upstanding, grey-bearded biblical scholar (or in view of recent discussion in various places, rabid scholarship hating religious person who happens to spend their life studying and teaching the Bible) and waves a magic wand and the nasty problem goes away. “You no longer have to obey ritual law because it has been anulled by the superior sacrifice of Christ on the cross.” They intone, “But you should still, of course, obey all the moral laws.”

Sounds good, but does it work?

Take Ex 21:22-25 :

22 When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine.
23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life,
24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Sounds like Christians for the death penalty are onto a good thing? “Oh, no!” interrupts the grey-bearded scholar (or possibly religious bigot in disguise) “That does not apply any more either, civil law is also abolished in Christ.”

Hmm. So, what makes the treatment of disorderly conduct, or slaves civil law and something else moral law? It’s quite simple really. Moral law is about sex and civil law isn’t.


Bible enticement?

This is a response to Mark Vitalis Hoffman’s guest post. The post was presented here in lots of bits because I suffered a “WordPress moment” yesterday and the “system” kept refusing to accept the post giving mysterious error messages :( so here are the parts in order:

One phrase in Mark’s guest post(s) has been ringing in my ears overnight. He wrote:

Can people be enticed to read the Bible if it is delivered in digital forms?

To someone brought up as heir to the radical wing of the reformation (in a self-consciously Non-conformist English family) there is something deeply disturbing about the thought that people must be “enticed” to read Scripture. The Bible is the book that set my spiritual ancestors free of human lords and priests. It is also in large measure the book that freed the slaves (despite its use by slaveowners and traders to justify their commerce in humanity). It is the book which has opened the door to God’s amazing grace for so many across the years. How could people need to be “enticed” to open such a treasure?

Yet we do.

Rich, 1 By global standards not merely rich but very rich. fat, 2 Suffering in fact an obesity epidemic. comfortable inhabitants of the “Christian” West can hardly be persuaded to read Scripture. In part this very affluenza is the problem, as a Peter Kirk reminded us in a comment on Facebook, the Bible is avidly read in other parts of the world. A Galilean teacher once pointed out that it was easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than for a rich person to accept God’s grace…

And then there’s our church culture, by and large (at least in the Evangelical sectors I inhabit) church culture has rushed to follow the TV evangelists and accepted the lie that the Bible is merely a storehouse of “verses”, small fragments to be used like a lucky charm to ensure continued blessing, or like a club to beat an opponent in conversation into submission. Generations (like all those alive in the West today) who have been loosing old superstitions (even if eagerly adopting worse ones) will hardly continue the first with quite the same enthusiasm. And no one not but a bully could find the second attractive … no wonder Bible reading is loosing its hold on the Western mind.

Notes   [ + ]

1. By global standards not merely rich but very rich.
2. Suffering in fact an obesity epidemic.

Bible and technology guest post: ubiquitous Bible reading

Digital Bible media should be ubiquitous.
In one sense, and in the short-term, this means cross-platform availability. Accordance, Laridian, Logos, OliveTree, and YouVersion have all been working on making their software and resources accessible on a computer, phone, tablet, pad, or the Internet. This means that my library as well as my annotations are available to me regardless of where I’m working.
This kind of access is another critical change in how we think about what it means to read the Bible.
In a larger sense, when I say that Bible media should be ubiquitous, I mean that the Bible really becomes formative in all we do and say. The more we are able to read and engage with the biblical text, the more we as Christians become equipped to think and act biblically. I think technology can help get us there, but that’s another essay!

Bible and technology guest post: Bible reading as personal

Digital Bible media should be both personal and communal. Bible reading can be an intensely personal experience, but the technology really enables it to be a communal one as well. I taught one Greek class where we connected with the Lutheran Seminary of Hong Kong. It was both informative and exciting to be colloborating on translating Greek into English when we were enriched by another culture’s perspective as well as the challenge of making sense to students for whom English was a second language. This aspect relates to my previous point of interactive reading, and I dream of someday participating in worldwide Bible study groups. I think this will be one of the greatest ways Christians will be able to see a global Christianity that transcends parochial or national boundaries.

Bible and technology guest post: Reading experience

  • Digital Bible media should be similar to the traditional reading experience. I think the success of devices like the Nook, Kindle, iPad, or Android tablets is due in part to the fact that they kind of feel as if one is reading a book. Both the form factor and the page metaphor are roughly similar. The biggest problem has been citation when the concept of page numbering gets lost. The Bible comes with a handy book, chapter, verse system, but it’s a system that has been criticized for imposing a structure on the text that isn’t necessarily there. Considering that the digital device you hold in your hand is not just a Bible but capable of holding a host of Bible versions, and there is a clear advantage for digital.
  • Digital Bible media should emulate the engaged reading experience. I have a few Bibles sitting on my shelves from my younger days that are rather extensively marked up with margin notes and highlights. I was so familiar with those Bibles, that I knew on what part of the page to look for a specific text. If digital Bibles are going to succeed, they will need to have a similar capability.
    Most Bible software and apps have been working toward this end by providing bookmarking, highlighting, and notetaking. The advantage for digital here is that I won’t lose all my annotations once I move to a new Bible or version.
  • Digital Bible media should transform and revolutionize the overall reading experience. You, Tim, had the foresight long ago to start thinking about what this might mean with the hypertext Amos project. The Glo Bible is another recent, more popular-oriented attempt. Beyond just linking to dictionaries and graphics and sound files, I am imagining that someday we will be able to make Bible reading a dynamic and nearly immersive experience. This is happening already with other interactive books (here are some examples), and eventually the Bible will receive simliar innovative treatment. This approach should hopefully go a long way to making Bible reading appealing, even compelling.

Bible and technology guest post: Audio Bibles

Here’s where producers of Bible software and apps come into play. To keep this response from getting too long, I will simply make a number of observations,

[TB: WordPress is throwing a fit every time I try to post these, so I’ll post them one by one :( ]

  • My sense is that there will always be a place for audio Bibles, but they will not likely become a predominant form.
    You, Tim, have been involved with the podbible and the 5minutebible projects, and there is also The Bible Podcast site. These are great resources for people who have various challenges reading, and my commuting students loved having them available. On the other hand, hearing is just much slower than reading, audio is becoming largely associated with music, and music is being challenged by video.

Bible and technology guest post (part two)

It’s probably safe to say that the number of Bible readers is directly related to the number of Christians. In the West (and the best numbers I could find relate in general to Europe and the USA), there has been a steady decrease in the number of self-identified Christians and church attendance. It’s no surprise, then, that Bible reading has decreased, and the only way to reverse this contribution to the decline has to be a revitalization of Christianity in the West. The follow-up question then is, “Can new technologies contribute to the revitalization of Christianity, including the reading of the Bible?”

I think there is also a conceptual factor at work. People still simply conceive of the Bible as a printed, physical book. There is an older gentleman in my home congregation who uses a computer regularly for email and internet, but when he reads his Bible, he pulls out his mother’s RSV Bible from the 1950’s. It’s rewarding for him to have that tangible connection with his family’s history. Even when he was part of an online Bible study group, and I linked directly to biblical texts using or Reftagger, he still pulled out his Bible to read the text. It’s not just an issue with older readers, however. Biblical scholars and seminary students have certainly discovered the benefits of working with Bible software, but I don’t know how many of them actually just read the Bible on their computer. How does this concept of the Bible as a physical book affect the number of people reading the Bible? Sales of physical books have been steadily declining in recent years, and just last year, Amazon reported that they were selling more e-books than physical ones. So, if fewer people are reading physical books, and the Bible is primarily conceived as a physical book, we should not be surprised to see a decrease in Bible reading. I believe that the majority of Bible readers simply have not made the shift to think of the Bible as a digital resource.
Now the question becomes, “Can people be enticed to read the Bible if it is delivered in digital forms?”

[More in part three all being well, WordPress problems continue.]