Getting the PIP and the Deep Bible project

Christian Smith (American sociologist of religion, who coined the phrase “moralistic therapeutic Deism”)  published The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture with Brazos Press back in 2011. His list of ten characteristics of “biblicism”1 was recently cited by Scott McKnight as part of a brief affirmation of the thesis of the book. This made it onto my Facebook screen just a few days after we spent Saturday recording for the first episode of Deep Bible.

Several Evangelical scholars reviewed Smith’s book largely to rebut his claim that these ten features are characteristic of Evangelical (or at least of academic Evangelical) Bible reading. Though they have also criticised his thesis.2 This thesis considers the ten marks of Biblicism in the light of the phenomenon Smith calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (hence forth “PIP”) claiming that this fact of multiple readings makes these tenets impossible.

Getting the PIP (pervasive interpretive pluralism)

This post is not a review, or even a notice, of Smith’s book (I have not read it) nor is it a review or response to his critics, rather it is my response to his list, in the light of recording the first episode of Deep Bible. You see one of the core problems with the Bible today for Evangelicals (and other Bible-centred believers, like Baptists) is PIP. You do not have to look far to get the PIP, perhaps all the current (and past) hot button topics among Christians reveal that interpretative pluralism is indeed pervasive. Take the discussion between “Egalitarian” and “Complementarian” camps, they read the same Bible passages, but come to different conclusions. Even the arguments over “gay marriage”, are fueled by different hermeneutics leading to different conclusions.3

Therein lies the rub at least for those who live and have their being in church as well as breathing the more rarefied air of the academy. For, in church (at least in the pews)4 most or all of the terrible ten are believed as gospel truth, and hermeneutics is either an unknown concept or code for “attempting to avoid the plain sense of Scripture”.

Hence the importance of PIP for Deep Bible episode one.5 My contribution offers two strands of practical everyday response to PIP.

Radios and telephones

First, I suggest we need to recognise and distinguish two ways in which God uses Scripture to communicate with us, let’s call them the radio and the telephone. Sometimes the Holy Spirit uses a Bible passage (or even verse or phrase) to give a particular message to a particular person (or group). When this happens it is a bit like the Spirit inspiring Jeremiah with the message that God watches over his word to fulfill it (Jer 1:12) that message came from a pun on the Hebrew word for an almond branch (Jer 1:11). The message has nothing (at all) to do with almonds or branches or trees. God just used the (bad?) pun as stimulus. When God gave Barbara and I a comforting message about our move to New Zealand (following the traumatic shock of being evacuated from Congo and losing contact with so many of our friends and colleagues) that comforting message had nothing to do with the message of the book of Jonah, but God used the familiar story to make his point – and, as with Jeremiah’s pun, it worked for us. That experience is God making a personal telephone call.

OTOH when God inspired the writers of Scripture to reveal truth about the world and especially about its Maker, Sustainer and Redeemer that message, like a radio broadcast is intended for anyone who has the equipment and listens in.

Failure to distinguish these two sorts of meaning leads to much of the most pernicious misuse of Scripture, and so is responsible for much of the PIP that we get today. For we live at a time that prefers the immediacy of “the spirit”6 to the work of rightly handling the word of life.

Let’s just agree to disagree

Another cultural tendency also impacts the PIP. Tolerance  is a virtue (it is perhaps both the most important, under practiced, and yet over-rated virtue today). In the face of multiple interpretations of Scripture this core virtue of the pomo world kicks in, and we find ourselves tempted to “agree to disagree“. Agreeing to disagree is fine and desirable when we have really discussed, understand where the other is coming from, still respect them, yet despite this disagree.

It is not so fine or desirable when it is almost our first response to differing understandings of what the Bible teaches. Because it suggests that the Bible can (rightly and properly, and not merely because of human sinfulness) teach different things to different people. If the Bible can mean anything, then it actually means nothing!

In everyday life we accept restrictions and limits on what texts can mean. Two key and common restrictions are the meaning of words and phrases (literary restraints on possible meaning) and authors’ intentions (historical restraints on meaning). Much of the rest of the Deep Bible series will consider these two sorts of limit and how we can move between these towards deeper and fuller (yet more restrained) understanding of the Bible.

  1. He seems to use the word as a shorthand for what is wrong with self-consciously “Evangelical” readings of Scripture. []
  2. Kevin DeYoung, “Christian Smith Makes the Bible Impossible,” The Gospel Coalition, TGC, August 2, 2011, https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/kevindeyoung/2011/08/02/christian-smith-makes-the-bible-impossible/ and “Those Tricksy Biblicists,” The Gospel Coalition, TGC, (September 1, 2011), https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/kevindeyoung/2011/09/01/those-tricksy-biblicists/; Peter J. Leithart, “A Cheer and a Half for Biblicism,” First Things, August 26, 2011, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2011/08/a-cheer-and-a-half-for-biblicism; Robert H. Gundry, “Smithereens! Bible-Reading And ‘pervasive Interpretive Pluralism.,’” Books and Culture, October 2011, http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2011/sepoct/smithreens.html.

    []

  3. Though in this case one side sometimes denies that this is the case, it is more charitable to recognise that both are reading and trying to follow Scripture. Though in this case for both sides the big picture rather than the interpretation of individual passages is usually the driver.  []
  4. Or even the comfortable padded seating that serves the “same” function today. []
  5. I plan to consider the terrible ten in another post, as I was surprised to find that I was more positively disposed towards the statements than DeYoung! []
  6. Sadly often without the discernment needed to distinguish “the Spirit” from “my spirit”. []

SBL and “being there” (reflections from a past attendee)

Facebook reminded me that seven years ago today I was at SBL, and discussing then (via Facebook) with Stephen Garner (who was in Auckland) the values and value of such face to face meetings in this time of digital communications. I still rather like this reflection:
“Ah, yes, ‘being there’ ;)

photo from Bill Heroman via Facebook of Mark Goodacre, snapping Chris Porter, snapped by Sarah Mayo Heroman at #sblaar16

photo from Bill Heroman via Facebook of Mark Goodacre, snapping Chris Porter, snapped by Sarah Mayo Heroman at #sblaar16

So far paradoxically the only reason for ‘being there’ rather than watching streaming video (with the capacity to ask questions like Dimdim et al.)1 has been meeting people I correspond with daily or weekly on the Internetz, but have not yet encountered in the flesh.

The papers that have been interesting would mainly be better read, with time to reflect and engage,2 David Clines’ Presidential Address was inspiring, but sitting on the floor at the back of the room3 YouTube would have been as inspirational… So the deep irony is that SBL is great because I meet people’s fleshly avatars, but that the format means most get met and left, as I or they rush off to the next timetabled timewaster!”

This photo from Fortress Press via Facebook shows some typical SBL attitudes

This photo from Fortress Press via Facebook shows some typical SBL behaviours

 

Meanwhile back in 2016

I think that was the last SBL I attended, the reasons have not been (so much) lack of enthusiasm, for there is an enormous energy boost to delivering a paper to experts in the field and having them listen with more than polite interest, and even engage (briefly, though often positively, with the ideas). Rather now that my airfare and hotel bill (even staying at Day’s Inns and youth hostels US hotels are expensive) are no longer paid for me I have difficulty justifying the expense. I’m sure many of my friends would not agree with this negative assessment, they are extroverts for whom fleeting but vital people contact does not seem to be a reward they receive in the same way at a distance.

But this introvert wishes that a small fraction of what is spent on SBL4 could be siphoned off as a tithe to pay for enriching academic publication platforms to actually encourage engagement.5

  1. Dimdim may still exist, I have not seen it mentioned recently, but such online meeting rooms abound today, and are still often badly used – the effort to attend seems to correlate with the effort made by the organisers far too often! []
  2. Though, of course that would require a change to academic publishing to allow come form of commenting feature, or at least authors’ emails. []
  3. As I was, the room was rightly packed for a highlight of the show. []
  4. Using the initials of the Society as the moniker of the biggest such jamboree for biblical scholars pars pro toto to refer to the whole “conference” parade. []
  5. I cannot now find, and of course I did not bookmark, the depressing post I read earlier this week concerning how few people actually read peer reviewed articles – the author and some of the reviewers excepted – but the number was shockingly small. []

Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible

Review of Craig S. Keener and John H. Walton, eds., NIV, Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan/Spokane, WA: Olive Tree Bible Software, 2016).

img_9941

Comment on 2:6 and start of “sidebar”

This review has been affected by circumstances. Firstly Zondervan did not manage to get a hard copy of the work to me, but gave me access to the Olive Tree Android app on my phone. This means I am only commenting on how the phone app works and how the content appears in that format. Second, various life circumstances got in the way and the review is rather later than planned.

The package is intended as a digital representation of a Study Bible and so includes the text of the NIV. However a phone’s small screen does not allow the notes and text to conveniently appear together on the same screen. Bible references in the body text are linked, and touching the linked reference provides the NIV text in a popup. However, the references at the head of each article are not linked in any way to the Bible text they comment. (I was focusing on Amos in preparing this review, so for example the 1:6-8 that precedes and heads the comment on that passage is not a link.) This seems a near significant flaw. However, the Notes and the Bible text are synchronised, so clicking the “library” icon and selecting the NIV opens the Bible in the right place and the reverse, opening the library and selecting the Study Bible opens the notes for that passage (but this needs four touches instead of two to make the back and forth journey).

Sidebar body

Sidebar body

As just mentioned, Bible references in the text are most usefully links to a popup window. Cross references to material elsewhere in the Study Bible Notes are also links, though in this case the main window jumps. This is probably the best way to handle this, though on one occasion it was most disconcerting when the back button on my phone seemed to have ceased operation. Which meant that my curiosity having got the better of me (causing me to follow such a cross reference) I had to use the Bible browser to re-enter the reference of the passage I was studying in order to return to it.

Pictures and diagrams appear in the text, and when clicked expand to near full screen (and if reading in portrait mode one can turn the phone to see a landscape mode image).

Material that would (I assume) appears as sidebars in the codex edition appears as a block in the body text when the reader reaches the insertion point. It would have offered a more consistent interface to make such blocks links.

So, for example, a lengthy article on “Economic Changes and Social Classes in Eighth-Century BC Israel” appears after the notes on Amos 2:6 while the notes on 2:7 appear only after scrolling through a number of screens of “sidebar” material.

End of sidebar

End of sidebar

The content of the notes is useful, explaining issues that many readers will find helpful. The focus is indeed on cultural questions, though occasionally other aspects are mentioned and “cultural” is happily interpreted broadly. This raises questions about such “specialised” Study Bibles, by not mentioning text and translation issues, questions of genre, history, geography, intertextuality… the resource gives an impression of providing a full background to the passage being read, yet in fact may miss vital information. Perhaps in my home group the other members should be armed with an array of otherly-specialised Study Bibles.

Having said this, happily the writers have understood “cultural” in the broadest way, and so when one is reading the string of rhetorical questions in Amos 3:3-8 the probable impact of the series is discussed. While studying Acts in home group I found the notes useful on several occasions – this is probably a better test of the content than my explorations in Amos or Ruth (the books I had planned to base the review on) as I am less familiar with the first-century background.

The scholar in me cried out for references to indicate the source of the information and ideas that were presented. They were probably omitted for much the same collection of reasons as I only provided a bare minimum in the Amos commentary.1

Start of comment on 2:7

Start of comment on 2:7

I now believe that decision was wrong, and while perhaps in a paper codex Study Bible copious footnotes could have been a distraction in this electronic version they could have been a popup indicated merely by a small icon in or beside the text.

In summary: The work is potentially really useful to most readers of the Bible as a quick easy source of one important sort of background whose lack often impedes full and accurate understanding of biblical texts. The app is a worthwhile addition to any Bible-reader’s phone. It is a pity though that publishers still seem to expend more effort on the design of print codex editions of such works than on the information architecture and interface design of the electronic editions.

  1. Tim Bulkeley, Amos: Hypertext Bible Commentary (Auckland: Hypertext Bible, 2005), http://hypertextbible.org. []

Videos for children

For those looking for videos for children that offer reasonably balanced and healthy gender modelling, this post “13 Fabulous Kids’ TV Shows that Pass the Maisy Test and Have Other Great Features, Too” looks to be another great resource from Thalia.

The introduction, with its disparaging remarks about Thomas the Tank Engine is a powerful reminder of how far we have come in my lifetime. The first book (in which Thomas did not even appear!) was published on my birthday but three years before I was. Thomas himself is just a couple of years older than I. Back then it was “normal” that women were almost absent from the public space, though the second world war had recently made huge dents in the Kinder, Küche, Kirche ideology so beloved by Adolph Hitler and other male chauvinists across the ages. (Yes, I am looking at you American “Christian Complementarians”.)

That such attitudes still survive (and not only in such classics as Thomas) is a powerful reminder that the battle for gender equality is far from over.

If you are not ideologically-minded and are in a hurry (as many looking for children’s videos are ;) then please skip Thalia’s fine introduction and just point your children to her recommendations – at least you will have done something to stem the waves of male chauvinist indoctrination the US politico-entertainment complex swamps our psyches with each year.

 

Thanks RTE :)

Information Age?

Michael Pahl apparently posted this a month ago, but somehow it only showed in my reader this morning. I have no time today to comment except to say that
Being a Discerning Christian in the Information Age (Or, What to Do When You’re Forwarded That Email) is packed with good, as well as sensible and useful advice. Maybe his post once a month, but make it a really worthwhile post is the way to do it in this post-blog age ;)

Bible, Normative OR Negotiable a false dichotomy?

In an excellent post on the Aussie BS blog Mike Bird provides a neat helpful brief summary of things people need to recognise about the Bible. The post should be helpful for both believers and unbelievers alike, potentially dispelling ignorance and superstition in both camps ;).

His number six offers an interesting take on the Conservative-Liberal party divide. Mike’s approach helpfully sidesteps the shibboleths of inerrancy and infallibility with their focus on questions of facticity, and suggests in their place talk of Scripture as normative. So far so normal, and indeed to speak of Scripture as normative does more than proclaim its authority, it protects the Protestant standard of core or central authority.

What interests me though, is Mike’s other pole: negotiable. As Mike uses it, to speak of Scripture as “negotiable” means that it is merely “a human word about God to be selectively utilised insofar as it enables us to speak a transcendent word to our native context”. Indeed in a Facebook conversation the term becomes more clearly polemic:

…my idea of “negotiate” is not the complex hermeneutical reflection needed for proper application and obedience; rather, my concern is with a blaise dismissal of a text since it points away from values of the progressive tribe. For case in point, Paul was a sexist homophobic bigot, who cares what he thinks, stuff like that.

If your goal this is to distinguish “us” and “them” – at least if “us” is the Conservative wing of some denomination this understanding works really well. However, inherent (if sadly not inerrant) Middle-of-the-roadist that I am, I cannot avoid the thought that “negotiation” is precisely what Scripture, understood as both Mike and I both understand it (see his points 1-5 and 7) demands.

The Bible, or rather any part of the Bible that is currently in front of us and under discussion, requires negotiation. It needs to be brought from being merely an ancient text that is often metaphorical or emotionally non-literal that was written to and for people in very different circumstances than ours to being a word for today. Without negotiation, that is without a careful; conversation about the nature of the ancient message and the world to which it applied, and how that ancient message translates into today, without such negotiation application is merely your word against mine – all interpretations are valid and Scripture means nothing and has no authority.

For the Bible (and not merely its interpreter) to be normative Scripture requires negotiation. From where I sit, uncomfortably and dangerously, in the middle of the road, both the Conservatives and the Liberals in their such different ways reduce the Bible to an icon.1

For Scripture to be normative it must be negotiated. When it is both negotiated and normative then like John Robinson in his address to the Pilgrims:

I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.

  1. By this I mean a symbol to inspire allegiance, but with no real authority, the Conservatives delivering ultimate authority to those they recognise as inspired interpreters, and the Liberals doing the same but being perhaps more likely to claim that the speaker themself is among that blessed company. []

Getting pictures to illustrate daily life in biblical times

Back in the 20th Century it used to be difficult and expensive for books or websites that seek to explain the Bible to get suitable illustrations (it was even hard to get pictures for classes. For the Hypertext Bible Commentary: Amos “volume” I had to travel to Israel and take photos myself. For an earlier print book Etudions l’Ancien Testament I paid an artist to produce line drawings to illusrate various aspects of the text.

Then with the advent of “Web 2.0” and sites like Flickr and Wikipedia finding photos of places became easy, many with Creative Commons licenses. Photos of ancient statues, wall plaques and other such large and impressive objects was also possible, though few people can take really good shots in a museum. However, since the average Jo or Joe who is visiting a museum is unlikely to shoot everyday tools and the like these are still hard to source.

Granary

Model granary with store chambers, grain sacks and scribe, Middle Kingdom (AD Riddle)

I was delighted therefore to read AD Riddle’s Three Things I Like About Egypt in which he writes about the usefulness of Egyptian museums with things like their tomb figures illustrating aspects of life like the model granery with its scribe (above).

I was even more delighted when Todd Bollen in a reply to my question in a comment said Bible Places are looking at producing a collection of such photos!

Gospel games

It’s not yet launched (coming Thursday US time, Friday here) yet from what I’ve heard and seen The Aetherlight: Chronicles of the Resistance could be an answer for people looking for a decent, fun game for kids (and the young at heart?) that inculcates Christian values and the gospel message it cannot be worse than most of the “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” type nonsense that is usually marketed as “Christian”!

Unstoppable Play from The Aetherlight on Vimeo.

Legacy texts or e-commentaries?

Because designers of file formats and Bible software that uses them are print-centric in their thinking I seem to face a choice in envisaging a new generation e-commentary. Either I produce something that accepts the traditional limitations of print, but which would work within Bible software and so be available to people when and where they need it. OR I produce a genuinely electronic commentary, with links and media (pictures, video and sound), but that must be accessed apart from the Bible study tool.

In my previous post I expressed some frustration at the lack of tools for conveniently preparing a text marked up in OSIS (Open Scripture Information Standard). In this post I will look at OSIS from a different prespective. I am discovering that, as well as the practical difficulties of producing well-formed valid XML, I have  another deeper problem. OSIS is designed for marking up Bible and related texts, but it is designed for and from the print age. Its mentality is that of words written on a page. It is therefore quite good at rendering manuscript texts (after all print largely mimics manuscript). It is not good at producing e-texts.

To make matters worse, different front end1 designers have different ideas about the importance of non-textual elements (like figures)2 or hypertextual elements (most notably links). Among those who can import OSIS text (often adapted into Sword modules) some support figures (though the ability to size and place images in text seem to be rudimentary), others support links – though learning the arcane methods reguired is problematic and on occasions the results are bizzare (Xiphos3 may jump to an internal link in a commentary module, but seems to reset the Bible text displayed to the start of Revelation each time, not quite the effect I am after!

At present it looks as if I have the choice of aiming for commentary that is as print-like as possible, producing such a print-like commentary augumented by links to Internet based materials outside the commentary itself, or producing an e-commentary that does not work inside Bible software.

If anyone can suggest ways to cut the Gordian Knot, or even a decent compromise, would deserve and recieve my deep gratitude!

 

  1. Think Bible software or websites that allow you to read and study the Bible. []
  2. Photos, maps, diagrams, charts… []
  3. One of the most developed Crosswire front ends. []

Returning to e-commentary

Over a decade after the peer reviewed citable edition of the Amos commentary was published, and after several false starts and a lot of unproductive work, I am returning to explore the possibilities for e-commentary.

One thing that has changed for the better is that now OSIS (Open Scripture Information Standard) is more firmly established. It will allow the material coded in such a way it can be shared across, and used within a number of Bible software front ends. Screenshot below shows a mockup of some commentary on Amos 1:1.

amos
One thing that has not changed1 is that OSIS is infernally difficult to code and no convenient tool exists to let anyone but a markup geek work with the markup.

I am learning lots, I now know about modern Bigendians and why they are dangerous to meet. I am discovering the delights of disappearing titles and the vagaries of front end designers, more than I ever thought I’d want to know about file formats and relative paths… One detail I learned is that if you put a BOM where you should not everything blows up. But that is not why everything blew up this afternoon, I still have to discover that new piece of information!

If anyone reading this knows of a decent way for a human (who is not a markup geek) to compose text in OSIS markup I would be delighted to hear from you!

As part of my preparation I have been rereading my old papers describing how I envisaged the project a decade or a decade and a half back, in case anyone else would find them interesting I am uploading them to Academia.edu here are the 2004 ones I have been looking at recently:

  1. As far as I know so far. If you know otherwise PLEASE tell me! []