Getting pictures to illustrate daily life in biblical times

Beni Hasan, tomb of Khnumhotep II, carpenters building boat and furniture, adr1603247542

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?

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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

amos

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.

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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! []

Dealing with the distance student’s email deluge

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We are all1 deluged with more email than we can easily deal with (at least when we are busy with ‘real life’). This problem becomes much more accute for ‘distance students’. As well as the usual special offers not to miss, uncle Tom’s funny cats, reminders of unpaid bills and the rest, they suddenly face a slew of messages from courses they are enrolled in. Some of these are messages from the teacher and may contain vital, or at least (we hope) useful information. Many will probably be generated automatically by ‘the system’ sending copies of ‘forum posts’.2

Usually these forums are of two quite different sorts. Some are assessed and gain the student marks, others encourage wider sharing of ideas and questions of the sort onsite students exchange over refreshments (hence ACOM calls them ‘Student Lounges’).

Different classes will have the email notification system set up in diferent ways. Usually students can “unsubscribe” from emails, though often they are set to get them as the default option. There are basically three approaches you can take to these post notification emails.

  • Turn them off, and go look at the forums at times that suit you. This suits organised timetabled people. Those of us who are less organised risk missing vital posts this way.
  • Switch them to “digest” mode, that way each forum just sends one email every 24 hours. Great if your main problem is simply too many emails confusing you, but it could result in a long and confusing ‘digest’ – a case of the cure being (perhaps) as bad as the disease.
  • Leave them on but triage your mail box. I dealt with how to do this in a separate post, but basically it means either yourself, or by using “rules”, deciding which to leave in your inbox and which to move to a holding pen (or even delete).
Don’t do as I do.

Don’t do as I do, but find your own best approach! However, here is what works for me. During my regular email triage sessions I either from the subject line, or more often after a quick glance at the contents, decide if one needs action now. If so I go to the forum and respond. Otherwise I delete them, but expect to take another glance (in context of the student they were responding to) when I make a (daily? every couple of days?) visit to the forums to see what’s new.

 

  1. Well, probably only ‘almost all’, but from conversations I think ‘all’ is only a small hyperbole. []
  2. ‘Forums’ are sometimes known by other names but are ‘places’ where students can leave messages and respond to the messages others have left. []

Email triage

Swedish army 2nd Lt. Per Bursell checks the blood pressure of an Afghan elder complaining of chest pains during a medical civil action project in the Mazar-e Sharif region of Afghanistan Nov. 27, 2006. The Cooperative Medical Assistance team of Bagram, Afghan National Army Medic Platoon, the Romanian Medical Detachment, Norwegian and Swedish army medics are providing the medical care. (U.S. Army photo by Cpl. Bertha A. Flores) (Released)

It’s a war zone

When a service is overworked (like a hospital in a war zone) incoming tasks (patients) need to be prioritised. That way the most urgent get dealt with first, and the less urgent are left till there is time.

For many people today our email inboxes are like a war zone!

Broadly there are two contrasting approaches to email triage. One seeks to attain and maintain a ‘zero inbox’, the other relies on the huge storage capacity available today (and the relatively small size of most email messages – except auntie Jane’s laugh out loud videos)1 together with much better search facilities available in most email clients, and seeks simply to manage the flow.

Zero inbox

I have never managed ‘zero inbox’ [If anyone does this and can suggest a good place for advice I will add a link here.] so below I’ll explain ‘managed chaos’. I will use Gmail as my example but much the same principles work in Outlook and other systems.

Managed chaos

When emails are first seen

NB: I turn off, or ignore, the notification that tells me “you have 3 new messages” – if I am not reading emails just now it is a distraction, when I am doing email it is redundant.2

Every now and then (the timing varies depending on what I am doing, but at least twice a day – morning and evening) I open the email client and look at the messages. First I look at the sender’s name and the ‘subject’. This allows me to delete quite a lot without reading them, and occasionally mark gratuitous rubbish as ‘spam’. (I try to follow the ‘unsubscribe’ link at the bottom of most circular emails if I once signed up but no longer want them, marking them as spam may be counter productive and the difference in time is small.)

I then open the rest one at a time:

  • Some I need to read and act on.  If possible I do it now, if not I mark them as ‘unread’ as a signal to me that they need action.
  • Some I can glance at, notice what matters and then delete.
  • Some need to be kept, but require no action. You can flick these into useful folders depending on their topic and relevance. I used to, but no longer bother as a quick search (and as Gmail indexes as I go searching is very quick) finds the ones I need when I need them.

I have not written about ‘rules’ here as I hardly use them, they are a powerful way to manage the flood, but seem to me hard work! I have also turned off the Gmail ‘feature’ that sorts circular emails into a seperate box, that too is a complication I do not need! (See here for how it is meant to work – reversing the how to turn it on instructions turn it off : )

Taking a second look

At the end of the day, or when you need a break from other work, look back over the emails you have not dealt with and deal with them. They will now be marked as ‘read’ and can be left unless one day you need them.

Job done, emails tamed (at least 90% of the time ; )

  1. Which you either delete or if her sense of humour matches yours keep and enjoy. I usually delete them sight unseen! Along with e-cards and other rubbish. []
  2. I can see them for myself thanks! []

Aniconic Stories and Reading the Bible

By Kelly Sikkema on Flickr

Back since before we produced PodBible 1 I have been concerned with falling rates of Bible reading among Christians in the Western World.

Among the churches I have most contact with, NZ Baptist and occasionally other Charismatic and/or Evangelical churches, there has also been a slow but marked decline in the public reading of Scripture. Often now I can attend a 90-120 minute service of which less than 1% is spent reading the Bible, and it is never normally over 10% (including the sermon, where sometimes only a collection of small fragments is actually read and not merely referenced).

Yet, it is precisely in these churches, where our faith and practice are founded and built on Scripture.

That’s the first point: We read Scripture less, yet we claim it is the basis for our faith – we have a problem!

Now something that seems, at first brush, unrelated. I record (among other things) readings of children’s stories. Recently different people, referencing different ages of child, have mentioned that the Beatrix Potter stories are preferred over Winnie-the-Pooh. The reason given is that Potter’s are illustrated and so the child has a video to watch, while Pooh is just audio. This makes a priori sense since children get to see so much video today, and recent children’s books are usually illustrated with copious colour images, where a generation ago only a few line drawings often sufficed.

For me, this recognition was confirmed by the experience of reading Paddington Bear to my grandson. At 5 and a bit, he is a good reader, enjoys reading and also loves having stories read to him. He had watched several episodes of a video version of Paddington (not true video but like my Beatrix Potter produced zooming and panning over simple colour images). He was “getting”  the humour and chuckling away. So, later that day I got out the copy of a Paddington omnibus edition we used to read to our children. I was only a couple of pages into the first story, when he complained: “Where are the pictures?” I showed him the few line drawings, and he chose another book to have read.

The rising generations2 are simply less able to enjoy aniconic stories.

We have a second problem to compound the first: We are becoming less interested in, and even less able to ‘read’ aniconic stories.

There have been attempts to address this. As well as the ‘biblical’ blockbusters, which attempt to ‘retell’ the Bible stories as engaging cinema, people have produced visual Bibles (or at least episodes or whole books from the Bible). Some are extremely expensive and use the full range of the actor’s and videographer’s crafts (notable among these are the Jesus Film 3 and the project known as The Visual Bible).4 Distant Shores Open Bible Stories has gone the opposite route and used a crowd-sourced open and free approach.

There is however a significant issue with such visualisations, the biblical text is inherently aniconic, not only is the text itself consistently unimaged (at least for the first many centuries of its transmission) but beyond that we have very few indeed pictures of its characters from their own lifetimes. Most of those are foreigners on the periphery of the story, none of the major characters was5 imaged in from life.

If the ‘visual Bible’ approach is fraught with theological and practical difficulties, are there other approaches to cope with these issues?
Even if small children are more resistant to stories without pictures, most become capable of attending to such stories, and many learn to love them. Reading the Bible aloud in church is more, and not less, vital than it was in less visual times.

Children seem more able to concentrate in the absence of images when other stimuli are reduced (e.g. listening to stories through earphones on car journeys or to an adult reading in a darkened room). Perhaps, in church, we could dim the lights for the reading of Scripture!

This post is very much an exploratory musing, so (if you have the attention span to have read this far ;) do please contribute to my thinking by voicing concerns, ideas, hopes, … in the comments!

  1. The idea for PodBible was stimulated by a desire to help a generation who read little, but listened to MP3s a lot, to “read” the Bible. []
  2. Remember this process did not begin with ubiquitous video on phones, but broadcast video on TV, or even earlier with film, photography and printing advances making images cheaper and very much more widespread, already a century ago before my father’s birth! []
  3. Not quite a visual Bible, but closely based on Luke’s gospel. []
  4. Which perhaps in ways not unrelated to the amounts of money involved has been mired in controversy and strife. []
  5. So far as we know. []

Facebook and the end of conversation

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urlToday has been a day for Facebook.1 The results have been interesting.

Following a Skype meeting I joined another Facebook “gated community” (you know one of those “closed groups” that is closed so people can say things freely without worrying about being attributed out of context. These communities are needed. But membership in them conflicts with one of my Facebook principles, I try not to write anything on Facebook (or here, or anywhere on the Internetz) that I am not OK with saying in public. In principle my public and private faces should be one.

Apparently2 I am an extrovert on Facebook, I “speak” before I think. I posted a quick knee-jerk response to a friend’s post, another friend of that friend objected strongly. I defended myself. By this stage my brain was back in charge, so I believe the reply though firm was curteous. The response was “we’ll have to agree to disagree”. Now, agreeing to disagree is fine, on occasion. When an atheist and a theist have been arguing for a while and neither is any more coming up with interesting new twists, time to agree to disagree. When a Muslim and a Christian discuss the divinity of Christ or the place of Sharia law, time to agree to disagree. For sure “agreeing to disagree” is often better than the alternatives. But is agree to disagree the appropriate response after just a couple of exchanges all of just a few dozen words at most?

My take is that “agree to disagree” engaged too quickly is an easy way to avoid the stress of having to consider views different from one’s own. (Which given the stresses and pressure of life is sometimes appropriate, God knows.) But it happens in a world mediated by Facebook and Google, both of whom make their money by not showing us things we dislike/disagree with but instead confirming our prejudices. In a world thus mediated “agree to disagree”3 are dangerous tools.

It is this agreeing to disagree that enables Jerry Falwell’s disciples to stomp and cheer his hitlerian remarks, or that permits the radicalisation of Muslims in the streets and busses of European cities.

  1. On Tuesday early I finished marking for the year, after a weekend trip to Auckland for a wedding, and went back up to Auckland for the Aotearoa New Zealand Association for Biblical Studies meeting. I am due a day off! []
  2. I blame my “performer” trait. []
  3. And its cousin censoring by deleting comments you do not like. []

Writing the essay

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People hate to write

writersblockMost people hate writing. Even professional writers suffer from “writers’ block”, a combination of symptoms that lead to them doing anything else except actually write. Students with assignments do not have the luxury of years to prepare their masterpieces – they work with tight deadlines. The good news is that if you follow the advice in the earlier post “researching an essay” then you are already past the first barrier, you have begun to write!

Let me explain: As part of the research process, indeed as the goal of that process you have a title and a summary paragraph. I described the summary paragraph like this:

The first sentence should define the areas or issue. The last should present a conclusion. In between the sentences should each address one thing, and together they should present the arguments and sorts of evidence that lead to the conclusion.

If you have actually done this, instead of skipping over it as an unnecessary extra as many of us (sadly) do, you have a framework that you will now expand into your essay.

From summary to essay

target-970640_1920You are basically going to turn each sentence into a paragraph or two of your essay. So, how many sentences do you have. (Remember they need to be short and focused, if they are long and complex edit them!)  If each sentence was a paragraph (of the average length of paragraph you write) how close would you be to the word target? If this estimate is over you may need to begin thinking of what to cut, or trying to write shorter paragraphs – often shorter simpler sentences will help you do this ;)  If the estimate is under you may need to make each sentence of the summary (or some of them) into two paragraphs. Ideally at this stage you are aiming for an essay that will be 10-20% over the word target.

These paragraphs should be easy to write – you have already done the research. They will be focused – each expands on one simple sentence. They will lead your reader sensibly through the arguments and evidence to your conclusion. Congratulations. You are one of the few students to write a coherent essay!

Already you are on track for better marks – you would be horrified how many incoherent essays teachers have to mark – if you doubt this befriend some (ex)teachers on Facebook ;)

The final steps

According to the Daily Telegraph: Mark Smithers, from Kent, recently revealed that he lost 11 stone in one year

According to the Daily Telegraph:
Mark Smithers, from Kent, recently revealed that he lost 11 stone in one year

You have two tasks left:

Edit, then edit again. Cut the waffle. In speech we need time to think so we use words and phrases that mean nothing or which add little to the meaning to give us time to think. Cut them out! We think descriptive words, especially superlatives, make our writing and ideas stronger, usually they don’t – cut them. A slimmed down, taut and powerful essay will come out of this painful process!

Write a conclusion. What it will look like depends on the subject and type of essay. BUT it should say nothing new. It should merely repeat in compressed form what you have already said. It serves to remind your reader what you said, and draws attention to how cleverly and in what a focused way you arrived there.

Researching an essay

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Literature search

The first step to a good essay is a “literature search”. The goal of this, whether conducted with the aid of an academic library or in the wild with “merely” the Internet to help, is two-fold:

  • to get an overview of the topic and if you do not have a narrow topic set for you to identify a precise topic on which to write (see below)
  • to begin collecting resources, useful resources are of two sorts:
    • Simple overviews of a broad topic (we called them “Noddy guides” when I was young ;-) Articles on the topic in specialised dictionaries or encyclopedias are usually good possibilities.1 A good noddy guide will help you gain a broad context of what experts have said and are saying about the topic. It will also probably help you to identify a narrower topic within the broad topic which is subject to debate and so might make a good topic on which to write.2
    • Specialist works you also need works written by specialists, often these are journal articles, but (in theology and biblical studies at least) will also include chapters from books3 focused on your narrow topic. As you search you should not read everything but glance through the works getting an idea what each is about. Gradually you will get a sense of which are the “best” works in the area, they are the ones that are mentioned in bibliographies and footnotes by other authors more often. They are the ones you will prioritise for reading later, and may be the only ones to reach the final bibliography for the essay – quality is usually better than qualtity in bibliographies.

Beginning to sketch out the field

Title

The overview(s) you found should begin to give you an understanding of the topic and (hopefully) the issues that have been/are being debated in this area. At this stage one goal is to produce a provisional title for your essay. The title should (if you have a choice) should be short and identify a narrower area within the broad topic on which you will focus. (If you are working with a set title, unless the rubric demands that you offer a broad overview, you should create a private title that identifies the focus – within the official title – that you will give to your essay.

Draft summary and conclusion

When you have your defined area or issue to address try to write a first draft of a one paragraph (unless it is a long essay) summary of the relevant information or the sub-issues in dispute. This should suggest a provisional conclusion. (Usually in writing such a summary one side or other of the issue will seem weightier or more attractive.)

If significant things seem still really unclear you should read more.

Now revise your summary paragraph. The first sentence should define the areas or issue. The last should present a conclusion. In between the sentences should each address one thing, and together they should present the arguments and sorts of evidence that lead to the conclusion.

This summary paragraph will provide the structure of your essay, and may provide also its opening. At this stage, indeed until the essay is finished, it is provisional and can be edited whenever you fins a need.

Researching the specialised works

At this stage you begin to read the specialised works you prioritised. While you may read short articles from start to finish any longer work should be read following the sort of process outlined here. Note taking will be covered in the next post.. Here it is sufficient to say that you should focus on getting information, arguments, and ideas that will help you fill out the sentences of your summary – so you are looking for material that relates to the special topics of each sentence.

Excursus: advice on Wikipedia and Internet resources

Wikipedia is often a useful place to start, but many scholars depreciate its use. Lack of expert editorial control may allow inaccuracies or ignorant bias in some articles. If you use Wikipedia as your first read do not cite it, but make sure that the information or ideas it gives you can be sourced from works of conventional scholarship. (This is not merely pandering to scholarly prejudice, but simple prudence, remember Wikipedia does not have expert editorial control and so is more likely to contain errors or serious bias without supporting arguments and evidence.) Because of ow Wikipedia is produced its articles are NOT usually useful in providing an outline for your essay (see above).

Other Internet material (not counting scholarly journals and books that you can access via Internet) should be treated with greater suspicion than material found in an academic library. Librarians act as filters removing works that lack scholarly quality (nb. this is more true of academic libraries and less true of public libraries). The Internet has no such selectivity, you can access any and all sorts of rubbish as well as works of real quality. If you use the Internet (including Google Books as it has little such filtering) you must assume responsibility for this selectivity for yourself. Look for works with a scholarly air. Signs to look for include:

  • authors associated with reputable institutions (and who work in the field of study they write about)4 or who have a solid CV
  • referencing – works that are referenced are more likely to be of solid worth
  • arguments and evidence – works that simply state conclusions are of little value, scholarship NEVER rests on assertions of authority, but always on arguments and evidence
  • balanced tone and relative avoiding evaluative language – the more a site expresses clear and strong opinions the less likely it is to be scholarly (there are exceptions but unless other more reputable sources agree do not assume you have found one – however much you agree with the author’s opinions).
  1. Encyclopedia articles are often too long to really serve, though they may have introductions that set the scene or conclusions that will work well. []
  2. By and large the narrower a title you choose the better your essay, as long as sufficient has been written to give you the ideas, information and arguments that you will need. []
  3. Sometimes indeed whole books. []
  4. Many scholars in other disciplines have websites on institutional servers (with .edu or .ac domains) that discuss theological topics – treat these as you would contributions from the general public, a research nuclear physicist is no more likely to be a good theologian than an equaly intelligent bricklayer! []