Historical novel of love and early Christianity

CaptureI have been reading Bob MacDonald’s recently published novel Seen from the Street: A Love Story from the first century. It is a historical novel about love and the origins of Christianity within Judaism in the years around and after the life and death of Jesus. Bob describes the book like this:
I wrote ‘new’ recording – not new faith. In line with several post-Shoa scholars, I have examined the Jewish aspects of first century Christ-believers and I have portrayed the Gentile relationships to them in the areas of love and desire for intimacy. Writers who have seen some of my chapters delight in the gentleness of the dialogue.

The story is told through glimpses into the lives of a number of interrelated groups of characters. Until near the end Jesus does not appear directly “onstage” but through the responses of others to his person and to the gospel proclaimed particularly by Paul. The stories of each set of characters are interesting and lead the reader on. These stories interact, and so together weave a portrayal of Jesus and of early Christian life. I am not a specialist in the NT or in the Graeco-Roman world of the first century but the historical detail rang true for me, and more than just seeming without obvious errors (like those even a non-specialist can spot in many historical novels set in this period) created a series of believable “worlds”.

The writing is really good, though/and1 it sometimes seems to carry overtones that the mind chases beyond the words. The book (though not produced by a well-known publisher) is free from intrusive errors or infelicities, whether because of Bob’s care in composing the text or a skilled editor’s work.

Lest this review seem just a puff piece for a friend’s work I should note my problems and hesitations. I was reading an e-text and the limitations of my Reader were frustrating. Since the story is told through the intersection of a number of different (though related) stories I would have been helped by being able to skip easily between the page I was reading and the list of characters at the start. Since the story is not told chronologically, I would also have been helped by both more dating (this was provided for letters, but not always (I think) for non-epistolatry episodes) and although I have some idea of the sequence of Roman emperors of this period some modern BCE/CE dates would have helped.

The technique of telling about Jesus, rather than telling Jesus, was so effective for me that when he finally appeared “onstage” it was something of an anti-climax. But then I suppose (since Christian dogma and the conventions of the historical novel both suggest he should be portrayed as fully human) perhaps that is inevitable. How would you portray a man whom people come to recognise as God incarnate, rather than the easy task of presenting a docetist God dressed up like a human?

The guiding theme of love, and the mores of the Graeco-Roman world, intersect powerfully in the story. This intersection in the area of sexuality means that the story has its effect on how one responds to contemporary debates in this area. This also leads to perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the book. I am unsure how I feel about Gaius (a/the major character) and though perhaps intended, this uncertainty is difficult – as sexual relationships in the first century (even more than in our time and place) were necessarily implicated in relationships of power.

At just US$3 – 4 this is a book anyone interested in the origins of Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean of the first century, perhaps especially those with a fondness for Johannine styles of thought, will read with pleasure and profit, but which also may/should leave them unsettled.

The Kindle link is here:  https://www.amazon.com/author/drmacdonald for epub and other formats: https://payhip.com/b/Jea4.

  1. I am really not sure which is the better conjunction, on the one hand the almost mystical tone is one I do not relate to easily, on the other it fits the content and ideas well, and contributes to the overall “Johannine” feel of the book. []

Numbers 20: a reading and some critical readers needed

CaptureThe venerable (I think it is the longest-running religious periodical in NZ) Baptist has had a makeover for 2015.No longer newsprint, and with a web edition that looks pretty good.

The trouble is most of the writers are (to put it politely) experienced, and most of the readers inherited from the old format newsprint are (frankly) old folk.

It needs new writers I’d love to see Carey graduates from 5, 10, 15 years ago take up the keyboard. If any of you read this how about either offering yourselves an occasional piece, or bullying your colleagues into writing?

It also needs new readers, online readers, who will argue back, question or add new ideas… all or any of you who read this might be such…
What Kiwis think about sin could be a place to start… (and let’s hope Dale Campbell becomes a more frequent contributor along with others like Mike Crudge, Thalia Rowden, Nigel Irwin, Johnathan Robinson and many many more… mention those I have forgotten or not thought of in the comments here or an email and I’ll add them…)

Sensible Sentencing

Writing is dangerous. Readers often misunderstand. #SensibleSentencing can help. Short simple sentences are easier.

I have been marking. Some student essays are a joy to read. Some are full of long complicated sentences and I am left guessing what the writer intended to say. I cannot fairly give marks based on guesswork. Not just beginners, but experienced writers too, can write sentences that are misunderstood. Complex sentences are more likely to be misunderstood than simple ones.

The trick to writing that can easily be understood is easy. The trick to writing that is unlikely to be misunderstood is easy. Write simple sentences. Each sentence should say ONE thing.

[Like most “rules”, experienced writers can break this one effectively. PG Wodehouse wrote many long elegant sentences. Often they had a “twist” that added spice to his humour. However, when beginners try to copy such sentences often something goes wrong. The result is puzzled or angry readers. If you are an experienced writer you should still be wary of long sentences. They are dangerous. Check them twice.]1

If each sentence is short and says one thing, then it is almost guaranteed to be clear and comprehensible. Sometimes we need to coordinate two ideas together – in which case use a conjunction. If the ideas are simply placed side by side use “and”. If they are contrasted use “but”.2

However, beginners should be wary of sentences that use more complicated tricks than this.

  1. This is good advice. I have been writing for public consumption for over forty years, usually more often than weekly, still most of my bad writing is due to long sentences – like this one? []
  2. You can do this as two sentences, using however, but this can lead to other problems. Not least lots of “howevers”. If you start a sentence with however put a comma after it.

    Actually it is more complicated than this, if “however” means “no matter how” it is not followed by a comma. For example: “However Squiggly tried, he couldn’t get his mind off chocolate.” More here. If “however” means “but” then a comma is needed: in Star Trek (2009) Spock says, “I intend to assist in the effort to reestablish communication with Starfleet. However, if crew morale is better served by my roaming the halls weeping, I will gladly defer to your medical expertise.” – More here. []

Write tight (repeating myself)

Photo by Dick Rochester

I have been doing a lot of writing in the last few months (one reason for less posts here) much of it to tight word counts, I was delighted to find my own advice still (despite Mike’s comments) rings true – at least to me ;)

In our intro class, students write a summary of the message a biblical text had for its intended audience. This should be one or two sentences and less than 50 words.

Writing a summary is like packing for a journey, some people want to take everything! Then it is an exercise in writing tight. Most students write much as they speak. In speaking we include padding – unneeded words and phrases that allow us time to think. Writing tight involves removing the padding.

Googling “tight writing” produced lots of advice, but many writers could not practise what they preached. (Several high ranked hits were written on contract, to raise the word count for the writer ;)

So, here’s Tim’s guide to writing tighter

Don’t repeat yourself

If a word occurs several times in a paragraph some of them may be unneeded. Using two words where one will do (tautology) is wasteful: “tightly stretched” only says the same as “stretched”.


Writers should have something to say. They should say it. Often, though, we also want to say other things. Tight writing omits such diversions. It keeps focused. The asides that often pepper this blog in brackets or as footnotes are examples that should be cut. (Except I like the effect, and am not trying to save words and do help the reader by using parentheses to mark the digressions off from the body text ;)

Don’t be passive

Good Grammar checkers (like MS Word used to have) hate passives. They are correct. Passive sentences are longer, and usually less clear: “The ball was kicked by John” vs. “John kicked the ball”

Cut conjunctions

Long sentences usually waste words, needing extra coordination. Several short sentences work better.

Very that

“That” is often unnecessary. It can often be pruned, it sometimes signals other words that1 can be pruned. Extra adjectives are also an easy target “very” for example usually adds little. Karen Luna Ray offers this sentence: “See how many unnecessary words that you can remove from this very lengthy sentence that I am writing..” Which becomes: “See how many unnecessary words you can remove from this sentence.”

To be or not to be

The verb “to be” often encourages wasted words. Compare: “She is a powerful writer” with “She writes powerfully.”

Avoid adverbs

Often we employ adverbs when a stronger verb does the job better. Suzanne Lieurance compares:

Flabby: She smiled slightly at the photographer.
Fit: She grinned at the photographer.

Above all, rewrite right

Paragraphs, and even sentences, are seldom  written right first time. Edit cutting flab. Read your text aloud. Read it silently. Each reading will show fat to prune.

Have a sit down and a nice cup of tea

After a break (better a good night’s sleep, but a cup of tea will do), edit again. Cut again!

  1. Though notice sometimes it IS needed ;) []

Windows Woes

In a previous post I mentioned the old Deadly Green Bar trick that MS Windows has been pulling on complacent PC users sine the terrible days of Vista. (Microsoft-in-the-head as repeat offender) There I mentioned the “fix”1 mentioned at Techspot. I pointed out that it was not a permanent solution.

Actually, at least for me, it is worse than that my opperating system has now decided that as well as the Deadly Green Bar it will also lock me out of my own folders! I can get to the system folders (I told it to “show” them) and others off the C: but I cannot get to those in …User/Tim/ Since that includes My Documents etc. this might be a problem!

Thankfully most of my current work is in Dropbox and not “My Documents”…

  1. Actually a partial patch. But when a firm as big as Microsoft has you in their sights any fix is a good fix. []

Fix for trackpad irritation

Photo from WikimediaI love using a laptop, on my lap. I prefer small notebooks as they are easier to carry and the screen is big enough when it is so close to me. BUT I hate the way in which at random my wrist or a trailing thumb will activate the touchpad while I am typing, and boing, I am now entering text in the wrong place. The cursor jumped :(

[Now I get annoyed with users who claim: “the machine/software just did” this thing I did not want done. I keep telling them that the error is theirs. So, I fully accept the cursor does not in fact jump around at random, it just seems that way. The effect is indeed caused by inadvertent brushes of my wrists or thumbs – but it is nevertheless annoying as all get out!]

There is a cure, a small utility from Google called Touchfreeze. It seems to work well, it turns off the touchpad while you are typing, but turns it on once you stop. I’ve been using it for a couple of days on both my netbook and my ultrabook and it just works. So far no worries where the trackpad is “off” when I want to move the cursor, and no more “jumping cursor” :)

It is just brilliant!

Google describe it like this:

Utility for Windows to disable touchpad automatically while you are typing text
Annoyed when you are typing a document and accidentally the palm of your hand brushes the touchpad, changing the position of the cursor in your document or accidentally clicking on an option. TouchFreeze is simple utility for Windows to solve this problem. It automatically disables touchpad while you are typing text.

“Notes” quick thought starters from NZ Christian Network

NZ Christian Network have begun to produce a series of thought starters. Aimed to fit on one double-sided sheet of A4 (in PDF format for printing and folding). The goal is to be simple, clear, and to start people thinking. They call them “Notes“. So far they have:

S14-01     Secularism 101 – What it is, why does it matter and how to address it

M14-01     Marriage – Why it matters, where it’s heading and what we need to do

M14-02     Marriage – Towards a strategy for Building a Healthy Marriage Culture

S14-02     Secularism is religious – A gospel by any other name

M14-03     There’s more to marriage! – Is marriage for you?

The format is great for people who still live in the print age (like many church people, especially those too old to have grown up in the Internet and mobile ages). 

Since I wrote the last one, I am delighted that they are also making them available in a format that’s more user-friendly for the e-age. As blog posts (with a Feed if you want to subscribe, mine is here, I hope the others will be appearing soon :)

Looks good to me on laptop, tablet and phone, how about you?

Describing the genre of prophetic books

I have finished a first draft of a chapter (for a forthcoming book) in which I seek to defend and illustrate my idea that the genre of prophetic books might best be understood as “prophetic fictions”. (Using “fiction” as I think Alter does to signal a concern for the artistry of presentation rather than as a synonym for “untrue” ;)

I think this idea works several attempts to define the genre together keeping (some of) the best features of each, I also believe it has interpretative power.

BUT I no longer have colleagues down the corridor whom I can bully into reading and criticising my work :( If you would be willing to read nearly 5,500 words and to comment on the flow of the argument or other features that might help me sharpen or improve the chapter I would be really grateful. I am not so much after specialist knowledge as help strengthening the presentation of the ideas.

Referencing (citing) for beginners

One of the biggest hurdles new students face is learning to reference their work “properly”. Schools seldom teach this skill but increasingly Universities and colleges are demanding it. Life is not made easier by the fact that, to all except for OCD suffers getting proper citations is no fun :(

That’s the bad news. However the good news is that “proper” citation has never been easier.


You can use a program that keeps track of all your references and even formats them differently for different teachers at the click of a button. The two commonest ways to do this (at least in NZ) are:

  • EndNote: an expensive program for which many institutions have bought site licences that allow students to install a copy. Its greatest advantage is that it may come with institutional support (e.g. free classes on how to use it). Its greatest disadvantage is that it is a big heavyweight that has a history of slowing your wordprocessor to a crawl and crashing machines. (I’m told it is better behaved now, but have no recent experience to confirm this.) It will do everything you need and 16,000 other things as well.
  • Zotero: a free program that works as a standalone or integrates with your browser1 and both MS and the main free Wordprocessors. It does everything you need and a score or more of things you should need but probably won’t. It has been known to crash, but in my experience less than Endnote.

The choice is probably really simple :)

  1. If your institution offers Endnote and supports it, choose it.
  2. If not choose Zotero.
  3. Unless you like using free software and hate your computer running slowly in which case use Zotero anyway.
  4. Not using either is plain stupid, and if you were stupid you would not be looking at this ;)

Learn to use it. (If there is demand I might do updated Zotero tutorials but I think the ones on the site are good.)

Getting the data

Unless you are a fossil from the dark ages, do not try to enter the data (author’s name, title, etc.) by hand. There are easier ways :)

For books and e-journals your institution’s system should integrate with your bibliography software, on the catalogue page just click the link to “add citation to Endnote” (or however it is phrased).

NB: this data is prepared by librarians so is usually good, but occasionally even librarians have brainstorms or bad hair days. If the author’s name appears in capitals, or the Title includes a description or something, then you may need to “clean up” the data. This is rare, and if you do it in the bibliography software itself you only have to do it once for any item. One piece of “tidying” I often have to do is add the place of publication.

Citing right

Add your citations in your wordprocessor.

Make sure you have chosen the “correct” format. Hint: the “correct” format is the one your teacher told you to use, even if you think a different one is better :(

There are more possible formats than there are days in a leap year, but there are a few in common use:

MLA 7th EdBulkeley, Tim. Not Only a Father: Talk of God As Mother in the Bible & Christian Tradition. Auckland, N.Z: Archer Press, 2011. Print.
APA 6th EdBulkeley, T. (2011). Not only a father: Talk of God as mother in the Bible & Christian tradition. Auckland, N.Z: Archer Press.
TurabianBulkeley, Tim. Not Only a Father: Talk of God As Mother in the Bible & Christian Tradition. Auckland, N.Z.: Archer Press, 2011.
ChicagoBulkeley, Tim. 2011. Not only a father: talk of God as mother in the Bible & Christian tradition. Auckland, N.Z.: Archer Press.

Learn what the ones used at your place look like, so you’ll notice if somehow your document is set to the “wrong” one ;)

What about interesting things like videos, blogs etc.?

Ths is the most frequently asked question. The first answer is this: “Don’t panic”2 The second answer is go to Son of Citation Machine, click the appropriate link, and enter the data (or at least those that you can easily discover, how much effort you make probably depends on how IT savvy your lecturer seems ;)  Though nowadays Zotero or Endnote are probably up to the job without Son of Citation Machine once you have done a few and got the feel of things :)

It should look something like this:

Bulkeley, Tim. Not Only a Father: Talk of God As Mother in the Bible & Christian Tradition. Archer Press, n.d. Web. 7 Apr 2013. <http://bigbible.org/mothergod/>.

  1. on PCs, Macs, iPhone/iPad, Chrome for Android, Android Browser, Firefox Mobile Browser or Opera Mobile/Mini []
  2.  Douglas Adams (1992). The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Trilogy in Four Parts. Pan, 537. []

Blogging needs Facebook

Mark Goodacre posted an interesting comment: The Jesus’ Wife Fragment and the Transformation of Peer Review? which linked to an equally interesting post Le véritable scoop de «l’Evangile de la femme de Jésus»: la transformation des normes de publication académique (peer-review), raising questions about what the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife saga may teach us about peer-review in the humanities. As often happens some interesting discussion of the post(s) took place on Facebook (WARNING you will only be able to follow that link if you are “friends” with Mark G). With blogging software trackback might lead a reader of the originalpost to Mark’s blog, but there is no trackback from Facebook… what blogging needs is a FB app that allows cross posting of comments (if the commenter selects this?) back from FB to the original post on the blog.

Facebook needs blogs for sustained posts that do more than tickle a meme, but blogging in turn needs a decent Facebook app!


BTW here are my comments (so far):

The media spotlight certainly impacted this case. But does it actually nullify it as a precedent, could pre-publication with public comment from interested parties (mainly scholars with an interest in the topic) substitute for or complement traditional secretive peer review.
There are certainly vested interests that will militate against such change, but there are benefits, at least for a scholar who thinks their work important, such a process would increase the “impact” of such articles…

Mark responded wondering if the actual HTR process this time was a good repeatable one, I replied:

No, but possibly a very light first round (basically just checking it “looks” scholarly with a skim read) then pre-publication, possible revision before the final decision to publish and definitive citable version…


Computer mediated collegiality :) The old draft: colleagues comment, publish… but with a much wider and less self-selected circle of “colleagues”.

NB for copyright and confidentiality reasons I have not quoted other participants, which gives a one sided view and over estimates my contribution :( a decent FB app would overcome that :)