Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

The first and the last

Photo "Written in Gold" by Anonymous Account

Opening sentences matter. As Charles pointed out using First Sentences from Ford and Fretheim they either draw readers in or repel them. But last sentences could be important too, they are one’s last chance to leave an impression on (at least sequential) readers minds.

With such thoughts in mind (see Why is academic writing turgid?)I looked with unusual trepidation at the first and last sentences of my Colloquium article (it is so hot off the presses that it does not yet show on the journal website).

My article starts:

Paul Ricoeur speaks of metaphor as ‘semantic impertinence,’ for it is lack of pertinence which makes metaphor work.

That’s an OK first line… but I am much less sure of the concluding marathon of a sentence:

In this subversion lies a new freedom – of the text and its readers – from the dead hand of an “author,” this permits even encourages the invention – through a collaboration of text and reader – of “Amos” the hero and “author” of the words; or as Keep, McLaughlin, and Parmar conclude their brief discussion of hypertext and the death of the author: “The Author may be dead, but his ghosts may be even more eloquent.”

I like the ideas, KM & P’s sentence is great, but the turgid mess of a paragraph-like sentence should have been edited out. I suspect many academic final sentences are worse than their corresponding firsts. I hate to think what Fretheim’s might have been ;) For when we get to the end of a piece we are tired and want rid of it. When our long-suffering proof-readers get to the end they are tired and bored. Result a misery of a final sentence :(

The article is:
Tim Bulkeley, “L’auteur est mort, but won’t lie down: inventing authors while reading Amos” Colloquium 43.1, 2011, 59-70.

I believe the copyright remains with me, except the typesetting, so I’ll post it here soon…

Now to look at the final sentence of the one I’m working on:

Thus, in this larger sense, the narrated drama of Jeremiah, his opponents and his God serves to explore theological responses to this disaster, and thus serves similar functions to the complaint psalms.

As I feared, I am running true to form. Long and turgid. I must improve that!

Why is academic writing turgid?

Charles contrasts First Sentences from Ford and Fretheim the differences are really striking!

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

Ford Maddox Ford in the novel The Good Soldier

The Pentateuch (that is, a book in five parts) has been a designation for the first five book of the Old Testament (and Hebrew Bible) since the second century CE at least.

Terrence Fretheim in an academic work The Pentateuch. Charles notes, and I agree, that Fretheim is a stimulating thinker. So, he poses the question of why academic writing is so often dull and lifeless. I have not much wisdom to offer there. Read his post.

He offers his own suggestion for improving Fretheim’s sentence:

In contrast to the abstract and immovable god of the philosophers, the Pentateuch portrays a god that is, in the best sense, all too human.

Which I think is good but too long, I suspect the original paragraph in a sentence led him astray ;) How about editing it to:

God is all too human in the Pentateuch.

The prophet Jeremiah. Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (from Wikimedia)

So, with this terrible example (from an academic hero) in front of me I am looking closer at my own first sentences from now on. I’m currently working on an article for the book on Lament and Complaint. I’m ashamed that the current first sentence reads like this:

The claim by Shakespeare’s Juliette “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” is often quoted to assert that naming is arbitrary.


The “Confessions of Jeremiah” present the emotionally turbulent and violent world of a prophet caught between God and family.

Of course, I’d need then to make clear by “prophet” I do not mean a historical figure, but a literary construct, yadda yadda yadda, but that might make a better start?

Next-generation digital book?

TED often has inspiring and intriguing short talks. Though, as a long-time visitor to the site I’m less easily wowed than I used to be. One from the latest crop is a commercial demo. It’s what Push Pop Press (or possibly TED) think is “the next-generation digital book”. Take a look, it is impressive:

I suspect the technologically clever windmill that turns when you blow will lose its wow in a few weeks, but the possibilities of the visuals is stunning. Though in the demo the data “visualizations” were on the whole less than impressive. Not a patch on for example the more static data visuals TED demonstrated a while back.

And that’s my frustration with Push Pop Press’ Al Gore book, it looks good, it may be fun, but it is static. Umberto Eco classified literature on a scale from closed to open texts. Closed texts tell you what to think, open texts encourage exploration and readers to form their own understandings. (Although his distinction was intended to describe a significant feature of fiction, I think it applies at least as powerfully to educational and “factual” books.) Looked at with Eco’s eyes, Al Gore’s sequel to An Inconvenient Truth is a closed text, it fails to encourage exploration or imagination, but tells us what to think. Despite its title Our Choice is not about us learning and growing, it’s about us watching and enjoying a masterful performance by the programmers and designers.

This iBook is a digital equivalent of the bread and circuses TV or the mega-Church “worship” that are the opium of the people in the wealthy and comfortable bubble that is Western Culture. It is indeed a next-generation digital book as the corporates would like it to be, saleable and static, a disposable commodity. A true next-generation digital book would by contrast be open, it would encourage exploration and conversation far from being disposable it would open new possibilities and thoughts on return readings.

The technology for such a book does not need teams of expensive programmers. With minimal coding skills we could do it with a combination of HTML and WordPress. The linkages and connections made possible by <a href=http://… together with the ongoing conversation and community that blogging tools allow are all that is needed for a true Next-generation Digital Book. I love to see us produce a FOSOTT (free, open source Old Testament textbook) that as well as a paper edition offered an e-book version that included such interactivity.

Why proprietary file-formats are bad for institutions

By Paul Downey

A growing institution that despite growth is somewhat strapped for cash has most of its staff on OfficeProduct 2006, it less than the latest thing, but does everything the staff need. New staff are employed (it is a growing institution) new laptops are bought, they come with OfficeProduct X an easily “upgradeable trial version”. So, of course, to keep things simple they run OfficeProduct X.

Now disaster strikes, OfficeProduct 2006 cannot read OfficeProduct X files and the whole institution must be upgraded to OfficeProduct X. Strangely the same institution runs OpenOffice (a standards compliant open source Office package) on the public access terminals in the library. They do not need to upgrade, for OpenOffice CAN read the OfficeProduct X files…

As a further bonus advantage OfficeProduct X uses strikingly different menu structures from its predecessors, that means staff will need training, or possibly will just suffer the frustration of wasting hours learning the new “improved” product by trial and error, and then more hours helping their colleagues who are slower at learning such arcane 21st century skills.

A further disaster, but one that in the past could not have been avoided, many staff still have files from OtherOffice 2.0, those files are now unreadable by almost every modern Office suite. Lost data :( Now in the past such disasters were unavoidable, now however, suppose the files were saved in Open Document Format (an open standard that non-proprietary office suites use). Guess what in 10 or 15 years if ODF 2.0 has come out there will be plugins available to read the old files.

Now remind me, just how does paying for Microsoft Office make economic sense?

Clear and Simple Tweet-Act Theory

If you’ve ever been put off or confused by the complex language of Speech-Act Theory (think “perlocutionary” and “illocutionary”) John Dyer simplifies it beautifully and then raises questions about Twitter (for the twits) and Facebook (for those who today will change their faces).

I won’t give you the permissable short extract, since those often keep you here, and my goal is to send you to his post: This Lent: What is the Perlocutionary Effect of Your Twitter Feed?

So, there’s noting doing here, you might as well click the link :)

Literature and e-books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recapitulation, the failure of “publishing” to actually “publish”

This season between Christmas and New Year seems a time for nostalgia, so I was looking back through my December 2004 posts. Among them one in which I pointed to an article from Christian Century. I was not the only, or even the first blogger to appreciate the article, indeed I only found it because Jennee at textweek mentioned it. It was (and still is, if anyone has access to a library with back issues of the paper edition of Christian Century) a fine article. BUT it is not available on the Christian Century website.1

I thought/think the article was good. I’ll reproduce below my blog post, so you can judge for yourself. But has it actually been “published”. The online Merriam Webster lists as the first two meanings of “publish”:

  1. to make generally known
  2. to disseminate to the public
Now perhaps between 1999 and 2004 Christian Century achieved both of those things for Ms Taylor’s words. Today (at least by my, 21st Century, standards of “generally” or “disseminate to the public”) the article has been aggressively UNpublished. It really is time we started calling the print “publishers” “unpublishers”. Surely the claim: “My new book is being unpublished by Brill” is more true than the more usual verbal form?
Post from Sansblogue: Thursday, December 09, 2004 (incidentally still published, really and truly, here)
Seasonal reasons – Christmas and secular ceremonies ::

Jenee pointed me to a fine article from Christian Century “Holy Instincts“. Barbara Brown Taylor back in 1999 offered great stuff to reflect on at this season. She notices a bunch of “county prisoners” putting up the decorations in the town square.

Only two of them are really working. The third is making faces at the ball in his hand, in which he has discovered his own reflection.

Things like this, stimulated by secular celebration of the season should cause Christians to notice

…the holy spark that smolders underneath all this gratuitous tinsel and voltage. … While true believers lament the crass commercialization of Christmas and the loss of Jesus as the reason for the season, the Holy Spirit haunts the most secular ceremonies:

She admits:

There are all kinds of things wrong with the way we celebrate Christmas. We eat too much, we spend too much, we sentimentalize too much, we worry too much. Those excesses cannot douse the holy instincts that underlie them. We really are hungry. We really do want to give and receive. We really do want to feel deeply, live peaceably, sleep soundly and rise renewed.

And concludes:

God is in the midst of it, after all, still hunting new flesh in which to be born.

Or to put it the way Yancey does, in the book I’ve been reading for the last few months, at this time of year much that ordinary people do offers rumors of Another World.

Our job, if we choose to accept it, is not to beat people up and make them feel faintly guilty for not attending our church despite the “reason for the season”, but somehow to find ways to help them (but first to help ourselves!) catch the whispers in the tinsel ball, even taste the Christ in the dry turkey breast, eaten with family and friends…

  1. Actually it IS available online still, as a Google search will reveal, but in what I suspect is pirate unlicenced copy. []

Putting the vanity into publishing

Jim West has taken time off from noticing that the human race is spoilt, broken and twisted, and has a fine rant about Print on Demand vs. Big Name Publishers asking which form of dissemination truly feeds on vanity. True Vanity Publishers, and the Authors who Feed Their Egos is much more fun than the usual stuff about yet another corrupt politician or televangelist. Apart from the grace of God humans are corrupt. Brill and other prestige publishers demonstrate that basic fact…

Reconsidering Gender

Last night we launched:

Reconsidering Gender: Evangelical Perspectives
Edited by Myk Habets, Beulah Wood

and two other books edited by my colleague Myk. The man is a book production machine!

I have a chapter in the Gender book: “The Image of the Invisible God: (An)iconic Knowing, God, and Gender”

The publisher describes the book thus:

Questions related to the issue of gender remain insufficiently acknowledged and explored in contemporary theological literature. These issues form the basis of significant unresolved tensions among evangelicals, as evidenced in debates over the nature of the Trinity, Bible translation, church practice, choice of language, mission leadership, decision-making in homes, and parenting, to name but a few examples. The essays in this volume are not meant to provide a monolithic evangelical theology of gender, but rather to provide evangelical perspectives surrounding the topic of gender. To further this aim, each of the main essays is followed by a formal response with an attempt at a concise and lucid perspective on the essay and pointers to further areas for investigation. Some contributors are complementarian while others are egalitarian, although who is what is left to the discerning reader. Regardless of one’s position on the issue, all will benefit from the contributors’ commitment to the further exploration of gender issues from the perspective of a broadly conceive evangelicalism.


Image from BecomingJewish.Org

Jonathan (my always stimulating, still just, but soon moving on, colleague) of ξἐνος pointed me to a piece in the NY TImes by Lisa W. FoderaroIn a Digital Age, Students Still Cling to Paper Textbooks“. This may be, and much of it reads like, the traditional claim that “books won’t disappear anytime soon”, digital technologies and books are different, and the new cannot replace the old… Cant that has been around at least since the first enthusiast on the other “side” proclaimed with equal evangelical fervour the death of the codex. It is different from the run of the mill in a couple of ways.

First it is based on research. Among other things this gives hard figures. For example: “three-quarters of the students surveyed said they still preferred a bound book to a digital version.” Which of course is a resounding vote of confidence in the codex textbook, especially in view of the fact that a couple of years ago the figure would have been over 99%.

It’s the implied competition and contrasts between e-textbooks and paper ones that interested me.The three paragraphs I quote below came, in reverse order (with just one paragraph from the original left out) which I think enable me to make a reverse case.

“Students grew up learning from print books,” said Nicole Allen, the textbooks campaign director for the research groups, “so as they transition to higher education, it’s not surprising that they carry a preference for a format that they are most accustomed to.”

This familiarity factor is gradually diminishing as students come into the system with less familiarity with print codex works as a major part of their previous study. Already some of our first year students (younger than the average, and straight form school) only use print books if we encourage them to. Most of these students’ assignments are written using resources available on the Web, if I am lucky through Google books. But often from websites of pastors sermons, or reprints of devotional classics.

Many students are reluctant to give up the ability to flip quickly between chapters, write in the margins and highlight passages, although new software applications are beginning to allow students to use e-textbooks that way.

But of course the very things these students are reluctant to “give up” are precisely the things that any decent e-text should make easy! Non-sequential access is what hypertext is all about, commenting and user annotation are easier and more flexible in an electronic environment, and highlighting is basic. It is only publishers rushing shoveleware onto the market repurposing existing titles into containers that are designed to mimic a dead tree that makes current e-textbooks unresponsive and equally dead!

“I believe that the codex is one of mankind’s best inventions,” said Jonathan Piskor, a sophomore from North Carolina, using the Latin term for book.

Duh! Of course it is. It revolutionised the world almost as much as the invention of writing. That’s why we may expect that the next big step forward, e-text, will be equally (or at least nearly) as revolutionary.

So, who is interested in a Free Open Source Old Testament Textbook?