Bible, Normative OR Negotiable a false dichotomy?

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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. []

Small talk and biblical narrative: a challenge

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I was grabbed by a question Derek Tovey asked on Facebook. He’s been reading the blurb to Peeter’s edition of Elizabeth B. Tracy, See Me! Hear Me!, Contributions to biblical exegesis and theology 75 (Leuven: Peeters, 2015). The blurb begins with an (unreferenced) quote from Fokkelmann: “The Bible does not contain one single instance of small talk.” Derek asked: “Is he right? Can you find an example of small talk in the Bible?” I think he is and I can’t, can you?

There is banter in the Bible, not least banter between strangers – the case of Jesus and the woman at Sychar (John 4) is a strong example. There are examples of a host’s gracious welcome – Abraham and the three men offers a classic example (Genesis 18). But no “small talk” (which I understand to mean polite by trivial or meaningless talk to oil the wheels of social interaction).

This seems to me not unexpected, I can’t think (though please let me know that I am wrong) of examples of small talk in literature before the modern period, and even then the earliest examples I think of are from Shakespeare (and I think drama works differently from prose narrative).

More than that though biblical narrative is well-known to be parsimonious with unnessary detail of all sorts. Descriptions are almost only given when some detail advances the plot, or characterisation, in significant ways. Indeed, often the silences and omissions are meaningful, “fraught with background” in Auerbach’s redolent phrase.

Fokkelmann, however approached the question differently. The quote comes from his introductory textbook and his concern is with the way characters’ speech is “existentially revealing”.

The other speeches in our pilot story show that the character’s text not only contains many forms of the present tense, but often also commands and wishes. This means that speech is often about the imminent future, and this is something the narrator himself can never manage. Characters may say that they want to have this or that, or want this or that to be done in such-and-such a way. Speeches are often excited or dramatic.The Bible does not contain one single instance of small talk; almost every word by a character is existentially revealing or rooted: the speaker is totally committed to the matter under discussion.1

This notion of speech in biblical narrative as “existentially revealing” is (I think) much more interesting than mere parsimony!

  1. Jan Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative : An Introduction Guide (Louisville  Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999) 68. []

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!

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

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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! []

The Anointed Son

Capture

When I was a child, well not a child exactly but when I had enjoyed less than half the lifespan I now look back on, I thought as a child, and I dreamed of being a systematic theologian. But (through a series of ‘accidents’) God called me to be a teacher of the Bible, and I am delighted with that calling. In this video fragment Myk Habets (talking about his book The Anointed Son1 reminds me why systematic theology matters. There is a horrible moment when Myk is in full flood, and the director interrupts2 but hang in there because the next question is a ripper!

Watch it here, and buy the book!

 

  1. A mere few dollars for users of Amazon Kindle, is there an ePub version? []
  2. And I could happly have strangled her, well not really but metaphorically? You bet! []

What SBL (apparently) doesn’t “get”

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I have been forwarded a copy of the email the Society for Biblical Literature sent to its members about moving the Review of Biblical Literature into its members-only space.1 I will comment on that email here, trying to point out why I see this as a significant and retrograde move.

But first some background. I have been an SBL member since the early 80s, I retained membership for a few years after I retired from Carey thanks to the generosity of SBL who allowed me to pay as a Student Member. I recently allowed that membership to lapse, though if the new means-tested membership fees had been announced at that time I would probably have renewed. I have attended a number of International (since 1986) and annual meetings of the Society (since the mid-90s), usually giving papers. I stopped attending after retiring from Carey because of the cost of airfares. (I never used the official expensive hotels). I greatly value the Society for its role as the largest and often the most innovative scholarly society in the discipline of biblical studies.

The email opens “In order to solidify RBL’s status as a valuable resource produced primarily by SBL members for SBL members, we will be moving RBL behind the SBL member login.” The heart of this sentence is largely true. RBL is “a valuable resource produced primarily by SBL members for SBL members”. However, the key word is the adverb. Since RBL moved to free open publication on the web it has not been  used exclusively by SBL members. Biblical scholars in majority world contexts, who cannot afford to attend the Society’s meetings, or even perhaps membership in the society, used the resource. Students, at least the good clever sensible students we all love to teach, used it. (How better to evaluate, and get a feel for, a new area of study than to read a few reviews of key texts?)

Such users are now banned and access is only for those willing and able to pay for SBL membership. 2

Apparently the reason for the move is to increase funding for RBL. “Our hope is that, after this period,3 these individuals will join the SBL at least at the public membership level, if not full membership. In addition to significant investment from SBL, the increased financial support thus provided will help fund a number of highly desired upgrades to and expansions of the RBL architecture.

I doubt those students I mentioned, or indeed many of the majority world scholars will follow this perhaps wise hope. I wonder if SBL is measuring the flood of new memberships? A question on the application form would be informative!

Yet my core objection is not that the move will probably fail to achieve its stated objective, but rather what such a move says about the Society which makes it. What shall it profit a scholarly society if it gain the whole Google, but lose its soul?4 If “scholarly information exchange” continues to be privatised with ownership increasingly divided between big international publishing companies5 and scholarly societies then those societies that get in on that act will have lost their raison d’être and may as well shut up shop. If learning is privatised they become mere secret societies for rich-world bible scholars (with a few charity cases on the margins).

Meanwhile biblical scholarship in the two-thirds world will become more and more indebted to the Fundamentalists or dilettantes :(

  1. I have not seen any explanation for the new closed status of RBL on the RBL’s website, though I did not hunt for it when I was refused entry. []
  2. In other news the membership fee has been scaled according to reduced income and is only US$45 for those earning $10,000-25,000. This reduction does allow more majority world scholars to join the society and is a welcome move.  []
  3. Of continued access for individuals who subscribed to the RBL email newsletter but are not SBL members. []
  4. If, in the interests of literary allusion, my non-religious readers will permit this word, if not just read “spirit”. []
  5. I note the recently announced closure of Sheffield Phoenix Press []

Proof reading your work

(C) With Associates cc

Listening to your work

The first step in proofing your work is to check it for sense and flow. While one can try to do this by looking at the text, it is much better done by listening. Listening to a computer interpret what you have written is especially revealing. (The computer has little or no understanding but follows rules of grammar and intonation that have been programmed in, it is thus good at showing up clumsy sentences.)

As well as clumsy sentences, listening to your work can help us spot where we have failed to make the ideas flow. By listening you may spot jumps in logic that you missed while focussing on looking at the words.

Many commercial word processors, like Microsoft Word, have the capacity to read text aloud (MS Word on PC instructions). The open source word processors use an add-in to do this. Read Text can be downloaded and installed from this link. The add-in adds a small icon to your menu bars, I needed to move this so that it did not occupy a whole line to itself, or the description linked above tells how to use it.

It helps to follow along with your eyes as the computer reads, what you should spot (and probably correct) are places where the computer has not made sense of what you wrote (reword it, add or revise punctuation, etc. till it works) or places where you spot jumps or repetitions (again edit to correct the problem).

Spell and grammar checkers

Most students know about spelling checkers, some foolishly don’t use them to check their spelling, or ignore their warnings. Don’t! Poor spelling may not be important to you, but it will signal loudly to your markers that you are careless.

Grammar checkers can also be really useful. Even the basic grammar checker in Libre Office often shows me silly mistakes that students could have avoided in essays I am marking. A better grammar checker, like the one in commercial word processors, or the free Grammarly, will do an even better job.1 Correcting your errors will also improve your writing, meaning you have less errors to correct next time.

The last step

For the final step, you will need a friend or family member who can write good English. (Perhaps you can offer some service in return, or cook some treat as a thank-you : ) The ideal person will be  able (and if you encourage them enough) willing to be a tough audience. You want them to say things like: “What did you mean to say here?” or “I’m sorry I don’t understand this!” or “This does not seem to follow from that…” Much better such comments come from a friend than the marker!

Previously…
  1. There is a subscription “pro” version of Grammarly which catches far more mistakes and corrects more complex errors. It is too expensive for me to try, but then I have spent decades learning to correct my own grammar. []