Technology in Church, a grumpy old man responds

John Dyer has a typically thought provoking, balanced yet somewhat contrarian take on technology (smart phones) in church: The Texture of Screens Amidst Communities of Faith: 3 Outstanding Issues with Smartphones in Church. It is worth a think, however as a grumpy old man I would rather take a step back and examine an earlier disruptive technology, print:

I’m also very disturbed by intrusive new technology in church. For the last few centuries so many Christians arrive at the divine office carrying their personal codexes of the Bible, and they open these and read them privately instead of joining in the communal hearing of the living Word. This new technology is disruptive and anti-Christian, print (the technology that allows it) should be banned in Church as a dangerous individualising of the faith.

And, it gives me another chance to link to an ancient but brilliant sketch on YouTube ;)

Big Brother or Wither Authority?

This post is a blast from the past, first published exactly five years ago, but become perhaps more timely in the intervening half-decade.

“What is a book?” seems too simple a question at first glance. The closer we look the further a simple answer eludes us. Even if we associate “book” with the physical form that writing has historically taken in modern times, the printed codex of more than a certain number of leaves (smaller codices being “booklets!), the notion is still problematic.

For example:

  • How is a collection of essays, which most of us would call a “book” different from a similar collection that appears as one fascicle of a Journal?
  • Some of our “books” today existed already in the manuscript age, were they “books” then? Are manuscript texts not books today?
  • Some even existed as scrolls, so should the notion of book be technology agnostic?
  • What is the relationship between a “phone book” and its electronic equivalent?

So, to what extent is “book” a technology independent concept, or to what extent is it technologically bounded?

In a thought-provoking post, “the network made visible – some thoughts on the present continuous of books“, Sebastian Mary (one of the interesting bloggers associated with the Institute for the Future of the Book) offers this list of “common and often unexamined assumptions that underpin the tradition of the book.

Physicality – Books are physical: text and sometimes pictures organised in a linear form, and collected in physical libraries.

Authority – Books are time-consuming and expensive to make. Their ‘authority’ exists in proportion to this scarcity. The implication is that no-one would bother laboriously to typeset, print and bind drivel; so if a book doesn’t make sense then the fault lies with the reader. , and hence failure to comprehend a text lies with the reader, not with the text. This principle of authority in proportion to scarcity can be seen by comparing the medieval reverence for hand-copied books, through to modern offhand treatment of mass-produced ‘airport novels’. Authoritative texts reinforce their authority with reference to one another.

Fixity – The physicality of books perpetuates the impression of text as something immutable. This physicality also give rise to a tradition of books holding otherwise ephemeral knowledge in fixed form for posterity, and thus of books’ being timeless in a way that human life is not.

Universality – This is the trope most heavily challenged by twentieth century theory. The traditional ideal – and arguably the central proposition of the canon – is that books marked thus are of value to everyone, regardless of who, when and where.

Boundedness – Being a physical object, a book cannot contain everything.

The whole post/essay is really worth reading, please do not be satisfied with this chunk alone, torn from its context.

The opening paragraphs of the section “Whither Authority?” lead me in a different direction fro that Sebastian Mary takes, though that is probably the more interesting and significant direction (so, again read the post!) since my direction is different, after quoting the paragraphs I will diverge and follow my own nose!

Whither Authority?

On the Net, readers write, and writers read. Anyone can self-publish. So, following the principle that the status and authority of a text is in direct proportion to its scarcity, to write is no longer to be the privileged accessor and producer of canonical, authoritative texts. Notions of authorship and any but the most provisional and conversational kind of intellectual leadership become meaningless.

The boundary between ‘worth reading’ and ‘worthless blah’ is blurred by the visible, trackable emergence of content from the swamp of chatter. And, watching content emerge, it is plainly impossible to posit for the Net a set of human-centric values as (however speciously) the literary canon allowed. The Net has no transcendental signifier except itself, no cohesion to celebrate except that of technologically-enabled pseudo-diversity.

I am tempted by this dystopian vision, of a net that diminishes everything to a level morass of equal and opposite worthlessness. (Which is not quite what SM means, but provides a neat caricature of this tendency.)

Except, it ignores the imperial power of Google. (Using “Google” as a convenient shorthand for “Search Engines and other means of sorting and finding material on the net”.) Google prioritises pages. If I am looking for material: population statistics, poetry, pictures… I never trawl the net myself, and nor do you. We always use some meta-site (like NT Gateway or iTanakh ;-) or search engine/directory like Yahoo to begin our “surfing”.

This “beginning” also orients us. It provides an authoritative list. Explicitly: because the contents are selected (meta-sites) or ranked (Google) and implicitly: because in the past I have found the material they list, or that ranks highly, to be useful (more often than not, the occasional foray down to page three of the Google list is strangely rare, hence all the brouhaha over SEO).

Which brings me back to SM’s post…

The grammar of the Web is not one of human languages or literary forms, but one of computer languages. Online, the Writers (in the sense of those invested with weight, status and Authority) are software developers. No text writer may have the final word; nor will he shape the grammars he works with. Coders, on the other hand, create the enabling conditions for interaction.

For in the net it is the composers of Google’s algorithms who confer “authority”, and not mere authorship – which belongs to all without fear or favour. And yet it is not! For, given the complexity of the net, the algorithms can hardly take account of each page, or author, or even site. Rather, as well as the material itself:

  • the material itself:
    • is it coherent?
    • focused?
    • tight? etc…

they consider things like:

  • how others have viewed this material:
    • How many link to it?
    • Do these pages use similar keywords?
    • Are those sites “authoritative”? etc…

In other words, they consult the great unwashed, go for the wisdom of crowds, and all the rest. And as a result among the networked, some are more authoritative than others.

In a way it is the reverse of the old culture, which authorised by excluding. As SM put it the economics of print or manuscript writing creates “principle of authority in proportion to scarcity”. Publishers, in other words authorise this work by excluding others. In a sense the old Vatican Index Of Forbidden Books – a list intended to ensure certain books were/are not read – was the epitome of this approach. By authority by exclusion cannot work on the net.

Except if Google (in this case meaning both the broad category of search facilitators and the particular eponymous example) were to select and exclude on grounds other than the views of the mass of netizens. Which is what in fact happens. Google does censor the data. Authority in the net is powerful, if Google bans you who can find your work, yet hidden and secretive. Big Brother may no be watching you, but whether you know it or not, whether he is intent on “doing no evil” or not, his censorship has unauthorised works you might wish to see.

Quis custodiet Google? Although it may seem that the net is egalitarian, once the “whither” of authority is recognised one can see that it has not “withered”, but merely disguised its hegemonic tendency behind a benign smile.


Reftagger, the neat tool from Logos that makes Bible texts appear as popups over their references, seems to have stopped working. At least on this blog.

Is it just me? Is it just temporary? Are others getting the error message:


Bible Dictionary entry: Genesis

I am helping with the Tyndale House Scripture Tools for Every Person project. My particular interest is the Bible encyclopedia component. To produce it we are usually editing and updating old copyright free dictionary articles. But some words just need rewriting completely :(

“Genesis” is one such. Most of the old dictionaries seemed to spend almost all their words arguing about the documentary hypothesis, and hardly talk about the book at all. So I am having to try to write a brief article on the topic more or less from scratch.

  • Does the draft below contain the information you think it should?
  • Is it accurate?
  • What is missing?
  • Could it be organised or expressed better?

(The target audience is wide and largely uneducated in terms of biblical or theological studies, but likely to be Christians of one sort or another seeking information to help them understand the Bible better.)


(jen’-e-sis) The first book of the Pentateuch (“Five Books”) ascribed to Moses. It contains the story of humanity from creation to the emergence of Israel as a people in Canaan and Egypt. The name “Genesis” is the Greek for “generations” in the phrase which divides the book into sections: “These are the generations of..” (Gen.2.4; 5.1; 6.9; 10.1; 11.27; 25.12, 19; 36.1; 37.2). Genealogy lists are found mainly in Gen.5, 10-11 & 36.

* Gen.1-5  Creation of the world and humans; the first sin.
* Gen.6-11 Noah and the Flood. The creation of nations and Babel.
* Gen.12-19  Abraham’s call and covenant. Melchizadek and Sodom.
* Gen.20-24  Sarah & Hagar; Isaac & Ishmael; Rebekah.
* Gen.25-36  Esau and Jacob; Rachel and Leah; Dinah; Edom
* Gen.37-50  Joseph sent to Egypt and all of Israel join him.

The story is presented in a framework of, and with a focus on, family lines. Family words (son, father, descendants…) are particularly frequent and the inheritance of God’s promise is a thread that ties sections and stories together. Another theme, human sinfulness redeemed by divine forbearance and providence, also serves to unite the book.

Genesis is closely linked into the story of Israel that begins in Ex.1 and continues to the end of Kings. The book also serves as background or foundation for much that follows in the whole of Scripture. The stories of the flood (Gen.6-9) and the patriarchs (Gen.12-50) are echoed in song (e.g. in Psalms) and the preaching of the prophets, The accounts of Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah, Abraham, Melkisedek, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekeh, Jacob, Rachel, & Joseph are all used by the authors of the New Testament. Creation and the human sinfulness that follows (Gen.1-2 and 3-4) provide a necessary foundation to understand much of the theology expressed in both Old and New Testaments.

There is some evidence that this is an edited work, for example Gen.1 & 5 share key words and phrases and an interest in orderliness and factual information while Gen.2-4 are more vivid and lively and impressionistic. Such impressions lead some scholars to distinguish at least two strands in the book. Other scholars emphasise the unity of purpose and teaching which implies a single author and fits with the traditional view.

Unicorns, in the biblical sense

Unicorns Illustration from: S. Bochart: ''Hierozoicon, sive Bipertitum opus de animalibus Sacrae Scripturae .. "

David Lamb, of God Behaving Badly has a post on biblical unicorns. He wrote about these unicorns in the Bible:

A student in my psalms class (Phil) pointed out to me recently that unicorns appear in the Bible.

I said, “What?”  He said, “Yep”.  I said, “Where?”  He said in Psalm 22 and other places.  “You’re kidding.”  “Nope, but only in the King James Version.”

I opened up BibleWorks 7.0, and discovered 9 references, including these two:

“His horns are like the horns of unicorns” (Deut. 33:17).
“And the unicorns shall come down with them” (Isa 34:7).

Fine and dandy, at least in the KJV does indeed mention “unicorns”. BUT are all the nervous fundies and exultant atheists right to get excited?

Well, no, as Dt 33:17 makes clear:

His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth: and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh.

RTFT (read the flipping text!) these unicorns have “horns” plural, now if we only had the KJV one might argue that this just means there are several unicorns, except in the Hebrew the word is a not plural it reads: vecarne re’em “horns of a XXX” a single XXX has “horns” therefore the unicorn in the KJV has more than one horn. I can think of loads of non mythical animals that have more than one horn, and I do not need even to join Jerome in wondering if this is a rhinoceros!

Unless I get really carried away, and look at the Greek, instead of the Hebrew, there I find mention of a μονοκέρωτος or “one horn” which suggests that at least the Greek translators were thinking of a rhino…

Biblical studies in Blogaria

Duane Smith has done a typically thorough, even handed and interesting job of the latest “Biblical Studies Carnival” it gives a picture of Biblical Studies in Blogaria flourishing in a way few physical world countries could match in February :)

It is even replete with his normal clown ;)

(An) original sin?

Adam and Eve by Hans Sebald Beham

For some reason the doctrine of original sin is problematic. It (along with the notion that the Godhead defies mathematics, by being both three and one) is one of the most often rejected Christian ideas. It is also apparently one of the drivers of the “Adam and Eve have to be actual people else the whole of Christian faith fails” movement (among both gleeful atheists and raging fundamentalists alike). Two of my NZ-based blogging companions (Otagosh and ξἐνος) have responded to Peter Enns book The Evolution of Adam I have not read the book and so make no claim to be responding to Enns.

But, let’s step back and ask a few questions about “original sin”. If we preface the term by the indefinite article it seems evident to me that there is no such thing as “an original sin”. Granted someone somewhere can claim the “honour” of having been the first laptop thief. Laptop theft was not a possible crime until the moment when luggables evolved into laptops. But was his sin “original”, not a bit of it! Theft of various objects for motives very like his have been committed since before the dawn of history. Indeed many sins can be seen in animals. One of our sheep (one of the bigger and bossier, not the biggest, but perhaps the bossiest) has an addiction to the sweet fruity aroma and taste of “Sheep Nuts”. When we go into the paddock with a box she will butt and heave her sisters out of the way to ensure she gets more. She will even pretend to run off causing a mini-stampede, so that she can then “bravely” be the first to return and gain an extra share. So where on the “Great Chain of Being” does greed “originate”. It is not original to humans, and probably not to mammals…

So, there is no such thing as an “original” sin. On the other hand, sin is inherent in all of us. That sheep is not uniquely sinful while her sisters are  virtuous, and that cute nine day old baby at the wedding on Saturday (though deserving the accolades of “what a GOOD baby”) is actually a selfish monster, just like you and I were, and still are when we forget our learned goodness!

But if there are no original sins, just adaptations of existing ones, equally none of us lives a pure and sinless life until one dreadful day we commit our first sin, we are inclined to sin from the start. Nothing is more selfish than a baby!

So does this mean that Paul’s whole theological edifice comes tumbling down? By no means, we are sinful (by nature inclined to sin and in fact sinners) 1 Just like “Adam” whether he was an actual person or a personification of human origins – and incidentally while we are on the subject does the fact that Paul does not here mention Eve mean that she is not also responsible for our sinful gene, is it somehow attached to the Y chromosome. In that case are all women sinless as Eve? ;) we need to be freed from the power of this, and from its consequences.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Just like “Adam” whether he was an actual person or a personification of human origins – and incidentally while we are on the subject does the fact that Paul does not here mention Eve mean that she is not also responsible for our sinful gene, is it somehow attached to the Y chromosome. In that case are all women sinless as Eve? ;)

Cooking mistakes

It’s the weekend :) Time to cook and eat :)

But, though we know better, we all cut corners. In cooking some corners can safely be cut (caramelising onions can be hurried – a bit – by adding a little salt and sugar and water from time to time, so allowing a slightly higher heat) but most can’t.

The image from "6. You over-soften butter."

There’s a fine list of mistakes we have all made (well maybe none of us has made all of them but all of us have made some) at Cooking Light in a post: The Most Common Cooking Mistakes Most instructive, especially since they explain the science behind the wisdom :)

For example I have been wondering why my poached eggs have been getting less and less well shaped. I’ve been putting more and more effort into getting the water really hot and fiercely swirling. Wrong move, have the water just simmering, that way there is less stress on the egg, better shape. It is so obvious once you know why!


Is black humour also among the prophets?

Defining humour is very difficult or impossible.  1 Depending on your credulity or stringency   So, a fortiori, defining “black humour” must be doubly impossible. Even delineating the boundaries of “black humour” is difficult. The coiner of the phrase, the surrealist André Breton, 2 Breton, André, and Mark Polizzotti. Anthology of black humor. City Lights Books, 1997.   evidently saw it as anarchist and in a sense negative, pointing out the absurd and pretentious, but not offering any more constructive move. 3 André Breton, “The Lightning Rod” especially p.xiv. Yet Breton could write with approval:
[t]he subject has been handled with rare precision by Léon Pierre-Quint, who in Le Comte de Lautréamont et Dieu presents humor as a way of affirming, above and beyond “the absolute revolt of adolescence and the internal revolt of adulthood,” a superior revolt of the mind.

Revolt, though it must begin with rejection of something can move towards its replacement with something different. Thus black humour might point up and reject the weakness and failings of religion. Think of the ending of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. Singing “always look on the bright side of life” during a crucifixion is surely black humour by anyone’s standard. But it is possible, for the viewer (whether or not the pythons encouraged this step) to use the recognition of absurdity and the emptiness of some religious ideas to generate a purer faith. If this is so then even a committed religionist can expect to find black humour in Scripture. Especially among the prophets.

Dry reeds (© Copyright Steve Daniels and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

I’ve been doing a series of podcasts seeking humour in every book of the Hebrew Bible. Twice I have disagreed with Robert Carroll, a friend and teacher. Who wrote an article on humour in the prophets. 4 Carroll, Robert P. ‘Is Humour among the Prophets’. Pages 169–189 in On humour and the comic in the Hebrew Bible. Edited by Yehuda T. Radday and Athalya Brenner. Continuum International Publishing Group, 1990.

Bob Carroll had a lively and mischievous sense of humour, which delighted in pricking the balloons which we inflate around many ideas that we hold important. Often Bob’s speaking fitted the descriptive “black humour”. Yet, in his article he consistently denies its presence “among the prophets”.
I do wonder what is going on. I watched The Life of Brian with Bob and others in Glasgow when it first came out. We both recognised and enjoyed the black humour. Why could he not see it in Hosea? (I explore one example, drawn from Bob’s own article in my podcast Humour in the Bible: book 28: Hosea.)
Was Bob right to write:

Brilliant, almost Shakespearian wordcraft; gives the book of Hosea a linguistic quality which is not well served by seeking humour in it. No doubt there are a few smiles to be had from the book but its real power and appeal lie elsewhere. 5 Carroll, “Humour”, 180.

Concerning Hosea 13, he wrote:
This is the irony of the gap between pretensions and reality, and the incongruity may be seen by some readers as not lacking in humour. The biting sarcasm of ‘Ephraim herds the wind’ (12.1) or ‘they kiss calves’ (13.2) can be construed as humorous observations on the folly of social and political practices. Religious sacrifices and ceremonies conducted in the presence of skilfully made idols may easily be satirized by the simple description ‘they kiss calves’, and this simple but devastating critique is not without its humorous aspect. But trawling the minor prophets with nets designed to trap humour is a wearisome activity, especially when the poetry of the collections sparkles with other far more obvious features.
But is that all? As well as the beauty and power of the language, the ambiguity of “according to their understanding” in v.2 – does it mean they make the idols as well as they can, or that they understand this melting of metal as a “libation”? massekem can clearly refer to molten metal or to a libation… the biting irony that follows too seems to me blackly humorous. But not to Carroll.
What do you think? Is black humour also among the prophets?

Notes   [ + ]

1. Depending on your credulity or stringency
2. Breton, André, and Mark Polizzotti. Anthology of black humor. City Lights Books, 1997.
3. André Breton, “The Lightning Rod” especially p.xiv.
4. Carroll, Robert P. ‘Is Humour among the Prophets’. Pages 169–189 in On humour and the comic in the Hebrew Bible. Edited by Yehuda T. Radday and Athalya Brenner. Continuum International Publishing Group, 1990.
5. Carroll, “Humour”, 180.

Bible Canons simply described

Part of the Codex Sinaiticus (as displayed in BibleWorks) this early text contains works like The Shepherd of Hermas as well as now more familiar Bible books.

Gavin has updated is fine simple description of the various Christian Bibles and how they came to be. Anyone who thinks they are a Bible student, and who could not write a decent essay on the development of the different Christian Bibles (which includes quite a lot of people with degrees in the field ;) should read it. For those who already know this is a fine short and easy to read article to point people towards for their education :)