Proverbs: Everyday spirituality

Many teachers argue Proverbs is not merely a collection of ethical or moral rules. We stress the role of this teaching in forming the person. We notice how often the real wisdom consists not in knowing the words but in recognising when they are applicable.

Thus, “contradictory” proverbs may both be true, and both collected, remembered and used by the same person:

4 Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you will be a fool yourself.
5 Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will be wise in their own eyes.

That the book opens with a collection of “instructions” and “wisdom poems” strongly supports this view of its aims and goal.

Instructions, with the form of some commands followed by a motive, suggest such character formation. The form itself is rather like the priestly torah with instructions for ritual observance followed by a theological grounding:

1 My child, if you accept my words
and treasure up my commandments within you,
2 making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
3 if you indeed cry out for insight,
and raise your voice for understanding;
4 if you seek it like silver,
and search for it as for hidden treasures–
5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD
 and find the knowledge of God.
 (Proverbs 2:1-5)

Yet the address to a “child”, and thus the casting of the speaker as a parent, suggest already a formational goal. When we notice the prevalence of words that describe who or what a person is, rather than what they do, this becomes even clearer.

Old Babylonian Queen of the Night (Ishtar?) Photo by seriykotik1970

However it is in the “wisdom poems” that this becomes most explicit. For example:

13 Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
14 for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
15 She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
16 Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
18 A tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called happy.
(Proverbs 3:13-18)

While it begins with language that seems “merely” to describe the benefits of a “good upbringing” gradually but progressively it seems to be describing a way of living. This language already in Proverbs begins to personify Wisdom, both as a quasi-independent attribute of God (in the long poem in 8:1ff. see especially vv.22ff.) but also as a companion for life:

1 My child, keep my words
and store up my commandments with you;
2 keep my commandments and live,
keep my teachings as the apple of your eye;
3 bind them on your fingers,
write them on the tablet of your heart.
4 Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,”
and call insight your intimate friend…
(Proverbs 7:1-4)

So, it begins with education, but ends with a life companion. This relational aspect of the imagery becomes clearer and quite explicit in the contrasting figure of the adulteress or loose woman in vv.5ff.. While taken on its own this might merely be a parental warning against sexual infidelity the contrast with Wisdom suggests otherwise. So also do the hints that associate this other woman with pagan goddesses.
This contrast of Wisdom to the adulteress and to Dame Folly and their possible connections to goddess figures leads directly to a consideration of both what Proverbs says about women and its gendered character and to a consideration of later developments of the figure of divine Wisdom in Scripture.

(See my next post.)



A sad, dull, pedestrian take on e-books

Illustration by Joon Mo Kang which accompanies the article.

Why, oh why, do the very people who ought to be the most gripped by the possibilities that new things open up so often fall into a defensive wishful thinking? The latest example concerning e-texts (though already the author has blinkered his vision by focusing only on e-books)1 was pointed to by Jonathan Robinson (on FB).

It’s a really well-written article that is on the whole simple and (when dealing with history) fairly accurate. But novelist Lev Grossman when thinking about: The Mechanic Muse: From Scroll to Screen (the title of his NY Times piece) fails to imagine a move from print to screen, but instead restricts himself to the current woeful capabilities of e-books. By limiting his imagination in this way he can conclude:

But if we stop reading on paper, we should keep in mind what we’re sacrificing: that nonlinear experience, which is unique to the codex. You don’t get it from any other medium — not movies, or TV, or music or video games.

Which is about as bananas as you can hope for. It is demonstrably factually inaccurate. To suggest that computer games sacrifice “nonlinear experience” suggests he has even less experience of such games than I have! But beyond that to suggest that e-books sacrifice the non-linear reading that codexes allow is plain daft. Admittedly current e-book devices seem woefully limited in how they exploit the possibilities of non-linear reading (and writing). But such limitations are not inherent in the electronic medium. They seem to be built into e-books to make them familiar, and so acceptable, to cautious change-phobic readers like Lev, by mimicking the difficulties the codex entails.

A true e-text not only has hyperlinks, either built in or generated on the fly, it has interactivity so that readers can communicate with each other about their reading experiences, it is searchable, bookmarkable, one can add comments and notes without defacing the medium… In fact it offers everything the paper codex offers except the limitations and sensual attractions of paper itself, and then adds huge and exciting new possibilities.

What a shame that an author’s fear of having to learn to WRITE differently should give him a platform to infect readers with his own fear of the new. Surely a good writer ought not only to have capacity for wrangling words, but also an imagination?

I wonder what Lev Grossman’s novels “The Magicians” and “The Magician King” are like? If they are as empty of imagination and daring as his article suggests, they must be sad, dull, pedestrian things. Perhaps the poor man does indeed have a merely “Mechanical Muse”?

  1. An e-book is a current delivery vehicle for e-texts usually based on texts delivered also in other [print] forms thought of as the primary form. []



Academic publishing in Biblical Studies: Time for a change

llustration by Daniel Pudles

The traditional broadsheet media have hosted a broadside on academic publishing: Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist trumpets the Guardian. Writer George Monbiot’s argument is summed up in the subtitle and a simple cartoon:

Academic publishers charge vast fees to access research paid for by us. Down with the knowledge monopoly racketeers

The discussion is based on the sciences, where all the numbers are bigger, a single yearly subscription to a prestigious journal can cost thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars. The costs of the research that produced the article are also far higher than those in Biblical Studies (even when you take the salary of the researchers into account).


But is the problem the same?


Jim West clearly thought so. He swiftly (does the man do anything slowly?) posted Yes, We’re Looking at You, Brill cutting highlights from the Guardian piece and agreeing.  Duane basically also agrees, adding value linking to the referenced version on Monbiot’s website and by reporting also (though with a link that merely leads back to the original essay) John Hawks’ response Make journals work better recognising that the current system does not work (at all well) for us users, and suggesting that Amazon would make a more caring and convenient publisher.1


But still, are things the same in Biblical Studies? We have only begun to move to the commercial publishers, most of our journals, even many of the most prestigious ones, are still published by learned societies (even the name sounds old-fashioned in a good solid dependable way), or by institutions. There are however, a growing number “captured” by Brill and their like. They may well make a decent, or even indecent profit, but the learned societies and institutions don’t.


I think the discipline faces two alternative futures, Capitalist and Socialist, with a mixed economy also being possible.


On the Capitalist model gradually all the “best” journals move to commercial publishers, who strive to (between them) carve out a near monopoly and charge growing prices.2 Individual scholars will be priced out of the market and Biblical Studies will become even more closely part of the academic-industrial complex.


On the Socialist model scholars will altruisticaly decide to offer their best articles to the JBLs and CBQs (to an even greater extent than they already do) these will move (as several have been) further towards an “open” model and the bulk of “important” scholarship will remain accessible to all.


On the mixed model we will get both sorts of publisher continuing to control a significant share of the BS journal market. So things will continue much as now, but in more extreme ways, the learned societies will move slower toward openness, and the Brills will raise their prices more slowly… and individual scholars will continue to get uneven access.


Two (at the very least) colossal forces are operating. On the one side “publish or perish” will ensure Brill won’t die easily. On the other the whole tendency of our culture is towards openness and the learned societies have prestige and clout.

  1. Having read some of the small publisher’s comments on Amazon’s cut throat tactics and inflexibility, I have some doubts whether we should trust their renowned altruism so far ;) []
  2. Jim if you think Brill is steep now just wait till they publish JBL, CBQ and a few others as well as their current stable… []



On the abolition of offices in education

The prof's new office (photo by brycej)

Joshua Kim at BlogU frequently has stimulating posts. A recent one advocates the abolition of offices in education. Not all the reasons resonate with me (though check the post for yourself, we may disagree ;) Here are the ones that I found most compelling. My first is the last:

10. You don’t accomplish most of your work in your office anyway, between all the time you work at home and all the meetings you go to, so giving up your office actually will not be that painful.

The student centred ones are fine too :)

3. Doing your daily work among the students, with your laptop at library tables and eating places etc, is a great way to make your work and presence visible to the campus community.

6. Students, like you, have need for collaborative group work spaces – and making this need apparent for the whole community will drive investments to construct these spaces.

7. Students, like you, have need for private and quiet spaces to reflect, think and write – and making this need apparent for the whole community will drive investments to construct these spaces.

Because in all these years cool toys have never seemed an institutional priority, though the system loves the innovation, and students love the contact the “toys” can promote.

4. Your institution will invest in the tools you need to be a mobile education professional, including that new MacBook Air, an iPad, and an iPhone.

But for my last, and by no means least ;)

9. Giving up your office for a dorm will force you to finally throw away all those old paper documents that you have been saving.

Which is the only one that will apply to me, as I’ll be doing this at the end of the year ;)

What do you think? Are you ready to move to the couch in the cafe?



Don’t blame the preacher?

Photo by iowa_spirit_walker

Jonathan’s doing again what he does best. Stirring! This time he tackles the myth that preaching in NZ is bad. Suggesting sensibly that Kiwi preachers are probably on average no worse that any other nationality. Which is doubtless a huge comfort to all you Kiwi preachers, but must be a real worry to the rest of the world ;)

OK, crude rude and highly unfair joke out of the way, Jonathan’s stirring slags off several groups I belong to:

  • I preach (in NZ usually) should I be offended that he has to work so hard to claim that I’m no worse than the global average?
  • I teach at a seminary, and boy did JR slag off people like me. Apparently we are forever fostering the myth that all preachers are terrible, wouldn’t know a Bible if one fell on their foot, and have an obsession with being trendy.
  • I also sit in the pew, sometimes for what seems like hours listening (or catching what last year were trendy micro-sleeps) to sermons.

JR’s practical advice in the post: The Social Location of the Preacher and the Blame Game is aimed at all three of me:

1. If you are a biblical preacher teach your congregation what biblical preaching is and how to train their preachers in it and let them train you! (and make sure you are actively training others)

Yes, yes, yes, that’s right. I’ve learnt heaps about preaching from the people at Balmoral Baptist Church over the last 18 years, and quite a bit from other people I’ve preached or ministered to elsewhere too.  I hope I’ve also (often, maybe even usually) modeled decent preaching, and faithful, sensible approaches to biblical hermeneutics also…

2. If you are an academic adopt a different preacher each year, be nice to them and encourage them in their preaching of scripture.

I am sorry, I’m not arrogant enough to go out and “adopt” a preacher, but I do try to talk (to anyone who shows the slightest evidence of interest) about what I think makes a good sermon. And over the years I’ve also written in the NZ Baptist a number of rants on the subject, from an early castigation of the blasphemy of “relevance” when it takes priority over real biblical content, to a more recent claim that I could sum up good preaching in one word: sharp.

3. If you are a frustrated congregant pray for your pastor and talk to him or her gently but matter of factly about what is missing from the sermons.

The praying and talking make sense, but “what is missing from the sermons”! You’re joking Jonathan, surely? I wouldn’t attend one of those “Christian” entertainment centres where the preacher fails to make an attempt to proclaim the word from Scripture, so nothing “is missing from the sermons”. The problem is the opposite. Almost every sermon I hear would be twice as effective if it were half as long.

To cure that problem all you need to do, preachers, is spend an extra hour preparing. And most of you can easily save several, since you spend too long already “crafting” your words. Instead cut ruthlessly till all that is left is the essential message. Done :)

Actually there is one serious confession, and one (other) serious piece of advice I’d offer:

  • The confession: far too often when I preach I am content to show people what the Bible says. That is not enough :( Tell any human a “rule” and they will almost instantly discover “good reasons” why that particular rule, though good in principle, does not apply to them.
  • The advice: is simple, apply the Scripture to a number of differing people. (These application stories can be fictitious, though true is even better.) Make the stories “real” and people will identify with the characters, and apply the “lesson” to themselves. A smart neat and effective use of human nature (we are empathic animals who love responding to stories).



Technology and generations or Sex between consenting adults

I do hope you guys are not in the same house! (Photo by Ed Yourdon)

I’m puzzled by what seems a widespread and regular pattern in our response to technology, and even more puzzled because it seems to fit the neat generation XYZ schema (which I’ve always needed more than a little pinch of added salt to swallow).The phenomenon is this:

  1. A nearly elderly (i.e. 50s-60s that is the age when you deny you are elderly, but are quite likely to be a grandparent, or if not are older than many friends who are grandparents already) couple communicate via Facebook perhaps by both commenting on a third person’s wall…
  2. A nearly middle-aged person (i.e. someone who is less fit and capable than they once were, but who has not yet admitted that they are past their absolute prime, i.e. in their late 20s-30s, they are likely to be a parent, or if not etc…) comments “I do hope you guys are not in the same place!” or some similar eruption of shock and horror at the prospect of communication between a married couple in the same house which is electronically mediated.

What’s going on? Haven’t these Gen XYZers not heard of electronic communications? Do they think that there is something less than useful in such media? Or is their shock somehow like that of a younger generation discovering that their parents actually have sex (or even once used to)?

Can someone explain this phenomenon to me? Or point me to a sensible discussion of this? I am really puzzled, what is wrong with “talking” to someone via a bunch of tame electrons if they happen to be in the same geographical location?




There’s trouble in London

The Thai websitePrachatai (English language section) often has humorous pieces on Thai political and social life by Harrison George. This time in “Frankly Sick” he has a brilliant comment that is more global in scope. Here’s the opening:

 British Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to return from his Tuscan holiday a second time to deal with the widespread turmoil in the financial markets. Night after night, mobs of out-of-control investors had been roaming the markets at will, looting and pillaging with impunity.

Television viewers were horrified at the sight of bankers and hedge fund managers calmly walking away with monthly pay-packets in 6 figures, leaving derelict and moribund economies behind them.



John Stott dies, John Stott lives

AP is reporting the death of John Stott the long-time father (then grandfather) figure of British Evangelicalism at age 90. This is a passing we shall all (at least Anglophone Christians) mourn.

Yet, of course, John Stott dedicated the royalties of his many highly popular books to the education of Evangelical scholars in places where resources for such scholars are scarce. Through scholarships, a library fund and the preaching initiatives John Stott will continue to impact wider and wider circles of humanity.

John Stott dies, John Stott lives!



How Fundamentalists muck up the Bible

My title is less precise, but I think more evocative of what I see as the real problem that Randal Rauser’s How fundamentalists undermine the authority of scripture. But then no one would accuse me of being systematic, even if they do understand that I’m a theologian ;)

Randal is rapidly becoming my go-to for a Systematic Theologian or Philosopher who understands the Bible. In this post he neatly and surgically dissects the “literal where possible” claim that Fundamentalists make, and shows it to be daft, dangerous and a disaster for those of us who love, but do not worship, Scripture.

Read it!



Are Hebrew Bible scholars cooler?

OT scholars are way cooler than NT scholars. Maybe funnier, too.
(David Ker in a comment on my podcast Humour in the Bible: 21B: Ecclesiastes (again))

Photo by Otto Phokus

All I should say is: you might possibly think that, I couldn’t possibly comment!

But I will offer a challenge to those Old Testament scholars (and would-be scholars) applying for my job to see if they can help instantiate his claim. And to those New Testament people applying for George’s job, you have a hard act to follow!

Incidentally I think we OT people have a head start, after all the NT was written in Greek, and it is a well-known fact that the Greek language causes people to claim to think logically and rationally, whereas Hebrew is the language of relationship, and relationships are always funny.1

PS: I also challenge all you NT scholars out there to start producing podcasts or blog posts that show examples of humour from every book of the NT to match my series covering humour in the Hebrew Bible :)

  1. PPS yesterday was our 36th wedding anniversary, and we still make each other smile, so it must be so ;) []