Articles for the Month of November 2010

Different strokes, blogging and podcasting

Average Sansblogue reader (from a photo "Old Man and Ferret" by fakelvis Lloyd Morgan)

I assumed, largely because much the same people comment on my blog (here) and my short biblical studies podcasts, that the audience for both sites was much the same. The 5 minute audio slots are less popular, with only 5-600 visitors a day, while this blog (even in this marking season when posts are few in number) gets about 1,000. The fascinating thing though is that these two sites, by the same author, on pretty much the same topic (though the blog is less focused on study of the Bible with more on digital life, scholarship and even cooking, while the podcasts almost always focus each on a particular Bible text) have quite different audiences!

Alexa reveals that Sansblogue:

Based on internet averages, is visited more frequently by males who are over 65 years old, have children and are graduate school educated.

While 5 Minute Bible:

Based on internet averages, is visited more frequently by males who are in the age range 25-34, are graduate school educated and browse this site from work.

Potential 5 Minute Bible listeners (from photo by Ed Yourdon)

So, the blog attracts the older crowd (many of you, apparently even more ancient than I am ;) while the podcast has a younger audience. Perhaps the format explains that, you see few old fogies (like you and me – or at least you, since the oracle tells me you are mainly older than I) with MP3 players, but they are ubiquitous among the young.

More difficult to explain is the gender imbalance, 5 Minute Bible only has a small imbalance, while Sansblogue is much favoured by grumpy old men…

Maybe I should give up blogging and put my energies into Podcasting, before you all die off ;) or better still I suspect vidcasting, since the really hip and really young use iPhones or their Android non-clones. The trouble is if I vidcast it would be easier for all those bright young things to spot that I’m not anywhere near their demographic and flood to other trendier Bible sites ;)

Is our “gospel” too small?

Photo by stevendepolo

I’m marking assignments on Luke 9:1-6. (See the post below: Good news for the rich.) As well as spiritualising the passage into safety another common approach to taming it is common.

Jesus in hiding? (Photo by Carly & Art)

It reminds me of the story of the boy whose Sunday School teacher asked: “What is a small furry animal with a fluffy white tail?” Who, after an embarrassed silence said: “Well I know the answer is Jesus. But I sure can’t work out how!”

In Evangelical churches we have so stressed “the gospel” that whenever something is to be preached or proclaimed we know the answer is “gospel” even if we can’t work out how. In this passage what the twelve are charged to proclaim is not called “gospel” till verse six. At the start (before they go) they are commanded to “proclaim the kingdom of God”. This message, that God (really, truly) rules, is to be shown by healing the sick and casting out demons. That is the message really is about how the loving Creator rules, and not the powers of evil that stunt and spoil our world. As I said in the previous post, that really is good news, but all too often it is not the “gospel” we preach!

Good news for the rich

Church foyer come on in and hear the gospel (photo from Stevan Sheets)

The assignments I’m currently marking are all studies of Luke 9:1-6.1 The passage is pretty straightforward, for these are beginners:

Jesus calls the Twelve together, gives them authority to heal and to cast out demons. He then sends them to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick, giving instructions on travelling light and suggested responses to different sorts of reception (they provide enough complexity to allow the best students to shine). They go, preaching the gospel, and healing every where.

It astonishes me how many students manage to miss the bit about demons and healing. As I read their studies of the passage, I wonder about the extent in seeking to ensure that the gospel (which was clearly from the start, as it is today, good news for the poor) can be good news for the rich we end up like some processed food, with all the goodness taken out. The gospel is no longer about a God who rules, and so who heals – if that was what the gospel was about it would not be good news, most of us (except extreme Charismatics ;) would rather visit a Doctor and swallow some pills. The gospel is most certainly not about a God who rules, and so who one day will put powerful oppressors in their place – if that was what the gospel was about it might be bad news for us! No, the gospel is safe and pleasant, good news for the rich, “still more pie in the sky when you die”.

Life is good now, you don’t want it to end, but don’t worry, it need not, you can have another and even better one later, so enjoy this one now, and make a few down-payments to ensure your place in heaven later…

No wonder the Bible read and preached in church is usually carefully censored! Jesus uncomfortable sayings are relegated to special series when the brave pastor explains them away. And anyway most of the really offensive stuff, like “blessed are the poor” and “how terrible for you who are rich now” can be “spiritualised” to hell and gone.

  1. Those of you who know Carey may wonder why the Old Testament specialist is marking Luke, the answer is simple workload equilibrium, few students choose to venture into the Two-Thirds Bible ;) []

Ancestry and prostitution

I was asked an interesting question: How did Jewish people feel about having Rahab (the foreign prostitute) in their family tree?

My suspicion is that the question itself presupposes bourgeois attitudes. Members of the underclasses surely have a better understanding of the economic and social pressures that cause women to become prostitutes. One should not despise an ugly bastard, rather his even uglier1 father…

One clue to this may be Jesus’ genealogy in Mat 1, where Rahab is the second woman named, and Tamar (another foreigner) who we are told in the biblical narrative (Gen 38) was forced into (temporary and selective) prostitution by the wrong done by Judah. Matthew seems to have expected no prudish revulsion from his readers!

Then there’s Rashi (one of the best-known and best of the traditional Jewish Bible readers) who commenting on Rahab’s profession in Josh 2:1 follows an even older Aramaic paraphrase of Joshua and translates Rabab’s profession: “Innkeeper: זונה. Targum Jon. renders: Innkeeper, one who sells various foodstuffs (מזונות).” Which might suggest the medieval scholar felt some embarrassment at the thought of Rahab the prostitute. Except a few verses later he comments: “as the Rabbis said: There was neither prince or ruler who had no relations with Rahab the harlot. She was ten years old when the Israelites departed from Egypt, and she practiced harlotry for forty years.

Rashi recognises her as a harlot, but seems also to recognise the power relationship operating “There was not a prince or ruler who had not had relations with Rahab the harlot.” And so does not seem embarrassed by her past. Perhaps the fact that Christians today are embarrassed is a sign of the “gentrification” of the church?2

recognising either (or perhaps both of) people change, and/or women don’t choose to be prostitutes… either way she would be an ancestor to be proud of!

  1. Since surely if the man was not an ugly person he would stay around to care for his child. []
  2. Which reminds me of a Facebook status update I read earlier: “If you want to catch fish don’t throw your net into the bath tub!” to which I replied “I will make you fishers of cute little yellow ducks ;) []

Turning libraries outside in :)

Today was Carey Principal’s Day (sort of a staff retreat under another name) two experiences have me thinking about how our changing communications technologies are changing libraries.

The ghost of libraries past (photo from 23 dingen voor musea)

The first was driving up for the day. Our “farm” is three hours away, so on the journey I listened to some great radio, from the BBC and ABC. None of the programmes (not even the always stimulating Digital Planet, or the often intriguing All in the Mind) could get me to remember when they are “on” or rearrange my life so as to listen to them. One silent revolution in my life over the last several years has been the quantity of radio I now hear. Almost none of it live. Digital technology, and Internet delivery, enable me to shift time, and ignore geography, and listen to what I like when I like :)

During the day, when our librarian had presented her dream of the Carey library in five year’s time,1 our staff comedian (and resident American) Brian Krum quipped: “So you want the library to imitate Borders ;)” Siong is equally quick: “No I want Borders to imitate us!”

The ghost of libraries to come? (Jan Steen “Argument over a card game”)

Siong is right, libraries (already in part, by five years away so much more) are about breaking down borders. The library of the present/near future is a Library without Borders. Library users no longer need or want the hushed “study space” of yesteryear. Or if they do they are hopeless stick-in-the-muds who enjoy anything “retro”. The information and ideas libraries distribute is increasingly available anywhere anytime. Libraries are becoming places to interact with others about that information and those ideas.

The old, outside-in, library was a place you went to in order to acquire something. They were “study spaces” where ideas were mulled and books composed (as  Karl Marx and hundreds of others did in the British Museum). Coffee shops were places where ideas were discussed and debated.

In our world we need outside-in libraries, places like the coffee shops of old where people meet, linger and talk – or better still argue! Now that’s a revolution that most libraries cannot make, yet. They, almost all, have a massive investment in books, and books take space and human resources to curate and distribute them. It is not only the ancient and massively endowed Bodleian Library that is running out of space, the much humbler Carey library requires staff to assist in “culling” its stock! That inertia means that for some time to come libraries will be both “inside-out” places we come to – increasingly infrequently – to get information and ideas, and also “outside-in” places to go to in order to share those ideas with others, talk and argue.

Many of my readers, I know, are aflicted with codexphilia. I used to be a sufferer. The once scores, then dozens of boxes that accompanied my moves were mute witness to my plight. I still enjoy the look and feel of a well-produced volume – increasingly seldom, for publishers in search of “cost savings” must still compete on price. But I know how I’d spend the budget if I was a librarian, and a coffee machine and some decently comfortable couches would rank higher than more dead trees ;)2

  1. How anyone, especially an information specialist, can think that far ahead amuses me! []
  2. No. You got it wrong! This is not another rant predicting the death of the book, or even the codex. I think, and hope, that codexes will be with us for generations to come, new and beautiful ones as well as those redolent of age. But they are already – and will increasingly be – either works of art, or of antiquarian interest. They will not be tools of my trade. []

Your God is too small: a response to William Birch

William Birch has an interesting post mulling the gender (or not) of God. It’s titled: “God and gender: what if God had breasts?” echoing a chapter by Karen Jo Torjesen.1 At the heart of William’s post he makes three claims about the consequences if we (in his language) “attempt to remove male gender with reference to the God of the Bible”. I think William is dead wrong, so I’d like to respond to each of them:

1) Scripture is wrong, for every word of it is alleged to be “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16 ESV); this means that when reference is made to God or to Christ Jesus as “He,” “Him,” or “His,” it is correct;

William, surely you understand that to talk about God (who you rightly note is spirit) we must use human language with all its limitations, and that usually (if not always) we are using picture language? When we say: “God is a consuming fire” (Dt 4:24) we do not mean that one can measure the divine temperature! If we speak of God as the Rock (Dt 32:18) we do not mean that it is appropriate for geologists to enquire about the origin of God!

2) Jesus is wrong, for He Himself was referred to as male, and He was male with male anatomy, and He referred to both God the Father as male (John 14:16-17);

OK, we are all agreed, Jesus was male. But does that mean God is male? We are also agreed that Jesus had eyes of a certain colour. (We don’t know what colour, but we agree he had eyes, and if so they must have had some colour ;)  Does that mean God has (for the sake of argument, and taking the most likely option) dark brown eyes? Jesus was a practicing Jew. Does that mean God is Jewish?

You get the point. In theological terms there is a distinction to be made between the logos ensarkos (the Word made flesh) and the logos asarkos (the second person of the Trinity as such) not every quality of one is a quality of the other, there are requirements and limitations to becoming flesh. So, the fact that Jesus was male does NOT mean that the Son (second person of the Trinity) is male.

3) God must be neuter metaphysically.

Again NO. If God were neuter, just as would be true if God were female or male, then God would be part of one genre or class of beings in distinction to others. If that were true then God would not be incomparable, God would merely be “a god”, something less than the maker and sustainer of all.

You see, William, my trouble with your arguments all boil down to one thing. Your God is too small!

That title of a fine book from my childhood2 has always stuck with me, and I am convinced it is always true, and that we must continually battle with our human desire to reduce God to manageable proportions ;) Part of that battle is affirming with the great theologians of the ages that “God is not of any genre”, God is not one member of any kind or class. This includes the classes of male, female and even neuter. On a form asking “Gender?” God would reply “None of the above!”

  1. Torjesen, Karen Jo. When Women Were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of Their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity. [San Francisco]: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993. []
  2. Phillips, J. B. Your God Is Too Small. London: Epworth Press, 1952. []

Using Bible stories to encourage people to be nice/wicked

Scripture (or in this case the Apocrypha) has a "thing" about severed heads (Judith with the Severed Head of Holofernes, signed Muhammad Zaman, Iran, Isfahan, c. 1680 AD photo from Wikimedia)

There’s quite a bit of talk at the moment in the world I inhabit about two related issues:

  • Neo-Atheists attack Scripture claiming it advocates genocide, portrays God as a monster etc., for the sake of simplicity I’ll focus on one issue, the claim that God commands genocide.  I’m supervising a Master’s thesis on a topic related to this, and I have therefore noticed blog posts on such topics frequently over recent months.
  • Well-meaning Christians who extract nice (or sometimes not so nice) “messages” from Scripture, moralising the heck out of texts that have no interest in morals. This one came for a head for me in two ways, students who extract unlikely but edifying messages from passages set as assignments, and a friend who is trying to wind me up by suggesting that the 2 Kings 10 passage I dealt with in a recent podcast advocates a muscular Christian approach to people who get in the way of our holiness.1

The passage in 2 Kings 10 is a classic for the Rottweilers and Moralisers. It tells with apparent approval of the bloody sequel to Jehu’s bloody coup d’etat, a particularly memorable focus is the seventy heads of Ahab’s sons which Jehu ordered and were duly delivered to his door in convenient carrying baskets. This to the suspicious readers provides yet more evidence that the God of the Bible, or at least of the Hebrew Bible, is a bloodthirsty tyrant. To the moraliser it offers opportunities to spiritualise and at the same time develop a “suitably” muscular Christianity rabbiting on about the need to be ruthless in combatting those who  imperil our “Christian walk” (as Ahab imperiled Israel’s faithfulness to Yahweh’s covenant).

Both sets of extremist are up the pole and have failed to read the text. (BTW Jim West recently unmasked me as an “arrogant bastard” so I am trying hard to live up to the new image in the tone of my remarks – do let me know if you think I succeed?)

The common claim these two sets of poor readers make is that God wanted Ahab’s children slaughtered.

But, did God want that? In 2 Kings 9:7 the “detail” that the sons should be killed is added by a student in Elishah’s class. It was not part of the prophet’s instructions in 2 Kings 9:3. Similarly in 1 Kings 21:21f. Elijah adds this “detail” to what God had told him in 1 Kings 21:19.

So, time and again it is over-zealous humans, not God, that seek such violent solutions. Furthermore, as Jonah recognised God is: “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, and one who relents concerning threatened judgment.” So if the offspring of those gentle and kind parents – Ahab and Jezebel – had repented, even they would have been spared. Even if God had pronounced the death penalty!

So, if the Bible text in this case does not advocate mass murder as a form of power politics, nor exhort us to greater spiritual exercise (and you will see from the above that I do not believe it does): What is the Christian message of this bloody text?

Go listen to my podcast 2 Kings 10: a really nasty text as a test for the 5 step process to hear my answer :)

  1. He has much more claim to holiness than I undoubtedly, but even so this argument strikes me as specious ;) []

Marking, steers and the slaughter of Canaanites

Our four steers

Today I am marking, for a break later I’ll take some of the mowings from the weekend to the steers. They love the partly dried grass clippings, it’s like giving lollies to kids. Though since they have been in the paddock for a week I’ll need to be careful where I tread ;)

All of which leads to a hilarious collection of comments about the “slaughter of the Canaanites” that our local Theology Geek quotes. It is hilarious stuff, do read it, if not then just watch out for those copulating rocks! As I’ll be avoiding the steer droppings.

Over at Driving the Peterbilt: Bible Critique by Ryoga M, RyogaM  had written a sarcastic rendition of the battle of Gibeon, which is found in Joshua 10. Here are some highlights of that rendition:

[Asterisks not original]


Adoni-zedek king of Jerusalem: Well, now, let’s see. I suggest we attack…holy ****! What’s that?!

Hoham king of Hebron: That’s a big f***ing rock!

Piram king of Jarmuth: And it’s falling on our heads!

Japhia king of Lachish: Run away! Run away!

Debir king of Eglon: Well, this is going to suck.


Messenger: Message for Joshua!

Joshua: Yes?

Messenger: God has attacked with big f***ing rocks, sir. He’s slain them with a great slaughter at Gibeon, and chased them along the way that goes up to Beth-horon, and smote them to Azekah, and to Makkedah. he’s killed a lot of them, sir. Squished like bugs.

Joshua: Well it’s about time he did something useful. I guess we should kill everyone left, huh?

Joel Watts commented that RyogaM was being excessively literalistic in his reading of the text and referred RyogaM to Matt’s Joshua and the Genocide of the Canaanites series. RyogaM was not impressed he made several points of critique which he posted on his blog and repeated on ours. I will repeat the relevant parts below:

The purpose of my blog is to explore what the Bible actually SAYS, not what one wishes it to say, not what one would expect it to say if one presupposes the existence of an all-knowing, all-loving, all-power god, not what one can rationalize away because the concept of slaughtering every inhabitant of a town, including every old man, woman and child, goes against every enlightenment value we have.

And the reason I do this is because even your average, non-fundy, modern Christian takes certain parts of the Bible literally. I assume, for example, Christians take literally the idea that Jesus Christ was the son of god, that he died and rose again. Which is as equally absurd, if not even more absurd, idea, than the idea that Joshua and his people engaged in total warfare against the country he and his people invaded at the command of god. I hope, by taking the Bible literally, and pointing out why to do so is absurd, Christians such as yourself feel free to reject the entire concept of reading any part of the Bible literally and free themselves from superstition.

Now, looking at your blog, I think you are one of those selective literalistic, Christian. You presuppose that no god who calls himself just could ever order the slaughter of innocent old men, women and children, and you are right. So, you have to assume that god didn’t really mean what he very clearly said. Then you choose other parts of the Bible which are clearly in contradiction and think it resolves the question to say it’s all hyperbole….You refuse to accept what it says on its face and instead engage in mind-reading of the authors.

Matt’s response to these particular comments caused me to erupt into fits of laughter (and apparently caused shutters to fall from Jónathan’s wife’s eyes),

RyogaM, you state that I am a “selective literalist” and that not even “non-fundy, modern Christians takes certain parts of the Bible literally.”I agree. I read some parts literally and other parts non-literally. That’s a sensible approach to any form of communication.

Another sceptic told me they thought that “the Bible was bull****, because it was full of contradictions.” No sensible person would interpret this entire passage literally, to do so would mean it would be easily refuted. One could show that most bibles are composed of thousands of pages of ink and paper. One could note that ink and paper are a different substance to bovine faeces this is because the term “bull****” is, in English, a metaphor for falsehood. Similarly, no one would interpret this passage as entirely figurative; the reference to the Bible, for example, is not a metaphor nor is the reference to contradictions.

The sceptic is literally referring to the Bible and literally attributing contradictions to it and metaphorically describing it as bull**** in the same sentence. A sensible interpreter who is honestly trying to interpret the sceptics’ comments will interpret “bull****” figuratively and the rest literally. This is for two reasons: (a) taken literally, the comment is clearly absurd and it is unlikely an intelligent person would mean it to be taken this way; (b) the word “bull****,” in English, is a well-attested metaphor for falsehoods in contexts like this. This same two reasons are precisely what we see present in Joshua: (a) taken literally, the statements are absurd (they contradict the rest of the text); (b) the language is well-attested in ANE writing of this sort as hyperbole for victory.

Most literature and communication involves both literal and figurative language and any sensible communicator will attempt to discern both. If you disagree with me then I think your own blog post is easily refuted. You, after all, talk in your own post about “big f***ing rocks.” Now this is clearly stupid, rocks cannot engage in sexual intercourse and only a complete moron with no knowledge of reproduction would say this. On the face of it, you clearly stated that rocks “f***.” Of course you could contend (sensibly) that the word “f***ing” in this context should not be taken literally, that you used the word “f***ing” in a hyperbolic manner to emphasise the size of the rocks and the might of God. But then you are a selective literalist, you clearly do not want me to take everything on your blog as figurative. To do so would involve me “reading your mind,” it would involve me assuming you would not intend to say something obviously stupid. Seeing you think people should not do that then I have to conclude that you are a moron.

Please learn a bit more about sexual reproduction and its relationship to rocks before you write in future.

Web 2.0 and the profit motive

One of the local daily deal sites offered a $50 voucher for a restaurant in our city for $25. Sounded like a good deal, but we are new to the city, have no idea what the restaurant is like. So, I hit Google. The usual Web 2.0 users review the places sites came up. It really does sound like a great deal, all the top few reviews were excellent, saying things like: “All in all we had a fabulous evening. Next time we are around it’ll be our first stop. Fantastic service, fantastic fresh food and a fantastic atmosphere.”

There were three or four reviews in the same vein, and the next two sites were similar. Sounds a great deal, I wonder what such a popular restaurant gets out of it?

And then I spotted the fly in the ointment. None of these top reviewers had ever reviewed any other restaurant on the site. I looked further down the list. The next reviewer has reviewed a number of other places in the city, points out a number of failings, though is complimentary about the service, and sums up: “The overall food experience was poor!” The first few gave 5 or 4 stars, this guy gave one. But he’s the one that has actually written other reviews…

My conclusion? It looks to me as if the restauranteur has padded the “Web 2.0” collaborative review sites with puff pieces from their friends. Now, if the rev iew sites want me to come back they’ll need to start prioritising people who have done a number of reviews, and even more those with well liked reviews… as it is the sites are useless.

A country as small as NZ does not need half a dozen restaurant review sites. It needs one or two that actually attract real reviewers, till they get them its back to assiduously cultivating the grape vine in our new city…