Articles for the Month of July 2011

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 ;) []

Downfall of a dictator, or is Google making us REALLY stupid?

US President Richard Nixon and Mobutu 10 October 1973 (National Archives and Records Administration, 194548 via Wikipedia)

People write books about what turned Col. Joseph-Désiré Mobutu from a charismatic young man riding a wave of popular support, encouraged along by the guns of his men, into the office of president after his second coup1 into a broken failed dictator at the end hardly even feared. But, though the proximate causes are multiple and complex, the heart of the answer is simple.  Insulation.


Mobutu lived the Life of Riley, or at least of an African despot, he did not mix and mingle, people came to him not he to them. He received only the information that his circle of paid sycophants chose to offer him. Few offered information that would trouble or annoy him. Would you tell a croc that it looked ugly, or a lioness that she needs dentistry?

As a result he was cut off, out of touch. Living in a fantasy world in Gbadolite (his “presidential village” in the back of beyond – though with its own international airport and huge cellars of champagne) or on his boat.

Although Congo/Zaire is a country the size of Western Europe, with few roads that are passable by Landrover, his downfall came almost as fast as his opponents could walk from the border to Kinshasa (1600Kms), in November 1996 his government ordered Tutsis out of Zaire, on May 16th 1997 he was the ex-dictator.

What has this to do with you and me, and Google? Well Google filters its search results, offering each user a prioritised selection according to their interests (and what will win Google most advertising revenue). This is great, if you are interested in Medieval history and not 20th century weaponry a search for “saracen” will not lead to (too much) information about armoured vehicles. But it is a disaster if you want to know what is real and true about the world we live in.

For all our other media are already censored and selected to tell us what we want to hear – TV is renowned for its triviality and superficiality, preferring celebrity scandals to mass starvation any day. Newspapers have their backs to the wall trying to find new revenue streams while fighting tooth and nail to protect the old ones, do you think they can afford the luxury of telling you anything except what you want to hear? So, without the Internet we live in a media bubble as pernicious and dangerous as the one that sheltered Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga.

But if we discover the Internet using a tool like Google, which tailors the results of our searches to our “interests” that tool too has failed us. Our knowledge of what is really happening in our world is a circumscribed and as biased as any tin-pot dictator’s.


  1. After the first he gave power back to the politicians. []

The first and the last

Photo “Written in Gold” by Anonymous Account

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

With such thoughts in mind (see Why is academic writing turgid?)I looked with unusual trepidation at the first and last sentences of my Colloquium article (concerning how even critical historically-minded scholars seem programmed to invent authors when reading Amos).

My article starts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now to look at the final sentence of the one I’m working on (about the confessions of Jeremiah, lament and complaint):

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

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

Why is academic writing turgid?

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

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

Ford Maddox Ford in the novel The Good Soldier

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

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

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

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

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

God is all too human in the Pentateuch.

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

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

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


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

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

Aural/oral qualities of the KJV/AV

Photo from Jacklee.

As part of the local celebrations of the KJV/AV jubilee (what does one call a 400 year anniversary?) I’m to speak on a distinguished panel. My thought is to address the well-known aural/oral qualities of the KJV/AV and relate that to the possibilities of various oralities/new oralities introduced by the move to electronically mediated communications.

But I am stuck :( Searches in all the usual places for combinations of the terms “oral, aural, KJV, Authorised Version, King James” do not seem to lead me to useful reading.

Do you have any suggestions? If so please, please let me know!

Humour and hurt: Proverbs 26:1-9

Billy Connolly. Taken by Jemma Lambert on April 13, 2005. The image links to a video clip that illustrates some of the points made here, but which uses excessive bad language.

Humour and hurtfulness often go hand in hand. Comedians can hardly be squeamish about offending. Indeed one of the liberating possibilities humour opens for us is to make fun of the powerful. But often in everyday life the people humorists make fun of are not powerful, still less powerful and oppressive. Rather they are often weaker with less access to resources than the comedian. (If you doubt this just search on YouTube for really funny clips, and note how often the “fun” is hurtful.)

Thinking about humour in biblical books, for my series seeking signs of humour in each book of the (Hebrew) Bible, I looked at Proverbs 26:1-9.1 Humour is used widely in proverbs, and so in Proverbs, because it is memorable, and proverbs aim to teach.

Here is the beginning of Proverbs 26 with some comments on how each couplet is either funny or hurtful, or not:

1 Like snow in summer or rain in harvest,
so honor is not fitting for a fool.

Hershey saw this one as funny, but I can’t see the joke myself.

2 Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying,
an undeserved curse goes nowhere.

Having a variety of birds around to watch, here in the bush clad hills between Tauranga and Rotorua, I found this picture of an undeserved curse flitting here and there, never settling, like a sparrow, or like a swallow swooping, swerving and always returning, most amusing.

3 A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey,
and a rod for the back of fools.

Expresses clearly the biblical idea of discipline, beat someone soundly and you may knock some sense into them, but it is not funny. Unless perhaps you see yourself as wise, and have a cruel streak.

But the next pair are brilliant. The more quoted is quite good:

4 Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you will be a fool yourself.

Just picture the last conversation you had with someone intent on “proving” that the world would end sometime back in May, or perhaps next October, or of “demonstrating” their particular form of church rules is found in this and that “verse” of Scripture. Remember how, if you opened your mouth, you were dragged into a morass of stupidity from which you were lucky to return ;)

But then read on…

5 Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will be wise in their own eyes.

Every time someone descends into the slough of verse bashing the fools whose forté it is are confirmed and built up in their folly. Now that is funny and hurtful at the same time. And a delightfully amusing complement to the previous couplet.

6 It is like cutting off one’s foot and drinking down violence,
to send a message by a fool.

The image is sufficiently incongruous, if not really funny, to be memorable, and since you are to cut off your own foot it hardly mocks the disadvantaged. Except those who make a bad choice or “messenger”.

7 The legs of a disabled person hang limp;
so does a proverb in the mouth of a fool.

However, this one is both very funny, and very hurtful, as well as memorable and effective. What do we do with it? To remove the offense would remove the point. Yet to make fun of the affliction which makes someone else less able to enjoy life than one is oneself seems deeply wrong.

8 It is like binding a stone in a sling to give honor to a fool.

Seems safe enough, though if we look at the translations and commentaries it seems the image may be a bit obscure…

9 Like a thorn in the hand of a drunkard
is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.

I have translated this one more literally than the NRSV and have preferred “thorn” to the NIV’s “thornbush” (agreeing pretty much with the NET). For the image seems to me clear, just as someone really drunk will hardly notice the prick of a thorn, so someone who is incurably stupid can learn proverbs, but their point will not prick, and no change will result.

So, what change should result from this reading of Proverbs 26:1-9?

Well for me, I resolve:

  • to try to cease answering fools according to their folly – students and others who quote “verses” at me had better expect an unsympathetic response
  • to try to answer fools according to their folly, and avoid honouring them, by pointing out that such verse bashing is daft


  1. The passage was suggested by an article: Hershey H. Friedman, “Humor in the Bible” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 13:3, 2000, 258-285. Although Friedman was Bernard H. Stern Professor of Humor and the journal sounds respectable the material is of varied quality and some of his examples did not tickle my funny bone, but it did suggest Pr 26 was worth consideration. []

Aerial dogfight

Here in the peaceful hills between Tauranga and Rotorua, I watched (and recorded the end of) a prolonged fight in the sky. Two Magpies saw off an Australasian Harrier, with other birds including our one of Herons getting involved a bit.

Make it fullscreen, because without a tripod and better gear I could not zoom closer. Notice the magpies actually manage strikes on the much bigger Harrier!

Commenting experiment

I have installed a new plugin, which claims to make commenting and sharing material much easier and more flexible. It enables people to highlight part of the text of a post and to comment on that. This might enable more nuanced discussion for a complex post – I’m thinking here of using this as a replacement for the rather clunky system at Digress It that I am currently using for Not Only a Father. Which has not been getting the traffic or the discussion I had hoped for.

The new system also claims to make sharing a post easier on Facebook or Twitter. We’ll see!

So if you want to try it, you could start by playing on this post, just highlight a word or phrase and away we go :)