Two ways to read: suspension of disbelief

Until more complex theories of aerodynamics were developed accepting the possibility of "the flight of the bumblebee" required a suspension of disbelief - Photo by by stuant63

Yesterday I was asked: If Noah lived before the law was revealed to Moses, how did he know how to distinguish “clean” and “unclean” animals?

It is still holiday time (it’s the summer in NZ, though with all the rain and cold in recent weeks you wouldn’t believe it) so my answer was less full than it ought to have been:

Hmm… on Noah, Moses and the animals, there are two likely lines for an answer (a) the story of Noah is being told after the delivery of the law and so the telling reflects those categories; (b) there was perhaps a cultural practice of distinguishing clean and unclean animals even before the law was revealed to Moses (as there was already such a practice of not eating pork).

Of course the short simple answer is “we really don’t know” but people don’t like that one ;)

But it’s not as simple as that1 behind any attempt to answer such a question lie two fundamentally different ways to read.

One way looks at the text from the outside, and reads as a “critic”. For a couple of centuries, in academic biblical studies, the most frequent way to thus “objectify”2 the text has been to examine it historically to see where it came from and how it got to us. Such an approach noticing that there seems to be a “continuity error” here suggests that the text was written at some time later than the events described, and uses this and other signs to work out when and by whom. We could objectify the text in other ways, by examining it as an example of a particular genre or class of texts, against its sociological background…

The other way enters the “world” of the text, and reads it from the inside. This is to behave like a “reader” for this is how we read novels and other stories, indeed it is how we read physics textbooks too ;) In the case of Noah’s distinction my second answer (though it depends on a historical hypothesis and so perhaps looks like the same kind of answer as the first) tends in this direction. It is asking how we might explain this, not as a continuity error (the critic’s approach), but within Noah’s world (a readerly approach).

The great medieval Jewish commentator Rashi took a different readerly approach he explained it thus:

Of all the clean animals: that are destined to be clean for Israel. We learn [from here] that Noah studied the Torah. (From Chabad.org)

Each basic direction of reading offers several different options or styles. But the basic question facing a reader of any text whether to read as critic or as reader. “Readers” must offer the text a willing suspension of disbelief3 Indeed the idea of a need to suspend disbelief can be helpful in thinking about the reading (as opposed to the criticism) of all narrative. For in a laboratory report also there are elements of the narration of the experiment that are omitted, or poorly described, where the reader must suspend disbelief. Despite the variety of both critical and readerly approaches, and despite the fact that they can even share approaches (as above either can examine the text historically), on the suspension of disbelief they differ fundamentally.

[Incidentally,4 Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair has a really interesting meditation for Purim on “The Willing Suspension of Disbelief“.]

  1. Except the last answer, because we really do not know ;) []
  2. Make into the object of study and examination. []
  3. The phrase is Coleridge’s from the Biographia Literaria of 1817, to explain how readers might approach the fantastic or supernatural elements in his work, but has been widely used in thinking about how readers can read many sorts of fiction. (( JRR Tolkein has also nuanced it speaking about “secondary belief” based on an inner consistency to the reality described in the narrative. But that’s getting too complicated for a short blog post ;) []
  4. Though not at all a HT ;) []

Global Perspectives on reading the Bible – Call for contributors

Photo from Soil-net

I have read the Bible professionally, and encouraged and taught others to read it, in three continents. The situations differed, including an African and a Western University, a Baptist theological college and a Bible School in a refugee camp. I have also supervised some exciting theses that develop interesting perspectives on understanding the Bible. So I am delighted to be participating in a project Global Perspectives on the Old Testament and Global Perspectives on the New Testament, I’ll be writing on Gender-bending as a male reader of Esther and on Jeremiah, possibly taking account of my current context (fencing a piggery and building a pig house ;)

Mark is looking for more contributors, so please read the Call for Contributions below, and think about writing something, or at least repost it on your blog and so share in an interesting project :)

Mark Roncace is seeking contributors for two volumes, Global Perspectives on the Old Testament and Global Perspectives on the New Testament. Pearson Prentice Hall is publishing Global Perspectives on the Bible this year. Next, separate OT and NT volumes, also to be published by Prentice Hall, will be produced. Both books will feature much of the same material as the original Bible volume, but with added essays.

The books—designed as entry level college textbooks—gather four different essays around one biblical text. The essays are brief (about 1,000 words and need not be “scholarly”) and articulate insights from a particular geographical, social, cultural, economic, religious, or ideological context/location. Here is the list of texts/books for which he need essays.

  • Genesis 6-9
  • Numbers 22-24
  • Leviticus
  • Judges
  • 1-2 Kings
  • Jeremiah
  • Ezekiel 1-25
  • Esther
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Daniel
  • Crucifixion narratives
  • Acts (other than chapter 2)
  • Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • 1-2 Thessalonians
  • James
  • Pastorals (1-2 Timothy, Titus)
  • 1-3 John
  • 1-2 Peter

Please let Mark know if you are interested (mroncace@wingate.edu) in writing an essay on one (or two) of these texts and he will forward specific guidelines and a sample. In addition to scholars, Mark is particularly interested in gathering perspectives from non-professional readers. He is trying to run on a tight schedule: final OT essays are due April 1 and final NT essays are due June 1 (but remember they are only about 1,000 words).

Gender analysis and the silly season

It’s the silly season, I’ve nearly finished the marking, but only “nearly”. So I needed some silliness. In an effort to demonstrate “scientifically” that Ruth was written by women I submitted the first chapter in various translations to the Gender Analyser. The results were uninspiring, it reckons with varying degrees of confidence that the chapter was written by a man. But then I guess all that proves is that the translators were (almost) all men. So to cap off the silliness I asked about this blog. Aparently my previous post (like my entire Repentant Carnivores site) was written by a woman.

Results

Silhouette of a womanWe have strong indicators that http://bigbible.org/sansblogue/spirituality/the-everyday-spirituality-of-marking/ is written by a woman (93%).

So, what I want to know is, who has been writing guest posts without telling me!?

How paper is better than e-books

You know it's a good bookstore when... by Ben+Sam

If yesterday’s post seemed a trifle touchy, it’s because the author I was criticising was himself unbalanced. I can rectify that today thanks to Jim W who pointed to this: 5 Ways That Paper Books Are Better Than eBooks this list is balanced and sensible, it takes the technological differences into account and points out not only why e-books don’t/can’t have the significant feature, but what they might have that is similar…
It is a really interesting post – read it! Thank you Jim :) Though your only comment:

And then take that e-reader and put it in the closet.  With thanks to Elaine Reid for the heads up.

…suggests that you have not actually read the post you point to. Perhaps that’s how you get all those posts every ten seconds, you’re a content sniffing machine, not a reader?

Distinguishing humour: signs that a text is intended to be funny

Photo by kevingessner

At 5 Minute Bible I have begun podcasting examples of humour from every book of the (Hebrew at least)1 Bible.

But five books in, I accepted that David Ker’s other challenge. Scripture comes to us from long, long ago and from far, far away, cross cultural humour is always difficult. What is riotously funny to a Japanese may not tickle a Kiwi funny bone. Even among cultures that speak the same language (more or less) senses of humour may be significantly different. Just think of American and British TV comedies…

Spotting humour is easier in speech than writing, in speech there are often signals in the tone, timing and other features of the speech that signal humour. Scripture comes to us as plain vanilla written text.

However, there’s a whole academic discipline studying humour and biblical scholarship has used these studies.

One of the best summaries of this is the chapter F. Scott Spencer “Those Riotous – Yet Righteous – Foremothers of Jesus: Exploring Matthew’s Comic Genealogy.” In Are we amused?: humour about women in the biblical worlds, edited by Athalya Brenner, 7-30. Continuum, 2003. After discussing some earlier attempts to speak about genre signs of humour, starting with Ovid and ending in the 20th century, Spenser lists clues that humour is present. He begins with Greenstein’s list from the ABD2 says incongruity, lighthearted mood and surprise are hallmarks of humour.

Spenser adds to that list, and splits Greenstein’s “surprise” into “spontaneity” and “imperceptibility or hiddenness” (I prefer “surprise”), and I have also modified his list by adding the revelation of human pretension. Giving the following signs a text is intended to be humorous:

  • incongruity
  • lighthearted mood
  • surprise
  • ingenuity (cleverness is often a mark of humour think of puns)
  • inferiority
  • disguise or something or someone pretending to be something else
  • “inelasticity” (following Bergson)
  • human pretension revealed in all its lack of glory!

David Ker, in comments over there, adds hyperbole. This is quite right, exaggeration, things being bigger, brighter and more cartoon-like is often a sign of humour (just think of the story of Jonah). So the list of characteristics likely to be found in humorous texts (remember these rarely all present, but the presence of many of them together provides a strong suggestion):

  • incongruity
  • lighthearted mood
  • surprise
  • ingenuity (cleverness is often a mark of humour think of puns)
  • hyperbole
  • inferiority
  • disguise or something or someone pretending to be something else
  • “inelasticity” (following Bergson)
  • human pretension revealed in all its lack of glory!

What do you think? Are there other common signs of humour, do these signs work? I am especially interested in anyone with cross-cultural experience who can comment on how these work in different contexts. FWIW they do not seem to contradict my experience…

  1. Someone else can do the NT if they like, though I am less sure there is humour in every book there, apart from Jesus they seem a rather serious bunch ;) []
  2. Greenstein. “Humour and Wit: Old Testament.” In The Anchor Bible dictionary, edited by David Freedman, III:330-333. New York: Doubleday, 1992. []

Literature and e-books

Brilliant photo by The Daring Librarian: Gwyneth Anne Bronwynne Jones hinting at the possibilities of e-readers.

The Books and Publishing blog (it comes from the organisers of the annual Book Conference and the International Journal of the Book) has reprinted an extract of an article from the LA Times, using the title “E-books are good news for the literary world”. B & P is a fairly conservative blog, linked closely to traditional publishing, so as you would expect the main “good news” seems (in both their extract and the full article) to be that e-books provide yet another distribution channel for “real books” and that they are more popular than Twitter, and therefore the world is not after all going to hell in a 140 character handbasket.

Their comments are “moderated” so I am not certain if my comment will be published, and anyway most of you probably don’t read either B & P or LAT, so I’ll repeat it here:

Of course e-books and other e-publication possibilities are good news for the literary world. Duh! Wasn’t the codex (which made texts smaller and easier to carry, print (which made them cheaper) so if earlier communications revolutions were good news how could electronic text (which makes “books” both cheaper and more interactive in many ways) be anything else?

Of course the codex was bad news for the spindle turners, and print for the scriptoria, perhaps e may not be good news for traditional publishers (as long as they remain merely traditional publishers).

And that last bracketed comment points to the key failing of e-books so far. Even Amazon singles (which could break open traditional genre restrictions) does little to make text more interactive. So far most of what we have are codexes that imitate scrolls, print that looks like manuscript… but change will come and with change the “literary world” will be renewed and revitalised.

In other words, the real good news for the “literary world” (which is a far larger and more vibrant creature than the traditional publishing industry) is that e-publication is growing, is already breaking down traditional economic restrictions on genres of literature and is showing signs of promise that it will begin to breqak down the walls that separate writers from readers as well as those that separate readers from each other. That is indeed “good news for the literary world”. Though it may not be for traditional publishers, unless they cease from dreaming of the past and begin to dream the future. Those who look only to the past are doomed to repeat it.
And that indeed is the conclusion of David Ulin’s article:

Here, perhaps, we have the true lesson of the Pew findings — that even in the digital world, we want more connection rather than less. This, I think, is what e-books have to offer: the promise of immersion, enhanced or otherwise, just as their analog counterparts have always done.

Though I read almost to the end before getting clues that he would end like this ;)

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. []

TextBOOKs?

Image from BecomingJewish.Org

Jonathan (my always stimulating, still just, but soon moving on, colleague) of ξἐνος pointed me to a piece in the NY TImes by Lisa W. FoderaroIn a Digital Age, Students Still Cling to Paper Textbooks“. This may be, and much of it reads like, the traditional claim that “books won’t disappear anytime soon”, digital technologies and books are different, and the new cannot replace the old… Cant that has been around at least since the first enthusiast on the other “side” proclaimed with equal evangelical fervour the death of the codex. It is different from the run of the mill in a couple of ways.

First it is based on research. Among other things this gives hard figures. For example: “three-quarters of the students surveyed said they still preferred a bound book to a digital version.” Which of course is a resounding vote of confidence in the codex textbook, especially in view of the fact that a couple of years ago the figure would have been over 99%.

It’s the implied competition and contrasts between e-textbooks and paper ones that interested me.The three paragraphs I quote below came, in reverse order (with just one paragraph from the original left out) which I think enable me to make a reverse case.

“Students grew up learning from print books,” said Nicole Allen, the textbooks campaign director for the research groups, “so as they transition to higher education, it’s not surprising that they carry a preference for a format that they are most accustomed to.”

This familiarity factor is gradually diminishing as students come into the system with less familiarity with print codex works as a major part of their previous study. Already some of our first year students (younger than the average, and straight form school) only use print books if we encourage them to. Most of these students’ assignments are written using resources available on the Web, if I am lucky through Google books. But often from websites of pastors sermons, or reprints of devotional classics.

Many students are reluctant to give up the ability to flip quickly between chapters, write in the margins and highlight passages, although new software applications are beginning to allow students to use e-textbooks that way.

But of course the very things these students are reluctant to “give up” are precisely the things that any decent e-text should make easy! Non-sequential access is what hypertext is all about, commenting and user annotation are easier and more flexible in an electronic environment, and highlighting is basic. It is only publishers rushing shoveleware onto the market repurposing existing titles into containers that are designed to mimic a dead tree that makes current e-textbooks unresponsive and equally dead!

“I believe that the codex is one of mankind’s best inventions,” said Jonathan Piskor, a sophomore from North Carolina, using the Latin term for book.

Duh! Of course it is. It revolutionised the world almost as much as the invention of writing. That’s why we may expect that the next big step forward, e-text, will be equally (or at least nearly) as revolutionary.

So, who is interested in a Free Open Source Old Testament Textbook?

How did that make you feel?

Mark Meynell (All Souls, Langham Place) has a fine list of 20 questions to ask when reading a novel. The list is introduced by an interesting post, but if you just want the list you can scroll down to the Scribd window. It’s good thoughtful stuff that could enrich our reading (at least for the “we” who usually “just read” ;)
Incidentally, Mark’s opening rant about contemporary Western education focusing on feeling is thought provoking. He concludes:

As a result in western culture, we learn to feel, we don’t learn to think. And narratives are one of the means to engaging our emotions… and thus we get hooked. Why else do advertisers spend so much time on creating ‘product narratives’? More worryingly, why else do campaigners put so much effort in creating a ‘political narrative’ for their electioneering candidates?

That did not fit my education, but then I’m a dinosaur, whose formative years were early in the second half of the twentieth century ;) But more importantly it does not fit my knowledge and experience of non-Western cultures – love of stories, and of the emotional roller coaster a good story takes us on, his human and not at all a product of post-modern failures of confidence in meta-narratives.

What do you think?

New Technologies

Johnathan at ξἐνος has posted a striking announcement of an exciting new technological breakthrough:  New Technology Coming Soon!!!!!!! Despite his predilection for exclamation marks, and despite the video being in Spanish, you probably ought to watch it before the one I repeat below (in Norwegian, but both have subtitles for the linguistically challenged) ;)