Sunday, February 28, 2010
  The future of intellectual work
Geoff Pound has pointed me to a couple of really interesting resources recently (on Facebook rather than in Blogworld - How come these parts of the digital sphere are so separate? Except where we drag one into the other, as I will with this post ;)
Poster for Kubrik's film of Clarke's 2001 A Space Odyssey from túaw
First he remarked that Brian McLaren suggested that those of the emergent tribe who are interested in the future of seminaries should read the Life is a Mystery post "Wherein I figure out the iPad". Then he pointed me to Mark Coker's Huffington Post piece "Exploring the Future of Book Publishing at Tools of Change Conference" in which he highlights, from outside the sphere of Bible specialists, the significance of what Logos are doing to create networked books.

Unless I missed something important, (and I might well have as I was thinking about today's interactive sermon when I read it) despite the entertaining reference to Arthur C Clarke's 2001, the iPad post is not so much about the iPad, so don't yawn yet, as about how networked information (think ebooks on steroids, where everything is hyerlinked as in Logos Bible Software or imagine a hybrid of Google books and Wikipedia) together with changing approaches to imagining education may change the way we live our intellectual lives. (For my take on the broader educational context see my article: "Back to the Future: Virtual theologising as recapitulation" from Colloquium 37:2 in 2005.)
illustration from Victor Appleton's Tom Swift and His Giant Telescope Illustrator: James Gary
Interesting times! Networked books and digital libraries are making the activities of scholarship so much quicker, combine these with wider access to publication (and the economic "publish or perish" culture) and information overload becomes extreme, and mere information is again seen as worthless and human interaction more and more significant. Though paradoxically at the same time human interaction becomes (in such media environments) less and less deep or wide. Intense and casual rather than sustained or profound.

Something has to give?!

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Friday, February 26, 2010
  Funding the volunteer web
Photo by Jemal made available freely under a CC licence :)
The web has become a funny place. Despite its ethos of volunteerism and culture of free, increasingly volunteer effort and time are not enough for worthwhile projects. Meanwhile borrowed money, cosmetic surgery, pornography, and other essentials of modern life can finance themselves, and even enable others to make a modest income from blogging.

The latest illustration of this strange situation is Librivox. LV is a huge volunteer effort that In a mere four-and-a-half years, has made thousands of free audiobooks for anyone to enjoy. The site gets 400,000 visitors every month.One recording I did has already passed 10,000 downloads. Yet LV is appealing to its volunteers to donate money as well to pay for the system that enables all this. LV is deeply committed to the dream of free culture, so all its recordings are placed in the public domain. This ethos sits uneasily with advertising, otherwise a combination of Amazon links and/or Google Adwords would ensure an annual income of far more than the $20,000 that they are seeking (in the hopes it will cover the next few years of opperation).

There is a strange logic here, even a tiny payment from a few of the users who download and enjoy the books would cover the cost. Yet LV asks the producers of the content (well at least one group of them, the authors and original publishers are mostly dead, so they are not contacted by the appeal). So it is the readers, prooflisteners and project coordinators who must pay.

Perhaps in the gift economy and the culture of free this is the way it should be, with people covering the cost of publishing their work. But how does this fit with academic publishing? Academics (with a few, over the 20th Century a dwindling few, amateur scholars as exceptions to the rule) are mercenaries, we undertake our scholarship for pay. Yet even in this realm of "workers worthyof their hire" (we hope) publication has usually been free!

No, books and journals have not been free, but authors have most often given them away, it is usually only the commercial publisher of the work who makes any significant money (and then often barely enough to meet their costs) royalties on the average book (or even well above average like your latest one) are barely cover the coffee consumed in its writing.

There's the real paradox of digital publishing, a sector (somehow in this over-managed world we are always part of a "sector") that traditionally gave away its (or at least this) product is wary of the new culture of free and hides its work behind the firewalls of commercial publishers. Apart from hidebound inertia and fear of the new what explains this strange reality?

[See also this old post by Mark Goodacre.]

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010
  The Invention of Hebrew: Chapter 2: What was the alphabet for?
Chapter two does live up to my expectations, though it challenges some of my preconceived ideas. I had accepted the conventional view that, since the alphabet is a much simpler technology of writing, it of itself promoted a "democratisation" of writing in cultures that adopted it by comparison with syllabic writing. In particular I have assumed and taught that this was so in the (Southern) Levant compared with Mesopotamia or Egypt. Now Seth asks the very good question: If alphabetic writing was so superior to sylabaries how come it was adopted so slowly between the first known examples and its widespread use?
A specimen of Proto-Sinaitic script from Wikipedia
For most of the second half of the 20th century the earliest alphabetic writing seemed to be the Proto-Siniatic inscriptions from around 1500BCE. However, since 1999 the Darnells' discovery of an earlier example of alphabetic writing at Wadi el-Hol pushes the likely date of the invention of the alphabet back to probably between 2000 and 1800BCE.

If the superior or easier technology of alphabetic writing was not the driver of its adoption, what was? "What was the alphabet for?"

Sanders suggests the new form of writing, associated as it was by its origin with those on the margins of organised society (as is the [presumed?] case for examples of Proto-Siniatic), was adopted to express a different and more inclusive vision of society. At Ugarit (Late Bronze Age) one ritual text was found in multiple locations, while all others were found only in one copy. The exception is a communal liturgy of atonement.

In Hebrew too, in the biblical texts (presumed to come from the [late?] Iron Age), one text stands out, the scapegoat ritual in Lev 16. It was retained among the traditions preserved in Scripture, despite fitting poorly with the ethos and ideology of Leviticus or of its presumed Tradents. It like the ritual at Ugarit involves "the people" as a significant actor.

Alongside this Sanders criticises the tendency among biblical scholars to focus on the state (witness all the excitement recently about some substantial walls in Jerusalem that may now be dated to the tenth century), whilst there is evidence for an alternative politics not based on the polis or state, but rather tribal, and typical of speakers of West Semitic languages. He writes eloquently of the flexibility (with membership determined not merely by birth, but also and perhaps more significantly by ritual and declaration) and durability of tribal authority when compared with a "state" and its kingship.

[An interesting, almost throwaway line, suggests a connection between the Hebrew Bible's unusual prominence of narrative prose and the somewhat lengthy and discursive political addresses found in the Mari diplomatic correspondence.]

Intriguingly, but frustratingly, chapter two does not explicitly answer its title. To discover, for sure, what Sanders believes was the purpose of the adoption of the alphabet one has to read on...

As you can see this is page-turning stuff ;) indeed this chapter alone asks biblical scholars to overturn a number of (too little examined) presuppositions. If even most of Seth's many theses are widely accepted this book will be a landmark in the discipline of Old Testament studies.

If you have read this book, and have reviewed it please post a link in the comments to your review, if you have not (but either agree or disagree with the opinions and reactions poszted here) please post a comment explaining how. I am finding this book exciting reading and one reason for posting my reactions as I read is in the hopes of reading with other interesting and interested readers!

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010
  Amos, justice and gender
Julia O'Brien has a fine post Reading Amos in Modern Tekoa, it should suggest other neat possibilities for teaching! Though as Julia shows Tekoa today offers richer possibilities than many other sites.

But as they say "the devil is in the details", and in this case I wonder about a couple of related details. Julia "point[s] out how Amos falls short of all-inclusive justice" citing Judith Sanderson in the Women’s Bible Commentary:
  • "the description of Samaria’s women in 4:1-3 unfairly scapegoats women for the nation’s ills" does it? Or does this passage merely suggest that the women who enjoy the "good life" procured by oppression (cf 4:1 they at least enjoyed the drinkies) are condemned along with thoose who procured them these treats?
  • Amos "failed specifically to champion the women among the poor" surely 2:7b does specifically champion a class of (poor) women (servant girls) from male abuse, and states that such abuse profanes the holy reputation of God.
I don't believe that Amos is entirely free of the taint of common social attitudes of his time (though as a male I am less likely to spot examples), doubtless the book reflects the unconscious prejudices of its writers and editors, but please limit mention of this to cases where the failure to transcend time and place are clear and unequivocal.

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Monday, February 08, 2010
  The Invention of Hebrew: Chapter One
The first chapter has the grand title "Modernity's Ghosts: The Bible as Political Communication". In a little over 20 pages it sets the scene for the study on a broad canvass of the several centuries of "bibilical criticism". It also makes the case for the revolutionary significance of the rest of the book. I confess I found it less interesting and inspiring than the Introduction or than the opening and closing sections of the other chapters suggest they will be. John Hobbins found the engagement with Hobbes "engaging" is a strong reminder to my readers that the cool response to this chapter here probably tells more about the reader than the work being reviewed. Perhaps my lack of enthusiasm can be understood by remembering that here with this reader Sanders is preaching to the choir, or perhaps my less than mastery of the history of enlightenment philosophy is to blame...

Whatever, I have done my duty, and later today can begin to relish chapter two, whose much more exciting title is "What Was the Alphabet For?

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  Visualising Biblical Data
Exhibit is claimed to be a "simple widgets tool" enabling mere mortals to make useful, interactive web-based visualisations of data sets easily. It is open source :) with samples like these:
There have to be ways to use this in teaching our disciplines, but I wish I had some immediate ideas, so I could try it ;) Just looking at it though suggests a fine playroom where pericopae were listed by size, genre, location etc... and one could see various cuts of this information...

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Friday, February 05, 2010
  Nokia Ovi and the joy of Vista
I have been using Nokia's neat fast utility PC Suite to synch my phone and Windows Calendar and to two Bluetooth devices. I have used it ever since I got the phone and it works like a treat under both XP and the demon Vista.

Today it suggested I "upgrade" to a new version (for some obscure reason now called Ovi, though I can see no connection to eggs). I did, I even got it working. And found how to synch my diary (for me the really vital part, the rest is icing, but for Ovi it is all about photos and audio files). It didn't look as easy to use as the old version, most useful tools being now hidden, and only the glitz showing. But never mind, I'd keep up to date...

Then the Vista effect kicked in. I can't synch my diary using Ovi, Vista decides the program has stalled and forcably closes it "for" me! Thank you Microsoft, since Ovi is unusable I have returned to nice simple PC Suite, and junked Ovi. PC Suite synched everything in seconds and kindly shows me on the OPC screen when there are TXTs to answer :)

I think I must now be a grumpy old Luddite, I remember with nostalgia the days when computers did what they were told, no more but no less, and GIGO ruled. Now the rule seems to be "No matter WHAT you put in, you still get garbage out!

  The Invention of Hebrew: first and last paragraphs
Not having read the whole book, or even (yet) the beginning and ending of each chapter put me at a disadvantage in reading the "Conclusion". I am not sure whether it is a "tell 'em what you told them" or a "so here's what that all means" conclusion.

Maybe I'll have to rethink and read the first and last paragraph(s) of each chapter first - different books need to be read differently. Actually already with chapter one it is clear that I should read the first few paragraphs, down to the first section heading, as evidently these are Seth's intro to the chapter as a whole.

Actually, I'm going to revise my approach. Not just because (unusually) I am reading the whole of this book - my normal approach to reading is geared at avoiding reading more than I need ;) But because (having peeked at the beginnings and endings) the chapters look so exciting I want to read them properly before I savour the conclusion.

This is how books should be written!

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Thursday, February 04, 2010
  Brick walls and motherly God-talk
I've run into a brick wall working on my Amos land and territory material, a belated [well the oral paper was supposed to be only that, thoughts of publication followed the colloquium, and last year was so busy] literature search has thrown up a highly relevant article that could impact hugely on what I write, but the journal may not be available in NZ :( So, if anyone has access to
S. D. Snyman, "The Land as a Leitmotiv in the Book of Amos." Verbum et Ecclesia, 2005, 26(2) 527-542
and could scan and email me a copy, I'd be delighted :)

In the meanwhile I need to change mental gears and work on the Day of YHWH and the structure of Amos. To help me with the transition [at least that's my excuse] I have been doing the mindless but necessary job of converting more of Not Just a Father, my book on the use of motherly language and imagery to speak about God in the Christian tradition into the format that will allow readers to comment on, ask questions about and argue with my thinking paragraph by paragraph.

I am now doing chapter 5 "Theology of God as Both Father and Mother" though I have cheated a bit as chapter 3 is not yet written ;)

All I need now are people to make comments, so once again (now that I am back at work after the summer) if you know someone who might be interested in this topic please point them to the site and suggest that they really say what they think :)

But before you do that do please email the Thai prime Minister...

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  The Invention of Hebrew: Introduction
In the "Introduction" Seth lays out the four chapters, paying particular attention to the questions that will be raised, and thus providing engaging teasers drawing the reader in.

The book as a whole is situated within a framework which stresses both the direct appeal of biblical texts to their hearers ("you") and to the (usually) communal identity of those hearers ("Hear, O Israel!"). As a Baptist, inheritor of the Anabaptists, I love the stress on the way Scripture produces and moulds the community that reads it. This emphasis will be crucial to the book as a whole.

So, the first chapter will situate the discussion in the broad sweep of intellectual history, and is intended to make a case for the claim that this book aims at a significant paradigm shift to viewing language and its literatures as constituitive of social identity as well as its product.

Chapter two focuses on the Ugaritic literature that precedes and in many ways prefigures the Hebrew Scriptures. It will claim that the combination of the technological form of that writing (alphabet rather than Cuneiform syllabary), its language (Ugaritic rather than Akkadian) and its literary style (address to "you") combine to make it revolutionary. It will also trace this political consciousness back into the Mari texts as well as onward into the Hebrew writings.

With this much (hopefully) in place the second half of the book promises to trace more closely the development of these literary phenomena against the history of the Late Bronze and Iron Ages. This seems to be where the book will become more than merely very interesting! In particular the notion of Assyrian vassals "pirating" the "genres of imperial sovereignty". It is here that Sanders will claim that in this process local rulers "invented" their local languages, and deliberately distinguished them. I love Seth's commentary here (6) on the opening words of the Mesha stele: "'I am Mesha, king of Moab, man of Diban.' Rather than claiming to be king of the universe [as Assyrian rulers routinely did] Mesha claims to be a native of his hometown." I resonate too with the recognition that: "Alphabetic writing, low-budget and easier to learn and produce, circulated outside the court" allowing Levantine communities to speak back to their rulers :)

The discussion of scribal culture and training sounds really exciting too, and the claim that alphabetic scribal practice (in cultures of the Levant) may not have been like that of Imperial syllabic scribal culture seems both obvious and interesting. Here Sanders' determination to deal with the datable (epigraphic) texts from the period sounds excitingly new and powerful.

Yes! I'm sold, this is a book I'll enjoy reading, but already in ways I have not had time to explore here I am aware that it will not merely confirm my prejudices but also challenge and enlighten them, not least by the way Seth intends to situate the discussion rigorously in a broader than biblical context.

This is a proud book, the first sentence under "Limits and goals" claims: "This book is not a history of biblical literature, but ... an explanation of how shuch literature became possible." (7)

[Yesterday, I planned to deal with the "Conclusion" as well as the "Introduction" today, but time is passing and thoughts of land and earth call me back to Amos...]

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  Beautiful but deadly: Urgent action needed
We took this photo of the beautiful area where these people have fled for safety just weeks ago
It's not biblical studies, nor digital academy, but it matters to me, and I hope to you!

According to the Burma Campaign (UK) the Thai authorities are threatening to force the return starting on 5 February 2010 of the 3,000 Karen refugees who fled to an area north of Mae La in June following a military offensive by the Burmese Army in Karen State, Eastern Burma.

The area they would return to is under the "control" of the DKBA and heavily mined they would face mass torture, harrying by military forces and many deaths if forced to return.
Although the Thai Government and local authorities have officially stated that they will not force people to return, in practice they are applying significant pressure on the refugees to return.

Until now the refugees have been kept in two temporary camps close to the Thailand-Burma border. Many of these refugees have already been forced to flee their homes four or more times.

If forced to return to Burma, the refugees face possible death, slave labour or forced recruitment as soldiers.

The area in Karen State where the refugees would be made to return to has many landmines. In addition, the area is now under the control of the DKBA, an organisation allied to the military dictatorship, which is guilty of committing horrific human rights abuses against civilians, including widespread use of forced labour, executions, torture and mutilations, forced recruitment of soldiers, including child soldiers, theft and extortion.
So PLEASE write to the Thai authorities to urge them not to force the refugees back to Burma. There is a simple form you can use here:

I have already written, editing the form letter in the hope that this will make it weigh more, but simply adding your name and address and clicking send is all that's needed. If the Thai authorities realise that many people outside care enough to post an email they may see this issue as one that impacts their tourist industry!

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010
  The Invention of Hebrew: First impressions
At SBL Seth told me that in exchange for a review here (and/or in a journal) his publisher would be willing to send me a copy of his new book:
Sanders, Seth L. The Invention of Hebrew. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

How could I refuse, the pre-publication hype and Seth's own descriptions of the book suggest that I'll either love or hate it. It seems it addresses my passionate interest in the intersection of culture and technology, especially writing and communications technologies. And it is focused on the "invention of Hebrew". My only sadness was that I had to wait till I returned home from a ten week working trip/holiday in Thailand and other interesting places. I'm home, and along with other goodies the book was waiting for me :) I'll post the review here in several parts, and I'll follow my usual procedure for reading a book (rather than for writing a traditional review, which aims to become a seamless whole) and post piecemeal as I read.

So first I looked at the most important bits (at least for getting an overall idea of a book):
  • Publishers blurb
  • Table of contents
  • (Index etc.) not a read just a quick scan
  • Preface (unless the first sentence or two suggest it is a waste of time)
The Invention of Hebrew is an attractively produced small volume (171 pages of text - no small is good, big just means more waffle like an airport block buster a waste of time, and in an academic book probably not entertaining either). The paper feels nice, though the print could be larger and sharper or I could be younger and sharper. It has a short but useful looking index and a bibliography. (Don't you hate books where you have to hunt the notes for the first mention of a work you need to consult!) Priced at $50 but the publisher (University of Illinois Press, who have a strong stable of interesting Bible related works now) it is even better value at Amazon for $40. By only complaint so far - and if you read this Seth please pass it on to the series editor - is that it follows the idiotic habit of listing the notes at the back and numbering them separately for each chapter. (This device developed in the BC period when it was hard work for poor writers and editors to keep track of all the notes and difficult for typesetters to place them at the foot of the relevant page. Computers changed all this. But graphic designers like "clean-looking pages" and actual users are not considered, once we have bought a copy publishers have no interest in our reading experience. Readers of academic texts need references, so either use the Harvard system of inline references, or use footnotes!)

The publishers blurb claims that Seth's book is groundbreaking: "absolutely innovative", "makes new knowledge", "first book to..." It also suggests that the work has an interesting thesis that Hebrew was a "self-conscious political language" promoting "a source of power previously unknown in written literature: 'the people' as the protagonist of religion and politics". Which is nicely sweeping and in a bookstore would lead me to open the work.

The preface is not at all one of the dead and dull ones that give "preface" a bad name, it is lively, quasi-autobiographical, and tells us that Seth intends to address loads of interesting questions:
  • Language and identity: "Did writing always flow from your spoken language and everyday identity, or did the relationship change? And if it did could that change who you were?"
  • Bible and politics The history of how "the Bible exercises power: through the manner in which it speaks to people". Have maximalists and minimalists both connived at reducing politics in Ancient Israel to the exercise of state power? (A question dear to the heart of every aspiring Anabaptist ;)
  • Biblical Studies and the academy "What does biblical studies have to say to the rest of the academy?"
The table of contents reads as if the book were a collection of unrelated essays:
  1. Modernity's Ghosts: The Bible as Political Communication
  2. What Was the Alphabet For?
  3. Empires and Alphabets in Late Bronze Age Canaan
  4. The Invention of Hebrew in Iron Age Israel
The four chapters are enclosed by an "Introduction" and a "Conclusion", but their titles do not strongly suggest their coherence and progression. Each looks interesting but they do not obviously work together. However, the sort of questions foregrounded in the "Preface" suggests that the blurb may not be exaggerating, this could be a ground breaking and interesting book. So I am hoping the "Introduction"will reveal how the chapters work.

All in all, I can hardly wait to read the "Introduction" and "Conclusion" tomorrow!

(But today I must make more progress on my chapter for The Gospel and the Land of Promise. My chapter will either be titled: "'Exile away from his land:' is landlessness the ultimate punishment in Amos?" or perhaps: "Land and earth, judgement and gospel in Amos".)

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010
  Poetry 2.0 ?

NZ Book Council - Going West

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