Sunday, November 26, 2006

Write good? AKMA on writing with pictures ::

AKMA's post Very Good and Write rightly focuses on focus, but (to my mind at least) carries good advice too far.

First the good advice, which I'm summarise as cave canem! Beware of the (shaggy) dogs. Everyone must agree that "just putting something out there doesn’t imply that it will contribute to getting a message across". Focus on the message to be communicated is indeed vital. When crafting words, I know I should follow his advice "don’t confuse and distract your readers with pointless, vague, superfluities" more than I do. (I am addicted to digression.) Indeed these wise words from a preacher (from the start of the following footnote) might beneficially be engraved on every screen:
We should, however, assess such indulgences with a pretty rigorous criterion of whether they contribute to communicating the greater message. (I’m looking at you, preachers who include irrelevant shaggy dog stories in your sermons.)
Yet, AKMA is not primarily writing about writing, or about speaking, rather the focus of his post is the use, in writing, of images. With this focus, I find myself less agreeable to the direction of AKMA's advice:
If what you write, or if the images you use for graphical communication, do not contribute to expressing clearly and precisely the message you’re hoping to convey — then don’t confuse and distract your readers with pointless, vague, superfluities.
What he says is true, but a partial truth. And partial truth is more dangerous, or in this case more stifling than arrant fiction. Certainly, images should not be added willy nilly, nor be pointless or superfluous. And yet the tenor of the advice is to resist strenuously the visual equivalent of a digression, to focus on images whose communication coordinates closely with the words'. How much depth and richness is lost when this advice is followed!

An image which "connects" to the text, yet connects obliquely, can so often encourage the reader (and all readers need such additional courage) to create new and added meaning of their own. While narrow and tightly controlled focus seeks to constrain readers to paths prepared in advance by the authoritative author!

So, for example, in my notes on the Genesis class' session on "Abraham's children (16 & 21)" I included in the sidebar images and text of Ishmael (see below) found from a Google search on the name. What exactly a reader makes of the implied connection between these modern Ishmaels and their ancient namesake I do not know, cannot know, but I suspect that their reading is richer for the side trip.

This Ishmael was (I believe) Technical Assistant in the Journalism Dept at Technikon Pretoria
I suspect there is a personality difference here, Barbara (and some of my colleagues) like (I suspect AKMA) prefer more ordered and orderly communication. They may be infuriated by my Ishmaelite style, but others (like me) delight in such invitations to imaginative play.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Ideas for the Bible Dictionary (from SBL) ::

This post is partly a note to myself, partly a hope that you will help me evaluate and work through a couple of ideas for the Bible Dictionary project that came out of sessions at SBL.

HBD and Bible Software

Someone suggested (sorry I never got a note of your name, if you read this please email me so I can note and remember you!) that we talk to Logos or BibleWorks about the possibility (once we have a first edition of articles) of putting the Dictionary into their software as well as making it available on the web. For the software company it would give them a good recent dictionary (currently they are all "aging", either old and out of copyright like ISBE, or elderly like The Anchor Bible Dictionary) that they could include even in basic packages. It would give us another funding source either for starting or (more likely) for running costs and development.

Semantic markup

As part of Sean Boisen's presentation for which he promises the slides soon, he showed us a cool implementation of his NT names data being used to sort and display names from the NT according to different categories. So, e.g. interested in Ephesus one could find out what other cities were in the same region, or which characters lived or visited the city (in the NT). I began to imagine making use of such a facility as part of the interface for the Dictionary...

Basically Sean's NT Names is (IT geeks please bare with my inaccuracies, ignorance and oversimplifications) a system of classifying names - of people and places so far - according to their relationships. So Timothy is an "associate of" Paul, but the "son of" Eunice, "lived in" Lystra, he "visited".... etc. A user who can navigate through this web of data while "inside" a Bible Dictionary has a whole load more options for exploring!

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Cheap(er) Hotels and WiFi at SBL ::

AKMA complains that his hotel charges per CPU for WiFi, so in "All But The Shopping" - his final post from SBL - he was unable to post what he wanted because he was using Margaret's laptop not his own (greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his WiFi for his wife? ;-)

The answer is simple and cheap, next time go to a cheaper hotel. Both last year and this I had free WiFi as part of the package at my hotels, not because I looked for it, but because I chose cheaper hotels who use free WiFi (rather than the size of the rooms or the armchairs) as another means to attract custom.

Incidentally, the Harrington Hotel has a burger bar Ollie's Trolley (on the corner of 11th and E) which does the best chips/hot chips/fries I've had - at least of the shoestring sort - as a bonus. Several blocks from the conference, but only two from a shuttle...

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Monday, November 20, 2006

SBL Podcast (info box) ::

A bunch of the bloggers at SBL got together and made a podcast Bibliobloggers @ SBL. We just sat and chatted, and despite our fears we did not run silent as soon as the mics were switched on. At times it sounds more Marx Brothers than Biblical Scholars on a Plane, but conversation included blogging and blogging tools, as well as current research and publications and of course Hebrew Tattoos.

The Firefox blogging plugin some of us plugged is Performancing, neat and cool, as we said it allows you to press F8 and then to drag and drop, type and edit your post live in the bottom of ther FF window as you surf. Then when you have finished (and I now have) just click to publish...

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Best paper so far at SBL award ::

For me, and any such judgement is bound to be gloriously subjective, though in this case supported (according to the clapometer) by the others in the room, the best paper so far at SBL has to be Sara Milstein's "Recapturing the Prophet: Identifying Amos' Call Narrative in 3:2-8".

Sara argued neatly and succinctly that the prey in Amos 3:3-8 is not (as is usually assumed) Israel, but Amos. The change of voice and form between 3:1-2 and 3-8 suggests that we not be too quick to identify the "two who walk together" as YHWH and Israel... None of the traps and disasters in 3-8 tells of the death of the prey, yet elsewhere Amos is not reluctant to proclaim Israel's death! The language of capture (4b & 5b) and fear (6a & 8a) serves suggest that the prophet is YHWH's prey (as Jeremiah will be in Jer 20:7ff. though the seduced Jeremiah is a human prey, while Amos the herdsman is an animal in a trap).

I haven't the space, or the memory to summarise Sara's agruments properly, sufficient for now to say that she neatly supported her claims till the conventional reading of the passage seemed forced and her reading natural. I am totally convinced by her reading, except for the name "call narrative", if Amos 3:3-8 describes or argues for Amos' call, and Sara convinced me it does, it is not a "narrative". But then as Sara points out, we name the genre after the versions in Isaiah and Jeremiah (perhaps including Ezekiel), yet Amos can (perhaps - I have doubts over the dating of the material in the book) claim "prior art". Maybe the genre already (if we include Ezekiel) quite diverse is not prophetic call narrative but something like "justification of a prophet's call".

The paper that followed Roger Nam's "Grain, Wine and Oil in the Northern Prophets:The Socio-economic Background of an Agricultural Metaphor" was also a prime example of stimulating work. Roger moved confidently from a summary recasting of the archaeological data to a comparative linguistic examination of the terms concerned. Another paper I must follow up... And perhaps more grist for a new edition of Amos ;-)

[In the interests of full disclosure of interest, I must confess that Sara cited my 1999 paper and it is always gratifying when ones work comes back to haunt one. On that, I'll wait till I read her paper at more leisure, to decide if I am convinced by her there too, or if I still stand by Bulkeley 1999!]

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Technology, teaching and biblical studies (SBL plus) ::

This post is not the promised report on SBL, but a note to myself first about the conversation I had over lunch with Thomas Naef (Lausanne, BiBIL) who has been teaching a course that sounds not unlike my Bible in an Electronic Context more on that when I have a chance to look at the material that he will be putting online when he has the time to put it up ;-) (Busy aren't we!) And second, by serendipity, somehow I missed the post on Hebrew Scriptures and More . . . . which pointed to David Hymes "Technology, Internet and Teaching" site. Here are two for me to follow up once things quieten down, and maybe there are some conversations to be had here in blogaria like the one with Thomas over lunch...

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Linguistic Dating of Biblical Hebrew ::

A downunder blog that I have not come across before but which promises interesting Hebrew Bible reading - it's called דבר אחר (if you want to know why Simon explains) - discusses the use of linguistic features to date biblical texts.

Simon provides a nice simple clear explanation of why there is an interest in using linguistic features to date texts, and why attempting to do so is problematic.

Simon then summarises what he found in his investigation of the use of locative he in Chronicles (the topic of his honours dissertation).

[For non Hebraists, basically this means a letter added to a word which indicates movement to or from the indicated place, or that that place is the location where the event described took place.]

In short, and his post is well worth reading - clear, simple and well argued - Simon loked at the use of this feature in Chronicles - often used as a known "late" text. He found that although the crude occurrence counting usually used shows lower levels of this feature, a more sophisticated investigation shows that the rates are not truly significantly different from those elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.

He concluded:
In recent years, such has been the content of a great deal of critical scholarship and, as a result, the entrenched position regarding the possibility of charting the Hebrew language over time (and using that to date texts) has been shaken to the core. Scholarship in this area is a little like the long-necked dinosaur that might receive a mortal blow
yet take a while to have that information relayed to its brain. Once the many problems settle in, the school of thought that proposes linguistic dating will ultimately keel over and die; they’ve already been hit, but such things take a little while.
This was not intended to suggest that Simon's work was that final blow, but does provide a vivid image of his conviction that seeking linguistic criteria for dating biblical texts is an impossible quest. But is it? Granted that previous use of the frequency of locative he in Chronicles over-simplified the case, yet it may still be that a still more careful investigation will provide more support.

Both Duane, who discusses the epigraphic evidence for this construction in the 6th century; and Tyler, who (in a comment) asks about the differences between the "synoptic" and non-synoptic passages of Chronicles seem to share my own hope that this dino may still have some life breathed into its dry bones!

(I have a vested interest, my paper at ANZABS next month will suggest that the so-called "prose particles" may also provide clues to dating. In the mean while I am at SBL, and must post about one brilliant paper I listened to this afternoon, but first a bite to eat...)


Sunday, November 12, 2006
SBL Forum Wiki Edition ::

(With apologies to all the other contributors. Especially Bob Buller who wrote on Google Books so is also a must read for me - I can probably live without Samuel Thomas' Bible Scholar on an Airplane as I'll be one in a day or two!)

But given my limited time at this season, its the "In the Classroom" articles that deserve my first read. They all focus on Wikis!
Sight unseen (I have yet to begin to read any of them!) Kevin Wilson's is the most exciting as Tyler's post led me to Kevin's Blue Cord Bible Dictionary wiki project even before he led me to the SBL Forum. I do hope Kevin will be at SBL and we can meet up!

Now I must run, the day is breaking and Barbara needs coffee before church...

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Blogger meet at SBL ::

Rico (Informal Biblioblogger Get-Together at ETS and/or SBL?) proposed that those of us who will be at SBL meet up, he is now suggesting after the CARG session on Sunday, Nov 19th (in room 103A-CC). That session ends at 3:00, and others begin at 4:00. So it should us time to meet at least briefly. As "Rico" says: "Spread the word — See
you there?"


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Open Source Religious Resources ::

Here's a project (Open Source Religious Resources) that I wish I had spotted earlier! (But big thanks to Stephen for the pointer.) There is so much about this project that I love, its openness, its simplicity and the way it fills such a need, just for starters. Though like Wikipedia, and any resolutely "open" project it will need some clear quality assurance mechanisms. Maybe the rating process will achieve that. (See Paul's paper from AIBI in Leuven "Through an Open Window: Exploring Openness in Biblical Scholarship" [PS I checked and Paul put a copy online so I have now linked to his Word Document.])

I hope that they do not get bogged down in technology, as the project that Susan Lochrie Graham talked about at SBL a few years back. (It seemed to run out of steam when a big grant application for high end software failed.)

Why you could start running (almost) the whole OSRR dream with the software used by Wikipedia, community editing, uploads and searchability... It is more important to get the community right than to get the software right!

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Complaint/Lament/Plea ::

Both Tyler (who started it) in a post "Laments, Complaints, Prayers, Pleas, or Petitions?" and Ken, in a comment on my response to Tyler: "Complaints Department" make a sensible criticism (which I had not spotted, despite my facetious title) that "complaint" is perhaps too anaemic a word to describe the psalms under discussion. They make good points.

Ken seems quite happy with "lament":
It strikes me that the passive aspect of the term lament is quite appropriate as it seems the Psalmist is always fully aware of God’s sovereignty and their own inability to right the injustice or perceived wrong in the face of that sovereignty. I also agree with Tyler that complaint seems to trivialize the petition while lament, in my opinion, more appropriately captures the emotional gravity of the situation. From my own experiences, I would more often characterize my moments of grief and frustration with God as laments rather than complaints.
While Tyler, after summarising other suggestions, like "songs of prayer" - which while it has the advantage of using "biblical language" is neither really English, nor captures the precise nature of these "songs", writes:
I wonder if a more appropriate name for these psalms may be “pleas” or “petitions.” Gunkel and most other psalms scholars after him have recognized the most important element of the lament psalm is the plea or petition for help. Gerstenberger calls it the “very heart of a complaint psalm” and claims that “in fact, all the other elements can be interpreted as preparing and supporting the petition” (Psalms, FOTL, 13).
I rather like this, as he notes the heavyweights draw attention to the central role of the "plea" in these psalms. But I am still a bit nervous of domesticating them. "Plea" sounds so much safer than "complaint" when addressed to God... And some of them are not at all "safe". Jeremiah's disputes with God somehow seem tamed if one calls them "pleas".


Sunday, November 05, 2006

What is the role of the Internet in student research for assignments? ::

Several groups of my different colleagues have discussed this recently. Views vary hugely.

Some sound sensible: “Wikipedia should not be used in preparing assignments. It's information is not always correct.” [Ah, so you think the Encyclopedia Gallactica IS correct always? Or should students not rather learn to read critically...]

Some are extreme: “I tell students I will not accept any Internet URLs in their bibliography!” says one ostrich. [I have news for you friend, the students will do their research on the 'net, they will just hide this fact in their bibliographies for your assignments!]

I rather like this piece of urban myth (from Bruce Sterling via Jason Kottke though apparently related by an “engineering prof” which is surely enough degrees of separation for you to quote it fearlessly!):
The prof split his class into two groups. The first group, the John Henrys, had to study and learn exclusively from materials available at the internet allowed. The second group, the Baby Hueys, could use only the internet for research and primary source lookups at the library. After a few weeks, he had to stop this experiment because the John Henrys were lagging so far behind the Baby Hueys that it is was unfair to continue.
I'm not sure how it would work in Biblical Studies, quite a lot of our important works are still only available in print, though between EBSCO, Oxford Online and their like, not to mention Google Books and Scholar I suspect the results (at least in a blind test where the marker did not know to which group the student belonged) might be similar. But only if the students were taught first how to use the resources at their fingertips, and how to read with discernment and sharply critical faculties honed.

Why is it we persist in seeking to teach students to inhabit the world in which we grew up and did our PhDs (getting them to compose “book reviews” and such tasks), rather than the one they inhabit (teaching them to become critical consumers of Wikipedia)?

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Apology to atheist readers ::

A commentor below (anon) drew my attention to a really good response to Eagleton's review of Dawkins' The God Delusion. This review of a review, "The God Conundrum", reminds me of how when we debate we often descend to each other's level, but that when we discuss we can sometimes rise to each other's best.

In my trite and gloating quoting of Eagleton's review I made this error. I am sorry. I should have resisted the temptation to enter such a débat de sourds (debate among the [mutually] deaf). Because, I am sure that Eagleton does not hear the real points that Dawkins makes, since he is so busy hearing Dawkins' failure to understand what "God" means.

And now I've lost the opportunity for a real conversation. :-(

Anyway Sean, the poster of The God Conundrum, writes well and clearly, and thinks clearly too. I particularly liked this paragraph:
The problematic nature of this transition — from God as ineffable, essentially static and completely harmless abstract concept, to God as a kind of being that, in some sense that is perpetually up for grabs, cares about us down here on Earth — is not just a minor bump in the otherwise smooth road to a fully plausible conception of the divine. It is the profound unsolvable dilemma of “sophisticated theology.” It’s a millenia-old problem, inherited from the very earliest attempts to reconcile two fundamentally distinct notions of monotheism: the Unmoved Mover of ancient Greek philosophy, and the personal/tribal God of Biblical Judaism. Attempts to fit this square peg into a manifestly round hole lead us smack into all of the classical theological dilemmas: “Can God microwave a burrito so hot that He Himself cannot eat it?” The reason why problems such as this are so vexing is not because our limited human capacities fail to measure up when confronted with the divine; it’s because they are legitimately unanswerable questions, arising from a set of mutually inconsistent assumptions.
Naturally, since we take very different stances with respect to the existence of God, I don't always agree with Sean. Sometimes I tend to agree, but still seem to arrive at a different conclusion. (Because I am agreeing with most of the words, rather than all that was intended by them. So when Sean writes:
But the crucial point is that the emergence of One God was an essentially political transformation.
I agree, except for the innocuous looking "essentially". The claim of monotheism is indeed political, as well as everything else. As a political claim it subverts the claims to divine sanction of David's descendants. Though less directly than it does those of an Egyptian Pharaoh. Basically it seems to me the claim is relational, rather than merely political. (Sean sets the "political" Hebrews against the "philosophical" Greeks. I am happy to distinguish the two approaches, but suspect that Greek thinkers also had political consequences.)

This analysis (and I quite accept Sean's neat dissecting of the problem of two inconsistent approaches) leads to this (partial) conclusion:
For the past two thousand years, theology has struggled to reconcile these two apparently-conflicting conceptions of the divine, without much success. We are left with fundamentally incoherent descriptions of what God is, which deny that he “exists” in the same sense that hummingbirds and saxophones do, but nevertheless attribute to him qualities of “love” and “creativity” that conventionally belong to conscious individual beings. One might argue that it’s simply a hard problem...
The trouble is, it seems to me, that the "problem" is not merely "hard", it is impossible. Attempts to "eff the ineffable and unscrut the inscrutable" are inevitably reduced to analogy and metaphor. And once we talk that language we are again reduced to talk of hummingbirds or saxophones. That's why:
...for the most part, theologians have basically abandoned the project of “proving” God’s existence, which is probably a good move.

But they haven’t given up on believing in God’s existence (suitably defined), which is what drives atheists like Dawkins (and me) a little crazy. Two thousand years ago, believing in God made perfect sense; there was so much that we didn’t understand about the world, and an appeal to the divine seemed to help explain the otherwise inexplicable.
And that in a nutshell describes the fundamental gulf between Sean and me. Sean wants to understand and reason everything. I claim that at its heart the answer to life the universe and everything is not a neat 42, but a relationship. This relationship is nowhere near as simple, or as compelling, as many religionists make out, but it is there deep in my being, in a way that no neat simple argument could ever be.


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