Friday, January 09, 2009
  Conversations with Scripture: 2 Isaiah
Stephen Cook sent me a copy of his new book:

Stephen L. Cook, Conversations with Scripture : 2 Isaiah (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Pub., 2008).

It arrived yesterday, all nicely wrapped in Christmas paper. Thank you!

The arrangement is that I'll review the book here, since this is a blog and not a journal, I'll not compose one terse magisterial review but will post from time to time as I examine and reflect on the book...

So, First Impressions:

The book is a manageable-sized paper back, 150 pages of largish print, so suggests an easy read rather than a tome to plough. It belongs to a series Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series, and the blurb claims it offers a "uniquely Anglican Bible Study". That already grabs my attention, because I have been increasingly, recently, asking myself what might be distinctive about "Baptist" biblical hermeneutics (by which I mean not what real particular Baptists actually do, which is often just like what similar real Lutherans or Presbyterians actually do) but as an "ideal", so it may be interesting if I can capture from Stephen's study of 2 Isaiah something that is distinctly "Anglican".

Opening the work, the first thing I notice is a number of small sidebar explanations. Sometimes two per page are needed, sometimes several pages pass with none. They are usually only one sentence in length. This is a useful way to explain terms, introduce people... that mimics one property of hypertext - I'm a great fan of sidebars!

The chapter titles too, on the contents page, have me hooked:
  • Second Isaiah and the Theology of Reverence
  • The Inscrutability of God in 2 Isaiah
  • Reverence and the Collapse of Pride and Ignorance
  • Servanthood and the Exuberance of the Holy
  • Atonement and Exuberance
  • The Majesty of Servanthood
Each of these draws me in, I'd happily begin with any of them. (Actually I'll probably be a "good boy" and start at the beginning - most untypically - but who could resist a theological work with "exuberance" in the title?)

There are endnotes (works aimed at a broader readership eschew footnotes) but only a dozen or so per chapter (so looking them up will not be a great hardship).

Stephen's writing is clear and uses mainly short sentences, and I quickly (while dipping here and there) found examples that provoke:
  • "The poem presents a scandalous God. This God is out to disorient people, defy their logic, and make their knees shake". (29) Don't you want to know which poem? Or do you, without looking at Stephen's book, know already?
  • "We simply cannot revere that which is enslaved to our interests, a puppet-god that we manipulate through our prayers and our behavior." (20, sidebar) Nice terse phrasing presents an old truth in a fresh way.
That's enough for today, now I must start writing that article... and tidying the study :(

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008
  The Rhetoric of Hypertext
No, not all the hype, though I am still happy to hype hypertext but an interesting teaching tool on Rhetorical Devices for Electronic Literature, in proper 2.0 style the site is described as "beta"... Thanks to the stimulating Grand Text Auto for the link.

On the site Deena provides (in her introduction to "links") a classification of different sorts of link:
  • Denotative: The link goes to a node that provides either the site or text itself (such as a link to Google) or a definition or clarification of the linked word or phrase. This is a common type of link in encyclopedias, newspapers, etc.
  • Connotative: The link between the origin text and destination text implies something that is not explicitly stated--the originating node gives a new context to the destination node that can suggest some other meanings are lurking under the surface.
  • Similar or repetitive: The link goes to a similar node or a continuation of the same theme as the originating text.
  • Opposition or contradiction: The link goes to a node that contradicts or opposes the originating text.
  • Descriptive: The link goes to a further description or explanation of the linked word or originating text.
  • Advertisements: The link goes to a site that sells that particular item. While this is a common type of link in commercial websites (as many sites receive their funding from these links by counting hits and click throughs), this has been used in electronic literature. The link from Deena Larsen's Disappearing Rain: "How many credit cards are in it?" goes to a credit card site. (These outside links are thus commented on within the story and subvert these commercial endeavors into playing a role in tracking down Anna, a missing character from the novel).
  • Political: The piece hopes to provoke a reaction in the reader and provides a link to follow up on that reaction. For example, Jennifer Ley's War Games shows the horrors of land mines and connects to Adopt a Minefield.
This is much fuller and richer than the simple binary choice we plan to give to authors of the HBC_ volumes. We just offer the choice of "explanation" or "justification" and links to HBD_ articles or Bible references. But then our goals are much more focused... Her "descriptive" sounds like our "explanation" but I don't find in her list anything that corresponds to our "justification" yet intuitively I suspect that we are not the only ones wanting to link to material that gives in more details the reasons that justify a particular ideas expressed.

What do you think:
  • Is her list complete, are there other types she does not discuss?
  • Does she cover our "justification" type of link?
  • Would it help our navigation of the web (and other hypertexts) if there was a more standard and understood "rhetoric" of linking?

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Sunday, April 13, 2008
  Writing differently
Writing online needs to be different from writing destined for print publication. (Unless it intends merely to use its online existence as a delivery medium, being printed out once the reader has downloaded the text. For the purposes of this discussion I do not count such hybrid publication as "online".) This is no less true of academic and "literary" writing than of the more commercial writing in which the online world abounds! Two thinking bloggers have addressed this topic recently. Since it is one that I've been thinking and experimenting with since the 90s I'll add my 2c here and hope to garner some interesting discussion.

Sebastian Mary begins a post "on writing less" with the famous Pascal quote:
Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parceque je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte." Pascal, Lettres provinciales, 16, Dec.14,1656.
It is a cliche among preachers too that 'less is more', to speak shorter takes more preparation but is usually more effective. There is a virtue in brevity.

It is, however, a virtue that belles lettres and scholarship have largely ignored or deliberately flouted. Among scholars (particularly in the German and [hence?] American traditions) it has become the norm to act as if to write incomprehensibly is a sign of profundity. It has also often been assumed that length is equivalent to quality - as if one bought ideas by weight, like potatoes!

In the scan and click mental world which most of us inhabit online prolixity is hardly productive. Numerous studies have shown that in an online hypertext environment writing less - if one can do it while still saying the same things - is more effective. SM attributes this, in part at least, to readers unwillingness to scroll "below the fold". Yet that web folklore idea (which SM cites unthinkingly) has been shown to be untrue. If they are interested readers will scroll.

The problem is that if the writing is verbose, readers are not interested. They click elsewhere. To retain readers' interest in this environment one must write differently and firstly one must write more briefly and simply. This is not the same as saying one must "write down" to the audience. The audience of Sansblogue (at least judging by the audience I know through comments and links) is highly educated and articulate. To write down would be to loose readers. What is required is to write, discussing complex and interesting ideas, simply and briefly. That's harder. One does not always - or even ever - hit the target, but such a goal is necessary in academic writing online.

The second "problem" with academic writing online is that coherent sustained argument is not easily conducted in this medium. (As I have argued in my "Form, Medium and Function: The Rhetorics and Poetics of Text and Hypertext in Humanities Publishing", International Journal of the Book 1, 2003, 317-327.) Ian Bogost, more recently and more clearly expresses much the same points in his "Reading Online Sucks: Reflections on scholarly writing on the web". In the paper I argued that coherent sustained argument (such as the monograph form) probably "works" better in print than in a hypertext environment.

I would like to qualify that somewhat, in the light of experience. In the Amos commentary I had some points that I wanted to argue that would more usually be presented in a monograph style publication. Sure enough most readers have failed to spot these arguments. They have mined the commentary for the information they needed, and moved on. But one academic reviewer spotted and commented on these arguments. The difference was (I think) not that he was an academic reviewer, but that he is preparing to write a commentary on Amos himself. For him my theories about the book's construction and about the place of the Day of the Lord in its composition were not extra, unneeded details, but rather the reason he was reading this work!

Here the differently that one must write is not to dispose of large ideas or sweeping arguments, but rather that one must write so that readers who are not interested in these particular big ideas need not be troubled by them, while readers for whom the ideas are significant can follow the thread that allows you to sustain the argument. Again the hypertext environment requires writing differently. Sadly most writing online (except that which sells) is shovelware. Even when written for the web, the author has not troubled to adapt to the new medium.

Writing differently, according to rules that are as yet only half-baked is difficult and requires experimentation. It is great to see that at last some of the "traditional" print publishers have begun sponsoring such play. The Penguin Books We Tell Stories site is a prime example.

See also: my Writing for screen: Time to rethink? from August 2007.

PS: Judy has now posted the response she mentions below "Writing for the web vs writing for print".

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008
  Dialogue in biblical narrative
I have been working on completing my notes on biblical narrative, in preparation for teaching the course in Sri Lanka (BTW for news of my trip, with I hope photos and videos from both CTS and the refugee camp please subscribe I do NOT expect to be posting here much while we are away). I have just completed the page on "Dialogue" only about 1500 words (not counting the linked pages or notes) and it probably doesn't count for International Biblical Studies Writing Month anyway - but it is another writing task (partially) achieved. Only narrative speed, prose and poetry, omission &, ambiguity to go.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007
  Sophie: have I seen the future or the past?
There's a story that American journalist Lincoln Steffens visited the USSR and returned, claiming "I've been over into the future and it works!" I have recently begun playing with the Institute for the Future of the Book's alpha release of Sophie, and I have some of the mixed feelings that the Steffens quote elicits today.

Sophie is brilliant, an easy to use editor for complex interactive multimedia. As such it is already superb (though as a pre-release alpha somewhat flaky still), and the plans and dreams of the IFBook people make its future sound even better. If such a tool had existed a few years ago the Amos commentary would have been created using it, and would have emerged very differently from its actual HTML incarnation. Sophie permits rich and varied interactions with multimedia, and will permit comments - creating a community around the media "text". This mix of media with community is evidently the (or at least one) future, and it works! (Or is beginning to work - very well.)

To get a good idea of the possibilities download Mozart's Dissonant Quartet the video with text-over shows some of the possibilities in a timeline based presentation. If you do try it do read the instructions on the page linked above, they will save you (or would have saved me) quite a bit of trying to work out how Sophie works as a reader.

However, to someone used to the free-flowing, largely system independent, world of HTML - and even more so of its more structured and meaningful descendants inhabiting the world of XML - I am frustrated by a system that defines a "page size" (usually a fraction of my screen to accommodate older smaller screens - but pity the user whose screen is too small!) and pages that MUST be turned.

Still, the only demo book I have tried so far Mozart's Dissonant Quartet with its beautiful soundtracks. Here too the ways in which Sophie is "not HTML" can be frustrating, as I said above, till I RTFMed I found the demo far from intuitive to navigate - more of a text adventure with a superb soundtrack than a multimedia experience. Sophie also has a very Macish feel to her, right clicking achieves precisely nothing, though the
interface has Mac's good looks, there are times when Windows comforting convenience is useful! Perhaps when Sophie has her dedicated Reader this will become less of a puzzle. I suspect though it will help if (when IF Book release the "real thing" into the wild) Sophie comes with a firm set of recommended conventions.

Conclusion so far: just one hour in...

Will the limitations of restrictive screen display sizes (so beloved of the graphical designers) be overcome and will the user interface become more intuitive? If so Sophie will make a brilliant environment to produce multimedia instructional materials that can become truly the hub of an interactive communal learning experience... Or is this "future" too restrictive in its polices?

Already - if I was teaching my Bible in an Electronic context course (or in a school) - I can see how students could easily and quickly produce interactive multimedia so easily... I imaging that even some of my IT challenged colleagues could learn to use and love Sophie. And a design that achieves that shows deep wisdom!

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Saturday, April 14, 2007
  Mesopotamia website review
The British Museum has upgraded its online presentation of it's Ancient Near Eastern collections with a teaching website (I do not know when the upgrade was done as I could find no publication date :(

The site ( is aimed at school children, and both simplifies and breaks the material down into very small "chunks". On the whole this works well, but occasionally it is frustrating. The site is visually stunning. However, it was perhaps planned a while ago as the images look very small on a high resolution laptop screen (and sadly there is no facility to enlarge them).

Slingshot stones from Lakish
The information is at beginner level, but could be used to provide tertiary students with an overview and context. I looked particularly at the "Siege of Lakish" section (under "Assyria" and "Warfare"). Detail from the frieze is presented and highlighted by softening the "background", this is most effective, both directing attention but also showing context.

The section works by stepping through the "story", navigation is crude - simply "forward" and "back" arrows with some additional popups - but this helps keep wandering minds from straying. Actually I think this is a shame as it fails to use one great advantage of electronic texts the ability to encourage and facilitate serendipity and exploration.

It is interesting to compare this with other presentations of the topic.

BM Mesopotamia: uses html (with a touch of Flash) to create a visually stunning and therefore engaging introduction to the topic. But it oversimplifies and does not allow (much less encourage) exploration.

The Virtual World Project offers a virtual tour of Tell ed-Duweir (just click on "Lachish"). This is rich and interactive, it begs one to start exploring. It may be too complex for school students - at least as they begin, but you could use the BM offering to get them into the topic. The downside of the "Virtual World" approach is the time and effort - unless they have a bigger version of the images and other resources in their pockets, it is already looking small on a 1400x1050 screen, and will be a pain to upgrade.

Lastly (because in most respects least) my short video (using still photos) on this topic. Uses Windows Media (via the excellent PhotoStory) so a relatively low demand if hi-ish tech approach. It introduces the topic, but like the BM site does not allow or really encourage exploration.

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Monday, February 12, 2007
  Using a codex
Funny video clip on You Tube, (Norwegian, but with English surtitles) showing a user interacting with the helpdesk as he struggles with the new technology.


And then perhaps join me in thinking about how we might script it differently...

One thing I'd do is add a sequence where the helpdesk guy (HG) explains how the new technology allows non-sequential reading, and the new user (NU) complains that this will mean that readers will never again experience a book as the author intended, from start to finish.

If I think of more I will add them here (dating them) and if you post ones that tickle my fancy I'll add them too...

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Saturday, February 10, 2007
  Why Web 2.0 is more than a meaningless slogan
I was pointed to Michael Wesch's little Web 2.0 video on YouTube a while ago (it seems like weeks, but apparently the thing only went public on Wednesday, doesn't time fly on the web!) I watched the start, and thought "this is good, I must bookmark it to watch tomorrow". Of course, tomorrow never came - it only rarely does!

But then AKMA posted about the video and I watched all of it. It is brilliant, simple, short, low(ish) tech and it explains simply and clearly why "Web 2.0" is so much more than a neat - but meaningless - slogan.

Starts with hypertext, reminding viewers what all the hype was about once upon a time, then it makes clear the nature of the underlying revolution that XML generates by separating content and form. (Don't worry people I said the video was neat, quick and simple, he gets you to this point in under 2 minutes of the annoying repetitive techno music. At least if you haven't being living under a stone and you have spotted that webpages have some sort of markup that makes them work. If yiou have been living under a stone go |View|Page Source| right now! And then watch the video...)

By the third minute we are ready for the question "Who will organise the data?", and (almost) ready to spot the answer "We will!" (rather than giving the tired old "Google!").

And then... we've worked out, with Prof. Wesch's help why and how Web 2.0 means that everything needs rethinking.

And then... if we're me we have worked out that actually it is because Web 2.0 changes nothing - all that people producing content, machines linking people stuff was there in Web 1.0, it was even there in ARPANET - what has changed is how easy it is to get stuck in. The web changed everything because non-geeks could manage with a little effort to act like geeks... Web 2.0 changes everything because the effort required just dropped another order of magnitude. And at the same time the power of the results just got raised a power or two...

Wow, Web 2.0 ain't just an annoying slogan, and Michael Wesch's viral video deserves all the attention it's been getting. (I hope the Wayback machine has a good copy for when I need it in 10 years time for a class...)

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007
  Blogging: text, hypertext and writer-text
Before I return to the past, a recent post by Stephen Carlson really caught my interest. In "Blogging as Hypertext" Stephen continues a discussion of blogging pre-publication of ideas.
[Previous posts include:
Among other things Patrick comments that for writing a coherent paper (he is a grad-student) it was
easier to make it into a more coherent paper first and then convert some of it into blog posts after the fact.
He speculates
It is a little bit different, as I'm not planning on publishing it.
Actually, I don't think that this difference is significant, though maybe the question of the sort of coherence required IS.

In that connection Stephen quotes my SBL Forum article, "Hypertext and Publication in Biblical Studies" (May 2004), concerning text and hypertext and how each relates to different scholarly genres. He then poses the question:
Where does blogging fit into this? It is more like text or hypertext?
He notes the supercficial linearity of a blog post - a text-like feature, but goes on to note also the tendency for blog posts to be short and reverse chronological (newest at the top) as hypertext-like features.

He concludes with the provocative comment:
Early discussions of hypertext often focused on the reader’s experience. Perhaps blogging ought to be viewed as the new hypertext, but from the writer’s perspective.
Such a focus on the "writerly" nature of blogging is a major reason why blogs are seen as a feature of Web 2.0 (whatever that convenient but infuriating slogan cliche actually means!), and after all many of any blogs readers are themselves bloggers... (How many of Kevin's ["Google Analytics"] "women ... named Suzanna", and the rest of us, ourselves have blogs?!)

And, this writing for and in a community of writers (or several overlapping communities as most of us do) gives a blog post another and perhaps more significantly hypertextual feature, posts link. Unlike many self-conscious hyper-texts this linking is not often internal. [Except where the author is trying to subvert the nature of the medium, "by imposing a linear structure on top of the blog, for example, by naming conventions for each post or limiting hypertext links to the next post in the desired “logical” sequence."]

Most blog posts though have one or several external links, connecting this coherent fragment of text to other fragments by other authors, surely an epitome of hyper-textuality.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

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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