Monthly Archives: August 2009

Drums Fingers

I dropped Margaret off at the airport this morning, so she can teach at Loyola tomorrow and then fly to Michigan in order to drive Pippa to Interlochen to start at her new school. We deliberated carefully over the possibility that I accompany her; although it was an appealing prospect, I am just so wound up about getting to work (already three weeks later than originally planned, with no arrival date in sight yet) that ruling out a rapid deployment by going off to rural Michigan for a week seemed like a questionable plan. Of course, staying here is questionable too, so it’s a lose-lose proposition.
Elliot has led Tucows into action in the current debate over Canadian copyright policy (that reminds me, I owe Elliot a video clip). He commissioned David Weinberger to compose a simple brief that addresses the “must protect creators” argument in favor of encumbering the whole regimen of digital devices with onerous (and rapidly circumvented by determined violators) encryption schemes.
David emphasizes that creators have always “created” out of, with, from the remnants of the precedents wrought by their creative forebears. As it turns out, “copying” actually releases greater creativity, whereas implementing restrictions applies a chokehold to cultural generativity.
I added a comment there, which I’ll repost here:

By way of illustration, one might assemble a list of great creative works and the copyright regimes under which they were produced. For much of Western history, that’s “No copyright whatsoever”: Aristotle, the Bible, Cervantes, Dante, et. al. For another span, works were produced under what seems now to be a surprisingly short 14 years (under the first US copyright law, renewable for another 14, subsequently extended again). The rise of the English novel, the French novel, European classical music, the political essays of the Age of Revolution, all took place under a much more limited copyright regime than is prevalent today.

So we can prove that creators will produce outstanding works, masterpieces of the world’s creative energies, with little or no copyright protection. The question is, Can we expect the same, or better (than Dante, than Shakespeare, than Homer), by extending copyright to functionally indefinite duration?

Still Looking Ahead

Tomorrow being a business day, when I might hear from the British Embassy about my visa — and my being a cautiously glass-half-full kind of guy — I’m thinking ahead to life in Scotland. In order better to acquaint myself with current events in Scottish culture, I’m keeping up-to-date on current events (such as the blisteringly hot black pudding controversy). I’m not yet prepared to join a fantasy gold golf league, though, unless that helps influence my visa status.

Conflicting Exegetical Criteria and Authorities

[Part Six of a series on “what makes exegesis difficult?” that otherwise includes parts one, two, three, four, and five.]

Although one could go on indefinitely citing the sources of frustration and confusion for students who are beginning the study of exegesis, I’ll conclude my survey here by describing a structural problem with the exercise: that is, that beginning students face an incoherent diversity of claims about proper critical interpretation. The incoherence doesn’t derive from the scholarly sources themselves (usually), but from the absence of any overarching explanation of whence the teeming variety of interpretive possibilities arises, and what relation each alternative bears to others. Since a beginning interpreter doesn’t have the benefit of extensive experience dealing with the players and their positions, the hyperabundance of interpretive options challenges students to make interpretive decisions without the rich understanding of the discourse that they might gain after years of attentive study. As a result, many students hew to a safer, or more comfortable standard. They either adopt and defend a consistent factional position (upholding a doctrinal, or ideological, or local, or conspiratorial, or whatever sort of standard), or latch onto interpretations because they “like” them.
In defense of teaching scholars, I will affirm that we do talk about criteria and authorities, and we typically assign exercises aimed at cultivating a student’s fluency in deploying criteria and weighing various authorities. Such exercises frequently work out fine for people who will eventually become scholars themselves, so it’s more difficult for us to recognize how baffling they seem to many students. If a reader approaches the field of biblical criticism without being attuned to the intricacies of judgment in the discipline, though, they’re likely to make initial assessments that depart seriously from the normative target zone of academic criticism; and, having made a divergent initial assessment, the reader is likely to draw questionable conclusions, and frame arguments that wobble unsteadily away from the goal for which the instructor is aiming. If a popular author claims that Jesus spoke classical Hebrew in his daily comings and goings, and a student reader accepts this claim, the student will embark on a series of inferences and evaluations that take an exegetical essay onto precarious ground — but a beginning exegete doesn’t necessarily have the standing to evaluate an assertion made by a prominent interpreter, especially when the claim in question tends to confirm the student’s initial inclinations. When an instructor hands back a paper with comments that suggest the trajectory and scale of the beginning exegete’s error, the student-writer has reason to feel discouraged, perplexed, and somewhat resentful of the teacher (“Who is Prof. Vexillus to question Popular Author?” “Prof. Vexillus is grading me unfairly just because he doesn’t agree with so-and-so” or “because she’s a heretic” or “because he’s a fundamentalist.” ). {To an extent, I think this repeats claims I’ve advanced earlier, but it’s been a while since I read the previous entries in the series.}
The confusing conflict of criteria arises in part from genuine, unresolved conflicts within the interpretive fields. Archaeologists who concentrate on material culture have been known to derogate their colleagues who endeavor to reconcile textual material with material evidence, and vice versa. Interpreters who invoke social-scientific approaches have been known to belittle interpreters who operate primarily with grammatical and comparative-literary criteria. Literary-critical interpreters scorn scholars who (allegedly) neglect matters of plot, character, and narrative technique. Interpreters who bring to the foreground the interests of non-dominant groups question the integrity of “mainstream” dominant-group interpreters. And, of course, critical academic interpreters deride readers who take less erudite, more populist approaches. The list could go on indefinitely, and it matters not because someone is right and someone else is wrong, nor even because people ought to be more charitable about their colleagues, but because beginning interpreters don’t have a sufficient acquaintance with these disciplinary streams to assess the weight of one over against another; they have to just take sides, perhaps with the first rhetorical powerhouse they encounter, perhaps with the interpreter who most forcefully confirms the student’s pre-existing biases, perhaps with the scholar who seems to debunk the follies of the student’s home community, frequently with interpreters who resonate with the sermons or Bible studies that drew the student toward formal study of the Bible in the first place. Students have a built-in incentive to conform to their teachers’ apparent predisposition, and teachers have a tremendous advantage in presenting a persuasive case for their perspective (and a flimsy case for “the other side”), though sometimes a contrarian student adopts an opposing position in the hope of confuting a professor. All of these exemplify very common classroom phenomena, and none of them involve making a well-informed, balanced discernment. If students don’t mind a false start or two, or if they’re exceptionally quick at picking up the rhetorical dynamics of a discourse, they’ll manage fine. Many students, however, assimilate the rhetoric and etiquette of a discourse relatively slowly, and many lose interest quickly if they are not evaluated favorably from the outset. If we want to teach exegesis to a whole class, we have to keep in view the interests not just of the apt learners (the ones like us), but of the less rapid learners who are apt to lose heart when their efforts garner lukewarm (or negative) feedback.
The same sorts of conflicts among criteria arise from divisions among disciplinary currents arise also among the various authoritative sources to which an exegete might appeal. Very obviously, different schools and teachers rely on different textbooks, different reference texts, and so on. Further, though, the range (and credibility) of sources that a student might find in the library will vary by institution and teacher. And although online databases lead to staggeringly vast repositories of interpretive judgments, these sources do not come with obvious identifying markers that guide the interpreter toward (or away from) arguments discordant from their interpretive academic habitat. Again, some students will pick up very quickly that certain journals are welcome reference sources here, unwelcome there — and the quicker students will notice patterns of bibliographic citation and commendation (or omission and deprecation) — but more nearly average students won’t notice these patterns as quickly, if at all. Students who struggle with the whole enterprise may not recognize institutional/professorial approbation at all, and some students will operate on the premise that anything that appears in the library’s collection (and increasingly, anything that they find online) bears an imprimatur of sound authority.
Students who face this welter of conflicting criteria and authorities confront a two-fold assignment. Not only do they have to compose a well-reasoned, adequately-written exegetical exercise, but they also have to assess, interrogate, affirm, dispute, and arrange the criteria and authorities on which they draw. This is as it must be: even if we try to direct students’ attention to the text itself, apart from secondary interpretive guidance, we ourselves are functioning as an interpretive filter for their deliberation. We permit them to use certain translations and discourage others, we assign certain textbooks and ignore others, we present certain information in lectures and disregard other information. All of this doesn’t mean that there’s no point in concentrating on the text — it just means that even this emphasis doesn’t equal “unmediated” or “the plain sense of the text.” (If it were so very unmediated or plain, students wouldn’t need our guidance in the exercise.)
It won’t do to try to suppress the social, political, theological, and institutional aspects of exegesis — unless, of course, one honestly believes that one has escaped the influence of social, political, theological, and institutional effects on one’s interpretive practice (and one expects that one’s students can likewise hope to attain such interpretive purity). I have no word from the Lord on this, but I suggest making explicit some of these factors, and explaining that they are not simply whimsical, but are integrally related to the sound practice of exegesis as “we” (Methodists, secular critics, liberals, orthodox, Chicago grads, white males, Karen Christians, whatever) have critically received and perpetuated those practices. If one grants that “we” are who we are for good reasons, those same reasons ground our affirmation of the social, political, theological, and institutional flavors of our exegetical practice.
Some of our students (and colleagues) may well want to query these premises. That’s OK, too, so long as they have sound reasons for their criticism. There’s no magic wand that’ll compel our interlocutors to accept our premises. The best we can do is to practice our exegesis with integrity and consistency, and to make explicit as many of the good reasons for our premises and our interpretations as time permits.
We ought also point to the reasons that our interpretive heroes should be respected, and the reasons our misguided interlocutors have gone astray. Moreover, we should acknowledge the weaker parts of our heroes’ positions, and the strongest case for our adversaries’ positions. Otherwise, we’re inculcating a catalog of correct answers — not teaching exegetical reasoning.  
This will frustrate students who hanker after right answers for confuting the heretic, thwarting the fundy, putting ideological interpreters in their place, unveiling the plain, objective truth that only people like you recognize. It may cause a degree of stress if your colleague(s) adhere to one of the various partis pris that deem themselves the beleaguered bastions of untrammeled good sense. Still, I can’t think of a way to draw students into exercising the kind of resourceful, self-reliant, prudent, long-run exegetical judgment that enhances essays, sermons, and instruction.
[Next — when I get to it — I’ll begin describing the practice of exegesis as scholars practice it among themselves, in terms that open up to the very different situation of a beginning student venturing to compose an interpretive argument under the evaluative judgment of a pedagogical authority figure. This portion will try to articulate the characteristics that distinguish critical exegetical deliberation and persuasion (on one hand) from cheerleading, brainwashing, partisanship, incorrigible idiosyncrasy, and blind guessing (on the other). After that, I anticipate sketching the specific qualities that belong to the diverse interpretive “methods.”]

Passing Time

It’s hard for me to concentrate on productive pastimes, but I’ve found some more examples of positive uses of digital media for New Testament teaching. On the audio side, Philip Harland’s podcasts on the Historical Jesus will complement the course I’ll teach at Glasgow (Home Office willing). You can listen to them from Philip’s website (new, improved link, thanks to Phil’s comment below), or download them from For video media, St John’s Nottingham has been producing excellent video segments on theological topics (heavily weighted toward the New Testament). I expect to point students to several of these as well.
Now, imagine that all the sorts of resource I’ve been discussing lately were produced and supported by one school (or by an organized network). The instructional and reference sites from Luther Seminary; the downoadable-PDF/print booklets from VTS; the audio from Philip Harland, the video from St John’s. Imagine that this were an integrated project, with resources designed deliberately to complement and support one another. How much better could the SBL do than that? Why reinvent such a project, when such exemplary instances stand right before us?
And, ahem, no word from the British Embassy yet.

Say Amen, Someone

“When we avoid using money directly for public purposes, our money gets used indirectly to subvert public purposes.” — Tom Matrullo
In other words, we can entrust tax dollars to government (which observes some standards of marginal transparency and accountability to us), or we can leave major enterprises to private firms to whom we make payments anyway, who use our payments without any obligation to disclose how, how, much, and to whom, and who devote a large proportion of those payments to advertising (to perusade us to send them more), and to lobbying our legislators… to allot them some of our tax payments, for dessert.
Between Tom’s attention to corporate (pseudo-)life and such stories as this scarifying report on high-speed trading (“major profits for adding no value whatsoever”), I’m at a loss to explain why 90% of the U.S. population isn’t up in arms.

Trumpeting the Good

In a comment to my post about the SBL’s technology initiative, Mary Hess noted that Luther Seminary has actually produced effecive examples of this sort of biblical-education website; how about spotlighting their work (and maybe supporting and building out from it) rather than funding and devising a whole nother enterprise?
So, let me affirm her collegial pride in Luther’s accomplishments. Enter the Bible provides excellent introductory material for any inquirer into biblical interpretation. I tend to resist “registration” requirements for sites, but Enter doesn’t exclude you from most of its functionality if you decline to start an account. Everything I see there strikes me as valuable and productive. It would be hard for the SBL to do better.
Into the New Testament is less a reference source and more a pedagogical superstructure. It’s excellent and valuable, to the extent that one shares the pedagogical trajectory for which it‘s written. Even apart from that, the site stands to enhance students’ learning about the New Testament; its fullest usefulness, though, would come if one were using the site in conjunction with an introductory course framed as Luther Seminary frames that unit.
Both sites exemplify the importance of substance over glitz. While they’re both well-designed, it’s clear that the web design serves the function — rather than the (very frequent) opposite alternative. I’ll be sending students to these sites as supplements, and conceivably even as main assignments, when I teach introductory courses.
On a related note, Virginia Seminary co-publishes a series of extremely short introductory guides to the books of the Bible (“Bible Briefs,” which sounds unnervingly like TMI about Steve Cook’s underwear). This is an emphatically great idea, and my main reservations about how they implement it involve some technicalities and my own idiosyncracies. I’d wish that they posted PDFs of the typeset text, rather than scanned images of the pages. In the same way, I’d suggest that they make the resource available as a web page in plain HTML, for ease of access (I like PDF for formatting reasons, but for searchability and access nothing equals good ol’ HTML/XML). Umm, and I disagree with some of the authors, which is especially vexing when they’re given only a short wordcount; any point in dispute stands as a naked given in the text, rather than something about which to have a reasoned argument. But that would be inevitable; if I had written one of these booklets, other people would feel the same way about my perspective.
SBL: please learn from, adopt, extend, complement, benefit from these best-practices examples. Don’t feel obligated to construct something de novo, with SBL-originality branding all over it. You don’t need to copy, or to be submissive to them — but please don’t waste money by ignoring them or thinking that because you’re bigger wigs than they are, everything you do will automatically be better. As David Weinberger notes in his response to the Wired article about Craigslist, the most important thing about such a service-site is that “[i]t offers a service of immense value to users, but prices it not by that value but by its cost. And there isn’t a thing on that cramped, prosaic, old Webbish page that isn’t for the benefit of the user.” I fear the prospect of an SBL page that looks super-fantastic, with eye-popping animations and scripts, but that misses the opportunity to deliver what users reasonably hope for from the Society of Biblical Literature. Better to be a biblical Craigslist than, say, an academic version of Christopher Norman Chocolates (scroll down).

… Except Real

I’ve already passed this along on Facebook, but it must also be redistributed via blog (Magrey de Vega, husband of the quick-witted Jessica T. de Vega, both my former students, called it to my attention in the first place). This is the Next Big Thing in digerati jokes, memes, and general merriment.
As I said on Facebook, “Keep watching — the fun doesn’t end with the first appearance of the cardboard bear.”

For the indefinite future, expect to hear internet-savvy humorists to say things such as, “This is what a national health policy looks like — except real.” Or, “This is what a politician with integrity looks like — except real.”


New York reports that the Embassy is now processing my visa application. They estimate five to ten business days; last time was much faster, but I have heard that second applications get more painstaking attention.
All modes of intercession are welcome.

Plethora of (Edu)Punk

Today’s IHE includes three articles of interest for Disseminary-minded edutech readers, or their skeptical counterparts. In the first, Joshua Kim sets out a rationale for good-enough applications of technology as opposed to the comprehensive content management packages. As a long-time dissatisfied user of Blackboard, I’m broadly sympathetic to Kim’s perspective here.
In the second, Dean Dad pushes back against the Edupunk enthusiasm for open education. Even Dean Dad, though, allows that the Edupunks lnow something that partisans for institutional education can’t afford to ignore: “The mode of production of education has to change, and now, can. We’ll need to come to grips with that in some sort of serious way, or others will, edupunks or not.”
I said “three” because Scott McLemee’s article on the implications of criminal incompetence bears on my own work at the intersection of semiotics and hermeneutics. Plus, it’s amusing and pertains to academic politics. What more can one ask?

Kinda Good News, Maybe

The Society of Biblical Literature has been trumpeting its NEH grant to develop a site that promises to “improve public understanding of the Bible and its contexts.” I’m all for improving understanding of the Bible, and you know I’m pro-technology, so one might suppose I regard this as great news.
I’ve seen too many overfunded “great ideas” come to nought, though. The wrong people — enthusiastic about the wrong aspects of online technology, not having watched and learned from the growth of communities and constituencies on the web — think that it would be cool to have a highly-animated, mouse-over click-through explanation of what Hellenistic Sepphoris was really like, or some such project. Such projects spend thousands of dollars on outside consultants who don’t inhabit the world of academic biblical studies, so that technologically-un-fluent scholars are supervising biblically-uninformed web designers, and the heap of funding results in hardly any benefit to anyone except those who’ve received payments from it.
Very much on the positive side, Blogaria’s own Mark Goodacre is on the advisory board. I don’t know how deeply digital the other members are; I see several with some digital experience, and others whose technological insight I have reason to question. The S2N Media promotional website doesn’t encourage me, though, and I have the uneasy feeling that Mark’s voice may be muffled by other forces.
I’m hoping for the best, but it would take more positive evidence for me to be vigorously enthusiastic.