Monthly Archives: July 2010

FOSOTT (Free and Open Source Old Testament Textbook)

Yesterday Brooke Lester asked his Facebook friends, “I know the answer before I ask, but: Do we have no good, critical, open-access Intro to Old Testament textbooks?”
 
At the risk of re-repeating myself, This is something that a granting agency (especially one such as FTE or Wabash, for instance), ought to be all over like a cheap suit. Instead, many such agencies prefer to fund events that leave all the game pieces in the same places, but with hors d’oeuvres and name tags. One could do this with no support whatsoever, perhaps as an insurgent step toward breaking into the world of full-time employment, and I know a web site that would be happy to encourage, host, boast about, and generally celebrate the endeavour.
 
This is how I’d see this happening.
 
First of all, one would want to square away an array of organisational details such as word count/chapter, shared glossary and terminology, common points of reference (1000 BCE, 722 BCE, 587 BCE, 537 BCE, or whatever other dates or axioms that the first recension of the project would involve), format style, and so on.
 
Then find authors to cover the whole Old Testament and related introductory, complementary, or whatever-all else chapters you want. Make it clear that the chapters will be published under a CC license (I’d suggest “Attribution/Non-Commerical”) that permits authors to reuse their own work, but that the OT project retains the right to distribute the chapter. If you’re serious about this, I offer to write a chapter on interpretation. method, and history.
 
Gather all the chapters (“Ha, ha, ha!” laughs the experienced editor-and-deadline-evader). Hammer them into clean, standards-compliant mark-up, and give each chapter a web page. Produce well-designed PDFs of each chapter, and make those available for download. Hey, in a perfect world, you could persuade the authors to record their chapters so you could distribute digital audio (and video — or perhaps, a video abstract of each chapter). So at this point, you have a textbook that’s free to consult as web pages, free to download as PDFs, and (again, ideally) free to listen to/watch in digital media.
 
Arrange a contract with a PoD publisher to produce paperbacks of the textbook, which you can sell (with agreement from the author/license-holders, of course) with small shares to each author (presumably when sales reach a certain threshold). The authors can update or emend their chapters pretty much as they see fit (make sure there’s a version-number in a colophon in each page/PDF).
 
Now’s where it gets extra cool. Let everyone know that you will host alternate versions of chapters or supplements as long as they meet the common standards, and format, of the main version. If I like the textbook but think that Lester has botched the chapter on I Kings, I can write an alternate chapter, get it hosted at the FOSOTT site, and other teachers can elect to use my chapter if they prefer. Dissatisfied with the dominance of white male authors (or the relative absence of white male authors)? Add an alternate chapter. Detect misguided theological axe-grinding? Contribute an alternate chapter, or add a supplement. Sense the absence of useful study questions, maps, pictures you took during your summer digging at En-Wherever? Add photos, maps, pencil sketches, diagrams.
 
Bing, bang, bong, you have an open-source, free as in beer, free-to-reconfigure, free-to-supplement or even -alter (provided you give credit and don’t offer the altered version commercially without the author’s agreement) textbook. And that textbook is now useable anywhere English is read, for free. And that textbook is putting your name(s) in front of students and teachers all over the world, especially in places where they can’t necessarily afford the doorstop hardbacks that the textbook publishers love to charge so much for. And that textbook can easily be kept up-to-date. And if some agency were to fund it (and such funding needn’t even come to very much, in the world of granting — small to moderate honoraria for authors, editorial/production support, and so on), they could slap their name (or a prominent donor’s name) right there on the cover and on every title page: The Soros OT Textbook, or the Omidyar Introduction to the New Testament, or the Rowling History of the Christian Church, or the Buffett Handbook to World Religions or the Jobs Whatever He Wants As Long As It Includes Giving The Editor And Me iPads Book.
 
Plus, I would bet (if I were permitted to wager) it would change theological and academic publishing pretty dramatically, and it might even help get people a few jobs.
 

Mind Flowers

The great Amy Morrison (that link isn’t working right now, but it might start again so I’m including it anyway), two decades ago, in the context of an Honours Seminar at Eckerd College, reminded me of the classic Schoolhouse Rock quatrain,

As your body grows bigger
Your mind grows flowered
It’s great to learn
Cause Knowledge is Power!

I bring that up today partly because it}s fun to remember Amy, and partly because the other day someone on a Mountain Goats webforum asked what I had to say about John Darnielle’s bonus track “Enoch 18:14,” which he played several times on last year’s tour (and in the movie/DVD of his play-through of the songs from The Life Of The World To Come), though it wasn’t included on the main CD release. Darnielle has said any number of times that the song grows from a line in the concluding cut-scene of the game Odin Sphere, in which one of the characters speaks the line that forms the refrain of the song: “You and your brother, you both escaped the curse. You can’t comprehend what that’s like.”
 
I hadn’t written about “Enoch 18:14” — “The angel said: ‘This place is the end of heaven and earth: this has become a prison for the stars and the [rebellious] host of heaven.’ ” — in my article, so I gave a rough overview of the verse in its literary context and history and observed,

I take it that the point of reference is “the curse,” which with reference to Enoch would refer to the damned angels and stars, and with reference to Odin Sphere to the game-curse, and the interpretation of the song as a whole with the sense that some people (the song’s spokesperson) have been afflicted in unchosen, arbitrary ways, whereas others go about unaffected by “the curse.” Too often, perhaps always, people who have escaped the curse figure that the afflicted are just gloomy, negative personality types. They can’t understand what it’s like, so they treat the accursed as though they were really just the same, only insufficiently optimistic. JD knows, and the accursed character knows, that there’s a real curse, that there’s no just opting out of it by being perky and glib (cf Romans 10:9 or Philippians 3:20-21), and the pain of the curse is only intensified when people like you and your brother try to reach beyond the green-grass sunlit world into the dry-ground, black-sun world to say, “Cheer up!”

But the reason to post this all here, in the context of Amy’s Schoolhouse Rock quotation, is that while I was poking around the interwebs for research material on the pseudepigraphal passage, I learned much more. For instance, I had assumed that Enoch was venerated as a saint (as numerous other Old Testament figures are), and it turns out that he is indeed venerated by Armenian Christians. I didn’t know, though, that he is customarily given the name Idris in Arabic; that intrigued me because the previous Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway is named Idris Jones. Moreover, in Glasgow (where Idris/Enoch was bishop), there’s an subway stop named St Enoch Station on St Enoch Square, adjacent to a very posh shopping mall, the St Enoch Centre.
 
But — this is not the same Enoch after which the song, the saint, and maybe even the bishop are named. Contrariwise, this St Enoch is not even male! It turns out that the St Enoch of Glasgow was in orthographical actuality the mother of St Kentigern (a/k/a St Mungo), St Teneu. (We have friends named “Tenev,” but it would just be too eerily uncanny if they were somehow connected to Glasgow and St Enoch.) In years of transcription, her name apparently went from being “Saintteneu” to “Saintenoch”; improbable as that may sound, I’ve marked enough student papers to find it quite within the bounds of my imagination.
 
Anyway, that’s a whole planter of mind flowers, all come from looking into the background of one simple pseudo-biblical verse.
 

Incubation

I went to see Inception Monday, and I thought it was pretty good. More to the point, watching it Monday made we want to watch it again (and not just because I would be hoping that the theatre didn’t heat up to “stifling” and “airless” by the end of the film). That would not be to see favourite bits again, nor to find what I missed, but to pay attention again. I don’t remember the last film I saw that made me work as hard as Inception to keep on top of what was going on around me.
 
I’ve heard complaints that Inception is all technique and ingenuity, and no sentiment. That seems wrong to me; rather, the sentiment in the film is bounded. It’s always in play, but it doesn’t override other plot elements. Love doesn’t conquer all (or shipwreck all); it doesn’t lay claim to being the greatest thing ever or the deepest sorrow ever. I’ll avoid citing details, but I read the movie’s take on love as acknowledging that there are more than one dimension to love, whereas a conventional Hollywood version would grab a particular relationship like a shillelagh and beat the audience into tears with it. Inception says, “It’s more complicated than that.”
 
Another complaint argues that dreams and the subconscious are wilder and less predictable, less controllable than Inception lets them be. That, I agree with; but I have a hard time imagining how one could make a suspense movie about dreams that doesn’t domesticate the subconscious. (How about a movie that never displays the same dream sequence twice?) It would be perverse to complain about Star Wars because hyperspace travel is impossible; while Inception makes the dream-world more controllably malleable than any realistic subconscious, that suspension of disbelief is required for the movie in the first place. If you’re unwilling to grant that, save £6 and skip the movie in the first place.
 
I did warm to the characters (less to DiCaprio, actually, than to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Tom Hardy, and Ellen Page), and I cared about the puzzles that constitute the plot. I have a couple of questions (Why did the film give DiCaprio’s wife the weighted name “Mal,” but never give audiences the chance to hear it as something other than “short for Molly”? And why does she appear in some dream-worlds but not others? Or is there a consistency to her appearances and non-appearances that I just missed?), but mostly I admire the work Christopher Nolan did in constructing this intricate plot. Nolan doesn’t let the movie slip into melodramatic sentiment, nor into self-congratulatory sophomoric metaphysics, but keeps a plausible love-theme running through a plausible alternate-reality movie that features an interesting heist-team ensemble and first-rate special effects. What more do you want?
 

Great Moments in Popular Music 2

I have some of the ambivalence about Graceland that many politically-concerned listeners have expressed. I admire Paul Simon’s New York craftsmanship in composing infectious, compelling pop melodies, arrangements, and lyrics; his work isn’t always to my taste, but it’s always well done. And I don’t begrudge him the brilliant contribution that his African colleagues made to the album; that would be a weird form of racism (“no, you may not record with African musicians, white man”). Nor do I want simply to indict him of exploitation or inauthenticity. I gather that the performers all appreciate the Western audiences’ attention that he brought to their work, and I haven’t heard that any of them grouse about working with him. The album is a stunning gesture of incorporation; it’s a Paul Simon album, but it’s an African-flavoured Paul Simon album, and that’s just kinda weird.
 
And he pulls it off, by and large. As I get older, I remember a smaller and smaller proportion of the tracks I hear, but Graceland has impressed itself on me, track after track. Well done, sir!
 
Simon being a consummate musician and craftsman, the album abounds with compelling touches, but there’s just one that makes my heart gasp every time I hear it (and I’ve gone back to listen several times over, to make sure of what I’m hearing). “You Can Call Me Al” wins much of its audience, I suppose, with the whimsical-nonsensical lyrics playing over a bed of rich pop hooks (“bed of hooks” — I’m going to remember reuse that phrase), or the charming video with Chevy Chase cheerily miming/lip-synching the lead vocals as Simon sits dolefully beside him, pushed to the margin during his own song.
 
The melody prances blithely along, with the African contributions held in the background: a few “Aaa-ohhhms” in the vocal tracks, and the irrepressibly funky rhythm tracks. Over the top, though, the horns and synthesisers and guitars sound mostly like an ordinary, jazzy Paul Simon number, and the very Manhattanite lyrics affirm that familiarity of the most prominent instrumental tracks. At the first bridge, the recording introduces a pennywhistle break to great effect — that’s fine, but it’s at the second bridge that the arrangement makes room first for a drum break (is that Isaac Mtshali, or Ralph Macdonald, or both?) and then the marvellous moment when Baghiti Kumalo tears off a breath-taking lightning-like bass line. Oh, my goodness! The last few notes sound as though they’re going backwards, presumably through studio manipulation, but that short break recast the whole track for me. I loved going back and hearing it several times over, alone and in the full context of the song, in order to write it up for the blog. Mmmmm.
 

Sermon Past

The St Mary’s sermons site now has the sermon I preached there Sunday before last, with Kelvin having edited out the pantomime section at the beginning when my microphone wasn’t working (some people thought that was their favourite part). You can watch it in situ, making it more convenient to look back at the past few sermons by our clergy leaders, or you can watch it on its own here.
 
I got to church early yesterday to take photos of some of the (architectural) saints and especially our Old Testament windows.
 

St Margaret
 
 
Jonah Praying

 
Today is Glasgow Fair, a local bank holiday on which it traditionally rains; to the satisfaction of St Swithin and pessimistic Glaswegians, it is now pouring outside my window.
 

Holiday Of A Sort

When I got to the end of my first work-through of the Epistle of James on Wednesday, I determined to give myself a break for the weekend and not expect myself to achieve anything particularly productive. That meant reading the The Girl Who trilogy by Stieg Larsson (I know it’s supposed to be called “The Millennium Trilogy,” but there’s nothing particularly millennial about it and the books do all concern the main figure, “the girl” (inappropriately so designated, since she’s in her twenties through the main plot of the novels)), which held my attention through a couple thousand pages of concentrated reading and reminded me why “Swedish” was, in a more buttoned-down time, a code-word for “adventuresome sex.” Ahem! I hasten to add that the adventuresome sex interested me less than the suspenseful plot of the novels. Back on Thursday, on a whim, I invited Rich and Madhavi over for my internationally-known pesto pizza, so now I will devote much of my holiday time to cleaning, tidying, hoovering, rearranging, and generally undertaking the housekeeping that I customarily neglect.
 
Thursday also brought with it a funeral at St Mary’s, and with that the trivial awareness that I no longer fit into any of my suits (I had been thinking of going shopping for a new one this weekend, but I’ll put that off for a while) and the much weightier tidal surge of how I love and am proud of my family. I’m glad that the internet makes it possible to text-chat or even video-chat with them from time to time, but the sense of mortality appropriate to a requiem mass, and the reminiscence of spending time in the kitchen cooking or washing-up, bouncing jokes or songs around, revelling in the wonder of my dearly beloved wife and children, occasioned an interval of missing them that temporarily side-tracked me from my domestic responsibilities. Miss you, y’all.
 

*Sigh*

If I’d known about this, I’d have been supporting Spain regardless of the Holland side’s underdog status, over-aggressive play, or indefatigable play from Arjen Robben.
 

Fr Paul Vlaar inaugurates the liturgical season of Orange before his bishop gets wind of that poor decision

 
Friends, one of the reasons the church has set traditions about liturgical and ceremonial practice, and about preaching actually from Scripture, involves protecting the church and its faithful from the half quarter one-sixteenth-baked ideas of people who confuse “the worship offered by God’s people” with “a platform for whatever cockamamie notions they want to parade before a captive audience.” Trevor, if I recollect correctly, used to refer to this as “high school drama class” liturgy, and in the same spirit I’ve associated it with those old teen movies where someone says “Hey, gang! Let’s put on a talent show!”
 
It’s not a matter of “free speech” or “freedom of expression” — it’s a matter of understanding what you’re doing in the first place, and a catholic understanding of liturgy, above all Eucharistic liturgy, ought to have precluded such an unfortunately misguided idea in the first place. Rather than run through a catena of the reasons that this was a deeply, deeply wrong-headed notion, I’ll conclude by hoping that Pastor Vlaar doesn’t devote the time of his “leave for reflection” (don’t watch the video if you have delicate liturgical sensibilities) to resentment and passive-agressive ideation, but to learning how he might more fully cherish the responsibility vested in him by the church. (In a snarky moment, I thought “At least Pastor Vlaar isn’t a woman!” but mockery on this point does not edify Rome nor elevate me, so please consider that a confession of my impious glibness.)

Where Did My Covers Go?

I upgraded to the latest version of iTunes recently, and have been flummoxed by the “Now Playing” cover display function. Formerly, one could choose to display either the album cover of the track now playing, or the cover of a selected item. Now, it seems as though the cover display reverts to “Now Playing” after a few seconds, even if you have a different song selected. Formerly, you could set the size of the display window and it would remain more-or-less constant; now, the window keeps resizing itself. And I don’t see any “preference” settings that might enable me to instruct the applicaiton to do things the way I want.
 

Winchester Cathedral Let Him Down

Today is St Swithin’s Day, commemorating the English saint-bishop, quite obscure in life but after his death famed as patron of Winchester cathedral and as a miracle-worker (and reference figure for a terrific song by Billy Bragg). Most of all, he became one of the best-known weather forecasters (along with hairy caterpillars and Punxsatawney Phil).
 
The lore says

St. Swithin’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithin’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain nae mair.

I was wondering whether St Swithin (or “Swithun,” since, back in the tenth century, people weren’t fussy about spelling) restricted his weather forecast to England, or whether he reflected the tendency of expansionist English thinking and simply assumed that everything that applied to England applied also to other realms in the British Isles. Swithin’s own sphere of experience and interest seems to have focused solely on Winchester, but the concluding line of the quatrain sounds a lot like a Scottish pronunciation. Why should our weather be controlled by someone who may never have travelled north of the Thames?
 
In other words, it’s raining today in Scotland, and forty days is a long time.
 

Ah!

I finished the first pass through the Epistle of James this afternoon — so if my editor demanded a draft on short notice, I could send in something that was uneven but not incomplete. This feels very good. I came home from work early and opened a novel, made a double portion of red curry (now I have some to put away), and as the evening settled the day’s gentle rain turned into a torrential downpour. I might be tempted to dash out to sit under an awning sipping a cup of decaf americano, but I don’t know what would be open, and I think I’ll just settle back here and read with the away-from-the-wind window wide open, swallowing fresh wet air, and soaking up the relaxation.
 
I will pick James up again on Monday, from the beginning (much of the formatting, alas, is from the pre-Unicode era), but the next few days are marked for very calm, leisurely contemplation of the five courses in which I’m teaching next year, the novels I have stacked up for Margaret’s eventual arrival, and permitting my mind to wander without the stern oversight of my work ethic.

Thanks For All The Goats

I finished my article on biblical interpretation in the songbook of The Mountain Goats a couple of weeks ago, and since a couple of people from the tMG web forums had been very helpful and interested, I contacted one of them — Nigel — and asked if he’d like a squint at the final product. He liked the essay a lot, and suggested that I share it with the rest of the forum; I was a little abashed about putting up a post that said (to a longstanding forum constituency with a core group whose strong sense of mutual affiliation sometimes risks generating in-group vs out-group dynamics), “Hey, everyone, come read what I wrote.” Nigel thought it still ought to be shared with the forum, so he wrote a positive summary of my essay and suggested that other forum members contact me for a copy.
 
Since then, a steady stream of forum members has followed up with requests for copies, many more than I expected. I’m glad of that not just because I like it when people read my stuff, but also because “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”: I don’t know the tMG corpus well enough to survey all 500-600 of the songs in their repertoire, and some forum members have been listening to tMG since before their first recordings in 1991 — so by running the essay past a number of forum members, I could be spared the embarrassment of overlooking some important (but neglected) fact. Thus far, no one has had a complaint more problematic than noting the misspelling of the street name in one quoted portion of lyrics. Whew!
 
The forum’s approbation is all the more comforting to me because I’ve spent twenty-plus years learning how to write fluently as a biblical scholar/hermeneutician, but I’ve never publicly written a piece of music criticism. Having seen numerous occasions when academics produced articles or presentations which did little more than say, “Here’s a band I like ”n” I think this song is really good. You should listen to it. Oh, and this one too. Listen, she mentions Jesus in this one.” Since I’m fierce with my students about composing papers that make a real argument, I fretted a lot about whether my tMG paper would amount to much more than “You may not have heard of the Mountain Goats, but I think they’re really good, so there.” Again, the first readers have affirmed that the essay has a real argument and doesn’t fall into “Look, here”-ism.
 
Now I’m thinking about stretching out to cover some other topics — but not till after I finish the James commentary and begin, at least, to write out my most recent argument about hermeneutics. But it]s fun, as always, to have think-y thinks going on, and to sense an area where my observations can enrich a discourse by a little bit. Oh, and if you’d like a copy of my final draft, I’ll be happy to share it with you, too. (You know: my nickname at disseminary.org, or akm dot adam via gmail).
 

¡Viva España!

I watched last night’s World Cup final with my colleague Rich King on an HDTV screen so big that it showed not only the complete pitch, but the stadium and parking lots on the sides. Closeups of the presenters’ faces were like watching dermatological microsurgery.
 
About the game itself: I was inclined to support the Netherlands, partly because of the somewhat jolly reputation the nation has, partly because I know Adriaan Tijsseling and had lunch with Adam Curry at BloggerCon I (before he and Dave Winer fell out), and partly because of that whole Armada thing. I have to agree, though, that too much of the Netherlands’ game involved brute force instead of elegant football. (I just can’t imagine what Van Marwijk is complaining about; it was only Webb’s sheer indulgent love of the World Cup final as event that kept de Jong from being red carded in the first half, and the late tackle by Van Bommel was questionable as well). I might have had a change of heart and cheered Spain to victory, but Arjen Robben was playing so admirably — keeping his own play relatively clean, and striving desperately to score — that I couldn’t abandon him. I’d deplore his having been interfered with on his second big scoring chance late in the second half, but by that point I couldn’t really blame Spain for playing the game on the terms Holland* had set. Anyway, well done to Spain, and a qualified well done to the Netherlands, and I’m supporting Scotland to win the World Cup next time.
 
Rich made a brilliant broccoli pesto for dinner, and as soon as I got home I looked for a recipe by which I could replicate his triumph. As it turns out, the BBC has a simple recipe that sounds quite do-able even for a culinary simpleton such as I. Rich’s recipe came via an intricate chain of transmission, and I’m sure it involves subtleties that the BBC omits, but I’m already imagining giving this a try in a few days.
 


 

* Margaret and I chatted about the propriety of using “Holland” vs. “the Netherlands,” so I looked up the “terminology” page of the Wikipedia and learned that although it is inappropriate to use the regional name “Holland” for the whole nation, for team-sport purposes “Holland” is an acceptable designation. Plus, as I noted to Margaret, “Hup, Hup, Holland” is a more euphonious cheer than “Nup, Nup, the Netherlands.”