Monthly Archives: May 2011

Learning The New Testament

Next fall, we’re reworking the Level One introduction to the Bible. We’ve rejiggered our undergraduate programme to begin by familiarising students with the Bible itself, and to prepare them for critical reading by helping them observe differences between what you might call “the cultural story of the Bible” (on one hand) and what one reads from one’s own copy of the Bible. It’s (roughly speaking) a literary-critical introduction, eschewing the historical issues in favour of nailing down a broad sense of what is written (granted that there remain problems about translation and text). This all works pretty easily for the Old Testament, where there are relatively few internal parallel passages, and those that we see can be contrasted moderately easily.
It will be vey tricky, though, for the Gospels. It’s easy to talk through a generalised “life of Jesus”, but the concurrence of four parallel accounts of Jesus, accounts that generally agree with most of the culturally-imagined/recalled events in his career, introduces snaggy complications. Our job will be to brief students on the contours of Jesus’ ministry, arrest and trial, death, and resurrection, and to alert them to differences among the gospels, and to the ways that the “cultural Jesus” differs from the literary Jesus. Right now, I’m guessing that we’ll have units on Jesus as wonder-worker, as Teacher (parables, apothegms, discourses), and Jesus as “king” — or something such as that — followed by a day on passion/resurrection. That’s four units, far too little in one way, but already a disproportionate fraction of the one-semester course.
That’s what I’m puzzling about this morning, anyway.

Mountain Goats In Glasgow

Sunday night I’ll be going to King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut (no, I’m not kidding, Radiohead and Oasis were “discovered” there, among other bands) to see the Mountain Goats touring behind their new album, All Eternals Deck. I’m an ardent Goats fan, and I probably mentioned here several times that I wrote an article about them for the “Popular Music” issue of Biblical Interpretation (sorry, limited access). I love having written it; I’m (mostly) proud of it and of how it compares to professional music criticism and to biblical critics’ writings about popular culture (especially for my first go).
Unfortunately (“catastrophically”, in my self-absorbed moments) something intervened between the “Send” button and the editors. We were having connectivity issues at home, and maybe I sent the proofs on via the Uni server during a down-for-maintenance interval; I don’t know how it didn’t get out from Glasgow, but apparently it didn’t because they didn’t print my corrected proofs. I’ve written them to plead for a corrected version to replace the defective version in the digital archive, but no word so far. Anyway, if you can’t get it from the official channels, I can send you a copy of my corrected version and you can write in the page numbers yourself (109-128) since the pagination isn’t affected by their non-entry of my emendations.
It’s frustrating and embarrassing, but it’ll be great to see the Mountain Goats Sunday evening, and I won’t be thinking of typos and editorial lapses — I’ll be hoping they play some of my favourites, thrilling at some surprises, and generally having the time of my life.

What An Impending Avalanche Might Feel Like

    I don’t have time to comment fully on this — if you’ve been paying attention, you can guess the things I usually say — but take a look at the latest development from Seth Godin’s ‘The Domino Project’.
    Right on so many levels: a public-domain text, cleaned up and dressed nicely for digital distribution, sponsored by an advertiser who senses a link with the title, free for download — the value to the sponsor being the advertising benefit of the association. Now, I haven’t been able to look inside (the UK, you understand, is separated from the US by an electronic gap that prevents transmission of digital data across the continental boundary), but even if Domino’s realisation of the project falls short, there’s no earthly reason why someone else couldn’t step up and do it right the next time. In fact, if I were Seth, I’d be gearing up to hit this hard again very soon. He stands to gain the most from getting the fastest publish>correct>publish cycle to market (even if his only aim is strictly to catalyse the e-book marketplace) — as he knows: ‘Speed triumphs. Rapid time to market, rapid evolution, rapid response to reader feedback.’
    N.B. Remember that Seth has for a long time had the textbook publishing marketplace in his sights. Connect these dots.

Cranmer’s Prologue to the Great Bible

For the whole cornucopia of reasons that you can readily enough recite — academic, Anglican, biblical scholar, theoretician, typographer, preacher, reader of Henrician/Elizabethan literature, partisan of the non-verbal elements of communication — I have long been fascinated with Thomas Cranmer’s writings on biblical interpretation. One favourite of mine, his Prologue to the Great Bible, has brought me back, time and again. I wanted to be able to show students what the early printed versions of the preface looked like. Many people casually assume that “typeset, printed works” equals “uniformity of content”, but reading the Prologue in its various editions reminds you that the print revolution was accompanied by a long interval of textual fluidity. Even within the same edition, words are spelled differently, punctuation marks are inserted almost randomly, and sentences meander for indefinite durations.
It’s great!
So this weekend, partly for students and partly for myself, I finally whipped up a version of the Prologue that I can use for classes or for reference. The project was made much easier — nay, possible — by Jeff Lee’s having designed and offered to the public the typefaces JSL Blackletter (which I used for the Prologue itself) and JSL Ancient (which I used for the regularised English version). I then set the blackletter and regularised versions on opposite pages, and made a PDF of the result. This version doesn’t correspond precisely to any one edition of the Prologue; there are scans of the Prologue to do that work. Instead, it compiles an eclectic text according to the conventions of abbreviation and expansion, typography and spelling, that the Prologue itself displays in its various editions. Unless I’ve made a mistake, nothing in this does not appear in one or another edition of the Prologue, so it might as well be the result of a sixteenth-century printer preparing an A5 edition for digital distribution (and if I have made a mistake, well, I’ll go back and correct it forthwith).
Now, back to work that’s more obviously productive for my day job.

On Knowing Greek and Hebrew

”Do I understand Greek and Hebrew? Otherwise, how can I undertake, as every Minister does, not only to explain books which are written therein but to defend them against all opponents? Am I not at the mercy of everyone who does understand, or even pretends to understand, the original? For which way can I confute his pretense? Do I understand the language of the Old Testament? critically? at all? Can I read into English one of David’s Psalms, or even the first chapter of Genesis? Do I understand the language of the New Testament? Am I a critical master of it? Have I enough of it even to read into English the first chapter of St. Luke? If not, how many years did I spend at school? How many at the University? And what was I doing all those years? Ought not shame to cover my face?”
John Wesley, “An Address to the Clergy,” in Works X:491.
Hat tip to Michael Bird, who passes the compliment on to Ken Schenck in a broken link

Happy, Uh, Everything! To Everyone!

So, before I say anything else, I want to wish a very, very happy (USA) Mother’s Day to my mom Nancy, and to Margaret’s mom Pat, to my grandmothers Isabelle, Lois, and Del, and to Margaret’s grandmothers Ruth and Dorothy. And to Margaret — hi, honey! And without prejudice also to anyone for whom Mother’s Day entails painful recollections, awareness, prospects, and also to mothers-to-be. Seriously, my best wishes and thanks and sympathies to you all.
This morning I preached the sermon I was struggling with yesterday, and it went well, I think. I’ll post it below in the “More” link. If you’re a critical preacher (by which I mean, you think back over the mechanics of what seems to have worked, what not, how and why things worked or didn’t, how it could have been better, and so on) Sunday afternoon can be an intriguing time. I’m utterly exhausted, as are most clergy I know. At the same time, I can’t resist tinkering with the sermon, especially as I copy-and-paste it into my blog.
The Scottish elections resulted in a landslide for the Scottish National Party, an interesting group that is explicitly pro-independence for Scotland (but which may, behind the scenes, be hoping not to have to cope with the economic ramifications of — you know — actually separating from England). They had one part of the right spiel for higher ed in Scotland: no fees for home students (we’ll surely impose fees for students from the rest of the UK, otherwise sticker-shocked English students would flee for the border by the thousands. The £9000s, to be precise). The SNP would have done better to promise us also fully to fund university education in Scotland, perhaps with provisos about the integrity of programmes so that they don’t end up underwriting “degrees” that amount mostly to money grabs by unscrupulous profiteers. Still, it’s hard times around, and I don’t begrudge other parts of the social and cultural fabric the support they need. Go, NHS!
Our friend Madhavi got a post-doc last week, that commences in January, after she finishes her contract with Glasgow. It’s great that she got a job, thus avoiding penury and deportation, but it’s sad that she won’t be part of our immediate close-knit group of local friends.
Twitter and Facebook are strangling the intertwingled web by cold-shouldering RSS. Say, remember when people had a lot invested in RSS, its precise versions, its alternative Atom, and who invented what? Now Facebook and Twitter are trying to make sure that you access their data only in the form they control. Someday, I fear, we will look back on the Aughties and see with regret the way that an open web and an open social-media infrastructure flourished before interested capital stifled them.
Margaret and I leave tomorrow — she to the States, for graduation and Pippa-pick-up duty, and for visits to the mothers we are greeting and saluting today (Hi, moms!); I, to Wales, where I will represent the Scottish Episcopal Church in the Four Nations (England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland) Faith and Order meetings. If you were thinking of committing heresy, don’t try it for the next three days — I’ll be on your case in a flash and will solve it in an hour, just like the crime dramas that Margaret watches.
I found a very nice bargain fountain pen on eBay this week, and it arrived yesterday. It’s a rather dated shade of green (olive-avocado-ish) but the Triumph conical nib is sweet and it’s a Touchdown filler, one of my favourite kinds. That made a nice treat.
Too much blether. I’ll paste the sermon below, and will try to spread out my blogging more evenly hereafter.
Continue reading Happy, Uh, Everything! To Everyone!

Kinesthetic Preaching

(You will not be surprised to note that I am simultaneously working on tomorrow’s sermon and listening to my iTunes DJ playlist.)
People frequently comment on the physicality of my sermons, the extent to which I preach with my full body. That comes in great part from having been taught to preach by the congregation I served in Florida, at St James’ Church, Tampa (before it merged with House of Prayer). A good part of it, though, comes also from my fondness for r & b and rock’n’roll music. While I’m devising a sermon, I typically have an implicit soundtrack — sometimes just one song, sometimes two or more — playing in my imagination.
This morning, the playlist brought up the Dream Academy’s “Life In A Northern Town”, which illustrates and intensifies my practice. As I was listening along, I awaited (and mimed, I confess) the signature double-drumbeat that comes at the beginning of the “Ah hey a ma ma ma” refrain, and noticed that as tremendously powerful as that drum figure is, the arrangement reserves it only for the beginning of the refrain. One could throw it in at several positions, but it arrives just once at each iteration of the “Ah hey” in the first refrain. After the first verse, the refrain is sung only once; in subsequent verses, the refrain is sung twice through (each time with the double-drumbeat on the first two “hey”s). As the song develops, the drummer (Ben Hoffnung) leads into the drumbeat with fills that heighten the anticipated duh-dum.
OK — that might satisfy one the “Great Moments’ posts I’ve written before, but the point this morning is that the drum track defines an acoustic and affective space for the song. And our sermons are not categorically distinct from this sort of musical composition. The double-beat in “Life In A Northern Town” contributes a point of orientation to the song; it signifies by accenting the chanted refrain and by contrasting with the relatively quiet arrangement of the rest of the song.
When putting together a sermon, we may well ask ourselves “What’s going on in the drum track?” or “How are we heightening the crescendo to which this repeated motif is leading?” For many sermons, the answer is all too easy: there’s no drum track, there’s no crescendo, there’s only a relatively monotonous meander. There are no ornaments, no hooks, only time passing slowly. Preacher: if your sermon were a song, would you willingly listen to it more than once? Would you even listen to it all the way to the end?
Churches often devote vast amounts of individual and institutional energy, money, and time to figuring out why people don’t come to church. Here’s a very quick, but demanding, tip: if the worship and the sermon don’t affect congregants and visitors, then the clever poster campaign, the cool-ly ironic name of the congregation, the bare feet or the coffeeshop ambiance or the incense or the elaborate planning will probably not enliven, perhaps not even sustain, the congregation.


(This is not to say that every sermon should be bombastic: no, no, no. “Life in a Northern Town” is actually a relatively subdued number, and one can imagine meditative sermons that work in the ways a minimalist composition does. But if you haven’t even thought through the ways that the sermon involves a great deal more than the cognitive work of “thinking something up and saying it”, or “looking up a cute, or touching, or striking, story to illustrate [what you take to be] the point of the Bible reading”, I’ll lay heavy odds that the sermon is missing a great deal that could strengthen, deepen, and extend the impression that the sermon leaves. Or doesn’t.)

Striking Sparks

I’m not surprised to hear about a study at the University of Washington that gives the Kindle (the large-size DX model) middling marks as an educational tool. We have a smaller Kindle and like it a lot for casual reading. The screen is extremely readable, the battery lasts for ages without recharging, and as long as you don’t need to hop back and forth in the text (for instance, to look at footnotes) and the text is formatted correctly, it’s a joy to work with. We who have just made a transcontinental move and given away about two-thirds of our (heavy) books appreciate the lightness and convenience of Kindle; it’ll never replace books, and there are still books we want to own as physical entities, but for many purposes the Kindle makes more sense than buying another pound of bound paper.
That seems to correspond roughly to the students’ response at Washington. For immersive reading, the Kindle comes out fine. For any form of multimodal reading — note-taking, reference-checking, research-seeking — it can be a pain to annotate or highlight text. I fully expect that the next few years will bring rapid improvements on that front, but for the time being I recommend the Kindle for fiction only, and probably not for what we might call “reference fiction” (which one might want to read with some to-ing and fro-ing).

Justice, Vengeance, Terror, Execution

Other people will have said more than enough about the US’s execution of Osama bin Laden. Amid all the exultation and deprecation, there are a number of points we ought to bear in mind.
First, bin Laden’s attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have successfully pushed once-open Western democracies into a state of security panic. The aftermath of the horrible devastation in Manhattan endures with every body scan, CCTV surveillance camera, unauthorised interception of telephonic or digital communication, and every political intervention aimed at heightening public anxiety for partisan advantage. “Be very afraid, so vote for the toughest-talking rich (mostly), white (mostly) (that’s “white, mostly” not “mostly white”), male (mostly) candidate”. Bin Laden’s terrorist attacks inaugurated a chain of events that has led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives — Iraqi, Afghan, American, British, and dozens from other nations. The thousands murdered at the World Trade Center, the hundreds murdered in the Madrid train bombings, the dozens murdered on 7/7 in London, and the incalculable casualties of the subsequent wars. Terrorists did not force Western governments to retaliate with military force, but tough-guy posturing perpetuated and amplified the after-effects of the criminal terrorist acts. The scale of bin Laden’s enduring effects will be impossible soundly to estimate for decades.
Second, however brutally cold-blooded bin Laden’s tactics were, the principle of due process has been integral to Western claims to political integrity for more than two hundred years. Summary execution of an accused — even a publicly-acknowledged — criminal does nothing to support the claims that liberal democracy offers a fundamentally different, fundamentally superior way of national government. Jubilant mobs and jingoistic chants don’t burnish the public stature of any nations, either.
Third, there have always been terrorists and criminals; bin Laden and al-Qaeda are not sui generis phenomena, but examples of a recurrent response to particular sorts of economic and political conditions. Assassinating bin Laden doesn’t change those conditions; it attacks the symptoms, not the sickness.
Fourth, even the most firmly convinced just-war Christian has no business expressing anything other than penitent relief at this turn of events. The litany of biblical texts and theological principles that speak against revenge, warfare, and unilateralism should not need repeating, but the atmosphere of exceptionalism and self-justification that suffuses the aftermath of the NYC terror attacks probably requires that belligerent avengers revisit some pertinent texts.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also… I say to you, love your enemies” — Matthew 5:38-39, 44
“Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble” — Proverbs 24:17
“As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live” — Ezekiel 33:11
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” — Matthew 6:14-15
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’.” — Romans 12:19, alluding to Deuteronomy 32:35, 41 — “Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip”, “I will take vengeance on my adversaries, and will repay those who hate me.”
I have no sympathy for terrorists and mass murderers. But their horrible crimes do not override obligations to observe international law, and still less do they release Christians from their commitments to follow in a way of patience, forgiveness, peaceableness, and non-violence — on 9/11, 7/7, or today.

Bible and Critical Theory Open Access

I missed it when Roland Boers made the announcement, but he has taken Bible and Critical Theory (on whose editorial board my estimable colleagues Ward Blanton and Yvonne Sherwood serve) to an Open Access distribution model.
That’s great news on a number of fronts. Of course, it makes B&CT easier to read and cite (and with biblical studies at Glasgow a very active centre of critical theory, our students have a new avenue for their research). It bumps the number of OA academic journals up by one, and it increases the pressure toward an online digital basis for publication. Well done, Roland!