“Writing is thinking” – useful advice for dissertation writers

In “The No-Fail Secret to Writing a Dissertation,” Dr. Theresa MacPhail offers her advice to those writing a dissertation: write, and do so every day. I echo her point that the best ideas often come about through the process of writing. It is in the process of writing down and thus trying to explain to others what you think that you come to understand just what that is – at least for the draft on which you are working!

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Installation as Professor of Bible and Ancient Systems of Thought

I will be installed at the Iliff School of Theology as Professor of Bible and Ancient Systems of Thought on Thursday, 27 April 2017. The title of my address is, “Becoming People of the Book,” in which I discuss the relationship between people and the Bible and people and written words more generally. The work I am doing for my current book project, Deuteronomy’s Subject, informs this address and therefore touches on issues of subjectivity, government, and governing, albeit in a more general way. Attendance is free and open to the public although registration is requested (use this link for more information and a link to register). A recording will be made and I will post a link to it once it is available.

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The Bible and Americans: Governmentality and Subjectivity

The Pew Research Center posted an article this week, “5 facts about how Americans view the Bible and other religious texts.” I find such studies interesting for a variety of reasons, such as the question about whether Jews read scripture (a loaded term) every week. This question fails to capture the differences in practices between religious traditions in the use of the Bible, although other questions listed in the article do begin to indicate these differences (if one is looking for them).

I find the fifth question telling and consistent with my experiences teaching in classrooms and speaking in local congregations. Biblical literacy is relatively low in the US. People tend to know certain things like those noted in the article: Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Moses led Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Christmas carols and movies help explain these two. But naming all four Gospels or that Job suffered extraordinarily at the hands of God? Not so much (my usual test is to ask if anyone knows where to find the 10 commandments [Exod 20; Deut 5] or if they know the motivation for observing Sabbath [creation in Exodus, the exodus in Deuteronomy]). I find this holds even for those who do read their Bible once a week or have a high view of its authority. Admittedly, addressing these gaps in knowledge is one of the reasons why I teach, and I enjoy helping people learn more about the Bible, whatever their personal views on how to use it.

These gaps do raise questions for me about what role the Bible plays in US religious, social, and political life, especially in terms of shaping conduct. The work of the late French philosopher Michel Foucault on governmentality and subjectivity helps me think these questions and how to answer them. Foucault comes up with the term “governmentality” to help him analyze how conduct is conducted. What governing ideas or rationalities are operative at a certain period in a society that enable certain sets of practices, which individuals then may perform on themselves in order to become particular types of subjects? Foucault’s questions can be adapted to think about the Bible in the US today. When reading the Bible or knowing what it says are less important than affirming it and having it as a means of testing the truth of oneself and others, how has this cultural object become a governing idea itself, one that creates sets of practices people may perform on themselves in order to become subjects of the Bible? This requires research into the ways different religious groups that use the Bible have created these practices. Undertaking it may help illuminate aspects of the study posted by the Pew Research Center that the survey does not address.

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12 Faculty perspectives on how to make time for research and writing

The Chronicle has a helpful article on how to make time for research and writing, form the perspective of 12 faculty members in different departments and stages of their careers.

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On Being a Scholar of Religion and Bible

A friend recently asked me why I teach at a school of theology, what it is I see as the value of theological education when Christianity and the Church and all its various ideas are so conservative and entrenched in the past. I heard this as a sort of “justify your existence” question, and I found the opportunity a good one to explain why I am a scholar of religion, the Bible, and ancient systems of thought.

There are many reasons why I am a scholar of religion and Bible. One is that I came to study the Bible, specifically the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, because of its stories. I find stories to be important, especially good ones, those that are well told (being an English literature major in university probably helped me appreciate them even more). The Bible is full of such stories. They are rich, complicated, superb stories, in no small measure because of the history of transmission involved in the process in their becoming “the Bible.”

Why are these stories important and what do they have to do with why I am teaching at a school of theology? Because they are far more unsettling than current Christian practice generally realizes. Consider, for example, the biblical texts that are the basis for the Jewish observance of Passover, which is about to begin. This story of liberation of those who were oppressed is inspiring for all who experience oppression and injustice at the hands of others. But the story itself also is deeply unsettling. Let’s not forget that there are nine plagues inflicted upon Egypt before the final one, the Passover, when the angel of death passed over the dwellings of the Jews because they marked their doorposts with blood (woe to anyone in the community who thought this silly or who forgot to mark their doorposts with blood). Suffering and death are part and parcel of this story of liberation, as it is for most stories of liberation, although we tend to forget this or gloss over it. But stop and think about various parts of this story, such as that all the first-born in the land are to be killed. Who do we think are included in this category? I only ever hear people speak about children. Killing them is terrible. But why do we restrict our thinking to the young? Aren’t all of us children of someone? The biblical texts indicate every first-born is to be killed an is killed in Egypt, all throughout the land (Exod 12:12, 29). I think this means every first-born child, regardless of age, was killed (this includes the animals, BTW). So the divine killing is much more widespread than is generally acknowledged. It also highlights something about Pharaoh, as perhaps an implicit criticism. The widespread practice of succession in the ancient Near East, including Egypt, was that the first-born son in the royal family becomes king. This was not always (perhaps often), given the aspirations of other sons and high officials who could arrange for some misfortune, such as walking into a knife, to befall the first-born. Since Pharaoh is not killed, is he not the first-born? More poignantly for me is considering all those who don’t make it out of Egypt and slavery, especially those who are the last to die because of old age, illness, the effects of oppression. This is like the last soldier to die in battle. What about these people, who don’t live to see liberation? They do not participate in the commemoration of the Passover. Yes, we acknowledge them, or can acknowledge them, in the festival, but the fact remains, they die just short of liberation. There is no liberation for them. How many of them died during the first nine plagues and thus died because God was busy demonstrating to Pharaoh God’s power so Pharaoh would know this God (Exod 7:5; 8:22; 9:14, 29)? Might they have lived to see liberation if God has limited this little display to, say, two plagues and then the Passover? If God is so concerned about these people (Exod 3:7), why delay their liberation in order to demonstrate God’s power to Pharaoh and the Egyptians (Exod 3:19)? What kind of God is this? These are questions for me, questions that disturb common interpretations of the story.

It is the unsettling aspect of these stories that motivate me and are why I teach what I teach in the context in which I am lucky enough to do so. The world I live in is messy, filled with disappointments, hardships, loss, back-stabbing, and all the other muck and dross of human existence. It is punctuated by moments of love, kindness, joy, celebration, and all such moments must be recognized for what they are and enjoyed. Most of the time when I am in churches or other similar settings, the theology I hear and the ways the Bible is interpreted centers on God’s love. This is well and good for what it is, but it is not the only thing said in the Bible about this divine being or the people who are in relationship with this deity (this includes, I dare say, the New Testament and stories about Jesus). So why has the messiness of the Bible been dropped out? Why a steady diet of love, as if love is all there is? In part it is to counter the messiness of the world in which we all live. But by failing to consider the messiness of the stories and the complex ways they portray God, how this being relates to humans and animals, and how people relate to this being, Christianity has cut itself off from a powerful resource. The tradition, in the form the Bible, offers to each community that holds it as authoritative, the possibility of speaking and being in their communities that is much more than only love. Suffering, anxieties about God and God’s motives, recognition of favoritism in the community, oppression within the community and by the community, and a multitude of other realities of human life are addressed in the Bible. So use the Bible, let it speak in these communities in unbridled ways. Let is unsettle community life. Let it be a model for how to speak the hurt and pain and joy of everyday human life. When someone feels jilted by God, let that be spoken aloud and allowed to exist openly within the community. When someone feels gratitude for something they perceive as God-given, let that, too, be spoken and exist in the community. Let both these realities exist together within the community, as they do in the biblical texts.

This is one reason why I do what I do. it is one of the possibilities I see for theological education, that of helping my students engage the Bible in new ways, to give them permission to read the stories, tell those stories, and interrogate them from perspectives other than those of current theology and interpretive conventions. The Bible is far, far more unsettling than most interpretive approaches and interpreters allow. The students whom I have the privilege to teach may reject this understanding of the Bible. They may graduate and join the ranks of those who fill the churches and religious institutions in taming and controlling carefully what the Bible can say or mean. But they may not. They may seek to open the interpretive doors and windows and allow these texts to offer more for their communities. This is what I had to say to my friend in answer to his question.

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Christopher Watkin’s Research Hacks

Christopher Watkin has written up a number of helpful research hacks. Not everyone will find all of them equally relevant to their work, but they merit reading and trying.

Update: A few more hacks have been added, resulting in an impressive and useful list.

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Learning Python and Thinking Differently

I recently joined a group at my institution that is learning the Python programming language. The group began when Dr. Pamela Eisenbaum approached our resident computer and computing experts, Dr. Justin Barber and Michael Hemenway, about using computers to address certain questions of authorship in the New Testament’s Pauline corpus. At the beginning of my sabbatical in the summer of 2016 I joined the group, which had been working for about a year. My interest in doing so is not so much to become a programmer (although this could happen) as it is to become familiar with a modern programming language and how this language might help me think differently about my research and teaching.

Nine months into this journey, I think I have reached an initial level of competence. If this were one of the other research languages I’ve studied, I would describe my current skill leave as a basic reading knowledge, but little speech facility. I think reading knowledge comes more quickly when studying a language than does speaking it, and that’s pretty much the situation for me now. I generally can read and explain code and follow its logic – at least for the projects the group is working on – but am much, much slower writing code on my own. My writing abilities are improving with more time and effort.

What this work has done for me is precisely what I hoped: it is helping me think differently about my work. For example, I am scheduled to teach two new master’s level courses in the 2017-18 school, year: The Bible and Contemporary Issues, and The Bible in the Digital Age. In both courses I will spend time (less so in the first course, more in the second) reflecting on the impact of technology on this portable library called “the Bible.” The Bible is, itself, a technological product, of the alphabet and other technologies, including ink, writing materials, education in the language, socio-economic systems that produced scribes and readers, libraries, and many other operations that came together at a particular period in time and made possible this thing, the Bible. Book culture, and later print culture, has had an enormous impact on Western culture and thought. With the rise of the digital age, this is changing. Most of my students access their Bibles, at least in class, in a digital format: a Bible app, a computer program, a website, and thus use their smart phones, tablets, laptops, or (horrors!) a desktop. This raises the question of what is the “Bible” in digital form? The words may be the same, but what effect does the new medium have on our understanding of the Bible? Also, what changes occur in a reader’s relationship with and to the Bible when it is in digital form? The Bible exercises a governmental authority over those people and religious traditions that consider it authoritative because they accept it as canonical (the Word of God, at least for many). What sort of authority is this when the Bible is read and encountered digitally rather than as a print book? How I teach and discuss this issues will proceed in more nuanced ways because of my work learning Python. I have a better understanding of how programs are created, how code works, and the types of decisions made in writing code that create these digital tools. All of these “behind the scene” actions shape the experience of users and readers. How are the similar to, or different from, the ways print books shape experience? These are issues to consider in class next year.

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