Little things can make a big difference!

This post has absolutely nothing to do with either The Gospel of Thomas or Early Christianity so if you are in an academic frame of mind, you might like to skip it.

I have been associated with the University of New England for around 15 years (and I have been a PhD candidate there for more than half that time) and up to now I have only ever had positive interactions with their IT HelpDesk staff. Some of their staff have gone well above and beyond their basic job descriptions to be helpful, in fact. A couple of days ago, however, their student email system started telling the world that my email domain name was rather than so I have been having problems posting to email lists. I contacted them using their on-line form and got a prompt response that suggested I should ring them if the problem wasn’t fixed. It wasn’t, so I rang and for the first time I got someone who didn’t tell me their name, wasn’t interested in listening to me and insisted that I try a fix that I was fairly sure wouldn’t actually work. It didn’t, so I added a comment to my incident report and the same person who’d replied to my first report replied again, asking me to try something else and then ring if that didn’t work. Again, I tried it and it didn’t work.

Now I find myself very unwilling to ring again. I am quite sure that the person who has been sending me emails wants to talk to me because it will be so much easier to diagnose the problem if I am on the end of the phone and can try things and report back. I am also quite sure that if he happens to be the person who answers the phone, he will be helpful. But I might get the unhelpful person. Since there are quite a few staff who answer the HelpDesk phone, I could easily get one of them, too, and they are also likely to be helpful. But I might get the unhelpful person … so I don’t want to ring.

It is amazing how just one encounter with an unhelpful person can have such an effect, and possibly if this last few weeks hadn’t been rather challenging in other ways it wouldn’t have been so bad.  It reminds me, though, that I don’t know what life has been like for the people I encounter and I need to be careful in my interactions with them, lest I put them off unintentionally.

I (Still) Believe – review

9780310515166, I (Still) Believe : Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship, John ByronA little while ago, I bought a copy of John Byron and Joel N Lohr (eds)  I (Still) Believe – leading bible scholars share their stories of faith and scholarship. (Zondervan, Michigan, 2015) because I thought it sounded interesting. I used it as bedtime reading for a week or two, and then got to read most of the rest of it in one day, whilst killing time between appointments.

It proved to be as interesting as I had expected. The editors have put together reflections from 18 experienced biblical scholars from the US, Canada and the UK, specialists in both testaments, whose faith has not been destroyed by the serious academic study of scripture (even though many people are sure that this is what happens when you do it). I hadn’t heard of all of them but knew and was interested in enough of them to make it worth buying, to my mind. I haven’t been disappointed. It is very clear that academic biblical study has changed what and how these people believe, but it is equally clear that each of them still has a strong Christian faith.

Theologically, they represent a wide cross-section of positions and there are some interesting juxtapositions because the chapters are in alphabetical order of family name.  Bruce Waltke’s piece begins with the statement:

My faith in the inerrancy of Scripture as to its Source and in its infallibility as to its authority for faith and practice was firmly rooted in my formative years, nurtured throughout life by my walk with God, defended in college by an apologetic of defensible partiality, enriched in seminary, challenge throughout life, especially at Harvard, and matured in my career. (p 237)

and follows directly after Phyllis Trible’s account of wrestling with the ‘texts of terror’ in the Hebrew Scriptures from a feminist perspective.

In almost all of the pieces, I found things to which I related, things that struck a chord from my own experience. In particular, however, I warmed to Morna Hooker’s notion that ‘trust’ might be a better word than ‘faith’ to translate the Greek pistis (p 125). She argues that faith suggests a set of particular doctrines that one has to believe, whereas the biblical understanding is rather on relying on someone who is utterly reliable – God in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New.

I was also interested in Scot McKnight’s contention that ‘the church does not need historical Jesus studies.‘ (p 168)  He isn’t arguing that it is a waste of time, but that the conclusions it offers are limited.

I can prove that Jesus died, but I can never prove that he died for my sins; I can prove that Jesus asserted that he would be raised from the dead but I can never prove that he rose for my justification. (p 168)

While I had never thought about it in these terms, I have for a long time thought that much of the enthusiasm for historical Jesus studies lies in the hope that we will be able to prove the Bible and that this kind of aim is hopeless. Faith is faith by definition because it believe in things that are essentially unprovable.

Zondervan has a short YouTube clip in which John Byron talks about the book concept – the wish to combat the notion that doing serious biblical study causes you to lose your faith and an understanding of the importance of testimony. I agree that the testimony of these scholars is important. So often we hear that theological/biblical study makes you lose your faith, and that you can’t tell people in the pews these kinds of things. We hear about the biblical scholars who no longer count themselves as Christian, but very rarely from those who do.

Although I have used it as ‘light reading’ – and it is, in comparison to the material I am reading for my research – it is aimed at people who have a grounding in the academic study of the Bible and much of what the authors write about would probably mystify the average reader-in-the-pew. It would, however, be a valuable resource for people who are preparing for ordained ministry and for those in charge of their preparation and a prompt for reflection for the ordained about how they actually integrated their studies with their faith. For those who can’t read the names in the photo, the book contains chapters by:

Richard Bauckahm Walter Brueggemann Ellen F Davis
James D G Dunn Gordon Fee Beverly Roberts Gaventa
John Goldingay Donald A Hagner Morna D Hooker
Edith M Humphrey Andrew T Lincoln Scot McKnight
J Ramsey Michaels Patrick D Miller RWL Moberly
Katharine Doob Sakenfeld Phillis Trible Bruce Waltke

Writing in company, with discipline

This post is a departure from my usual material, but still comes under the broad title of ‘musings on my PhD’, because it’s about one (or two, actually) of the ways that I manage to work full time and still keep up the writing momentum for my dissertation/thesis as a part time student studying at a distance.

The two techniques are Shut Up and Write, and the Pomodoro technique.

Shut Up and Write originated with a group of people in San Francisco who meet in a coffee shop and write creatively, but which I met through Inger Mewburn’s Thesis Whisperer post when it had already begun to be adapted for use in academia. Cassily Charles, the Academic Writing Coordinator for HDR students at Charles Sturt University (CSU), where I spend half my time, advertised some sessions at Wagga campus and invited people to join by email. I asked if she had thought about running them on other campuses and she replied that she’d love to help me set one up at Albury, so I roped in another person who roped in another person and we advertised an event in the library, with coffee and nibbles.

Although we had a few people interested initially, it didn’t work very well in face-to-face mode, even though I provided nice biscuits and plunger coffee and good quality tea bags for free. A number of students said they’d prefer to work in their own offices where they had all their books and access to two screens – because academic writing is different to creative writing. At about that time, however, CSU started using Adobe Connect, which enables groups to meet virtually using sound, video, shared screens and a range of other nifty things which are of less use in Shut Up and Write than they are in other activities for students working at a distance from each other. Cassily started using it and I did the training on the software and also started hosting on-line sessions. I now host three sessions a week which I find hugely useful in making sure that I keep periods of the week free from other activities to work on my thesis/dissertation. An added bonus is that part of my job description says that I provide hospitality to the university community, so hosting sessions is also part of my chaplaincy work – a win-win. :-)

We get together at a set time each week, chat for 15 minutes, write up our goals for the session, then set a timer and work for 25 minutes, have a 5 minute break in which we share progress and sometimes useful tips, then repeat twice or three times more, depending on the energy of the group. This timing comes from the Pomodoro technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo as a means of managing time, using a timer to break work into manageable segments. Cirillo is Italian and the timer he used to develop the technique was a tomato-shaped kitchen timer – hence the name: pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato.

The full Pomodoro technique is quite complex, but for our purposes, the 25 minutes work followed by 5 minutes break is all we need. People who have real difficulty settling down to work are amazed by how well knowing that in 25 minutes you are going to have to report back focusses your mind. They (we) also find that the timing thing works when we are working by ourselves. You can use a mechanical kitchen timer, a timer on your phone or some kind of app. We tend to use the one at

Tomorrow, I plan to write another post that talks more about the technical aspects of doing Shut Up and Write on line, as well as the things that we’ve learned over the last 18 months or so, but for tonight, I think this is enough.


Happy belated anniversary!

My husband just asked me what date it was and I realised that yesterday it was seven years ago that I started this blog. It’s had its ups and downs in terms of postings, but it’s been a place where I can reflect on my academic work and its relevance to my paid work etc.

I know that I have certainly matured in my outlook over the seven years and I really hope that before this blog reaches its eighth anniversary I will have finally submitted my doctoral thesis. This assumes that I can find another supervisor, Majella Franzmann having had to withdraw due to pressure of work in her role as Pro Vice Chancellor Humanities at Curtin University. I am grateful for her encouragement for me to get involved in postgraduate study and will miss her support.

My doctoral thesis/dissertation will be a somewhat different document to the one I envisaged when I began my journey as a part time masters research candidate in late 2004, having spent the year learning Coptic for fun. I upgraded to a doctorate in December 2006 and in 2007, I got to spend five weeks with April DeConick at Rice University in Houston, Texas, where I developed some insights into the Coptic text of Thomas that have shaped how I am approaching it.

I also decided while I was there that I really wanted to attend the SBL International Meeting in Auckland in 2008 and that I needed to have a paper accepted in order to be able to afford to go and Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses inspired me to look into psychological research on witness testimony. I became so interested that I worked the paper up into a journal article “How Accurate are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research,” which was published in JBL 129, no. 1 (2010): 177-97. This in turn led to the exciting invitation to write a chapter, “Eyewitness Testimony and the Characters in the Fourth Gospel,” for Chris Skinner’s  Characters and characterization in the gospel of John. (Library of New Testament Studies. London: T & T Clark, 2013), which made me explore characterization theory in more depth. I am also seeing strong links between the psychological research on eyewitness testimony and human memory and the social memory theory work being done by people like Chris Keith, Anthony Le Donne and Rafael Rodríguez.

I’ve also done some teaching with Dr Lesley McLean in RELS 387/587 Earliest Christianity: Social Context and Sacred Text in the Studies in Religion area at University of New England (UNE) – the Australian one. Love the teaching, love the on-line interaction with the students, but the marking not so much. :-)

In addition, I’ve  been involved as a participant and moderator of the Gospel of Thomas email group where I have appreciated the support of its founder, Mike Grondin* and the other moderators and have enjoyed the conversations. Again, these have provided food for thought on my academic journey.

All this has been interesting, exciting and fun, but has resulted in my having to do a significant rewrite of my methodology chapter and, of course, the literature review, not to mention rejigging some of my earlier analysis of the texts I’m studying. In the middle of it all, I had a long break (nearly two years) where the funding for my chaplaincy position ran out and I spent 14 months working as a research assistant on a number of UNE non-religious projects. This left no intellectual space for biblical studies. I then moved to the other end of the state, became a distance student and spent more time getting my head around a new job that involved working on nearby campuses of two different universities – again, leaving precious little intellectual space. This period was one where there were very few blog posts.

Early last year, I became involved in Shut Up and Write at Charles Sturt University (one of the places where I work). I started moderating on-line sessions using Adobe Connect and while I haven’t found anyone else doing Studies in Religion, I have study buddies all over Australia and in Switzerland and Japan, all experiencing the isolation of the distance post-grad and enjoying the support and structure that weekly writing sessions bring. I am very grateful to Cassily Charles, the Academic Writing Consultant for Higher Degree Research Students for providing me with access to shut Up and Write, and in particular to Willie, Jen, Marcel, Nina and Bruce who have shared writing sessions with me and listened as I thought my way through several episodes of ‘stuckness’ as I worked my way back into my research and my blogging.

My thanks, too, to the various people who have followed this blog and made comments and helpful suggestions over the years. I have really appreciated knowing that I wasn’t just posting into the ether. :-)

Onward and upward!

*Correction: Mike tells me (well, the whole list, actually) that it was actually Paul Miller who founded the Gospel of Thomas email group. Mike ‘only’ took over the reins twelve months later in late 1999 (or very early 2000).

Music in worship

Yes. I know. Not what you usually get from this blog. But I am on holiday and have been surfing the net. I found a link to Peter Enns’ Rethinking Biblical Christianity Blog and this post piqued my interest. Peter currently attends an Episcopalian service that doesn’t use any music and he enjoys it, even though he likes church music.

I also like music in church. I like to sing and I like to hear harmonies and be part of harmonies. I like a wide range of styles of music that I come across in various forms of worship. It occurred to me as I read Peter’s post, though, that the part of worship that is most likely to alienate me is the hymns. There are hymns that I can only sing if I switch my brain out of ‘find meaning’ mode and just sing each word as it comes up and there are some bits of some hymns that I can’t bring myself to sing at all. In one particularly memorable service, the music person had selected ‘contemporary’ (aka written in the last 40 or so years) music without consulting the worship leader (I knew this because the worship leader had expressed her frustration at the refusal to consult) and I found the clash between the carefully crafted prayers, readings and reflections and the theology of the songs so painful that the only thing that kept me in the building was the fact that I didn’t want the worship leader to think that I was leaving because of something she had done.

Apparently other people don’t do this. They just enjoy the melody and it doesn’t matter what the words say.  Is this the curse of the biblical scholar – the need to examine all text closely?

I wonder how I would find a music-free worship? I know that, unlike Peter, I would not be arriving at church at 7.45 am to find out. :-)

Burridge and the Life of Brian

Chris Keith on the Jesus blog draws our attention to an article in the UK Telegraph about Richard Burridge’s take on the Life of Brian. I first heard of Richard when I attended an international multifaith university chaplains’ conference in Vancouver. Richard was the Christian keynote speaker and his talk, “The Phoenix in the Marketplace”, used Harry Potter to link what chaplains do in universities into popular culture. His presentation was entertaining as well as helpful. I have referred to his What are the Gospels a number of times in my work on eyewitness testimony and memory and I also enjoyed hearing him when he visited Melbourne a year or two ago while he was on study leave and again reflecting on aspects of Christianity in the context contemporary society. I think the Pope and his advisors made a good choice in presenting him with the Ratzinger Prize.

Reading the Telegraph article took me back to the time when Life of Brian was first released in Australia. Richard says that those who called for the satire to be banned after its release in 1979 were “embarrassingly” ill-informed and missed a major opportunity to promote the Christian message and I can attest to a personal example of this. I was living away from home for the first time, in Brisbane (13 hours’ drive from friends and family). I was attending a continuing Presbyterian church (the more progressive members of the Presbyterian church had joined the Uniting Church and the Presbyterian remnant were contemplating whether they could unordain the women ministers who hadn’t left), so people in the congregation I attended were involved in picketting the local picture theatres because they were quite sure it was satanic. I was studying for a graduate diploma in a group of ten students – one Uniting Church person who had grown up Methodist; one Latter Day Saint, me and seven people who were not actively involved in any religious practice. We got to know one another quite well and hung out together quite a bit. Several of the seven wanted to know what the churches had against it and since I was the religious person who went to the pub with them (they wanted to know why the Uniting Church person wouldn’t – weren’t they good enough for her?), they asked me. I had to say that I didn’t know – the newspaper reports made no sense to me, either, but I wasn’t willing to go and see it at the picture theatre  because there was a very good chance that I would be spotted by a picketter and I didn’t know how to cope with that.

I have since seen it several times and cannot believe that anyone could possibly see such brilliant satire on the factions within the church as satanic.  It’s much more a wake-up call to people who get so fixated on the fine detail that they can’t see the big picture and had I attended a screening at the time, we could have had a very worthwhile discussion about it at the student bar, because these people were genuinely interested in what Christians believed and why. I certainly agree with the Telegraph article’s concluding quote from Richard:

They were satirising closed minds, they were satirising fundamentalism and persecution of others and at the same time saying the one person who rises above all this was Jesus, which I think is remarkable and I think that the church missed that at the time.

Maybe the Python reunion this year will provide us with the opportunity to redress that missed opportunity.

Asking questions, getting answers

Returning to my blog after a longish break, I came across this half-written post and thought I might finish it and publish it.

At the end of last year for the first time I was teaching earliest Christianity during the leadup to Christmas. It was a very interesting experience to sit in the pews and listen to preachers talking about the Advent readings from a faith perspective whilst preparing lectures for Studies in Religion students and then reading essays about the challenges for the early Jesus movement. Something that has stood out starkly for me is that the information that you get from the text depends to a very large extent on the questions you bring to it.

The Studies in Religion students had been asked to write about the challenges that the members of the early Jesus groups faced and how they responded. The preachers were talking about the challenges that Christians today face and how we might respond to them. Both groups were using the Bible as a primary source of their answers, but the answers they were giving me were quite different- or they should have been. Unfortunately, some of the students gave me information about how to live as a Christian today, which, whilst not unreasonable things to read out of the text, was the wrong answer to the question they were addressing. Because the preachers I was listening to are good preachers, I didn’t hear sermons that just told me about how the early Jesus groups responded to the challenges of their time, but I have certainly heard this kind of sermon in the past. Usually the preacher of the latter kind of sermon has offered a very reasonable assessment of the situation at the time of writing of the text, but it has not been the right answer to the questions that most members of congregations bring to Sunday worship.

The early Christian texts are capable of providing answers to a range of both historical and faith questions and I think it’s perfectly valid to ask both kinds of questions of them, but it’s important not to confuse the answers. Or to try to force the answers to your questions down the throats of people who are asking different questions. As someone whose initial training in biblical studies was focussed on answering faith questions, I find that I have to watch quite carefully at times that I don’t slip into that mode in my current writing, but careful historical work is an essential basis for the faith work.