A Plea for Affordable Book-pricing | Larry Hurtado’s Blog

Larry Hurtado’s latest blog post is A Plea for Affordable Book-pricing. I agree wholeheartedly. As someone who lives (a) in Australia and (b) several hours’ drive from a good theological library, I am a fairly enthusiastic buyer of books, but I simply can’t afford to pay over $100 (let alone over GBP 100 = AUD 185) for a hardcover book. Nor do I need hardcover – I just don’t use my reference books that often. I read Review of Biblical Literature avidly and often buy books that are reviewed. I also read reviews on other people’s blogs, and again will often buy something that looks useful – but only if it’s in paperback (or second-hand) unless it’s absolutely essential for me to own it.

I was extremely grateful when an author recently sent me a soft copy of his book which is only available in hard copy at the moment. I would still prefer a hard copy, though. I am finding marking up the text electronically not as easy as doing it with a pen and sticky notes on paper.  I second Larry’s plea!

The onus/burden of proof

Over at Peje Iesous, Chris Skinner recently commented about Charles Hedrick talking about the ‘onus of proof’ being on those who claim that Thomas is dependent on the Synoptics, which reminded me of how irritating I find this kind of statement. We both agreed that Hedrick is not by any means the only person to use these words –  Simon Gathercole, Nicholas Perrin and Robert McIver use them, or ‘burden of proof’, too, as do others – and we also both agreed that the onus of proof is on anyone who makes an assertion, not those who wish to disagree with her or him. This is especially the case in the area of Thomas studies where there is very little scholarly consensus on anything.

I would go further than that, though, I think. I find it really difficult to see how scholars can talk about proof at all when all that we have in the way of evidence is three Greek manuscript fragments that nobody realised were from Thomas for half a century after they were found, one more or less full manuscript in Coptic and a few quotes or paraphrases, generally disparaging, from various of the church fathers. I am not even convinced that we can talk about proof when dealing with the canon, given that everyone recognises that the content was not written down until several decades after the events and teachings that they portray. We may have theories that fit the facts, or theories that fit the facts better than other theories – although the fit of the latter usually depends on what weighting you want to give to various pieces of evidence – but we really don’t have proof!

Honesty, I would suggest, would compel us to acknowledge that the best we can really do is to propose a series of more likely possibilities and make choices between them on the basis of what fits best with our particular world view and view of Scripture. Typically, when someone says “the burden/onus  is on you to disprove what I have said” they are standing on one side of a divide which is caused by disagreement over basic, underlying principles. The words make me want to look very carefully for holes in the argument being propounded.

This kind of problem becomes very clear when you watch debates between Richard Dawkins and whoever the local favourite Christian leader is. The atheists in the audience are generally sure that Dawkins has won and the conservative Christians in the audience generally think that the Christian leader has won, but since Dawkins’ arguments are based on the premise that there is no God and the Christian leaders’ are based on the premise that God created the world and everything in it, neither is going to find the arguments of the other convincing.

Unless we find more old manuscripts of Thomas, I think that the best we can realistically hope for is to outline the problems that our particular solutions solve and those they raise and accept that some Thomas scholars will agree with us and others will not be convinced at all. We need to learn to live with the fact that we probably can’t be generally acknowledged to be right, but we can be rigorous and we should all strive to be interesting. 🙂

Faith, biblical studies and teaching in ‘sectarian’ universities

Over the past few days, one of the hot issues in the blogosphere has been the sacking of Anthony Le Donne from Lincoln Christian University because the understandings expressed in his writing do not line up with the university’s confession of faith (see for example Larry Hurtado, Jim West, Chris Skinner, Ben Witherington III and James McGrath). It sounds as though the university has done a really bad job of dealing with the issue and I am very sad for Le Donne and his family and also sympathetic to his colleagues.

I haven’t read the book in question (although I’ve just ordered a copy from the library) but I have read his 2007 “Theological Memory Distortion in the Jesus Tradition: a Study in Social Memory Theory” in S. C. Barton, L. T. Stuckenbruck & B. G. Wold (Eds.), Memory in the Bible and Antiquity (pp. 163-177), Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, which I found helpful in my article on eyewitness testimony. I can see, however, how the average conservative evangelical Christian would have issues with comments like “memory is distortion. This is so regardless of any claims to veracity” (p. 168) although he explains that this is because it is not possible to view an object from every perspective or to recall an event without emphasizing some details.

Much though we might like it to be otherwise, the reality is that an awful lot of biblical scholars teach in institutions that prepare people for ordination in particular christian churches and this has always been the case. They are therefore not doing their teaching and research in a vacuum. Not only that, a significant proportion of biblical scholars are confessing Christians and maybe some keep their research and their faith in two separate compartments in their lives, but most don’t. This stuff doesn’t make you lose your faith!! If, however, my theological training institution was anything to go on (and I’m sure it was), very little time is actually spent on trying to help students preparing for ordination to make sense of what they are being taught in terms of their faith, so they are left to their own devices to work out how to communicate what biblical scholarship teaches about Scripture and many, fearing the same kind of reaction from their congregations as Le Donne has had from his university’s board, say nothing. Others just view it as a hoop they need to jump through in order to be ordained and forget everything they’ve learned as soon as they pass their exams. In either case, they don’t share what they’ve learned with their congregations.

Helping them isn’t all that hard, either. Last year I presented my work on human memory and eyewitness testimony to a local lay preachers’ course. I told them basically what Le Donne says – human memory is simply not accurate. You can’t rely on eyewitness testimony to be “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”, especially 30 years down the track. The student from one of the very conservative congregations in our region came up to me afterwards and said that she had thought that she was going to really hate what I was saying, but instead had found it incredibly helpful. This is because I went on to talk about what I believe this means for our use of Scripture (that we can’t reasonably preach a sermon that turns on one or two words in a biblical text) and about the role of our faith in God in guaranteeing the trustworthiness of Scripture. Really, all that our research on human memory, social memory and eyewitness testimony is demonstrating is that we are not ever going to be able to produce empirical evidence that the Bible is true. We are just saying “we can’t prove this”, not “this isn’t true”. Why is that such a big deal? People of faith have been dealing with that for a couple of millennia. And furthermore, being able to provide very convincing empirical evidence for something does not mean that people will believe it, anyway. Look at the evidence for climate change. Psychological research also demonstrates that people are very good at believing what they want to believe and ignoring evidence that conflicts with their world view, except under specific circumstances (and I don’t have the research readily available and can’t remember what the circumstances are).

I don’t think people in the field of academic biblical scholarship have actually helped, either. I think there is a big difference between allowing the particular teachings of your faith group to shape what you see and say during your research and reflecting on what the consequences of your research are for Christian faith. It seems to me that Lincoln wants Le Donne to do the former and he clearly can’t and maintain either his academic or personal integrity. I believe, however, that if you are being funded by a christian body to teach and do research, you have a responsibility to do the latter, and not just in your own mind. So often, however, when people in biblical discussion forums try to do this, they are howled down for being ‘confessional’. But where else but in a group of people who are also specialists in the field can you work out where the holes are in your thinking before you present a case to those who are not educated in the area? Surely, we owe it to the people who donate from their wages and savings the money that pays our stipends to show them how you can know these things and still remain Christian? So often when I do share it, I am greeted by relief that what people had suspected but were afraid to ask is true, often swiftly followed by anger that no-one had told them about it years ago.

And maybe, if more of us (both ministers and biblical scholars) had been doing this for longer, Le Donne would not have been sacked for telling the truth?


Abstracts – a few of my pet peeves

I have been very quiet in the blogosphere lately because I have been trying to write some more of my thesis and have been doing several casual jobs, one of which has been to update a bibliography. I have therefore read heaps and heaps of abstracts and not a few journal articles without abstracts and have formed some very definite opinions about them. Lots of my reading has been in the form of on-line proceedings from conferences, which are up quite fast, but without the benefit of careful editing. It shows. But then abstracts from peer reviewed, edited journals can be a bit dodgy, too.

Abstracts are the first things that people read, so you need to create the impression that it is going to be worth their while reading on, or attending the your presentation. Maybe this is subjective, but here are a few of the things I really hate:

  1. Long, rambling abstracts with a two paragraph literature review before I get to the info about the paper. I will almost certainly choose someone else’s conference presentation and may well not bother reading the journal article either, unless the topic really, really interests me and the other papers on at that time are totally uninspiring. Or I might chose to have coffee instead.
  2. Abstracts that don’t give me at least some idea of the conclusions that are going to be presented. Conference papers and journal articles aren’t like detective fiction – telling me the conclusions up front really won’t spoil the surprise or stop me wanting to know how the author justifies them. What I want to know is if the topic is of interest to me or relevant to my research and whether the conclusions are going to add anything I don’t already know, help me to make a decision about some contraversial issue or provide extra evidence for something I want to prove or disprove.
  3. Overselling the significance of the results/conclusions. I may attend the session or read the paper, but I won’t necessarily finish with a high opinion of the scholarship if I discover that the so-called “proof” is merely the first step in a long process.
  4. Abstracts that don’t give a reasonable overview of the material covered. My boss wrote off a whole set of conference proceedings that turned out to be an absolute gold mine because the authors’ abstracts were so uninformative. My keyword search pulled up enough hits to make me willing to give them a second chance but I’ve had to write new abstracts for the annotated bibliography I’m producing for all but one of about 20 relevant papers from the proceedings. Often I can simply reproduce the abstract and add a couple of notes highlighting particular items of interest for our project.

In the publish-and-be-cited-or-else world of international academia at the moment, a poor abstract is, I think, a not very good idea. 🙂

And while I’m at it, two other pet peeves about articles in general:

  1. Poor opening and closing paragraphs, especially in journals that don’t offer abstracts. My library doesn’t subscribe to paper versions of many journals in my field so I am not sitting in a comfy chair in the browsing area of the library. I am looking at the on-line version to decide wether or not I am going to bother downloading the whole thing to read or plough through it on-screen. I need to be convinced pretty quickly and the opening and closing paragraphs will do it. Or not. Note to self – really work hard on those conclusions you find so hard to write.
  2. Clever catchy titles that give me no hint about the content of the paper. Sometimes I’ll be intrigued enough to look at the first paragraph, especially if it’s in a themed edition, but often I just won’t bother unless I’m really desperate. I mean does “If we build it will they come and more importantly will they stay” sound to you like a paper evaluating the positive and negative aspects of using e-portfolios in medical and nursing education (exactly what I wanted)?

Now, having got that off my chest, back to biblical studies. 🙂

Linguistic Pedantry

I suspect that “being good at languages” and linguistic pedantry must be fairly firmly linked, because most of the people I know who enjoy studying languages other than their own also seem to find misuse of their own language annoying.  I’m a big fan of Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation and belong to the Facebook group “The Panda Says No” and there are a number of things in both written and spoken English that make me cringe.

My current least favourite is the tendency of people in the circles in which I move to see hoi polloi as a synonym for “the elite”!!  As in “there I was, sitting at the main table with the hoi polloi”.  Yeah.  Right.  Unfortunately, it never seems to be said in circumstances where I can reasonably explain to the speaker (and hearers) that hoi polloi is Greek for “the citizens” so the kindest translation is “the people” and it is more usually taken to mean “the rabble” or “the great unwashed”.

While I am prepared to agree with The Chicago Manual of Style and Meriam Webster’s dictionary that it probably does need a “the” in front of it in English, despite the technical tautology, I cringe and shudder whenever I hear a usage that is so clearly wrong in meaning.  Why do people have to use words they clearly don’t understand????

And on a related note, the Sydney Morning Herald has a section called Column 8, in which readers write short pieces about odd things that catch their attention and often bemoan ecentric uses of language.  One of their current topics is the use of “an” rather than “a” in front of words beginning with “h” – you will need to scroll down a little. I have been known to say “an hotel” occasionally and also “an historic even”, but never “an happy new year” nor “an hat”. My understanding is that “an” goes with words borrowed from French where the “h” is not pronounced. Je pense que je suis un peu pédant. 🙂

I’d love to hear readers’ pet linguistic peeves.