The Library Basement
Reading under ground

Category Christianity

Voting is the Act of an American

Erick Erickson this evening published a series of messages summarizing his stance on why voting for Donald Trump as the lesser of two evil is by no means compulsory for Christians. I must admit that in the past my previous conception of Erickson was more or less as a partisan hack. However in this election cycle he has been an unwavering pillar in the Never Trump movement. This has gained my attention. The below excerpt has earned my respect.

When I was working out my thoughts on non-voting in 2008, the idea seemed beyond the pale to many of my acquaintances. In 2016, given the preposterous choice set before the American public, non-voting is becoming more and more attractive to the general public. In particular it appeals to those conservative Christians who once felt comfortably at home in the GOP but now are alienated by the strongman who won that party's nomination.

Erickson is right in that pocket. In another message he cites his seminary education in the recent years has forced him to rank politics and religion, and we can see from the above which one came out on top.

Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton is a crisis for our republic, but a useful one. There have been many times throughout history when the faithful have worried about a friendly political status quo giving way. And yet the church persists. This is of course not to say that such epochal changes are without undesirable consequences. But part of the vocation of Christianity is courage.

Formation over information

My old man emailed me a link to a blog post by singer Ashley Cleveland. In it she relates some of the history of her spiritual journey, and it is well worth a read. One line in particular stood out to me, regarding her transition to the Episcopal Church:

My desire is less for information and more for formation, less like Martha, more like Mary.

Formation over information. It has a nice ring to it. She continues:

To that end, the beauty and repetition of the Episcopalian liturgy which is built on the scripture, the common worship, the symbolic gestures and the centerpiece of communion have given me a rich experience of worship and a place for practice, regardless of my spiritual fitness at any given time.

All churches are repetitive. Some like to pretend that they don't have a liturgy, but they really do. Yet there is something distinct about the never-ending cycle of the Church Year. We repeat the same seasons and the same feasts year in and year out. We read through the lectionary every three years. And we repeat the same form of the Eucharist each week. All of these provide signposts by which I can look back and assess the progress of my Christian life. Formation.

It's not that information is bad. I have an advanced degree in Christian information (Biblical Studies) after all. And it's not that Biblical exposition in a church setting is wholly inappropriate (though I do think that Sunday school is probably a better venue for it).

One of the main things I came to appreciate early on about the Episcopal church was the short and sweet sermons. They are detached from a need to convey a lot of facts about the reading and instead provide a moment for reflection in the midst of worship. They are the opportunity for the clergy to provide some context to the never-ending liturgical cycles.

So yes: formation. It is a good theme to focus on in this Lent.

Translation ex nihilo

Join me in a thought experiment. A team of biblical language experts has been convened to produce a new translation of the Bible into English. However, none of the translators have ever read the Bible before, and they have no knowledge of Judaism nor Christianity. How would their translation differ from the received tradition?

Tolstoy documents American pacifism

I have commenced re-reading Leo Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You. I first read it four years ago. It was a challenging read. This book of Tolstoy's is primarily concerned with offering a defense of the Christian principle of non-resistance to evil (Matthew 5:39). Tolstoy's interpretation calls for absolute non-violence for Christians.

(He makes this theme so central to his Christianity, he ends up being a redaction critic, attributing almost anything "mystical" in the balance of the New Testament as being added to distract from the earl church's desire to distract from Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.)

In the first section of The Kingdom of God Is Within You, Tolstoy reacts to critics and supporters of his previous work (What I Believe). In doing so, he lists authors and movements pre-dating himself which held essentially the same viewpoints about non-resistance. What interests me is that the list is dominated by American institutions - the Quakers, the Mennonites, etc. Apparently in the late 19th century, the US was known for having a bunch of Christian denominations which were dedicated to peace.

This is not the case now. Many of those historical institutions have declined in relative prominence, and some of the same have softened their stances on non-violence. On the world's stage, American Christians are now probably best known for sanctioning state aggression. But I am proud to recount that we used to have something of a reputation for refusing the call to arms.

I will probably have several posts inspired by Tolstoy's work as I read through.

SBL's Online Critical Pseudepigrapha

The SBL publishes the Online Critical Pseudepigrapha - an online critical edition of various "old testament" pseudepigrapha. It includes the Greek text of nearly thirty works, and there is a critical apparatus for four of them.

The website has been live for quite some time, but apparently inactive for a time (the latest blog post is from 2009). Still, this provides an excellent opportunity to get one's feet wet with this collection.

SBL new open access policy

Recently the Society of Biblical Literature informed its membership of a new "Green Open Access" policy for works published in SBL publications (including JBL):

This policy allows the author to post or archive a PDF file of the postprint manuscript in specified types of open-access locations—the author’s institutional repository (IR) and the author’s personal or institutional website—following an eighteen-month embargo from publication date. The complete article citation must be provided as specified by SBL.

So eventually the article can be made available if the author takes action. This is generally a move in the right direction. I think this would work better if the works were openly available from SBL itself, since that would provide a centralized, indexed, and searchable repository. As it stands, the articles would be fairly disparate.

In the full text of the policy [PDF] there is a great synopsis of the enduring importance of centralized academic publishers:

Academic, peer-reviewed publishing uniquely serves higher education by setting standards, vetting content and methodology, and disseminating research. Such publishing is also a means of professional development through credentialing for tenure and promotion. Consequently, academic publishers are an essential component of the higher education ecology.

In spite of the power of internet technologies for self-publishing, JBL and similar journals still serve an important purpose. But following is where I disagree with the SBL:

In order to foster biblical scholarship and scholarly communication, the Society of Biblical Literature allows specific and reasonable dissemination of the results of scholarly research published within its books and journals.

Contrary to the terms of this new "open access policy," the reasonable dissemination of scholarship would involve providing immediate open access to the works, preferably under a permissive license. After all, how better could SBL serve the biblical studies ecosystem than by releasing the results of research to everyone? It could only improve the scholarly dialogue.

I suspect the only reason for closed access is so that SBL can monetize the articles by using restrictive copyright licenses. The selection of candidate articles, peer-review process, editing, and type-setting cost money, after all. However I think it would be best to cover those expenses up-front. I would like to imagine that my SBL dues and JBL subscription fee would be enough to cover these expenses. If they are not, I would be willing to pay more, if it meant that the articles published in JBL had unqualified open access.

This is definitely a positive development, so I hesitate to criticize this fresh policy change. But I think SBL needs to keep moving in the direction of freely-accessible content, for the good of all.

More momentum for freely-licensed Bible texts

Just a couple of quick notes:

As I have found processing the text of Bible versions, versification is no simple task. What happens when you have verses labeled "3/4" or "5c" or simply null, as a inter-verse portion of a chapter (all these examples from Rahfl's Septuagint). BibleOrgSysis Rob Hunt's "attempt to develop a system that is multilingual, multinational, and multicultural from the beginning—to pull all of these various Bible organisational systems into one place." The project was first announced in 2011, but it is still actively being worked on now. From the looks of the code, he's adding extensions for Drupal and other systems. Great news.

In another corner of the web, Stephan Kreutzer of Freie Bibel explains the importance of free software and free culture licensing for Bible texts. Stephan is working on contributing to the ecosystem of free software tools which can be used to proofread and edit digitized texts.

Very encouraging!

Scientific study of the results of higher criticism?

The methods of higher criticism which are employed in biblical studies and other fields can yield intriguing results, but are the conclusions trustworthy? In the case of ancient texts, the reality behind redaction or source criticism is speculative, and there is no authoritative measure by which to evaluate the practice, because we do not have independent documentation of the sources or editorial process. So if two critics reach differing conclusions, and these lead to a significant divergence in exegesis, there is no way to settle the matter. It becomes "he said, she said" among scholars.

While we cannot know for certain in the case of ancient texts, there is a way to evaluate the various methodologies of higher criticism in general. This will help rank the relative quality of these methods, which will lend confidence to judgements passed on ancient texts.

I propose a study as follows: Two pools of texts are assembled. The first pool will be known to be composed by a single author - the analogue to a placebo group. The second pool will be comprised of texts with documented eclectic sources and editorial history (Wikipedia, with its history of edits, would be perfect for this). These texts would then be passed to scholars in a double-blind fashion, and they would be asked to make an analysis of the history of these texts. The results of these analyses can be objectively scored for precision and recall, which will reveal the best scholars and their best practices.

Is anyone aware of such a study having already been published? Are there any problems with the methodology I propose?

Psalm 82, 2012 edition

God stands in the General Assembly; in the midst of world leaders he renders judgment.

He says, "How long will you make unjust legal decisions and show favoritism to the wicked? (Selah)

Defend the cause of the poor and the fatherless! Vindicate the oppressed and suffering!

Rescue the poor and needy! Deliver them from the power of the wicked!

They neither know nor understand. They stumble around in the dark, while all the foundations of the earth crumble.

I thought 'You are the elite; all of you are rulers of the most powerful nations.'

Yet you will die like all mortals; you will fall like all the other rulers."

Rise up, O God, and execute judgment on the earth! For you own all the nations.

Adapted from the NET Bible. Inspired by James M. Trotter's "Death of the אלהים in Psalm 82", JBL 131, no. 2 (2012): 221-239. Trotter argues that the "gods" in this psalm should be understood as divine kings (c.f. Isaiah 14).

Prayer for the distractable mind

From today's alternate Psalm, 90:12:

Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

This one really resonates with me, the constantly-distracted.

Do not be ashamed, Sirach

By turns Sirach is a outstanding read full of great wisdom and hopelessly backwards. Consider 40:20:

Wine and music gladden the heart, but the love of friends is better than either.

A whole section is full of these great sayings. But then we turn to the list of things about which to not be ashamed (42:5c):

[Do not be ashamed] of drawing blood from the back of a wicked slave.

Pilate must have just read this verse prior to having Jesus flogged. And then there is this bit of loveliness concerning the sexes (42:14):

Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good; it is woman who brings shame and disgrace.

It is amazing how strongly I can share and repudiate the values of this ancient wisdom.

Drunk on wisdom

I've moved into Sirach/Ecclesiasticus. It is standard wisdom literature in form, but some of the expressions feel new. This one in particular caught my eye:

Wisdom’s fullness is to fear the Lord, and she inebriates [people] with her fruits.

That's the NETS rendering, and the NRSV makes the same word choice of "inebriates." The Greek word being correctly translated here is μεθύσκω, and the combination with "fruits" makes the sense of this figure fairly clear. Brenton's translationshies away from this a bit and renders it merely "fills," leaving it up to the imagination of the English reader.