Thursday, May 31, 2007

Synoptic Problem Poll

Vote in Brandon Wason's Synoptic Problem Poll and catch the discussions in comments. For a long time I was an advocate of the two-source hypothesis until finally converting to Farrer. But as the poll results show, the former won't easily go away.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Flavors of Atheism

What Kind of Atheist Am I?
Agnostic. Agnostics consider the possibility that they may be wrong about God's existence, no matter which side of the fence they stand on. Always willing to objectively evaluate the most ridiculous proof, nevertheless, these guys are skeptics of the Nth degree.
Agnostic 75%

Scientific Atheist 58%

Spiritual Atheist 50%

Apathetic Atheist 42%

Theist 8%

Militant Atheist 0%

Angry Atheist 0%

PZ Myers, Larry Moran, and J.J. Ramsey are all militantly scientific. I'm scientifically agnostic.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Misrepresenting Scholars

I haven't read Nicholas Perrin's Thomas, The Other Gospel, but I've certainly read (and reviewed) April DeConick's Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas which he criticizes. Judging from April's recent blog-citations (I, II, III, IV, V), it's evident that Perrin distorts her position at times. Have a look-see: it's pretty embarassing.

Though I disagree with April's theory about the way Thomas evolved, I really like her book. (I can't recall the last time reading something I so much wanted to be right but ultimately couldn't go along with.) But whether in agreement or disagreement, we need to be sure we're representing our dialogue partners accurately.

UPDATE: Mark Goodacre has a helpful review of Perrin's book.

UPDATE (II): Over on Mike Bird's Euangelion, Nick Perrin responds to April's objections. Perrin sticks to his guns.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Seven Deadly Sins in Writing

Other bloggers have called attention to Angela Erisman's list of reading material which can help improve your Writing in Biblical Studies. I'd recommend Constance Hale's Sin and Syntax in particular, for any writing professional who has trouble knowing when to break the rules and when not to.

At one point Hale warns against seven deadly sins in writing (pp 18-29). Let's look at them:
1. Sloth. "Grabbing the closest shopworn words without so much as a glimmer of guilt, or hastily creating inelegant nouns out of other nouns, or even verbs." (p 18) And even worse -- as I complained about in The Dumbing Down of English Nouns -- creating verbs out of nouns. Then there are cliches, which should always be avoided (I would say "avoided like the plague", but that's a cliche, right?). I agree with Hale that sloth is the most common and insidious sin among writers.

2. Gluttony. "The gourmandish urge to use five words where one would do." (p 20) This often leads to the use of roundabout and redundant prepositional phrases instead of straight nouns and verbs. I had a problem with this in college, and learned slowly and painfully that less is more, more often than not. A good mantra to recite when sitting at the keyboard.

3. Fog. "Using vague and woolly words rather than concrete ones. A writer who hasn't stopped to think about what he or she is trying to say piles up abstract nouns like phenomenon, element, individual, objective." (pp 20-21) It's easy to fall into this trap when having a brain cramp, but the remedy is simple: go back, revise, and defog your writing.

4. Pretense. "Resorting to pompous, ponderous, or just imponderable nouns." (p 22) The worst sinners are academics so preoccupied with their diction that they lose sight of their goal: communicating with an audience (p 23). Insecurity and arrogance lie behind pretentious words like utilize, praxis, pericope, normalcy and colloquy. Drop them in favor of use, practice, passage, normality and conversation -- except in the very rare contexts warranting the others. (I've complained about this before, following Chris Heard.)

5. Gobbledygook. An inability to keep things simple. Examples: capitalized cost reductions instead of down payments; a specialist in arms control and security issues instead of a weapons wonk. As with sin #2 (gluttony), less is more.

6. Jargon. Technical lingo. Revelling in the aforesaids, hereofs, hereinbelows, etc. Lawyers and doctors excel in jargon.

7. Euphemism. Describing offensive behavior with inoffensive terms, or sensitive issues with politically-correct language. So in place of firing managers use downsizing, rightsizing, or reshaping. When referring to the bombardment of defenseless villages, the governement speaks of pacification. Black people are Afro-Americans; retarded people are mentally challenged. "Euphemisms are for wimps, invented in an attempt to avoid offending others or to pussyfoot around socially prickly subjects. They conceal reality rather than reveal it -- which is, after all, what a writer should be doing." (pp 26-28)
Many would object to these complaints (especially #'s 1, 4, 6, and 7) with the retort that language evolves, and we shouldn't be linguistic fundamentalists. "To dialogue" may be a slothful way of creating a new word, but for better or worse, the dumbing down of our English nouns has become more acceptable. Academics may sound pretentious, but their vocabulary evolves according to the canons of their professions. But the counter-retort, Hale's point, is that language doesn't always evolve for the better. Following conventions and trends doesn't put you on the road to strong and aesthetic prose anymore than slavishly following the rules does. The trick is knowing when to follow the crowd and not to. For myself, I'll never warm to "dialogue" as a verb, no matter how many dictionaries acknowledge it.

Who are the good writers of biblical scholarship? There are many, but the following come straight to mind: Donald Akenson, John Meier, Mark Goodacre, and Philip Esler. All have robust and engaging prose, and steer clear of the seven deadly sins. John Dominic Crossan is another story. Some view him as a gifted writer, but he's one of the most pretentious (sin #4) I've ever read. He revels in words like "normalcy", and loves pompous aphorisms, trying to achieve Schweitzerian heights but failing miserably. (Only a true genius like Schweitzer can write like Schweitzer.) Then there is Ed Sanders, whose landmark ideas have been marred by italic overkill and minor gluttony (sin #2). Mark Nanos has wonderful and important ideas, but he's where I was in my undergrad years (heavy gluttony, sin #2). I think gluttony results from a subconscious fear that readers will lose your point unless you spell things out every step of the way, in every sentence, with hyper-qualifying phrases and clauses.

More on Hale's Sin and Syntax later. This blog has been stalling lately (for various reasons), but I hope to get back on track soon.

UPDATE: Mark Goodacre suggests adding another deadly sin:
8. Polemic. The use of unnecessarily hostile language including overstatement, ridicule, insult and hyperbole. As a general rule, if you are writing in harsh criticism of another scholar, imagine yourself saying it out loud at a conference with the person present in the room, and ask yourself if you are comfortable with your tone.
I should note that this complements sin #7 rather than opposes it. Hale concedes that civility and tact are important and should be cultivated -- just not with euphemisms (p 26).

UPDATE (II): April DeConick broadens the discussion by listing her top four frustrations about academic writing.

UPDATE (III): Michael Pahl defends deadly sin #4, the use of pretentious words. He writes: "There is a valid reason for the existence of many, if not most, big words: the small words just don't cut it in some situations." I agree, and so would Hale. The key phrase is some situations, and let's make that very few situations. I think pretentious words are analogous to the passive voice. The passive voice exists for a good reason too. The trick is holding back until you really need that voice -- meaning, in a case where it does the job better, and sounds better, than the active; such cases are rare. Ditto for the "big" words. They sound great when used sparingly and in contexts which absolutely demand them. Otherwise they lose their luster and sound odious.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Top Films of 2006

Post updated here.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Biblical Studies Carnival XVII

The seventeenth Biblical Studies Carnival is up on Chris Heard's Higgaion.