Posted by: Ken Brown | August 20, 2013

Review of The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie

Abercrombie - The Last Argument of KingsDoes the devil know he is a devil? – Elizabeth Madox Roberts

Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy is a breathtakingly original work of fantasy, built on memorable characters, intertwining plotlines and remarkable world-building. It may also the most cynical and depressing fiction I have ever read. In the end, it did not go at all where I expected it to go, but I can’t stop thinking about it.

Through the first book, Abercrombie’s brand of “realistic” fantasy seems little more than a lesser cousin to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, to which he clearly owes a great deal. But by the second and especially the third book, The First Law Trilogy finds its own distinctive voice. Like Martin, Abercrombie offers a diverse cast of memorable anti-heroes and villains, set in a well-developed world of political intrigue, warfare and compromise. Its deeply troubling depiction of the mage Bayaz is well worth the cover price by itself. Its story is engaging, original and rarely predictable, and the dialogue and description steadily improve as the trilogy goes on. But it is the ending that really establishes the series’ greatness, as it transforms itself into a surprisingly effective—though inevitably one-sided—dystopian fantasy.

Like any good dystopian story, its core is an implicit critique of contemporary society, in this case the domineering influence of big business and banking interests on political action, and the abuses of the “war on terror.” Nor does Abercrombie settle for cheap political points; he also efficiently explores how even well-meaning leaders can find themselves drawn into willing participation in a corrupt system beyond their control. Unlike many similar works, in which the hero struggles honorably, if unsuccessfully, against the system, this series rightly emphasizes how the selfish, cowardly and unintended choices of the “heroes” themselves can lead to lasting harm. It also highlights our tendency to exaggerate our own moral progress and convince ourselves that our relapses are necessary or unavoidable. Most of all, it offers a haunting illustration of the concept that “history is written by the victors.”

But at times the series undermines its own message. Showing the aftermath without reveling in the bloodbath itself is one thing Martin’s A Game of Thrones did especially well (though later books in the series less so), but Abercrombie doesn’t seem to have the same knack for it. Like Braveheart or Avatar, The First Law Trilogy wants to critique our easy acceptance of war, but in practice it seems a bit too interested in the details of violence. Showing one of the heroes kill a friend in the closing moments of a battle, or having the victorious general muse that his men’s “we won” sounded a lot like “we lost,” only goes so far to balance out the hundreds pages of detailed description of battle itself. Whatever Abercrombie wishes us to feel about the horror of war, the fact remains that a significant portion of the story—especially in the third book—is filled with detailed and exciting depictions of violence.

In fact, this case is in some ways even worse than Braveheart, as it does this for both war and torture. One of the main characters is a torturer for “the Inquisition,” which in this world is purely a tool of the state—or anyway of those claiming to speak for the state. But while the story regularly emphasizes the way torture can be used to make anyone confess, in practice the books often drag out the violence itself well beyond what is necessary. Moreover, and perhaps without meaning to, Abercrombie ends up implying that torture works. Judging from the results our anti-hero achieves, it would be difficult to escape the conclusion that torture is reprehensible but effective means of accomplishing the torturer’s goals.

More deeply, however, the genre itself is problematic. By presenting itself as a kind of “realistic” fantasy—a genre it maintains pretty faithfully through the first and much of the second book—the series’ late turn towards dystopia leads to a distorted picture of human nature. As a critique of our endless capacity for self-delusion and compromise, The First Law Trilogy is effective, but like any dystopian story, it must leave something important out. Most obviously, women and children rarely appear in this story, and every single one of them either once was or eventually becomes a victim of some act of violence or another. The only female character whose point of view we are given is–literally–part demon, and driven almost entirely by an insatiable wish for vengeance.

Yet even among the men who dominate the story, there is little friendship or kindness. There is lust, but no genuine love untainted by abuse. They occasionally show mercy, but rarely act unselfishly or sacrificially. In the end, Abercrombie does not just give us a cast of broken people in a broken system; he gives us a group that is rarely fully human at all.

And I can’t help wondering how much of this reflects back on another thing that has been left out: any sense of the sacred. Though there are some religious believers in this world, they are virtually all among the enemies, and their faith is more likely to lead to violence than prayer. The central society in which the story is set is thoroughly secular, perhaps even atheistic, and while it becomes clear that they are ignorant of larger forces at work, those forces are inevitably dangerous and uncaring. Indeed, a major theme is that the average person is blissfully unaware of how strongly their society has been shaped by powerful men (almost all men) wielding dark supernatural powers.

This is a world in which hell exists but heaven probably doesn’t. A world full of devils but no angels, where men are little more than monsters, and where people never truly escape what their past has made them. A world in which the idea that human beings have inherent worth is never seriously considered, and no one really believes in a future beyond the grave. If there is a God out there somewhere, he never speaks or acts, and is appealed to only to justify war, slavery and vengeance, never faith, hope and love.

As a dystopian critique, the story works, but as an authentic portrait of humanity it leaves a lot to be desired. The world isn’t full of white knights and black hats, where the guilty always pay and the righteous always prevail. But neither is it a fading grey, where grace and warmth and victory are never more than an evanescence.

Abercrombie is right that even the best among us struggle against our own vices and regrets, follow our own self-interest, and generally fail to overcome the system. But human beings are not mere self-interested devils, and our attempts at justice no more always fail than they always succeed. Not every tale needs a “happily ever after,” and it is generally those with the most ambiguous endings that prove the most thought-provoking, but in the end I guess I want my fantasy more “realistic.” That doesn’t just mean more violent and morally ambiguous; it also means more honest about the worst and best of humanity.

Posted by: Ken Brown | April 6, 2013

Comics and the Power of a Simple Idea

There may not be a simpler comic than xkcd. Its characters are literally faceless stick-figures, most of its images are black and white with little background, and many are only a single frame. Some have no images at all. Yet Randall Munroe’s minimalist comic somehow manages to capture the absurdities of life with a geeky humor that few better-drawn comics surpass. For instance:

The comic at the top of the page takes this embrace of superficial simplicity to the extreme. Posted last Monday with the title “Time” and the hover-text “Wait for it,” this image of two people on a beach was deceptively banal. Many readers probably assumed that was all there was to the strip–a clichéd allusion to the association of sand with time–but if you returned to the comic later you would find a slightly different image. Every half-hour to an hour since the comic was first posted, the image has been replaced by a new frame (the current one is on the right, and should stay up to date). Some of the images have captions, most do not, but the old images never repeat, and there is no way to skip ahead. All you will ever see upon visiting the comic is the constantly-changing present–an outstanding illustration of the nature of time, captured in a very a simple image.

Naked Pastor - All The Wrong Peoplexkcd is hardly the only comic to exploit a simple approach to address big ideas in a meaningful way. For example, Naked Pastor, by David Hayward, also uses simple black and white images (though these ones have faces), while Coffee with Jesus, by Radio Free Babylon, goes so far as to reuse the exact same image in the second and fourth frames of virtually every one of its strips. Yet both succeed in expressing witty commentary on the contemporary church with an enviable clarity.

Coffee with Jesus - Favorite Christian Singer

It is easy to lament the way television and the internet have created a society dominated by the one-liner. Write a well thought-out essay and few people will read the whole thing. Summarize the idea in two sentences with a picture of a cat and a thousand people will share it on Facebook. As someone who likes to think things through, I often find this frustrating, particularly when my carefully-phrased blog posts get less of a response than my throw-away quips on Twitter.

But comics like xkcd or Coffee with Jesus are good reminders of the power of simplicity. As an academic, I struggle to be concise–I can’t even write a post about comics without dragging it out to six paragraphs. Part of the problem is the common assumption that serious thinking shouldn’t use simple language, as though intelligent ideas need to be expressed in lengthy and complex prose. This simply isn’t true. The most effective arguments are often the least adorned, while complicated writing is often a cover for fuzzy thinking. But other times the problem is that I try to address every side of any issue I discuss, and in the end that is never possible. No writer can address every side of any issue, and no reader will have the patience to let them try. Comics remind us that every statement is part of a larger discourse, and it is more important to make your point clearly and memorably than to cover every objection.

That doesn’t mean we should abandon long-form writing for a Twitter feed. The fact that fewer people are willing to read a good essay or non-fiction book is lamentable, but it is also a valuable reminder to keep things simple. Or as the greatest comic of them all put it:

Calvin and Hobbes - The Purpose of Writing

Posted by: Ken Brown | April 1, 2013

Mediation and the God of Cornelius

Detail of a 17th century engraving, titled "Cornelius." Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

Detail of a 17th century engraving, titled “Cornelius.” Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

It is all too common to hear Protestant-minded Christians contrast the New Testament with the Old on the grounds that now God lives with us—directly—while in the old days people had to go to God through priests and other intermediaries. It is not difficult to find biblical support for such a notion, as Hebrews especially contrasts the old covenant with the new on the grounds that “Jesus the mediator of a new covenant” speaks and acts directly on our behalf (Heb 12:24; cf. 12:14-29; 9:11-10:25). But for all the influence such passages have had, they risk obscuring the fact that across scripture, not only in the Old Testament but also in the New, God most often chooses to speak and act through others.

Acts 10 is a case-study in indirection. This story of how a Roman Centurion named Cornelius came to accept the gospel serves as a paradigm for the inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God. The curious thing about the story, however, is how indirect God is about bringing Cornelius to faith. When we first meet him, he and all his family are already “devout and God-fearing,” characterized by generosity and prayer (10:2; all quotations from the NIV). But however good and pious Cornelius is, God is apparently not satisfied to leave him there. Cornelius has a vision, in which an angel appears and praises his piety: “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God” (10:4). God is pleased with Cornelius’ faithfulness, but God responds by sending a messenger, an angel, to speak for him.

And even the angel does not actually reveal anything to Cornelius directly—instead he tells Cornelius to “send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter” (10:5). Meanwhile, Peter himself is also praying when he too has a vision, in which “a voice” directs him to kill and eat an unclean animal, something forbidden to him as a Jew (10:9-16). Is this the voice of God himself, or another angel? We are not told, but after awaking from the dream, Peter then hears from “the Spirit,” who instructs him to go with the men who have come from Cornelius (10:19-20).

Obeying, Peter follows these men to Cornelius’ house and tells him about his vision, while Cornelius retells his own. Peter then replies with a long speech that is all about how God acts through others:

“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preaches—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (10:34-43)

Read that again and note all the different intermediaries God uses to speak to Cornelius. Though Jesus himself—his life and death and resurrection—stand at the center of everything here, God is claimed to speak and act through numerous others:

  1. The people of Israel, to whom God sent the message of “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ” (10:36),
  2. John the Baptist, who preached baptism before the coming of Christ (10:37),
  3. “All the prophets,” who testified on Christ’s behalf (10:43), and finally
  4. Peter himself and the other apostles, who saw the risen Christ and were commanded to preach (10:39-42).

In fact, Peter makes a point of stressing the limited nature of this final group of eye-witnesses: “He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen” (10:41). In other words, while God in Christ could have revealed himself to all people directly, he chose not to do so. In Cornelius’ case, it is only when Peter came and spoke that he and his family—people already praised as God-fearing before they ever met Peter—are filled with the Spirit: “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message” (10:44). Only through Peter’s mediation does God finally make himself fully present to Cornelius, through the Holy Spirit.

For many, this is an uncomfortable idea. Isn’t the whole point of the incarnation that God is with us, directly and unmediated? Why should God go to all the trouble to take on human flesh, die and rise again on our behalf, only to fall right back to the same old indirect means of speaking and acting—through prophets, angels and human witnesses? Yet according to the author of Acts, that is exactly what God did. God did not speak to Cornelius directly; he first sent the people of Israel, who brought the words of the prophets. Then, even when Cornelius responded with faith and prayer and generosity, God still did not speak directly, but sent an angel. And even that angel did not reveal God’s word directly, except to send him to Peter. It wasn’t even that God sent Peter to Cornelius—though God did that as well—God made Cornelius take the first step by sending messengers to Peter, then made Peter follow the messengers back to Cornelius. Wouldn’t it have been easier if God had just appeared to Cornelius in person?

Why all this indirection?

After all, the author of Acts had just finished telling us about the conversion of Paul, who unlike Cornelius was met by the risen Christ directly, on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). Yet even there—even with the Apostle Paul—God insisted on using others, as Jesus appeared to Paul only in order to send him to Ananias, a man otherwise unknown to us (9:4-6). Jesus then also appears to Ananias, and directs him to go to Paul (still named Saul at that point), and it is only when Ananias obeys and goes and speaks to Saul that he too is “filled with the Holy Spirit” and baptized (9:17-18). The pattern is clear: Whether for an obscure Roman soldier or the Apostle Paul himself, God makes a point of using others to carry his message, and even requires those who would come to him—those who would be “filled with the Holy Spirit” and know God more intimately and directly—to first go to one of those who already knows God.

According to Acts, it doesn’t matter whether we are violent persecutors or generous God-fearers, God calls us through others, and sends us to others ourselves. These are the patterns Acts establishes at the founding of the church, and they are the paradigms that all of us have followed since: Every one of us who has come to Christ has done so thanks to the words and deeds of others. Every one of us who has been reached through others is called to reach out to others ourselves. There is no other way to God. Christ is the mediator, and we are the body of Christ.

So before we lament the indirection of God’s use of intermediaries—before we contrast those “old” ways with the “new” thing God has done in Christ—it is worth pausing to see what we gain from God’s choice to act indirectly. Instead of a bunch of isolated individuals, each provided a direct uplink to heaven, God has ensured that our faith is and must be defined by relationships, by mutual dependency, by community. If God had simply appeared to Cornelius directly and left it at that, Cornelius would never have had reason to reach out to Peter, and Peter would never have had reason to visit him. Cornelius, the Gentile, would have remained in the confines of his own family and context. Peter, the Jew, would have remained confined by the narrow view he sums up in 10:28-29,

“You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I went without raising any objection.”

It is only because God chose to act indirectly that the wall dividing Peter the Jew from Cornelius the Gentile was brought down, and a new possibility for community was opened up.

But even here we must be careful not to let what is new blind us to what was old, nor let us too strongly contrast “the law” with “the gospel.” This indirection, this insistence of God to act through others, was no new thing, and did not only become good with the coming of Christ. Peter’s words in 10:28-29 are too strong, and if taken in isolation they threaten to obscure Cornelius’ own history with God, which did not begin when Peter walked through his door.

Long before Cornelius ever met Peter, he had already met any number of those Jews Peter claims were forbidden to associate with Gentiles, and they apparently not only respected him, but associated with him enough to lead him to become a God-fearer in the first place (10:22). Not just the apostles, but all “the people of Israel” were sent by God the message of “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ” (10:36), joining in the larger pattern of intermediation stretching back to the prophets and continuing to the present, as Peter describes it. It was first and foremost through those others that God became known to Cornelius and his family, and after Peter left, it was these who remained as the context for his new life in Christ. The coming of Peter may have been the turning point in Cornelius’ relation to God, but it was neither the beginning nor the end of it. Both before and after this God was speaking and acting through others, indirectly but transformationally.

So it remains. Through Christ and the Holy Spirit, God makes himself directly available to people “from every nation” (10:34). But God has always done so through others—through us. The good news of the gospel is that God so much values human community that he even became human himself. The challenge of the gospel is that God so much values human community that he even sent us to carry his word for him. For through this indirect means, God calls us not just closer to him, but closer to our fellow human beings, no matter how different from us they may seem.

The so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” Image by Karen L. King. Click for full images and translation; posted by Harvard Divinity School.

As everyone knows by now, this past week Karen L. King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, publicized the discovery of a small, purportedly 4th-century, Coptic manuscript in which Jesus refers to “my wife.” Besides contacting the New York Times, King also posted her academic paper (provisionally accepted for publication in Harvard Theological Review; PDF), along with a set of high-resolution photos, just before flying off to Rome to present her findings at the International Congress of Coptic Studies.

While the media, public and talk-show hosts have been speculating about what this means for modern debates concerning marriage, ordination and the latest bridal fashions (probably), scholars have been eagerly debating the authenticity of the manuscript itself. Bloggers James McGrath and Mark Goodacre have collected links to much of the discussion, including three brief articles by Francis Watson, a professor at Durham University. Watson argues that the manuscript was produced by copying texts from the Gospel of Thomas and other sources, perhaps even from a modern edition of the former. McGrath has expressed caution concerning Watson’s critique (and posted this humorous but instructive observation about the difficulty of telling coincidence from allusion), but at least some of Watson’s points appear to be valid, and the comments section of Goodacre’s posts include additional substantive observations. Other discussions–mostly critical–have spread across dozens of blogs, raising many points that will need to be addressed before this Coptic text could be accepted as authentic. Even the mainstream media has begun to acknowledge the issues raised in these debates.

Personally, I’m reserving judgment, but it is looking less and less likely that this is truly a fourth-century translation of a second-century document, as King claimed. As Richard Bauckham has suggested, even if Watson’s observations about the close parallels to the Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas fall short of proving that this is a modern forgery (though that is a distinct possibility), they may well indicate that it was composed in Coptic originally, rather than being a translation from Greek. That would suggest, to me, one of two conclusions: Either it is a later Gnostic text first composed in the fourth century, or it is a sophisticated modern forgery by someone familiar with the Coptic language. At the very least, the shape and cut edges of the manuscript, and the maximum plausible length of the missing parts of the lines, all raise serious doubts about the nature of this text and its subsequent handling.

What is more interesting to me today, though, is what all of this reveals about the nature of scholarship in an age of round-the-clock news service and social media. Amidst so much press attention, it is a little disconcerting to hear that King’s paper met with extreme skepticism at the conference in Rome. Worse, yesterday it came to light that Harvard Theological Review is not committed to publishing King’s article after all, in light of the concerns already raised through their own internal review process (which King frankly acknowledged in the draft of her paper). The whole thing is starting to look rather embarrassing for Harvard, but more importantly, it indicates the danger of going to the press (or the internet) with one’s research before it has been fully vetted by one’s colleagues. “Accepted for publication” is not the same as published.

Now King’s article is not a bad piece of work. Though its conclusions are a bit overstated, to my mind, it is a well-researched and level-headed discussion that avoids the hyperbole that has swirled around it in the press. King has also been consistent in publicly rejecting speculations that this could “prove” that Jesus was actually married, emphasizing that at most it would show that the issue was discussed in the early church. Her academic treatment of the material may not be completely above reproach (questions here center mainly on the anonymous source of the manuscript), but its submission for peer-reviewed publication and presentation at the International Congress of Coptic Studies are entirely appropriate avenues for publicizing such a potentially ground-breaking discovery.

Beyond that, though, King’s publicizing of the manuscript raises real issues. Inviting the New York Times to publish such a discovery is not unusual, but allowing the Smithsonian to produce a documentary showcasing the “sensational” find before it has even been presented at an academic conference is hardly a mark of careful scholarship, regardless of whether this manuscript turns out to be authentic. The decision to post the draft of a peer-reviewed article online, before its appearance in the peer-reviewed journal itself, also seems problematic. King has won a great deal of attention for her work in this way, but she may dearly regret it if it turns out that she has been taken in by a fraud.

In this day and age, the media can be counted upon to broadcast such a story regardless of how it first comes to light, so the decision to hold a press-conference and at least try to limit the over-reaction is defensible. Nevertheless, the recent trend to go to the media first with such stories only deepens the public’s misconceptions about the nature of biblical and archeological research, giving everyone undue opportunity to celebrate the unmasking of traditional Christian belief, or the impiety of ivy league professors, as their taste may be.

In light of all that, it would be tempting to say that King’s going public in this way has done nothing but undermine the careful, reasoned debate that should be the mark of good scholarship. But the reality is much more complex and interesting, as the last week has demonstrated. By making both her paper and the high-resolution images of the manuscript public, King has also succeeded in facilitating an engaging and fruitful online discussion among her colleagues that would hardly have been possible before the rise of blogging and social media. Without the online publication of her work–premature as it may have been–the discussions that would have followed any leak to the media might have been much more superficial and speculative, and certainly would have been much less widely known.

To be sure,  the fractured nature of online discussions (spread across the comment threads of a hundred blogs) can seem a poor medium for sustained academic discussion–and sometimes it is!–but the collaboration this enables has indeed quickly and effectively sketched out the major issues that will need to be addressed in relation to this discovery, as well as made some substantial progress towards evaluating them. Such debates can only occur to a limited extent at conferences, and would take months or even years to sort out through traditional publication, but it has happened in a matter of days online. It is only unfortunate that King herself–who has been traveling–has not been party to these discussions.

Given the speed of the media cycle, such a quick response from the scholarly community is indispensable. In the past, the publicized reactions to such announcements have too often been limited to knee-jerk responses from religious organizations, with a few skeptical but uninformed soundbites from established scholars, if we’re lucky. Substantive scholarly responses normally only came much later, long after the press has moved on to other news. Now such academic discussions can happen in real time, and have in this case directly impacted the media’s portrayals of the story–at least to a certain extent.

Additionally, all of this should help ensure that the peer-reviewed publications that do eventually follow will be better-focused than otherwise–though one wonders how, or if, they will explicitly credit these discussions for whatever insights the latter have provided. Blog-conversations are certainly no substitute for such scholarly publications,  but neither are they irrelevant to them, and are essential in cases of “breaking news” like this. The days of dismissing blogging as an unimportant side-light are long over, and both its perils and potential for the advancement of research are here to stay.

Posted by: Ken Brown | June 27, 2012

SBL Amsterdam


Image by MorBCN, by Creative Commons license.

The Society of Biblical Literature International Meeting is less than a month away! For those who might be interested, my paper on Numbers 31 will be presented in one of the Pentateuch sections on Wednesday the 25th (Section 25-46). And if any fellow bloggers will be attending and would like to get together for a meal or whatever, I’ll be in Amsterdam from Saturday evening through Thursday morning. Here’s my abstract:

Revenge and Redemption in Numbers 31

The slaughter of the Midianites in Numbers 31 has received surprisingly little attention outside of the commentaries, yet it is a fascinating text that takes up many earlier traditions in new and creative ways, with a literary sensitivity not often recognized. Picking up its story from Numbers 25 (in 31:2a and 16) and Numbers 20:1-13 (in 31:2b), it depends upon and in various ways adapts regulations found not only in the Priestly literature (esp. Exod 30:11-16; Num 19), but also in Deuteronomy (esp. 20:10-15), and elsewhere. Further strong literary connections are also to be seen with Joshua 22 and Judges 21:1-14.

Thus, Numbers 31 appears to be a late attempt to draw together diverse traditions concerning YHWH-war, as German scholarship especially has emphasized (e.g. Achenbach, Vollendung der Tora, Fistill, Israel und das Ostjordanland; Seebass, Numeri 22,2-36,13). How these traditions are reconciled and adapted, however, warrants further study. In particular, in will be argued that Numbers 31 not only attempts to coordinate YHWH-war traditions related to נקם and חרם with Priestly traditions of purification and the cult, it also uses a variety of literary means to contrast Moses’ command to slaughter the young boys and sexually active women in 31:14-18, with the כפר of “the officers” in 31:48-54. Both actions can be viewed as enactments of YHWH’s נקם and attempts to avert the “plague” (Num 31:16; cf. 25:7-9, 18; and Exod 30:12), but each offers a very different solution to that threat. In the end, it is not Moses’ call for slaughter that is afforded lasting significance, but the officers’ generous gift to the sanctuary.

Posted by: Ken Brown | June 11, 2012

How to Learn Theological German

Inching towards Deutsch. Photo from hexadecimal, by Creative Commons.

The problem with learning any new language is that it isn’t just one thing to learn; it is several quite distinct things that each must be mastered. You can have a perfect understanding of grammar but have to look up every other word in a dictionary. Or you can learn to speak fluently but not be able to read a sentence. Grammar, reading, writing, speaking, hearing–each is a distinct skill with plenty of overlap but not as much as one might expect. Each requires its own distinct strategies–and lots of practice–which can make learning a language very frustrating and time-consuming. I’ve studied eight languages now, and the only one I can claim to have mastered in all of these areas… is English.

Nevertheless, after living 20 months in Germany, including not only taking nine months of intensive German courses, but also studying two further languages in German (Ugaritic and now Latin), I’ve picked up a few things that might be worth passing on. With Joel beginning a new theological German study group this week, it seems a good time to look back on what I’ve found helpful so far, and what seems to work best for specific aspects of the language.

Read More…

Posted by: Ken Brown | December 31, 2011

Kindle Touch Review plus Basic Gestures

[UPDATE 6/2012: I am very pleased to report that the recent software update has resolved virtually all of the complaints noted below, making this an even better device than it already was.]

Having received a Kindle Touch for Christmas, I thought I’d offer a quick review and comparison with the Kindle 3 (now known as the Kindle Keyboard). I’ve also included a list of gestures near the end, since I’ve not been able to find one elsewhere.

My wife got a Kindle 3 over the summer and we both fell in love with it immediately. It is an extremely well-designed device that can make reading digital text virtually as easy and natural as reading on paper. I’m not one to spend a lot of money on ebooks–though Amazon does have an impressive library of them–so mostly we’ve used it for reading classics, which are generally free since they are out of copyright. Amazon has a number of them itself, and many more are available through Project Gutenberg. I’ve also used it here and there for academic reading, either of classic texts like Wellhausen’s Prolegomena, contemporary articles that are available as PDFs through the university library, or personal notes and documents.

Read More…

Posted by: Ken Brown | December 13, 2011

Living ohne Auto

Image by neoporcupine on Flickr, by Creative Commons License.

Like any American male, I’m genetically obligated to love driving. I grew up building race tracks for my Hot Wheels and drawing pictures of Porsches and Lamborghinis. My best friend had a gas-powered go-cart that we used to race around the neighborhood, pretending we were in the Indy 500. To a kid, a car is freedom–to go where you want, when you want, without parental supervision. To drive is to be an adult. Unfortunately that is only too true.

The first day I had my license, I caused an accident. I changed lanes on the freeway without double-checking my blind-spot and ran a guy off the road. The worst was that I didn’t even realize I’d done it, and continued on my merry way. After a while I noticed that some jerk was following me, and when I got to my destination he stopped right next to me and stared the whole time I was getting out of the car. I gave him a dirty look and walked away. That night, we got a call from the state patrol informing us of the accident, which the guy who followed us had apparently reported. Needless to say I felt like an idiot, and never again forgot to check my blind-spot.

Luckily the damage was minor, but the affair still cost us $300. Another accident a couple of years later seemed even less significant (I backed into a parked car) but ended up costing a lot more because it just so happened to catch the driver-side door at the wrong angle. A $1000 deductible and 3 years of higher insurance premiums for what looked like a little ding. I haven’t been in an accident since high school, but owning a car never gotten any cheaper. Loan payments, insurance, regular oil and filter changes, maintenance and repairs and gas, gas and more gas add up to an incredibly costly investment.

I’ve owned four cars, which were purchased for $6000, $1000 (from a family member), $11,000 (plus $3000 interest) and $5500 (plus $800 interest). I ran the first one into the ground, prematurely, as I did not realize the problem was fixable until it no longer was. The second was traded 6 years later for $800. The third I sold for $2000 (that was some serious depreciation!), and the fourth I also sold for $2000. That’s over $20,000 in sunk costs, not to mention hundreds of dollars a year for insurance, thousands of dollars a year in gas, and who knows how much more for repairs, major and minor.

Today I own no cars, three adult bikes, three children’s bikes, a bike-trailer and a Laufrad. All-told they cost somewhat less than 500€, require no gas or insurance beyond my normal personal liability insurance (pretty much necessary in Germany), and I can repair almost anything that goes wrong with them myself. If the worst came to the very worst, I could replace any one of them for under 200€. If I had to do that every other month all year, it would cost me less than I was paying in insurance for my cars in the US.

Last night I spent two hours fixing a flat tire on my bike, re-aligning my daughter’s chain, and adding a new coupling for the bike-trailer to my wife’s bike. It was the most effort I’ve had to spend on the bikes at one time all year, and it cost me 11€ for the coupling and a 10-cent patch. Later this week I might replace my rear brake-pads. That will set me back another 5€ and about 20 minutes. I don’t even want to think about what a blown tire, a drive-shaft problem, a new trailer hitch and new brakes would have cost on a car, even if I could fix them myself, but I’m fairly certain it would be just a bit more than 16€.

Living in Göttingen, I go almost everywhere by bike. I have a basket that suffices for a small bag or a few items, and if I need to move something bigger, I can use the bike trailer. If we need to go somewhere too far for the kids to bike themselves, they also can ride in the trailer (which is what it is actually designed for). We even have a kid’s seat on my wife’s bike that can be used in good weather. Two or three times a month we might take a bus instead, especially if our destination is up a steep hill or the weather is really nasty, and a couple times a year we may have reason to rent a car for a longer trip, though we usually just take the train. That goes everywhere, is comfortable and convenient, and isn’t necessarily expensive if you buy your tickets in advance or take the slower trains.

When I think of all the years I insisted on climbing into my car to drive 2 minutes down the road in the states, it seems absurd. Who on earth decided that it was a good idea to power 2000 lbs. of metal, glass and plastic by burning an expensive and highly explosive liquid, when a 20 pound bicycle powered by your own two legs could get you there just as quickly?

To state the obvious: A bike requires virtually no natural resources to use, produces no pollution, gives great exercise, and costs pennies on the dollar to maintain. On a sunny day it is better than a convertible, and far more peaceful. It is fully customizable and just about anyone can learn to repair one. When was the last time you tried to replace anything more complicated than a lightbulb on your car? I don’t even know what half the things under the hood do, much less how to fix them, while even my five year old can understand how a bike works. Yet despite all these advantages, few Americans even consider using a bike as a regular means of transportation, much less an exclusive one. For most of us (myself included before this year), biking is a form of recreation, nothing more.

To be sure, shopping and other errands require better planning on a bike, but that’s a small sacrifice. There are also risks involved–if a car hits a bike, the bike loses, every time–but I’m not convinced that biking is any less safe than driving in general, particularly in a city with good bike paths. A more common problem is weather, though with proper clothing that is not as big of an issue as one might expect. Heavy snow can sometimes make biking impossible, but personally I’d rather bike in the snow than in the rain, especially when the temperature is in the mid-30s–like today. Often the best you can do then is wait it out, as even wet days are rarely consistently rainy.

A bigger headache is broken glass. Bike tires are a lot more fragile than steel-belted radials, and people around here seem to have a bad habit of breaking beer bottles right in the middle of the bike lanes. It happens so often, I’ve begun to suspect it’s intentional. It’s rare if I can go a week before finding a new patch of broken shards somewhere along my usual route to work, and it is not always easy to see them quick enough to avoid them. Even so, the city has enough street-sweepers to do a reasonably good job of clearing such things up, and my flat tire this week was surprisingly the first I’ve had on this bike, and only the fourth I’ve had to fix all year.

Of course, if you’d rather not face the weather and the beer-bottle mine-fields, you can always ride the bus. It would take a lot of 2€ bus fare to add up to the cheapest used car, and even a monthly pass will be a fraction of the typical car payment. Sure, buses are less convenient than your own sedan, but they certainly beat sitting in traffic. That I once to looked down on people who took the bus just seems silly now. Why drive when I can sit and read while someone else takes me where I need to go? And if I do want to get there faster, even a car is no quicker than a bike over short trips, since a biker doesn’t have to stick to the roads or find a parking place. All told, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually wished I had a car in the last year.

Granted, there are probably few better places in the world to live without a vehicle than in Göttingen. It is a medium-sized city in a mostly flat valley, with moderate weather and a compact city-center. Besides the excellent transit system, there are bike paths on almost every street and most other places as well. Many stores have more bike-stands than parking spots, and drivers are well-accustomed to watching out for riders. Much of the downtown area is closed to traffic entirely, and it is amazing how that one rule can make a city of 100,000 feel more like a small town, without eliminating the conveniences of living in a city. It is almost impossible to go downtown without running into someone you know, simply because everyone is walking rather than racing past each other in their cars. Seeing a friend means you can actually have a conversation, not just a honk and a wave.

Unfortunately, it simply would not be possible to live without a car in most places in America. Urban sprawl, lack of decent bike lanes and unwary drivers would make biking impractical if not dangerous, especially with kids. Before we moved to Germany, my wife worked 30 miles from home and I went to school 60 miles away, and the only way we could have moved closer would have been to quit my job. Even going into town meant driving a couple of miles along a stretch of highway with a 55 mph speed limit and no sidewalks. Bus service was spotty at best, and train service a joke. To live without a car there would have been virtually impossible. But maybe if more people were willing to try it, more places would devote the resources necessary to make it feasible.

Sometimes I wonder how long it will take me to fall back into the habit of driving everywhere again, if and when we move back to the US. As it stands, I’d be happy to live the rest of my life in a place where I don’t need to own a car. But at the end of the day I can’t deny that a part of me would still love to drive one now and then. After all, I am living in the land of the Autobahn.

Posted by: Ken Brown | November 22, 2011

What is Biblical Scholarship?

Polyglot Bible; image by sukisuki on Flickr, by Creative Commons licence.

Perusing the bewildering array of sessions at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, it would be easy to wonder whether “Fostering Biblical Scholarship” (our official mission) can mean fostering just about anything to do with the Bible. Is there anything beyond an interest in the Bible itself that holds us together as a society? What, after all, has “Bakhtin and Biblical Imagination” to do with “Economics in the Biblical World,”  “Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew” to do with “Bible and Film”? Are our approaches to the text so diverse that there isn’t even a common standard of measure?

I have a theory: The art of biblical scholarship—all biblical scholarship—is the art of making meaningful connections between a text and something else. “This text is better understood in connection with X” or “X is better understood in connection with this text” could summarize the vast bulk of what we call biblical scholarship. That might seem like nothing more than a restatement of the problem, since X could be almost anything: another text or set of texts, another aspect or portion of the same text, a tradition or source or redactional layer, a scribal practice or transmission error, the history of transmission, the history of tradition, a genre or typescene or trope, a symbol or metaphor or any other particular form of language, a literary theory, a sociological theory, a way of life (whether ancient or modern), a ritual or custom, an archeological find, an image or icon, a people-group, an historical event, a theory of history, a theory of midrash, a theory of myth, a theory of mind, a method or methodology, a social, religious, political or economic movement, a philosophical system, a theological system, a theological tenet, a theological error, an ideology, modern science, ancient science, modern film, medieval children’s stories, teaching, preaching, blogging.

But this is not just to restate the diversity of biblical scholarship, it is also to see that each of these otherwise very dissimilar topics shares a similar structural relation to the text. Each of them is drawn upon to argue either that some aspect of the text can be seen more clearly in the light of the thing to which it is compared, or vice versa. Such a wide range of things to which the text can be connected explains the wide range of kinds of scholarship we engage in, the wide range of standards of evidence and argument we employ, and the wide range of conclusions we come to, but all such comparisons operate within a similar set of parameters.

Namely, virtually all good biblical scholarship, regardless of its methods and emphases, 1. makes an original connection, 2. provides compelling reasons for accepting that connection, 3. acknowledges the limitations of the connection, and 4. shows how the connection helps us to better understand either the text or the thing to which it is compared. Whether focused on historical criticism or queer theory, semiotics or Christology, any good biblical scholarship will try to show how the connection it proposes is original, convincing and fruitful. Any particular piece of scholarship may focus on one of those areas more than others, but one cannot completely ignore any of them for long.

When biblical scholarship goes bad, it tends to happen on one of those same points (whether due to poor writing or poor thinking): Either it fails to make connections that are original or non-trivial, or it fails to offer cogent, relevant and compelling reasons for accepting the connections it proposes, or it fails to counter damaging objections to its proposals, or it fails to show a significant interpretive pay-off that would result from accepting them. Non-scholarly readings of the Bible, in general, are uncritical in their making of such connections–even if sometimes insightful–but they cannot avoid making them, whether they are drawn from one’s personal life, social context, theological framework, secondary sources, or their own familiarity with the text. All of us are in the business of making connections with the text; what makes our reading of the Bible “scholarship” is our attempt to do so critically, by being explicit about the reasons, sources and implications of our proposals.

That’s my theory, anyway. Whether it is original or has any interpretive pay-off, I’ll leave for you to decide. 😉

Posted by: Ken Brown | September 22, 2011

A Game of Thrones

“The High Septon once told me that as we sin, so do we suffer. If that’s true… tell me… why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?”

George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones may be the most “realistic” fantasy novel I’ve ever read. It’s extremely well-detailed, emotionally gripping, endlessly surprising without being improbable, and unflinchingly dark. This is no children’s fairy tale, but a deeply troubling and moving epic, full of violence, brutality and sex, but also honor, valor and humor. Driven by its characters more than its plot, it gives us images of humanity at its best and (more often) worst.

Though set in a fictional world rather like Middle-Earth, there are no elves or dwarves or orcs, in fact little supernatural activity of any kind. But if there is no magic object to find or destroy, there is also no single villain to expose and defeat. The action is driven by the intrigues and wars of seven kingdoms, none of which are fully innocent nor guilty. The attention is on the Stark family, who mostly try to be noble, with varying levels of success, as they face off against the Lannisters, who mostly range from arrogant to conniving to downright wicked. If in most other series the Lannisters would be nothing more than the hissable villains, though, Martin refuses to let us hate them all. In fact, the most entertaining character of all is a Lannister.

The book allows for a spiritual dimension to the world–both giving piety a central role in many of its characters’ lives and in hinting at monsters on the edge of the world–but it is men and women who are most to be honored and feared here. The gods are real–or maybe they’re not–but it is the selfish and selfless, cowardly and courageous decisions of human beings that drive this story, often to heartbreaking ends. There may be a dark evil force on the horizon, but there is unquestionably one in the human heart, turning friends against one another, and twisting even honor and loyalty to ruin, while the wicked walk free and seize power.

The story is told through the eyes of several different characters (each in separate chapters), which pays off beautifully, giving the book a great deal of psychological depth. At times, though, Martin makes surprising choices about which character to follow at key points. This is never more obvious than when he refuses to give us a first-person view of the two climactic battles in the book. The first is experienced through a person too far away to see more than fragments. The second and decisive one is even further removed, as we only hear of it as it is described to a character on the losing side, well after the fact.

At first this seems disappointingly anticlimactic, but maybe that was the point, as it prevents us from feeling too smugly victorious, ignoring the trail of blood that led there. Unlike so many other fantasy books I’ve read, the emotional climax for me came not at the turning of a battle, but in a quiet decision to give up vengeance for honor and solitude for brotherhood, a decision that almost no one else saw.

And more than anything, that is what makes the book so enjoyable, despite its darkness: that there are still people left–broken and flawed though they are–who will choose nobility and justice even if it kills them. And unlike in most books of this sort, it often does.

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