The Exegetical Thesis as (Digital) Storytelling

The “exegesis project” is a The Big Project for masters students in a biblical studies course. Usually, it’s a paper, of course. This term, I hope to encourage students in my “Book of Daniel” to consider doing the project in the form of “Digital Storytelling.” I realize that this calls for a two-part explanation:

  1. What makes exegesis “storytelling”?
  2. What makes exegesis “digital”?

I am going to take these one at a time. Today, we will stick with the first. In beginning to learn exegesis, one of the big hurdles for students is that they are asked to bracket their spiritual autobiography long enough to attend to the biblical text’s own historical context. That being so, what can I mean when I ask them to accomplish their exegesis as “storytelling”? I’ll break it down:

What makes it “exegetical”?

  • The body of the work asks questions about the meaning of the biblical text for its author, and for the community to whom the author appears to have written, in that author’s own social and historical context.
  • The work’s arguments rely on publicly available evidence and explicit lines of reasoning. They do not depend upon private revelation, confessional dogma, implicit lines of reasoning, or logical fallacies.

What makes it “a thesis”?

  • The work is organized around the defense of a single claim, or thesis. A thesis is NOT, then, an opinion, a narrative, an “exploration,” or a review. A thesis should be defensible, relevant, and manageable. By “defensible,” I mean that it is a proposition that can be established by publicly-available evidence (not private revelation or confessional dogma) and an explicit line of reasoning. By “relevant,” I mean that the thesis forces your reader to re-evaluate the biblical text; the thesis “makes a difference” to how the biblical text is read. By “manageable,” I mean that the thesis can be argued comprehensively within the constraints of the assignment; it is not too big an idea for the word count, and also not so small that the paper falls significantly short or has to be “padded up.”

What makes it “storytelling”?

  • Even when presenting data (as in a lecture, or a thesis paper), there is a “narrative” of sorts: you lead the reader from a starting place, through a terrain known only to you, to a destination. A good presenter “knows her narrative”: you could take away her slides or her paper, and she can still guide you through the “narrative” of her subject matter or thesis (Ask a student about a recently-completed paper; if they can do this, it’s probably a good paper.)
  • We commonly ask our students to “book-end” their thesis with an introduction and a theological/hermeneutical conclusion. The project should begin with a statement of the student’s interest in the biblical passage. It should end with her own assessment of the passage’s theological claims as determined by exegesis. (Are those claims moral? coherent with other biblical passages? intelligible to today’s reading communities?). This conclusion should also include claims about how the text might, or might not, lend itself to preaching and teaching in particular, well-defined communities of hearers. This is to say, the thesis project is a “round trip,” beginning and ending with the student’s own pressing theological and hermeneutical concerns.

So…What makes it “digital,” if it is?

Stay tuned. In a follow-up post, I will look at the phenomenon of “Digital Storytelling” in the digital humanities, and how it might serve as a platform for “exegesis as storytelling.” In the meantime, what do you think of this way of putting things? Does “storytelling” offer a useful lens, or muddy the waters?

[The Exegetical Thesis as (Digital) Storytelling was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2012/01/30. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Just Leave the Mandrakes on the Dresser

How is it that the explicitness of Leah’s language in Genesis 30:16 has not jumped out at me before? Speaking to Jacob:

‏ותאמר אלי תבוא כי שכר שכרתיך בדודאי בני
“And she said, ‘Come to me, for I have totally hired you out with my son’s mandrakes.’”

Jacob seems okay with being pimped out to Leah by Rachel. In the words of the immortal Twain, “Let us close the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene.” (Except to add, I wonder if “God remembering Rachel” a few verses later has to do with the mandrakes she cajjed off of Leah?)

[Just Leave the Mandrakes on the Dresser was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2011/01/24. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Reading the Hebrew Bible—Aloud—over Two Years

As Charles and Daniel had made known, the Miqra Group plans to read the Hebrew Bible over a two-year period. So, you‘ll find me blogging and commenting over there as well as here.

My own “twist” on the reading program is to read the entire[note] Hebrew Bible aloud in two years. Despite years of teaching, and despite my continuing efforts to shape my teaching of biblical languages into an immersive mode, my reading fluency is not yet of a quality to satisfy my harshest critic (me). At some point, maybe I will add the Greek New Testament into the mix.

Anybody want to read the Bible aloud?

BACK TO POST And by “entire,” I mean, “except when grading, administrative emergencies, or urgent opportunities for professional development intervene.” Let she who is not a junior instructor cast the first stone.

[Reading the Hebrew Bible—Aloud—over Two Years was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2011/01/18. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Stop Making the Blogosphere So Damned Interesting, Jim Getz

Grades are due Monday evening, and I am still crawling along.

As if I don’t have enough distractions, a riveting conversation on Pentateuch criticism broke out at Jim Getz’s place. The trigger was David Carr’s RBL review of Joel Baden’s J, E, and the Redaction of the Pentateuch. When the RBL newsletter had come out, some friends and I emailed one another about the tone of the review (as junior scholars, our reaction amounted to “There but for the grace of God…”).

The comments thread to Jim’s post is striking for the attendance of actual players and other luminaries. Bloggers tend to be more junior than senior, and the place of senior scholars in the blogosphere has sometimes been isolated, rarely-updated news-release outlets, not closely in conversation with other Bible-centric blogging. At Jim’s post, the comments thread became the kind of discourse, with the kind of participation, that I think we’d all like to see more of.

Which really ticks me off this week, because as I have said, I don’t have time for that kind of thing right now. :^) Back to papers.

“Good Morning, Eager Young Minds.”

This is the first day of the new term. My classes this time around are:

  • “Introduction to the Old Testament”: yes, we are reading backwards again. We’ll also continue with viewing lectures as pre-recorded downloads outside of class. New this term is the Wikipedia assignment, in which students will make a series of course-related edits to relevant Wikipedia articles. Also new is a plan to prepare for in-class discussion with threaded, asynchronous, online discussion between sessions.
  • “Elementary Hebrew 1”: as in recent years, we’ll be starting with about ten hours of oral/aural exercises, using no texts of any kind. I’ve got a small surprise planned for today, if I can manage to walk to a store between classes.
  • “The Old Testament in the New Testament”: a new seminar, beginning in tee minus 150 minutes. The meat and potatoes of the course will be student presentations, with each student presenting a “method” article on some aspect of literary allusion as well as a “content” article on NT allusions to the OT. Something new: all presentations will be offered from a standing position and must have some A/V (multimedia) component. The idea is to raise the energy level up from “somnambulant rap session” to…I don’t know, something where blood continues to flow to brains.

And, yes, each of these meets today! The seminar meets once each week, the Intro course twice, and Hebrew thrice, so Tuesday is the big day of the week this term.

How about you (both profs and students): what’s on the menu for Fall 2010? What’s new, and what’s old?

[“Good Morning, Eager Young Minds.” was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/09/07. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Ask a Biblical Scholar Anything

This is an idea about which I could not be more enthused (hat tip to Pharyngula).[1] Ten biologists collaborate together to answer any questions that a layperson might pose them. The front page provides some relevant caveats; for example, if the question is quite basic, they might gently point a reader to the standard textbooks, rather than be roped into doing someone’s homework for them.

I especially like that the site builds a searchable growing repository of questions already answered. This should be a helpful resource, not only for inquirers, but for the team members to consult when dealing with new questions.

The idea of a similar, “Ask a Biblical Scholar Anything,” site has seized my imagination. In my experience, answering questions about the Bible and biblical studies for genuinely curious laypeople is a delight. Part of that delight comes from my sense that only a few people have a resource in their lives to field such questions; when I make new acquaintances, they often have a short list of questions about the Bible that they’ve waited to unload, or that they’ve bounced off of others without receiving satisfying responses.

Some desiderata that come to mind are:

  • As with AaBA, there would need to be a fairly large team: at least eight, I think. The good news is, I suspect recruiting new team members wouldn’t be all that hard, such that the team could grow (or shrink) according to traffic. The idea is that nobody should have to spend more time on it than they want to, with a very low minimum expected commitment.
  • Team members should have terminal degrees in biblical studies, or else be candidates in a terminal degree program.
  • The team members would have to have a shared understanding that “biblical studies” is a non-confessional literary and historical enterprise, relying for its claims on the shared public evidence of the biblical texts and such extra-biblical evidence as variant manuscripts, ancient Near Eastern texts, material remains, and so on (rather than on private revelation and confessional dogma). Theologically, it’s about the theology in the texts rather than one’s theology of the Bible. This understanding would need to be communicated on the front page of the site.
  • There would have to be a standard rubric for recognizing and dealing with poor-faith inquiries coming out of the culture wars. This would, at the same time, have to allow for good-faith inquiries coming from those whose frame of reference has been distorted by the culture wars. (In English: What about spamming inquiries from folks like Answers in Genesis? What about well-meaning inquiries from folks whose minds have already been addled by AiG?)

I’m not in any hurry on this—believe me!—and it is the very beginning of the school year, with all its busy-ness. Still, if anyone who meets the second criterion above would be interested, let me know, and we can begin to look into it. If enough scholars were interested that the work load were low, it could be a real service.

BACK TO POST By the way, P.Z. has been having a hell of a time. He won’t be grateful for your prayers, but if you’re in a position to give to Red Cross, donate blood, or otherwise render service to heart patients, he’d be pleased.

[Ask a Biblical Scholar Anything was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/08/26. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Little Help: The Old Testament in the New Testament

Do you have any favorite resources concerning allusion to the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament? It could be books, essays, or articles.

I’m thinking of things like Richard Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (Yale, 1989) or J. Ross Wagner’s Heralds of the Good News: Isaiah and Paul ‘in Concert’ in the Letter to the Romans (Brill, 2002), or Thomas R. Hatina’s In Search of a Context: The Function of Scripture in Mark’s Narrative (Sheffield, 2002).

Do you have any favorites about the OT in the NT? And if so, what makes them good?

Open Access Intro to OT

This post concerns my ideas for a particular kind of open-access Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).

I recently floated a Tweet (and Facebook status update) that asked around about any open-access Introduction to the Old Testament. I have an idea for such a project, and wanted to see if anything was already out there (knowing pretty well that there is not).

Akma proved (as I knew he would) to be an eager conversation partner, and his responsive post has generated some discussion. I follow up there with some remarks about what I have in mind.

What I plan to try for is an Introduction to the OT that:

  • is freely available online;
  • is historical- and literary-critical in focus (as is a Coogan or a Collins, say; in other words, not a “theological introduction” narrowly reflecting the concerns of faith communities or other readerly social contexts);
  • is authored by a socially diverse body of contributors.

With the “open source” aspect, I mean to respond to a clear need. I would like my own students to have a freely-available, critical Introduction. (I’d actually like them to have several, as well as several open-access Hebrew and Greek grammars, and so on.)

With the authorship and content that I have in mind, I mean to address a situation in the field. During the time that historical criticism was held to be in decline, traditional historical-literary introductions continued to be ceded to the white male authors, while women and people of color wrote works intended to supplement such introductions. Now, though, the recognition of the biblical authors as among the “Others” to whom we try to listen earnestly has prompted some rehabilitation of the historical-critical approaches. It is well past time to have “traditional” historical-literary-critical Introductions to OT that reflect genuine diversity of authorship. (What holds together such an Intro would be a shared commitment to grounding one’s historical-literary claims in publicly-shared evidence and lines of reasoning; what makes it diverse would be the unpredictable range of possible perceptions and assessments regarding that evidence.)

Akma had the excellent idea that such an Intro could be “modular”: after the initial publication, if somebody wanted to offer a supplemental chapter, zie could do so as long as the controlling body agreed that the supplemental work fit the scope and formatting of the project.

I will be writing up an outline delimiting the methods, outline, and scope of the project, and will also be having discussions with possible contributors. I am at a very early stage on this, so you will have to stay tuned a while to hear more about what takes shape.

“Genius!” “Dancing!”

P.Z. Myers has the opportunity to dance his Ph.D. thesis, in the third annual “Dance Your Ph.D.” interpretative dance video contest. Sadly, the contest is only open to the physical sciences and social sciences. But, that doesn’t have to stop me from choreographing in my head.

An interpretive dance for my dissertation would involve:

  • six dancers in muted blue, dancing in a Martha-Graham-inspired, low-to-the-ground style of resigned but heart-felt obedience. These represent the chapters Daniel 1–6.
  • four dancers in shades of concrete gray, who dance sweeping steps around the Dan 1–6 dancers, lording it over them, occasionally lifting them up to moderate heights, while a nameless crew of faceless figures in black threatens the whole but always bounce harmlessly back into the wings. The four dancers in gray represent the gentile nations.
  • six dancers in blazing orange, who represent Daniel 7–12. They take the stage, pick up the dancers in blue, and use them to bludgeon the four dancers in gray. They then incorporate the now-unconscious dancers in blue into their own active, aggressive display.
  • the stage becomes a giant cloud on which the 12 blue and orange dancers join, pyramid-like, into a single human figure.
  • the cloud bursts into a giant chrysanthemum.

How does your dissertation translate into modern dance?

[“Genius!” “Dancing!” was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/07/01. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Discussion: Trible’s Tasmanian Tigers

(With its two companion posts, this is a discussion exercise for some of my students, while our course management system undergoes an untimely upgrade. Other readers may choose to chime in, but please let the students “own the space,” and remember that I’ll delete off-topic or disrespectful comments and replies. This post will only accept comments through June 20th.)

You have all completed Michael Joseph Brown’s book, What They Don’t Tell You: A Survivor’s Guide to Biblical Studies (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2000).

In about 350 words:

In your own words, how does Brown distinguish between “Bible study” as a devotional exercise and critical, academic “biblical studies” as practiced in a class like ours?

Does academic biblical studies differ significantly from how you have read the Bible in the past? Does academic biblical studies have any similarities to any reading you have done before?

What reservations, if any, do you have about reading the Bible in the ways described by Brown? Which “Rules of Thumb” 1–12 correspond to these reservations? Conversely, which of his “Rules of Thumb” 1–12, if any, do you find especially exciting as avenues toward better understanding the Bible?

Click “Leave a Comment” below to begin writing your response. Remembering that this blog is a public space, feel free to use only your first name and last initial (for example, “Jane F.”). Please remember to come back and respond to at least three of your classmates, by clicking “Reply” below their comment.

[Discussion: Trible’s Tasmanian Tigers was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/06/14. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]