Retreat

Faculty retreat today and tomorrow, and I don’t yet know whether there will be wireless to be had. If there is, I’ll post a bit.

In the corners of the retreat time and space, I need to continue work on syllabi, mainly the daily/weekly schedules. Just think: right now, the details of the rest of 2010 in the lives of scores of women and men remains a cloud of probabilities, like Schrödinger’s Cat. In a few days, that cloud of probabilities will have been resolved into a determined state, like…Schrödinger’s Cat with the lid up.

[Retreat was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/08/30. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Finally: Proof of God’s Existence

A student informs me on Facebook that National Geographic Channel is offering its annual Easter season woo-fest, as indicated in this almost unendurable article in the Telegraph (“New series…new explanation…Egypt…Exodus blah blah volcanic ash yada yada algae etc”).

No, I am not saying that proof of God’s existence is found in the tendentious quote-mining of scientists by entertainers to sell a reductionist, sensationalist narrative product to gullible yokels rendered nearly helpless by years of substandard science education and the polarizing media invention of false equivalencies.

I am saying that it is found in this: when I wrote the web URL of the Telegraph article into a Facebook comment addressed to a colleague, the “captcha”[footnote] presented to me was this:

by weasels

Top that, Anselm and Aquinas, if you can.

Notes:
BACK TO POST A “captcha” is when you have to read and copy some scribbly text in order to prove to a web site that you are not a spam robot. You sometimes have to do that when you write a comment on web sites, especially if your comment includes a web link.

[Finally: Proof of God’s Existence was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/03/29. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

A Middle-Eastern Origin for Small Dogs

The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) has its opinions about dogs. To call someone a “dead dog” is to insult them as ineffectual and non-threatening.[1] In conversation with a superior, you might humbly refer to yourself as “but a dog.”[2] Dogs return to their own vomit.[3] They growl at passersby,[4] but can be shooed away with sticks.[5] Like the birds of the air, they will eat your flesh, if you do not enjoy a proper burial.[6] They are not brave like lions, but for that reason, may live longer.[7]

Perhaps the dog would have cut a more impressive figure in the ancient Near East if at least some of them weren’t so small.

A genetic study has found that small domestic dogs probably originated in the Middle East more than 12,000 years ago.

Here, a modern dog attempts to capture something of the deportment of his diminutive but noble ancestors:

Copyright G. Brooke Lester

h/t to BAR on Twitter.

REFERENCES:
BACK TO POST (1 Sam 24:14 [all numberings English text]; 2 Sam 9:8; 16:9)
BACK TO POST (2 Kgs 8:13; cf. 2 Sam 9:8)
BACK TO POST (Prov 26:11)
BACK TO POST (Exod 11:7)
BACK TO POST (1 Sam 17:43)
BACK TO POST (Psa 22:20)
BACK TO POST (Eccles 9:4)

[A Middle-Eastern Origin for Small Dogs was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/03/15. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Mysteries of the Global Flood Revealed!

In a culture where writing on the Bible will always be too secular for some people and too prone to apologetics for others, published works in biblical history might seek to more carefully emulate Caesar’s wife, avoiding even the appearance of (fideistic) impropriety.

Yesterday, I called attention to an infelicitous phrase in King and Stager’s Life in Biblical Israel (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001). Writing about a Pre-Pottery Neolithic olive processing site on the sea floor off modern ʿAtlit (that’s south of Haifa, or south of Mount Carmel), King and Stager had written that the site was

…inundated in the mid-sixth millennium, probably by a world-wide flood.

The paragraph referenced Ehud Galili, “Prehistoric Site on the Sea Floor,” New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, 1:120-122. There, I find this ’graph (emphasis mine):

About twenty thousand years ago, the last Ice Age reached its peak. Soon afterward, the melting ice caused a rise in sea level that resulted in a significant reduction of coastal plains throughout the world. By the beginning of the Holocene, however, in about 8000 BCE, the Mediterranean was about 30 m lower than its present self.

In other words:

  1. About 20,000 years ago, the most recent glaciation event (not an “ice age,” which are longer, such that we may well still be between glaciation events in a single Ice Age) peaked, with sea levels rising between then and now (on average, that is, with relatively short term accelerations and decelerations set aside).
  2. By 10,000 years ago (around 8,000 BCE), waters had risen nearly, but not yet, to a then-coastal site settled by folks who press olives.
  3. By about 7500 years ago (ca. 5500 BCE), waters had risen enough that the increasingly-sodden coastal site was abandoned, though not necessarily precipitously (King and Stager will note that no olives are left unprocessed at the site). Today, it is under water.

In King and Stager, this 15,000+ year rising of sea levels, with coastal sites gradually shifting landward, is collapsed into a “world-wide flood” that “inundates” the site “in the mid-sixth millennium.”

This choice of words obviously, and unfortunately, evokes the biblical story of an instantaneous and cataclysmic global flood (Gen 6–8). This evocation is equally damaging for biblical studies, whether the audience is those who read Gen 1–11 as history, or those who suspect with dismay that all biblical historians will do so.

This confusion, about whether the biblical narrative is being uncritically accepted, is compounded by a habit that King and Stager share with other biblical historians, whereby biblical narrative episodes are presented in language that presupposes their historicity. For just one example, (page 109),

The terebinth…gave its name to the Valley of Elah, where David slew Goliath (1 Sam. 17:19).

Not, “where David is said to have slain Goliath,” but “where David slew Goliath.” It is as if a writer on ancient Greece were to say, “Troy archaeological level VIIa is topped with a destruction layer, including burn marks to the walls outside of which Achilles slew Hector.”

This writerly habit could be explored further in another post. Here, I simply offer it as the kind of thing that makes it hard to know what to do with a cursory reference to “a world wide flood” in an academic, peer-reviewed work on the history of ancient Israel.

What would you say, reader? Do I make too big a deal over nothing? Or, in the context of larger conversations about isolating the fideistic from the evidentiary in biblical studies, does every molehill deserve scrutiny?

[Mysteries of the Global Flood Revealed! was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/03/10. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Darwin’s Eve Mythicism with McGrath

James has been writing onmythicismlately (the conviction that there is no historical figure behind the New Testament depictions of Jesus; the idea is that several contemporary myths coalesced into a single invented figure).

The “-ism” is important, the suffix implying that this perspective is not a matter of reasoned argument but of dogmatic adherence. For this reason, James’s comparison to Creationsm is apt: James means to say that reasoned argument fails both creationists and mythicists, and that they appeal instead to fallacious lines of argument. Notice, in this regard, the epithet that creationists use for the theory of natural selection as the main vehicle for the fact of evolution: “darwinism.” In this way, creationists seek to suggest that there are two equally valid “isms” from which to choose, when in fact the one arises from public reasoned argument, demonstrates extraordinary explanatory power, finds support from evidence in virtually every field of science, and (most importantly) is inherently provisional pending new discoveries…while the other is held not provisionally but absolutely, resting not on an evidentiary foundation but rather the privileging a particular interpretation of a limited number of biblical proof-texts.

Tomorrow is Darwin Day. Celebrate with a trip over to Exploring Our Matrix.

Science Denial (NPR Science Friday)

I mentioned yesterday the denial of history, specifically Holocaust-denial. While I wrote that post, I happened also to be listening to a podcast about another form of public misinformation: science denial.

On NPR’s Science Friday, Ira Flatow interviews Michael Specter, who is the author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives (Amazon link).

The interview itself is not at all a typical “science v. religion” piece, and while I judge that if anything Specter soft-peddles the role of religionists in science denial, he successfully puts religion-based science denial into the larger context of our national pandemic (my words, not his) of irrational thinking, and of the calculated encouragement of irrational thinking by groups that benefit from the denial of science.

Unfortunately, Specter initially seemed to encourage a “blame the scientists” approach. He was simply (and rightly) trying to say that scientific progress itself moves too slowly for the public to become acutely aware of its astonishing but tortoise-paced successes. However, I think much of the fault there lies with the unrealistic promises of school officials writing press releases and the willful scientific ignorance of media editors, and not with the scientists themselves.

You need not be especially vested in the “science v. religion” public discourse to enjoy the interview. But, anyone in religious studies or religious education might be particularly interested in how Specter places religiously motivated denial of science into a larger cultural context of unreason.

The Bible’s Night Sky

I was lamenting this morning that, with a crushing teaching load this term, I am not reading enough Hebrew Bible or other ancient lit. For me, things get stale—rapidly—if I’m not reading primary texts. From where is my help to come? From an unexpected quarter, as it turns out: The Night Sky.

The Night Sky (hat tip to Americablog) is a brief tutorial on locating three major constellations: Orion, the Big Dipper, and Cassiopeia (and with them, Betelgeuse and Polaris). After working through the tutorial (city boy, no night sky), I did what any Bible scholar would have done: I said, “Where’s that part in Job and such where we hear about Orion?”

Turns out that the word translated in the NRSV “Orion” (כסיל: Job 9:9; 38:31; Amos 5:8) is elsewhere translated “fool, dullard” (Psa 92:6 and tons of places in Proverbs, e.g.). It is the immediate literary context that suggests the difference in translation: in Job 9:9, for example, we get “Pleides and _______”; in Job 38:31, “chains of Pleides, or cords of _______.” In Psa 92:6, by contrast, it’s “The stupid man doesn’t know, the _______ doesn’t understand.” In Isa 13:10 the word is plural, and context suggests “constellations.”

So how did I, a space nut (city sky notwithstanding) and lay-science-dork who works in Bible professionally, never get around to doing an investigation into the Bible’s night sky? What a כסיל! No time this morning to do more than blog briefly on it, but it is nice to have a list of biblical texts that I can investigate in the few odd corners of time allowed me by this term’s teaching schedule. Thank you, Night Sky.

Changing the Rules: Being Religious at Work & Play

This post leads up to a link: this link. But it’s a short lead-up, so go ahead and read me first!

Once, my young son went off to my sister’s for a couple of days and a night. They played some baseball, some tag, some handful of your usual backyard games. When I picked him up, my sister’s children said to me, “Hey, we figured out what the ‘J’ stands for in his name” (J is his middle initial.) I gamely asked, “What does it stand for?”

“Je-changin’ the rules!” they cried, cracking up together.

Every child goes through it, and it’s tempting for everyone. When the game doesn’t seem to be going our way, we want to change the rules in our favor. Eventually, we learn that when we give in and try to change the rules, we aren’t playing tag, or baseball, or much of anything anymore: nothing is getting done except us rehearsing our tired, unchanging, irrelevant apologetics. We are rightly told by others to play ball or go home: everyone else trying to get something done, and done well.

This lesson is good practice, because not every activity with rules is a game. People who are “je-changin’” the rules in the workplace aren’t called “bad sports.” They are called “corner-cutters,” “scammers,” or “perjurers,” the “recently fired.” Depending on the consequences, they may be called “manslaughterers,” or “perpetrators of negligent homicide”: that well-meaning fool with the bewildered look on his face getting dragged off at the end of Law and Order, his wake of surviving victims sobbing helplessly on the edge of the screen.

James McGrath has a good post on the impulse—common among Christian newcomers to religious studies but also considered by some to be found in higher places—to be “je-changin’ the rules” in the workplaces of scientific and historical inquiry. “Christian baseball”? By all means, have a look.

[A little later: Art has a related discussion going on: does “theology” fail to be ethical in a way that “religious studies” succeeds?]

Promises to Keep

(Btw, you will have heard it elsewhere already, but Biblical Studies Carnival 44 has erected its tents and opened for admission over at Jim West’s place.)

Every now and then, in order to keep a post under a thousand words or so, I’ve thrown out a promise to flesh some idea out more fully in the future. Here, I’m going back to try to list some of those outstanding promises.

  • “Being a Student” series: I offered suggestions for students planning to ask for letters of reference, and said I would occasionally offer similar posts on “being a student.” I’ve done a bit, and may step up that series as we get into the academic year.
  • I haveseveraltimesusedtheterm “woo,” a term used by science bloggers and atheist bloggers to describe instances of pseudoscientific claims and arguments. At least once, I have promised to devote a post to justifying the term “Bible woo.” I keep deferring the post, because it calls for some fairly serious platform-building, including 1) distinguishing evidentiary “biblical studies” from devotional “Bible study”; 2) establishing how historical studies and literary criticism sit among the sciences; 3) figuring out how not to have to bring in an explanation of modernism and post-modernism if it can be avoided by any means; 4) distinguishing unsuccessful but methodologically sound “biblical studies” from fraudulently-conceived, pseudoscientific “Bible woo.”
  • In a related vein, I once suggested that the dichotomy “science v. religion” might profitably be swapped out for the distinction between “literal speech and figurative speech.” That is, if religious speech would try to be more clear about whether it means to be literal (and therefore falsifiable) or figurative (and therefore subject to the different critical canons of literary art), then much of the “science v. religion” conflict is sidestepped. My one post on the topic addressed a particular news item (Obama’s nomination of Francis Collins as Director of National Institutes of Health). I would like to write a follow-up post that fills in the argument that I started there.
  • These two are promises I’ve made to myself in the form of drafts or outlines: I would like to write a post about how we users decide what new technologies or platforms are for (“What is Twitter For?”); and I would like to further promote awareness of iTunes U and YouTube/Edu by featuring particular items from time to time.
  • As SBL gets closer and my fall teaching progresses, I will be testing out ideas about my paper topic: How strategies in distance learning contribute to the brick-and-mortar classroom.

By writing this post, I don’t mean that I’m going to drop everything until every item is neatly scratched off with a fine point pen. In fact, August (with class preparation amping up into high gear) might not even be the most fruitful time for the careful thinking that these plans ask for. But, it puts my loose ends of yarn into one basket here at my elbow.

What of these plans, if anything, would you like to see taking shape first? What other kinds of posts would you like to see more of?

Let’s Play Woo: Hebrew and Physics

I have reason to take things easy this week, so let’s keep it light. Here is a YouTube video that I have designated as woo: it includes the trappings and language of reasoned argument, but uses various smoke and mirrors to dupe the gullible with that sweet-tasting, pseudoscientific woo.

Use the comments to play! Find as many problems as you can with the claims made by the video. Go for the details. Find more than your friends and taunt them with your bragging rights. Have fun!

Think broadly: not just about the Hebrew, but logic and fallacy, scientific inquiry, and so on.

Without further ado: