Modern Hebrew Sketch Comedy

The post I had written for today has been relegated to the back burner to reduce for a while: the broth is still too thin.

So in it’s place, I invite you to see what you are able to make of some Modern Hebrew sketch comedy. You’ll probably get the gist of it without any Hebrew whatsoever. For my part, I was able to get the gist and most of the detail (thanks largely to the Hebrew subtitles: dude’s talking fast). A little work with a dictionary did the rest…you might also consider Google Translate if you are able to type Hebrew characters.

Have fun, it’s a nice bit.

[Modern Hebrew Sketch Comedy was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2011/02/23. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

“Hebrew is a Hard Language” (YouTube)

Watching the whole video (it’s only 77 seconds), and reading the comments, will help to clarify what’s happening:

What makes it funny? What parts of the dialogue can you figure out?

Only Two Days to Catch Up on NBC’s “Kings”

I had posted before about the NBC show, “Kings.” (It is a television series based on the rise of David in Saul’s court, set in a world culturally and technologically similar to our present day.) That first link shows my previous post on the show, and the second links to its Hulu page.

The show was suspended mid-season, and has definitely been cancelled. However, the remaining episodes are to be available on Hulu beginning June 14.

An important point: Hulu only keeps a handful of episodes available at a time: it will drop the pilot episode when it posts Episode 6. So, you have only a couple of days to watch the two-hour premiere if you haven’t already (“Goliath,” parts one and two).

[Later: Robin Abrahams makes me aware that you can also catch full episodes on NBC’s site until September 20. Thanks, Robin!]

If you love biblical studies, especially Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, you owe it to yourself to give the show a look. If you complain (and who does not?) about the lack of thoughtful Bible stuff on the teevee, then it is actually mandatory that you take a look. Whether you end up liking it or not, I can guarantee that the show is not simplistic in its reading or interpretation of the story of David or in its theology.

Have any of you already seen the available five episodes? What are your reactions?

Bible Woo and Easy Answers to Complicated Problems

Bryan Bibb writes today about religious hucksters in the business of getting rich on false promises. There, he compares the marketing of false hopes by religious television with the woo-hawking infomercials run by the same stations. I encourage you to read the whole piece. Here, I just touch briefly on one element noted by Bryan—the promise to solve all or most problems with a single easy solution—and relate it to best practices in biblical studies.

Bryan writes of those who send their money off to the innumerable heirs of Jim Bakker:

They might take a chance on a $25 book, or a $100 donation, or a $500 conference session if they think it will fix what is wrong (without them having to actually do anything about it, if there is anything indeed that can be done).

Dupes send their money to a televangelist in exactly the same way that they send it to a purveyor of quack nostrums, in the same hope of a quick cure-all that will fix what is wrong. The RationalWiki identifies this false promise as one defining characteristic of pseudoscientific woo:

A simple idea that purports to be the one answer to many diseases or problems.

In my developing ideas about “Bible woo,” I am thinking about analogous “quick and easy cure-alls” in the reading of the Bible. A major breeding ground of Bible woo is the reader’s perception of a problem in the text: not in the value-neutral sense of “some odd data that call for explanation,” but rather in the value-laden sense of “some apparent feature that can’t and shouldn’t be there, whose logical explanation is intolerable to me, and that therefore must me explained away.” A ready example is the clear evidence of multiple sources in what are traditionally called the “five books of Moses.” In this context of biblical studies, a part of Bryan’s words above leap out to me:

…if there is anything indeed that can be done…

An axiom of critical inquiry is that data are good: you follow them, and they lead to you unpredictable places that you couldn’t have found unassisted. If the logical explanations of textual data lead you to an understanding of events that makes you uncomfortable, well, nothing to be done: there you are.

The woo-meister crouches in the doorway of that uncomfortable place, promising glib solutions to these and all other uncomfortable facts of life, for a reasonable price, whether a few dollars out of one’ purse or pocket, or only a few tolerable compromises in one’s God-given human capacity to reason.

Jargon, Phlebotinum, Bad Explanations, and Bible Woo

Professional jargon gets a bad rap, but it is a useful and indispensable tool: jargon is precise speech that allows experts to speak efficiently with one another. Technical terms have the virtue of being able to mean more narrowly, in fewer words, than does the usual language.

Like any tool, jargon can be misused. Both Ben Goldacre (Bad Science) and Mark Liberman (Language Log) have called attention to a recent study (Weisburg et al, PDF)* showing that bad explanations about human behavior are made more convincing if you sprinkle them with jargon from the field of neuroscience. This can undoubtedly be generalized: bad explanations about anything can seem more convincing, especially to the non-specialist, if served up with a helping of techno-babble.

I want to touch on two categories of misuse: the accidental misuse of jargon in teaching and learning, and the intentional misuse of jargon in pseudo-scholarship. Toward that end, I propose to slightly extend the usual use of a favorite word: phlebotinum.

Phlebotinum” (sometimes “phlebotnum,” rarely “flebotinum”) was coined by David Greenwalt, screenwriter for Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. It refers to any magical/mystical force or item that exists to further create the show’s narrative world or advance its plot. (Compare to the better-known term, “McGuffin.”) As phlebotinum, an item is intrinsically meaningless: it can be the Orb of Zanzum, the Arm of Ragnok, gamma rays…its significance is purely utilitarian. As that last example shows, real-life things can be used as phlebotinum (here, gamma rays in Spider Man The Hulk) if narratively employed in a fictionalizing way. From a writer’s standpoint, phlebotinum is a placeholder: “Tragically, the heroine allowed the (phlebotinum) to touch the (phlebotinum), allowing the (phlebotinum) to escape (phlebotinum) and wreak havoc on the city.”

As has any teacher, I have seen student work reduce the jargon of my field to meaninglessness. “Form critically, the Deuteronomistic Historian is a source, whereas saga is a narrative where God is ideological.” (Example is made up, thank God, but not by much.) Any student can misunderstand a technical term, but this is different. The student is not so much showing a genuine misunderstanding of the terms, as rather desperately plugging in phlebotinum to “move along the plot” of her doomed explanatory narrative. From a teaching perspective, there is some diagnosis to be done here: has the student simply blown off the material until late in the game? Has she been going outside the course material and cramming with bad explanations from irresponsible sources? Or has she been attending diligently to explanations that are accurate enough but for which she has not adequately been prepared?

Finally, there is the intentionally misleading use of technical terms in pseudo-scholarship, or “woo.” Just as the writer of speculative fiction uses phlebotinum to create her narrative universe or advance her plot, just so does the woo-meister use otherwise-sound technical terms in a fictionalizing way in order to mischaracterize the actual universe or advance her lying narrative depiction of the real world. That is, she seeks to dupe the hearer by employing perfectly good jargon as phlebotinum.

This dimension of phlebotinum—the deceptive use of jargon to advance a fictional narrative explanation of real-life phenomena—goes to the heart of what makes woo, woo. I would propose as a working definition of “Bible woo” the following:

Bible woo: any discourse about the Bible that advances its claims using the appearance and trappings of reasoned argument, while systematically avoiding responsibility to the strictures of reasoned argument.

In a later installment, I will address the objection that any speech about the Bible must be woo: a necessary step, since the term “woo” originates in circles that are traditionally antagonistic to religion in general and therefore to the Bible by association.

* That PDF seems to change locations regularly. If you try the link and it’s broken, notify me in a comment to this post and I’ll track it down again.

Kings on NBC: Who Knew?

How have I missed this? Kings on NBC: A show…based on the rise of David to the throne…set in a monarchy that is culturally and technologically more or less modern-day American. David Shepherd slays a Goliath-class tank, to become a feared darling in the court of King Silas of Gilboah, in the modern city of Shiloh. And I don’t know about it? Clearly I need new minions.

On Hulu, I have watched the first three episodes of five. I will not offer a review, except to say that I remain intrigued and am enjoying it enough to keep watching (and I don’t watch much).

A thoughtful reviewer at Epic Beat reflects on the fact that, while Christian Americans are supposedly always asking Hollywood to give them something biblical, Kings is not dominating our culture’s discourse or the ratings charts.

I think that Kings has been under Americans’ radar because it is not extreme. It is not beholden to a precise adherence to the biblical narrative nor to irreverent iconoclasm, preferring to work more fluidly and thoughtfully with the biblical plots, themes, and symbols. It is not beholden to the Vast Conservative Conspiracy™ or to the Left Wing Liberal Agenda™: for example, a major character describes another’s gayness as “disgust[ing]” to him, but at the same time presupposes that it is “what God ma[kes]” that person. The God of Kings is, so far, an offstage character, invoked on screen but not entering pyrotechnically to take anybody’s side in a decisive display of disambiguation.

That is, Kings is using the David story to ask questions about God, not to deliver answers. The irony is, this may be just the kind of show that the religious 90%-ers—those not served by the bullhorns at any given polarized extremes—could take ownership of. But it may be just because the bullhorns aren’t sounding off about the show that it dies of anemia before anyone takes notice.