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 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.]

MultiMarkdown and Me

MultiMarkdown: All I Never Knew I Wanted:

When I write, I want to write text files that are ready to be published either as word processing files or to the Web, with full formatting, while still already human-readable simply as text. And I didn’t even know how badly I wanted that until I discovered that it’s possible with Markdown. This is probably easier to show first, then tell.

As you can see, the *.txt file is human-readable, and I get the same formatting results whether I publish to *.rtf (for word processing) or to HTML (for web publishing as you’re reading it now). This is the point.

Results Explained:

These examples illustrate the gist of it. As a writer, this is what I gain from MultiMarkdown:

I get to create a human-readable document that can nonetheless be exported to the Web as HTML. Have you ever seen a page of text that is marked up for HTML, that is for web viewing? It’s a blizzard of tags that make the actual content unreadable. (You can see an example if you select, in your browser, View: Source or Page Source.) But with MultiMarkdown (or just Markdown: see below), I have a document that is prepared for the web, but which is also totally readable in plain text.

I get to create a human-readable document that can nonetheless be exported to a word processor as *.rtf (RTF). Have you ever seen a page of text that is marked up as *.rtf, for opening in Word or another word processor? It’s even worse than with HTML. (You can see an example if you take the RTF file linked above, change the suffix from *.rtf to *.txt, and open it in Apple’s TextEdit or in Microsoft Notepad.) But again, with MultiMarkdown, I have a document that is prepared for export as *.rtf to almost any word processor, but again which is also totally readable in plain text.

I get to write this file just once, and archive it as a single file, no matter whether I used it for word processing or web publishing. The same file, written in MultiMarkdown, can be exported as an *.rtf document, easily read in almost any word processor, or as HTML, easily read by any browser or pasted into a blog post or web site.

I get to compose this file in plain text, in any application that suits my stage in the writing process (collecting ideas, outlining, drafting, editing, publishing). It doesn’t feel like I am writing “markup,” it feels as much as possible like I am simply writing. The beauty of Markup is that most of it derives from email conventions: a line of white space between paragraphs, or asterisks surrounding a word or phrase to mark emphasis, or two asterisks for strong text. There are multiple ways (see below on Gruber’s Markdown) to write Web links that are wonderfully readable, completely unlike HTML web link markup.

I get to be sure that it will be readable in twenty years, without a word processor or web browser to render the formatting. Do you have any old files that you cannot read anymore because they only exist in an obsolete format like “AppleWorks”? The stuff I wrote during my Masters work can only be opened as plain text, and the text is entirely buried in obsolete markup and code. But the stuff I write today in Markdown is already human-readable in plain text, and will remain human-readable for as long as we have plain text.

This is the beauty of MultiMarkdown: plain text files, easily readable to the human eye, but already marked up for headers, sub-headers, ordered or unordered lists, emphasis, and footnotes…both for word processing via *.rtf or for web publishing via HTML. Yeah, it’s the writer’s holy grail.

What is MultiMarkdown?

John Gruber developed Markdown with the web-publishing end in view. Markdown allows almost any formatting one will need for most purposes: emphasis (usually italics), strong text (usually bold), paragraphing, lists, block quotes, hyperlinks to the web, and more. However, Gruber’s Markdown exporter only exports as HTML, because web-publishing is what Gruber has in mind.

Fletcher Penney developed MultiMarkdown as a supplement to, or extension of, Gruber’s Markdown. It accomplishes two things:

  • It exports Markdown as *.rtf rather than only as HTML. (It also exports to OPML, LaTex, and other formats that you may or may not know about or be interested in.)
  • It adds syntax for things like bibliography, footnotes, tables, and more.

So, MultiMarkdown incorporates all the features of Gruber’s Markdown, and extends the idea beyond web publishing to word processing. Note that you do have to install Fletcher’s MultiMarkdown script and support package in order to export MultiMarkdown plain text files as HTML, *.rtf, or other file formats.

My Workflow

I like this because I often don’t know where doodling, note-taking, and outlining might leave off and “writing” begin. I am learning to write in MultiMarkdown all the time, in every stage, because any of that stuff may, at some point, become part of the written piece. Composed in Markdown, anything I write is legible while I play around with it, and it won’t require additional formatting for word processors or for the Web once that writing sits in the final, published piece.

For example, this blog post was

  • begun as a note in NotationalVelocity,
  • moved into OmniOutliner while I played with structure and began some drafting,
  • imported via OPML into Scrivener for continued drafting and editing. From Scrivener I can compile it as HTML (as for this post in WordPress), or as *.rtf for word processing. I save it in Scrivener, but also compiled as plain text ( *.txt) for archiving.

At any of these stages I can compose freely in MultiMarkdown, working in whatever tools suits my present location and purposes, knowing that the result will be a human-readable plain text file formatted for word processing or for the Web.

What do you think? It can sound complicated, and there is a bit of a front-end learning curve (not much, for anyone who already habitually writes in “email style” paragraphing), but once learned, it is all simplicity itself. Can MultiMarkdown do for you what it does for me?

[MultiMarkdown and Me was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2011/05/02. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

The First Rule of Write Club is…

…you do not talk about Write Club. The second rule of Write Club is you DO NOT TALK about Write Club.

Okay, that isn’t how they’re numbered by Claire P. Curtis, and she doesn’t call it Write Club. But Writing Group has rules:

  1. [Y]ou must schedule a time every week
  2. There is no backing out.
  3. [All are] responsible for reading and commenting carefully.
  4. Three seems to be the  magic number

(School House Rock bonus link by Brooke).

    Do read the entire article: The rules are fleshed out with personal experience, and Curtis has excellent suggestions about choosing participants and making Writing Group work.

    I have occasionally discussed a Writing Group with colleagues, mostly back when we were in course work and already had plenty of external pressure to write. During the dissertation years…well, you’d have to be a sadist to bring up a Writing Group with an ABD (that’s “all but dissertation,” or “antisocial behavior disorders”). And anyway, putting three ABDs into a room for Writing Group would be like the legendary Roman death sentence for parricide.

    It is probably time for me to re-think Writing Group: my employment situation is settled for the next few years, and while my administration and teaching responsibilities are pretty consuming—especially for the next year—I should be able to carve out some manageable, defined space for research and writing. To offer an analogy: my wife, who handles the books in our household, has always been amazingly good at making sure we “pay ourselves first” even with our often-preposterously-modest incomes: something goes into savings before any bill payments go out. Writing, by analogy, is how an academic “pays herself first.”

    Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of Write Club?

    [The First Rule of Write Club is… was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2011/03/30. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

    The Writing Process: An Interview with a Fourth Grader

    Writing is thinking.

    Writers know this by hard experience. Writing is not simply reporting on thinking that has already taken place: the thinking that goes on happens by writing, or it doesn’t happen at all. It is this knowledge that brings a writer, again and again, back to a writing process.

    In recent years, I have seen—anecdotally—a sharp decrease in understanding about a writing process. Otherwise excellent students can be heard to say, in the last week of the term (out loud, where people can hear), “Yes, I plan to write that 8000 words paper for Prof A  today, tomorrow, and the next day, and then I’ll write that 3000 words for Prof B in the two days after that.” It’s not laziness: you heard me say “otherwise excellent students.” It’s not simply a function of being overwhelmed: compared to earlier years, the students are not taking heavier loads or working longer hours. Rather, my sense is that, on average, fewer students have received, in their secondary and undergraduate education, a grounding in a writing process.

    My current syllabus attempts to force a writing process on the students by requiring stages toward a final thesis paper, with students reviewing one another’s work at each stage:

    1. Research report, written to rubrics and submitted for review to three peers;
    2. Thesis statement with plan for defense, written to rubrics and submitted for peer review;
    3. Complete draft, written to rubrics and submitted for peer review;
    4. Final draft.

    Early results have been underwhelming, with a sizable percentage of students simply failing to accomplish the research report. Again, this suggests a lack of familiarity with the benefits of a writing process: anyone who has benefitted from a writing process in the past will be eager to embrace it later when given the opportunity. At the same time, students who accomplished the research report have been eager to get to the peer review.

    So now you understand why it is that, when my fourth grader, lying in bed and chatting before lights-out, began to talk about “the writing process” as they learn it in elementary school, I leapt for the laptop and began to record. Take ten minutes, and learn how it’s done.

    [The Writing Process: An Interview with a Fourth Grader was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2011/03/22. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

    What’s (Not) Going On around Here?

    “What’s not going on around here?” That’s easy: writing.

    “What is going on around here?” is another question, and amounts to, “Why isn’t writing going on?”

    The easy—far too easy, and therefore false—answer is, I am just way, way too busy. And I am too busy, so that is not the part that is false. What is false, is the notion that there is such a thing as “Too busy to write,” if writing wants to be happening.

    I have in mind a short series of short posts, in which I think aloud a bit about why I write here, and what sorts of things get into the way of writing in a space like this. It will not be about “blogging,” so much as it will be about “blogging here at Anumma.”

    So, feel free to read or not read. Without anticipating the results of my inquiry, I can say that it is likely that there will be, at the other end, blog posts having some continuity with what has gone before: reading CoS in a year, how to be a student, the social web and teaching higher ed, a little light debunking of Bible woo, and of course, Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).

    What’s (not) going on around here? Every few days, on a schedule negotiated between a crushing teaching load and a persistently impatient desire to write, we’ll just see.

    [What’s (Not) Going On around Here? was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2010/10/24. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

    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.

    Follow-up: Writing the Bible

    Having my adult students add 350 words to an existing biblical narrative proved a tremendous success in terms of inspiring close readings of, and imaginative engagement with, the details of the text at hand.

    In an earlier post, I speculated about a possible assignment in which students would write a sequel, or prequel, to a thorny biblical narrative. Here is the assignment as eventually described to the students (who, in this course, are lay people seeking degrees suited to varying lay pastoral ministries):

    The Rape of Tamar, and “Writing the Bible”: 350 words.

    Read 2 Sam 13:1–22. Read it again with care, attending to the ways in which the narrator accomplishes characterization and plot. Get an understanding of the narrative in its details.

    Imagine that you have the opportunity to add 350 (contiguous) words to the story: either right before it, or right after it, or at a single location inside of it somewhere. Imagine what task(s) might you want to accomplish with these words. Do you want to settle down problems, or highlight them? Produce justice, or underscore injustice? Explain things that seem unclear, or confuse things that seem clear? Defend particular characters, or condemn them?

    Remember that you’re writing a narrative: give the characters things to say, things to do, ways to interact with one another. Don’t just fill it all with the sonorous pronouncements of an all-knowing, external narrator.

    You don’t get to delete any part of the biblical text, only add material: up to 350 words, all written continuously, either right before, right after, or somewhere within the story.

    Finally: in keeping with the tenor and devices of the surrounding narrative: you don’t get to give God an active part or a speaking role. Characters may refer to God, but only human beings are explicitly active, speaking parts in the story.

    In your post, use some device to show where your words fall with regard to 2 Sam 13:1–22.

    One student created a childhood relationship between Amnon and Tamar to serve as background to the rape story. Another allowed Tamar to confront David for his negligence and speak an oracle against him. One of them allowed Tamar to take revenge by slipping a male beggar into a drunken Amnon’s bed. Several of them added layers of double-cross to the political machinations in the background of the story.

    The students did a simply amazing job with the assignment. I was all the more surprised because we have not discussed narrative criticism, yet they worked skillfully with different ways of accomplishing characterization, with using time, and with plotting. Since I have not really been happy in the past with my ability to teach narrative criticism to introductory students, I think that from now on I will use this assignment as a “getting started” exercise in narrative criticism: by having them do this first, I can then use their own narratives as a resource for illustrating the elements of narrative.

    [Follow-up: Writing the Bible was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2010/03/31. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

    Needles in Haystacks

    A friend likes to joke about the beginnings of her research on the biblical Book of Job. She was delighted to find that her initial searches produced great big lists of results: phrases like “good Job”; “Job approval”; even, “How to be happy in your Job.”

    My latest research project, on which some of you have already been wonderfully helpful, is bread production in ancient Israel and among its ancient Near Eastern neighbors. Right now, I have the ATLAS database open in front of me (the serials database of the American Theological Libraries Association).

    Did you know that, in the Christian religious scholarly literature that dominates such a database, there’s this whole big interest in “bread” that has nothing to do with bread molds, clay ovens, fermentation, or varieties of grains?

    [Needles in Haystacks was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2010/03/17. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

    Write the Bible: Poetic Parallelism

    In an earlier post, I suggested an opportunity for students to “write the Bible.” This is another one, stolen from…er, inspired by, a friend.

    Teaching biblical poetry to her students, my friend (who sometimes comments here as HebProf [whups: HBprof]) came up with a cool exercise: she gave them the first of a pair of parallel lines from a biblical poetic text. The students would then write a second line such that it is parallel to the first. For example, she might give them the first part of Psa 102:6 (English verse numbering; Hebrew Psa 102:7)

    I am like a barred owl of the wilderness

    The students would then each write a line they propose to be parallel to that first line. After comparing suggestions, they are shown the biblical parallel line, here

    I have become as a screech owl of the wastes.

    My own learners will be M.Div students reading the texts in English translation, and while there are more sophisticated ways of understanding Hebrew poetic parallelism, I think that Robert Lowth’s old “synonymous, antithetical, and synthetic parallelism” is a good place to begin. Given opportunity, I would look for ways to talk further with introductory students about “seconding” and “stair-case parallelism,” and only in a seminar setting get into ideas of grammatical, morphological, and semantic parallelism.[FOOTNOTE]

    So, for example, the biblical line is clearly meant to be “synonymous” parallelism. By having students produce a range of alternatives, it can be made clear that “synonymous” embraces a wide range of possibilities to answer Psa 102:6a, such as:

    I am adrift on the sea alone. Or,

    I am a beat cop at midnight on a street corner.

    A student trying to create an “antithetically” parallel line for Psa 102:6a might offer the following:

    But you are like a new bride among the village women. Or,

    But I will become like a crow among the flock.

    For a “synthetically” parallel line, she might try:

    with no cloud for shade. Or,

    Who will tend me?. Or,

    A raptor snapping at mice.

    The difficulty that students would have grasping the nebulous category of “synthetic” parallelism would, I think, provide a wonderful jumping-off place into the more recent descriptions of poetic parallelism with their clearer engagement of grammar and linguistics.

    What do you think of such an exercise? Do you have suggestions for improvement? Are there other exercises by which you have your students “write the Bible”?

    BACK TO POST I am glancing at David L. Petersen and Kent Harold Richards, Interpreting Hebrew Poetry (Guides to Biblical Scholarship, Old Testament Series; Gene M. Tucker, ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), chapter two. I think that this resource would be a great choice for a class of mostly English-language exegetes with a handful of students who have taken Hebrew as an elective.

    [Write the Bible: Poetic Parallelism was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2010/03/11. 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 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.]