Just published: “The Centurion, Son of God, and Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles”

I am pleased to share that my article, “The Centurion, Son of God, and Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles: Contesting Narrative and Commemoration with Mark,” has just been published in Horizons in Biblical Theology 39.1. Many friends of mine will recall that this article grew in part out of my concern and advocacy for Kelly Gissendaner, a Christian sister who was executed in Georgia despite her conversion to Christianity, personal rehabilitation, and ministry to other inmates while on death row. I have outlined the reasons why her death was abortive justice here and here. In this article I attempt something else: I simply try to adopt Mark’s way of seeing the world — what I call his “apocalyptic squint” — and reassess Jesus’s and Kelly’s executions accordingly.

Here is the abstract:

The Centurion, Son of God, and Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles: Contesting Narrative and Commemoration with Mark

Against a longstanding tradition of ascribing religious conversion to the centurion who witnesses Jesus’s death in Mark 15:39, I argue that his acclamation of Jesus as υἱὸς θεοῦ is better understood within the narrative as the words of a conquered enemy. The centurion’s confession parallels the responses of unclean spirits and Legion, two other vanquished enemies who, in the moment of defeat, see and name Jesus υἱὸς θεοῦ. By framing the centurion as a defeated enemy, Mark contests the meaning of Jesus’s crucifixion: rather than remembering it as a performance of Roman rule, Mark commemorates it as the summary victory of the rule of God. Turning from an ancient capital offender to a contemporary one, I recast the memory of Kelly Gissendaner, who was executed in Georgia in 2015, and attempt to narrate and commemorate her state-sanctioned death in light of the Markan Jesus’s.

If you are on Academia.edu, you can download the PDF here.

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Richard Hays and the Limits of Text

As part of my preparation for comprehensive exams, I had the opportunity to work through Richard B. Hays’ recent Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Baylor University Press, 2016). It is a fine book and will no doubt prove its usefulness for conversations related to OT-NT intertextuality and christology in the gospels for years to come. I have very few criticisms to level at Hays, but there is one area that I think his dominant theory of intertextuality limits him:  Hays’ argument is too text-focused, while his stated theoretical aims should have pushed him further.

As Hays sees it, the gospel composers echo and embed portions of OT texts in their narratives of Jesus primarily through the intertextual method of metalepsis, in which a small portion of a text is cited or echoed “in such a way that a reader can grasp the significance of the echo only by recalling or recovering the original context from which the fragmentary echo came” (11). Put differently, the textual echo evokes the larger text. This is all well and good (and something modern critics have argued at least since Dodd), and Hays finds no shortage of examples in the NT gospels in which textual metalepsis clearly applies. But it is when Hays appeals to a modern example that one begins to wonder if textual metalepsis might be a bit limiting:

In his eloquent victory speech on the night of his initial election to the presidency of the United States in 2008, Barack Obama declared that his hearers could put their hands “on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.” The phrase echoed a maxim from the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Certainly Obama’s declaration was not a direct quotation of King; the verbal link between the two utterances depends on just two words, arc and bend. But just as certainly, Obama’s sentence was an audible echo that summoned his audience to take up once again the moral legacy of the American civil rights struggle and to renew their efforts to work for a just society (11, emphasis added).

Hays’ definition of metalepsis and his contemporary example of it diverge: in Hays’ own words, Obama’s echo of King was not meant to summon the surrounding textual context of King’s speech but, rather, his “legacy.” Put slightly differently, by echoing King’s speech, Obama attempted to summon and instance King’s tradition: who he was, what he stood for, what he said, what he did, how he died, and how his legacy lives on. Obama wasn’t just summoning the next line in King’s speech. Hays’ version of metalepsis, as applied to Obama and MLK, Jr., could’ve been better explained by a more robust use of John Miles Foley (whom Hays cites, but unfortunately only in passing). Foley’s theory of “traditional referentiality” in oral performance—a theory he self-consciously attempted to render portable to other disciplines—would’ve helped Hays understand that echo can create more than just textual links, but can echo entire bodies of tradition. Traditional referentiality, as Foley describes it,

entails the invoking of a context that is enormously larger and more echoic than the text or work itself, that brings the lifeblood of generations of poems and performances to the individual performance or text. Each element in the phraseology or narrative thematics stands not simply for that singular instance but for the plurality and multiformity that are beyond the reach of textualization (Foley, Immanent Art [Indiana University Press, 1997], 7. Emphasis added.).

My issue with Hays isn’t that textual metalepsis isn’t an operative technique in the gospels (it is), but that what the gospel composers were doing was at times a bit more expansive than that. I am critiquing Hays only because I don’t think he took his own theoretical instincts to their logical conclusion. In addition to echoing discrete texts, the gospel composers, like Obama’s echo of King, also instance tradition (in fact, I’d gloss textual quotation as a form of instancing tradition). Had Hays made stronger use of Foley alongside John Hollander (The Figure of Echo [University of California Press, 1981]), he could’ve given a stronger account for the multiple modes by which the gospels engage the body of tradition we Christians call the Old Testament. His chapter on John—a gospel that rarely quotes or echoes specific OT texts—would’ve been strengthened by a stronger theoretical appeal to Foley and traditional referentiality.

Similarly, Hays could have more strongly treated the kerygma of the Kingdom of God as an echo of tradition throughout the Synoptic gospels. As it stands, the traditional referentiality of the phrase βασιλεια του θεου gets relatively little play in Echoes…Gospels, because Hays focuses on the metaleptic force of discrete OT texts in the gospels. What OT text does “Kingdom of God” evoke? You’d be hard-pressed to nail down a solitary text; you’d have to appeal instead to wide swaths of the OT canon and its interpretation in Second Temple Judaism. What is evoked by this phrase is “enormously larger and more echoic” than a single text; the phrase evokes the much larger and more diffuse tradition of the God of Israel’s rule. While the implicit high christology of the gospels’ metaleptic technique gets plenty of coverage in Hays’ book (and this is welcome…Hays even changed my mind on the christologies of the Synoptics!), it is unfortunate that the actual gospel within the gospels is so muted by Hays’ text-centered approach.

Over at The Jesus Blog, Rafael Rodríguez has used Foley to make a similar critique of the limits of Hays’ intertextual theory.

Galatians and the Palimpsest of Commentary

A palimpsest is a manuscript whose original text has been scraped off in order that the papyrus or parchment might be repurposed for the production of another text. A classic and fascinating example of this phenomenon is Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (C 04). The header image above is a screen-grab from 04 and illustrates the phenomenon nicely. A palimpsest manuscript, like 04, is meant as a reproduction of a given text, disconnected from the text that was scraped-off. But, as is obvious in the above image, we can still catch glimpses of the original text. It bleeds over and impinges upon the later text.

More than a kind of ancient manuscript, though, palimpsest lends itself nicely as a metaphor for biblical commentary. In this metaphor, we could say that the present historical circumstances of the historian or commentator are the the initial text—the one we try to “scrape off” when we don our Objective Biblical Scholar Thinking Caps™. I may try to bracket out my own context and biases, but they creep back in and give animation to my inquiry no matter what. Commenting on NT scholarship and its attempt to negotiate Gadamer’s “two horizons,” Davina Lopez and Todd Penner suggest that “there is in fact no way to negotiate the ‘two horizons.’ […T]here is only one horizon—and that is the horizon of the present.”[1] The historical moment and concerns of the interpreter always lend shape to her interpretation. Like a palimpsest, a scholarly commentary attempts to foreground a new text (the commentary itself) but, when read closely, certain elements of its hypotext (the historical moment and concerns of the interpreter) can be glimpsed.

I agree with Penner and Lopez. We’re all doing this kind of palimpsestuous writing. In my preparation for an exam on Galatians, I’ve noticed that two interpreters do it in particularly interesting ways: Martin Luther and Brigitte Kahl. Luther, as is well known, was responding in part to the Catholic Church in his commentary on Galatians. His circumstances—his hypotext—then lent shape to his reading of Paul’s letter: Paul’s opponents became stand-ins for Luther’s. Whatever Luther got right about Galatians, he himself makes perfectly clear that he views Paul’s opponents as causing the same sort of trouble as Paul’s opponents at Galatia (pick a page, almost any page, in Luther’s commentary and you’ll probably see what I mean). Brigitte Kahl, a contemporary NT scholar writing hundreds of years after Luther, does much the same thing. In her 2014 Interpretation article, “Hagar’s Babylonian Captivity: A Roman Re-Imagination of Galatians 4:21-31,” Kahl names in the first paragraph her concerns about the effects this passage has had throughout the history of Christian interpretation. Both Luther and Kahl, then, are self-consciously doing palimpsestuous commentary: the hypotexts of their concerns and circumstances are shown for all to see. This is laudable.

But naming one’s perspective, biases, and concerns does not get one off the hook for letting them be too determinative in one’s reading. Luther gets nailed to the wall throughout the New Perspective lit for this kind of thing: he let his critique of Catholicism drive the bus in his commentary, and the interpretive tradition has been so much the worse for it. While Kahl’s work does not lend itself nicely to the kinds of catastrophic after-effects that Luther’s reading did, I think she is doing the same kind of thing. She names her ethical concerns about Gal 4:21-31 (the Hagar/Sarah allegory), and then those same concerns explicitly shape her interpretation.

In her article, Kahl appeals to Roman iconography to exegete Gal 4, which she reads as a counter-imperial hidden transcript. Paul does not devalue Hagar in favor of Sarah but rather uses her slavery as a stand-in for Roman domination, leaving Sarah to represent God’s liberation from Roman hegemony. This is attractive stuff for anyone with a slight radical streak, but the article, like her imaginative monograph on Galatians (see what I did there? #hiddentranscript), leaves much to be desired. Because Paul does not mention Rome in Galatians, Kahl has to turn to Roman iconography imaging women as conquered slaves in order to root Gal 4 in any kind of counter-imperial discourse. Sure, the reading is possible, even beautiful, but likely? I’m not so sure.

By naming their perspectives, concerns, and historical moments, both Luther and Kahl do us a favor but also give us reason to be suspicious. For both commentators, the hypotext is determinative—too determinative, I would say—for the interpretation: Luther has (forgive the technical term) mad beef with the Catholic Church and, voila, he finds much grist for his mill in Galatians; Kahl is concerned about the reception of Gal 4 and its use throughout imperial Christendom and, voila, she finds that Paul is just as anti-imperial as she is. Luther’s Paul comes out as anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic; Kahl’s comes out brazenly anti-imperial in a text that only tortuously lends itself to imperial critique. Both readers of Paul end up on the hook for special pleading as both produced particularly palimpsestuous commentaries in which the hypotext is not so much scraped off but acts as explicit and rigid paratext, guiding the author’s interpretation at almost every step.

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting my engagement with some of the “big ideas” in Galatians studies in preparation for a comprehensive exam.

[1] Todd Penner and Davina C. Lopez, De-Introducing the New Testament: Texts, Worlds, Methods, Stories (London: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), 63.

Appreciating Martyn and the Apocalyptic Reading of Galatians

“God would not have to carry out an invasion in order merely to forgive erring human beings. […] The whole of humanity…is, in fact, trapped, enslaved under the power of the present evil age. That is the background of God’s invasive action in his sending of Christ, in his declaration of war, and in his striking the decisive and liberating blow against the power of the present evil age.”

J. Louis Martyn, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary AB 33A (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 105.

As I’ve outlined in a previous post, I don’t think we ought to follow Martyn in his pitting of “forensic” against “cosmic” apocalyptic in Galatians. The first sentence of this beautiful quote reifies and depends upon that typology, which we ought to leave  behind. But the rest of Martyn’s comment, drawn from his Anchor Bible commentary, seems to me to be a spot-on summation of one aspect of Paul’s gospel, namely its cosmic, liberative implications for life in the present age.

In Martyn’s reading, Paul’s gospel is of an invasive God: in Christ, his death/resurrection, and in the sending of the Spirit, God is invading enemy territory (“the present evil age”), resulting in an eschatological estuary, an overlap between the present evil age and the coming age which brings with it “the hope of righteousness” (5:5, NRSV; Martyn: “the hope of rectification”). This is classic “now-not yet” Christian eschatology; in my view, it’s right-on. If we jettison Martyn’s dogged commitment to the forensic-cosmological apocalyptic dichotomy, and read 1:4 more simply as the two-part summary of Paul’s understanding of Christ’s death (see here), there is still much within his commentary to commend it as a valuable resource for reading this fascinating letter.

Featured image: ἀποκαλύψεως (“apocalypse,” “revelation” – Gal 1:12) in P46, our earliest manuscript of Paul’s letters (via CSNTM).

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting my engagement with some of the “big ideas” in Galatians studies in preparation for a comprehensive exam.

Prodding the Foundations of “Forensic” vs. “Cosmological” Apocalyptic

For both J. Louis Martyn (‘JLM’) and Martinus de Boer (‘MdB’), how we ought to read Galatians hinges upon one’s understanding of Paul’s inherited apocalyptic worldview. For JLM and MdB, there are two basic categories of early Jewish apocalyptic: “forensic” and “cosmological” apocalyptic eschatology. I briefly outlined JLM’s definitions and summarized and critiqued his reading of Gal 1:4 here. Regarding definitions, MdB doesn’t add much: “cosmic” still = that which has to do with two ages and the divine rescue of humanity from evil cosmic forces and “forensic” still = that which has to do with divine judgment/forgiveness of sins at the eschaton.

What MdB does offer, however, is a more robust textual basis for these categories, drawn from some flagship examples from the period. As MdB sees it, “forensic” apocalyptic is especially represented by traditions like 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, while “cosmic” apocalyptic is represented by 1 Enoch 1-36 and As. Mos. 10. These documents are said to illustrate these two “tracks” of Jewish apocalyptic in “nearly ‘pure’ form.”[1] MdB hedges his bets with that qualifier. The problem, as I see it, is that both 4 Ezra and 1 Enoch contain elements of both categories of apocalyptic. MdB’s “nearly ‘pure'” needs some nuancing:

Cosmic-1 Enoch: MdB is right to emphasize the cosmic aspect of 1 Enoch. “The Book of Watchers” (1 Enoch 1-36) is predicated on the view that the world is currently under the dominion of suprahuman powers from whom God will rescue it.

Forensic-1 Enoch: But in the first chapter of 1 Enoch, we see at least a strong hint of “forensic” or courtroom apocalyptic: “And there shall be a judgment upon all, (including) the righteous,” and God “will destroy the wicked ones” (1.7, 9). Although not an extended vision of the divine courtroom, it is difficult to imagine a divine judgment of both righteous and wicked that isn’t in some very important way reflective of a “forensic” apocalyptic worldview.

Forensic-4 Ezra4 Ezra 7:32-44 is a classic example of the eschatological courtroom scene in which the wicked and righteous are judged according to their deeds. MdB is on solid ground to emphasize this topos within early Jewish apocalyptic here.

Cosmic-4 Ezra: But in 4 Ezra‘s fifth vision, “the eagle vision” (11:1-46), we have what certainly appears to be a form of so-called “cosmic” apocalyptic. Here the text details Ezra’s vision of a suprahuman force, the eagle, to whom dominion has been (temporarily) given (cf. 11:39) and will soon be summarily taken away (11:44). This is classic “cosmic” apocalyptic.

While there is much with which to agree in both JLM and MdB, I am beginning to suspect that the categories both scholars deploy are too rigid to account for the Jewish traditions they’re meant to represent. It’s not that there aren’t “cosmic” or “forensic” aspects in early Jewish apocalyptic, it’s that the two cannot be made to represent distinct categories of thought. “Cosmic” and “forensic” apocalyptic existed side-by-side and intertwined in early Jewish texts—including, I hasten to note, Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches.

On this point, MdB is more instructive than JLM. For the former, the two tracks are “christologically appropriated and modified” (emph. original).[2] While MdB still reads Paul as ultimately opting for “cosmic” over “forensic” apocalyptic, JLM presses Paul even more firmly into the “cosmic” mold, pitting him against the “forensic” apocalyptic taught by his opponents (see my previous post).

Still, though, MdB’s 2-track typology, which JLM assumes, is shaky at its foundations. In the first verses of 1 Enoch, MdB’s flagship example of “cosmic” apocalyptic, we have seen important elements of “forensic” track. Similarly, 4 Ezra, MdB’s “nearly ‘pure'” example of the “forensic” track, contains explicit elements of “cosmic” apocalyptic eschatology. MdB’s claim that “there are no cosmological powers present in the apocalypse of 4 Ezra” is quite difficult to sustain when faced with the eagle vision in 4 Ezra 11.[3]

MdB himself avers that “the two tracks can…run side by side, crisscross, or overlap in various ways, even in the same work.”[4] MdB sees the DSS as evincing this sort of overlap; my claim is that the overlap happens also in his ‘purest’ examples. Because the tracks crisscross in even the purest examples, perhaps it is time to rethink the typology. In place of “tracks,” I wonder if we might better describe “cosmic” and “forensic” as complementary leitmotifs in Jewish apocalyptic. This would go a long way in helping us appreciate the best insights of JLM and MdB without deploying their categories too rigidly in our reading of Galatians.

[1] Martinus C. de Boer, “Paul and Jewish Apocalyptic Eschatology,” in Apocalyptic and the New Testament: Essays in Honor of J. Louis Martyn, ed. Joel Marcus and Marion L. Soards, JSNTSup 24 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989), 176, 181.

[2] Ibid., 182.

[3] Ibid., 179.

[4] Ibid., 177.

Featured image: Aramaic Fragments of 1 Enoch (4QEna [4Q201]).

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting my engagement with some of the “big ideas” in Galatians studies in preparation for a comprehensive exam.

“New culture, yes—coup, no”: A Review of C. Kavin Rowe’s Theo-Political Reading of Acts

C. Kavin ROWE. World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

With the present volume alongside his previous Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke (Baker Academic, 2009), C. Kavin Rowe has emerged as an important and self-consciously interdisciplinary contributor to ongoing conversations in Luke-Acts. Where Early Narrative Christology employed narrative criticism to track the meaning and usage of kyrios in Luke’s Gospel, in World Upside Down, Rowe blends traditional biblical exegesis, narrative criticism, political theory, and constructive theology to marshal an argument about the theo-political logic of Acts (7).

In Rowe’s reading, Acts sits uncomfortably within Greco-Roman culture. On the one hand, Acts is not, as some have posited, a kind of apologia for Christian quietism within the empire. On the other, neither is it quite anti-imperial propaganda, either. Rowe is after a reading that eschews such false dichotomies, and he upsets both old scholarly orthodoxies and newer assumptions by arguing that Acts is “a highly charged and theologically sophisticated political document  that aims at nothing less than the construction of an alternative total way of life…that runs counter to the life-patterns of the Graeco-Roman world” (4). Rowe argues that there is a “profound tension” in Acts, as Luke presents the nascent Christian movement as both a threat to Graeco-Roman politics, economics, and religion as well as a movement whose kyrios is not in direct competition with Caesar.

Rowe explores this tension in Acts between cultural collision (chapter two) and avoiding direct competition with the Empire (chapter three). In narrating the elements of Acts that conflict with Graeco-Roman culture, Rowe assists his readers in paying close attention to the responses garnered by Paul and his compatriots when they take their message out into the world. In Rowe’s framing, the story of Paul and Barnabas refusing sacrifices after the healing of a paralyzed man in Lystra in Acts 14 is “the summons that…involves the destruction of an entire mode of being religious” (21). Similarly, Rowe reads Luke as further destabilizing Graeco-Roman piety by emphasizing that, for example, even the name of Jesus Christ is enough to displace a pagan pneuma/daimon and exorcise it from a slave-girl (Acts 16:14ff). Rowe is a careful exegete and well aware that “religion” should not be reduced to a discrete element of human life and thus contends that the implications of these stories upset multiple levels of religious and civic life. When Paul and Silas exorcise the spirit of divination from the slave-girl, her owners are correct to be outraged: Luke’s version of the Christian confession has (negative) implications for their economic practices. Rowe contends that other characters are quite savvy to notice just how disruptive the Christian movement is to every level of pagan life. Public responses at Thessalonica, Athens, and Ephesus to the Christian movement further illustrate the multiple strata of cultural disruption that Luke’s confession causes.

Rowe’s argument is a nuanced one, however, and he stops short of baptizing Acts in the waters of modern day politically-subversive wishful thinking. Acts is not, Rowe contends in chapter two, a direct threat to Caesar and Roman rule. Rowe shows how Luke narrates the Christian movement as dikaios—innocent—of any charges of sedition towards the emperor. Here Rowe illustrates the “profound tension” of Acts particularly well: yes, the Christian confession destabilizes multiple spheres of pagan life and Acts’ non-Christian characters are right to name the writing on the wall, but no, the Christian movement of Luke’s narrative is not interested in seizing upon Caesar’s throne. As Rowe memorably puts it: “New culture, yes—coup, no. The tension is thus set” (92).

Chapter four moves further into the tension that is the theo-political imaginary of Acts as Rowe shows how the confession and practices of the nascent Christian movement eclipsed, but did not directly challenge, the Graeco-Roman ways of knowing and being in the world. The Christian confession of Jesus as lord, practice of mission, and the formation of mixed communities of followers signal Luke’s mixed-bag of theological politics (135). The Christian movement was not founded in response to Roman rule or other aspects of Graeco-Roman culture; rather, it was founded on this confession and these practices, all of which signaled a fundamental break with Roman culture and jurisprudence—truly, a “world upside down.”

In chapter five, Rowe moves from the ancient world to our own and allows the political imagination of Acts to speak into, and perhaps even shape, our own. Rowe writes as a Christian and, in this chapter at least, is engaged in the work of constructive Christian theology. Rowe does not, however, cheaply port over the theological politics of a small messianic movement from the backwaters of the Roman Empire to modern-day, Western contexts. The differences are too vast and Rowe’s theological acumen is too strong for such easy moves. Instead Rowe uses his final chapter as a kind of exercise in thinking with Acts—embodying its particular Christocentric epistemology—to come at modern politics, and even the practice of critical biblical scholarship, from an Acts-inspired perspective derived from apocalyptic claim in the story of Acts that Jesus is lord of all (176).

The present volume is a must-have for all serious readers of Acts. Although Rowe, who teaches in the Divinity School, rather than the Religion Department, at Duke University, writes with theological aims in mind, his work must be engaged by anyone who would make a claim about the political life of the post-Easter Christians. This text would be a welcome addition to any graduate or upper-level undergraduate course on Acts, and would be a helpful conversation partner for ministers, religious leaders, and thoughtful laypersons looking to read Acts carefully and with an eye for questions of theology and politics in the shadow of empire.

 

Translating Book, Translating Online Bible Education

Over at a proximate bible, my friend and colleague, Michael Hemenway, has recently written something very interesting and helpful regarding the media cultural shift currently affecting Bible/book technology. I’ll quote just a few snippets, but you really ought to read the whole thing. It is an unfinished work, publicly displayed in its current state on purpose (a welcome look behind the curtain of academic workflow and production). There is a lot in Michael’s project to dig into, but what I am particularly interested in right now is how portable his work is for online theological education. This is, of course, wholly unsurprising: Michael currently serves at the Iliff School of Theology as Director of Academic & Information Technology. He is passionate about the possibilities of online education and, in the three years of our friendship, his passion has proved contagious.

Hemenway sets up his project like this: just as print technology is on the wane and books are in the transition from print to digital media, so, too, is the Bible:

Book is undergoing a major media transition as print wanes in its dominance and the internet and mobile devices transform our reading habits. With the ever entangled histories of bible and book, this emerging media age and its transformation of reading practices begs us to imagine bible as an anarchic interface, a space of contact where meaning is produced without the reign of an original.

This first bit—about the media transition of Bible and book from print to digital technologies—is especially pertinent to theological education. Just as print Bibles are giving way to digital ones (just try to eat a biblical Kindle, Ezekiel), theological education is shifting from brick-and-mortar to digital classrooms. Many of my colleagues lament this media shift in theological education. Brought up in the brick-and-mortar classroom, I share some of their concerns. But Michael gives us something to think about: media culture is shifting and “the original” media form—of the Bible or the brick-and-mortar classroom—need not dictate every future possibility for interface and engagement. The future is open; positively anarchic, even. Opportunities abound.

In a recent post over at the Digital Pedagogy Lab, Martha Burtis explores some of these opportunities as she considers the near-limitless potential of the Internet juxtaposed with the frustration of online education platforms. The best line in the whole essay expresses the excitement of possibility alongside the user-unfriendliness of certain Learning Management Software (LMS):

Most importantly, how could we not, in fact, see it as our job to shape this new medium [the Internet] and to help the rest of the world understand what it could do? As a platform for transformational teaching? As a space for public research and dissemination of knowledge? As a place for collaboration on scales never seen before?

And yet. Blackboard.

“And yet. Blackboard,” indeed. She could’ve lamented Moodle, even Canvas, just as easily.

Burtis’s piece and the interface in which it is presented, coupled with Hemenway’s plea that we “imagine bible as an anarchic interface,” though, gives me great hope that online education in the humanities (theological or otherwise) is not the swansong of a dying field but, rather, the invitation to reimagine text and education. There’s freedom in anarchy, despite the risk. Take, for example, the elegant user interface for Burtis’s essay:

DigitalPedagogies Page

(Click to enlarge)

Note the commentary interface here. Users may directly and publicly highlight the text (no annotation) as well as highlight and comment on the text in a side-bar. This interface seems borrowed from word processing software editorial features. When my professor comments on my papers, she usually does so digitally: highlighting the text, which then links up to a commentary side-bar on the right. GoogleDocs, MS Word, and Adobe Acrobat have this functionality; most pages on the Internet do not.

Most essays and blogs feature reader commentary in a separate bank below the main post. See, for example, the comments space on this blog entry: you have to scroll to the bottom of the piece, leaving it “behind,” and say your piece in a separate thread, unconnected to the text of this post. If you wish to take me to task on a specific point, you must copy-and-paste the quote, lifting it out of its native context, and then (finally) have your say. The same goes, I think, for most LMS discussion forums. To comment on a person’s post or a primary text, the user must copy-and-paste or use the forum’s quotation function, which is a somewhat fancier way of doing the same thing. I think that this kind of threaded discussion, especially for the teaching of primary texts like the Bible, is hopelessly outmoded.

But what if we looked to Hemenway and Burtis and worked to actively shape LMS interfaces for transformational teaching of biblical texts in our new and emergent digital media culture milieu? Imagine if we pillaged the user interface of the Digital Pedagogy Lab for use in online discussion forums? If, in a class on Romans, we loaded in the primary text reading for that week and gave students the opportunity to annotate the text based on their own insights, questions, and gleanings from secondary readings?

Most threaded forums I’ve participated in, as student or instructor, have been needlessly wordy and interfacially complex. To comment on Romans 3:1-8 in a threaded forum, students must make the choice to either (a) simply cite Rom 3:1-8, with the expectation that other users will look up the text (in print? online?); (b) link to an online edition like this; or (c) copy-and-paste the passage into their initial post. Users must then juggle screens and/or media (a printed Bible on the desk next to the tablet she is using to post). Their commentary is then about Romans but, if you’ll permit me some play with our prepositions, it’s not really on Romans. Romans is somewhere else, disconnected from the student’s comments.

Importantly, too, this sort of interface would free students up from the burden of writing and reading too-long comments. The side-bar annotation/commentary interface is nimble in ways that the bottom-of-the-page comment thread is not. User interaction can be broken up into smaller bits, creating more “surface area” and points of contact between text, students, and instructor.

It seems to me that digital media, among many other things, gives us the opportunity to bring primary text and student engagement closer together. To riff on Hemenway’s dissertation title, this sort of pedagogical practice would render a (more) proximate Bible: a Bible in closer proximity to student engagement through the emergent interfacial possibilities of digital media culture. I’m excited. This should be fun.

I’ll let Hemenway have (nearly) the last word:

 

In light of this process of material media translation as palimpsest, remembering bible’s rich media history will provide a helpful context and data for imagining how bible might be practiced as interface amidst the changing reading dispositions of our emerging media age. The material media translation of book from manuscript page to mobile screen already has and will continue to shape our reading practices.

I hope the “material media translation” of Bible and classroom continues to shape our teaching practices as well.

http://aproximatebible.postach.io/

http://digitalpedagogylab.com/