Teaching Biblical Archaeology and Numismatics

Teaching Biblical Archaeology in a classroom is, in many ways, a superficial exercise. You can learn a lot about methodology and this or that artifact or site, of course, but there is no substitute for actually “getting your hands dirty.” With this in mind, I thought it might be good to start my Biblical Archaeology course this semester with a hands-on exercise to help students understand one facet of material culture: numismatics, or the study of currency.

I brought in a few small baggies of old United States coinage ranging in date fromimg_3397 the 1840s to the 1980s. In my younger days I was into coin collecting, so I had a pretty good selection of vintage coins on hand (see image). But you could easily do this exercise with a handful of random change from a gas station.

When class started I split students into pairs. Each pair got a bag of coins and some instructions:

Empty the contents of your bag onto the desk, and arrange the artifacts you find in chronological order, oldest to newest. Examine these coins carefully, and on a sheet of paper, make a list of all the symbols that you find. Which symbols appear most often? Which appear least often? What “story” do these coins tell?

I gave them about ten or fifteen minutes to work, and then we reassembled for discussion. Overall I was quite pleased with what they found.

Their lists of symbols were impressive, all groups noting such prominent imagery as the eagle, stars, olive branch, arrows, shield, etc. And when I asked them about the “story” that these coins tell, they were eager to share some of the anecdotes that many of us learned as children.

6791The eagle on the back of the Kennedy Half Dollar, for example, has an olive branch in its right talon and a bundle of arrows in its left, and it gazes in the direction of the olive branch. If the olive branch symbolizes peace, and the arrows symbolize war, then the fact that the eagle faces the olive branch suggests that we value peace more than we do war. Yet the fact that he retains his grasp of the arrows suggests that we are also capable of violence.

Nearly every student had heard this “story” growing up. I asked them if they considered it to be “true”? Some nodded, but most shook their heads. One student noted that because our country has spent more years at war than we have at peace, our history would suggest that our preference is actually the opposite of the eagle’s. This astute observation gave us an opportunity to talk about coinage as propaganda, as something that instills and creates a sense of identity even more than it reflects it. That is to say that the symbols on our coins shape how we understand ourselves, and they frequently do so in ways that are incongruous with actual reality.

I also spent some time underlining the contextual nature of symbols. Nearly every group in the class noted, for example, that when there are stars on United States currency, there are frequently thirteen of them. When asked why, students respond almost instinctively: Because there were thirteen original colonies. If you asked a student in Europe that same question, they probably won’t have as quick of an answer. This is not because they’re stupid, but because the “thirteen original colonies” aren’t part of their narrative. And this is one of the many reasons why interpreting ancient coinage can be difficult. The “narrative” that is reflected, built up, and reshaped by numismatic symbols is frequently patchy and, in some cases, altogether foreign to us. So, when we interpret ancient symbols, we often do so with a degree of educated guesswork.

The payoff of this exercise for the remainder of the semester was enormous. Whenever we encountered talk of ancient symbolism in our readings, our discussion of US currency often served as a helpful, clarifying touchpoint. And students frequently brought up examples from this session as illustrations in their writing assignments and in class. A slightly modified version of the exercise proved valuable in my (introductory) Literature of the Bible course, where we spoke about such symbols before covering the Apocalypse of John.

Thanks for reading, and if you use this exercise, please let me know how it goes!

I Made a Bible Bot: How and Why?

I’ve long been fascinated by Twitter bots — those seemingly-autonomous bits of
programming that retweet, follow, compose and respond to messages, etc. Truth be told, I’ve always wanted a bot, but since I have little to no knowledge of coding/programming language, I always assumed that creating my own was just a pipe dream. Turns out I was wrong.

In this post I’d like to first introduce you to my bot and then I’ll tell you how I made it.

After experimenting with a few different iterations over the weekend, I launched a “Bible bot” that is currently alive and well in cyberspace, tweeting its little digital heart out and gathering followers (an impressive amount so far, actually). What is it tweeting, you ask? For the most part, just gibberish that it puts together at random from the text of the King James Bible. But occasionally it comes up with something that (unbeknownst to it, of course) is really pretty clever. Here are a few examples:

I’m not sure what, if anything, I will do to hone or improve the bot in the future. It is currently doing exactly what it was designed to do, namely, amuse people in general and me in particular. It’s only been live for a few days now, so I suppose we shall see what the future holds for it.

So how did I set it up?

From start to finish, the process was actually much easier than I thought it would be, mostly because I found someone else who had already done the “heavy lifting.” That someone is Zach Whalen, an Associate Professor of English, Linguistics, and Communication at the University of Mary Washington.

Thanks to a push in the right direction from another of my Twitter pals, I stumbled upon a helpful post on Zach’s blog where he walks you through creating a Twitter bot using a Google spreadsheet that he designed. (Note that this sheet will only allow you to create a bot that posts; if you are interested in building a bot that can retweet, respond to tweets, or follow accounts, you will need to look elsewhere.) Zach’s post is remarkably clear and detailed, so I will refrain from reproducing a step-by-step here (if I can follow it, then trust me, so can you). All you need to get started is a Twitter account for your bot and a Google account for the spreadsheet.

After the initial linking up of the spreadsheet with Twitter (which can be a tad tricky, but stick with it), there are only a couple of parameters to set: frequency of posting and “data sheet.” Frequency is straightforward: how often do you want your bot to post? Every hour? Twice per hour? Once per day? Etc. “Data sheet” refers, essentially, to how you want your bot to compose its tweets.

lfmU5E0pThere are a few different options in this data sheet category, all of which are useful depending on your goals. I chose the “markov” option, meaning that my bot uses an algorithm to generate random text from a supplied body of text. The supplied body of text can be anything. The spreadsheet comes with the full text of Sense and Sensibility so that you can experiment before copying and pasting in your own text.

The text you supply the markov algorithm can be pretty much anything (I think). Because my bot is a Bible bot, my text is the Bible — King James translation. I chose King James for two reasons: 1) because I thought (rightly) that it would be funnier; and 2) because I found the King James Bible in spreadsheet form online, which meant that I could copy and paste the whole thing in about twenty minutes. Win.

With all of the text inputted, I set my bot to post a new tweet every thirty minutes (every fifteen minutes strikes me as excessive, and I got impatient having to wait an hour to see new content) and hit “start.” The results so far have been quite amusing.

And that’s why and how I made a Bible Twitter bot! Follow (or just observe) it on Twitter by clicking here.

And follow me by clicking here!

Hauerwas Goes to the Movies (Week 4)

This post is part of a series on teaching religion in film using the work of Stanley Hauerwas. For helpful background, please see the posts from Week 1Week 2, and Week 3!

Students arrived in class this week having read Chapter 3 in Hauerwas’s A Community of Character. Entitled “The Moral Authority of Scripture: The Politics and Ethics of Remembering,” this chapter’s focus is on uses and misuses of biblical texts in contemporary moral decision making. To be fair, Hauerwas would likely take issue with how I just framed the matter, as he argues in this chapter that talk of how to “use” biblical texts in Christian ethics is to fundamentally misunderstand their purpose. “For to put it in that way,” he contends, “assumes that we must first clarify the meaning of the background … and only then can we ask its moral significance” (55).

At the start of class we spent a significant portion of time noting some of the difficulties inherent in the “moral handbook” approach to biblical texts, which Hauerwas argues (rightly, in my view) is always arbitrary and selective. That is to say that persons who claim to be doing “what the Bible says” are always picking and choosing what portions of the Bible they are willing to claim as authoritative for their own lives. A good (albeit overused) example is homosexual relationships, which would seem to be explicitly condemned in Leviticus. Some cite this prohibition as evidence that homosexuality is morally wrong, and universally so. Yet the code in Leviticus condemns a host of behaviors that might be considered (at best) morally neutral by the same group: wearing clothing of mixed fabrics, tattoos, having disheveled hair, etc.

Hauerwas reframes the matter by emphasizing the role of the community that reads these texts as scripture. For this community the texts are not revealed morality but revealed reality. The relationship is a cyclical one, for the community that is formed by these texts is the same community that gave rise to them in the first place. This is to say that the canon of Christian scripture is a product of the community’s ongoing process of reflection and self-definition. Below is a word cloud (generated from student essays on this chapter) in which these themes emerge clearly.Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 1.52.24 PM

Our film for this week was Finding Neverland (2004), which is loosely based on the story of the playwright J. M. Barrie’s creation of his magnum opus, Peter Pan. In this film Barrie fosters a close relationship with a recently-widowed mother (Sylvia) and her four boys (Jack, George, Michael, and Peter). His experiences with this family inspire him to write his hit play, and the process of writing this play in turn affects his relationship with them and the others in his life. It is this cyclical relationship that drew me to Finding Neverland as a fitting illustration for what Hauerwas is getting at in Chapter 3.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film occurs near the end, during the first stage performance of Peter Pan. In preparation for this big night, Barrie requests that the owner of the theater set aside twenty-five seats scattered throughout the room. As the start time draws near, the seats begin filling up with orphans that Barrie had invited to view the play. The scene is quite moving at first, of course. Inviting orphans to a live performance of Peter Pan? What could be cuter? In short: nothing!

But as the play begins, we see that the invitation was in fact quite practical. The orphans are the ones who respond to the play and thereby invite the “regular” theatergoers to experience the story with them, laughing at the subtle humor and waiting alongside them in anticipation of what will happen next. The orphans, in a sense, teach the theatergoers how to “read” the play, and in doing so, beckon them to abandon their adult ways and become like little children again. And it works, but not because of the play itself. It works because of the unique intersection of the play with the community that has ears to hear and eyes to see.

This illustrates well Hauerwas’s point regarding the relationship of biblical text to community. The scripture,” he argues, “functions as an authority for Christians precisely by trying to live, think, and feel faithful to its witness they find they are more nearly able to live faithful to the truth … The moral use of scripture, therefore, lies precisely in its power to help us remember the stores of God for the continual guidance of our community and individual lives” (66).

Stay tuned for more next week!

Hauerwas Goes to the Movies (Week 3)

This post is part of a series on teaching religion in film using the work of Stanley Hauerwas. For helpful background, please see the posts from Week 1 and Week 2!

This week students read Chapter 2 in Hauerwas’s A Community of Character. This chapter–Jesus: The Story of the Kingdom–is arguably one of the most difficult in the book. Its vocabulary is complex and technical, and certain portions of the chapter presume a fairly sophisticated knowledge of ancient and modern christological controversies. That being said, the chapter’s thesis is relatively clear throughout: the story of Jesus is itself a social ethic that forms the community of those who would claim to follow him. Or as Hauerwas puts it:

There can be no separation of christology from ecclesiology, that is, Jesus from the church. The truthfulness of Jesus creates and is known by the kind of community his story should form.

I was impressed with how well the class handled this difficult chapter of an already difficult book. There were certainly some questions, but they were the right kinds of questions. The word cloud below was compiled from their essays. When I shared it on Facebook last week, one of my colleagues commented: “That’s a great Hauerwasian word cloud. You’re teaching a class full of resident aliens.” I agree, and I am proud of the progress they are making!

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 1.00.20 PM

As a means of exploring some of Hauerwas’s claims in this chapter, we watched Jesus of Montreal (1989), a classic Canadian film about a group of actors who write and perform a controversial passion play. If you can get past the bad perms, mullets, and seemingly-endless guitar solo montages, Jesus of Montreal is a remarkable take on the life and person of Jesus. Throughout this film the actor who plays Jesus in the passion play mirrors many of the stories of Jesus in his life. The actors he recruits, for example, are all found to be working at undesirable jobs – one is employed as a voiceover actor for pornographic films. His calling them from these jobs is supposed to resemble Jesus’ calling of the disciples. At one point, the actor who plays Jesus becomes agitated at the way an actress is being treated at an audition, and he begins flipping over tables and lighting stands and drives everyone out of the auditorium. This is a not-so-sutle reference to the so-called Temple Tantrum that features so prominently in the canonical gospels. At the end of the film the actor dies, and his friends allow the doctors to harvest his organs. His body becomes a source of life for others.

This is the most overtly religious film we have watched up to this point, and student reactions to it were mixed. Discussion after the film touched on a number of issues, one of those being the film’s extremely negative portrayal of the church or anything that would resemble organized religion. The Catholic priest who sponsors the passion play is a hypocrite who for years has been breaking his vow of celibacy, and at the end of the play when the actors are encouraged to start an acting company to honor their deceased leader, they are encouraged to do so by a lawyer who clearly is meant to represent a sort of Satan figure. The implication is clear: “Jesus = good; church = evil.”

This undercurrent provided interesting fodder for discussion, especially in light of the weight that Hauerwas puts on the church as the community formed by the story of Jesus. Hauerwas would argue that the church as it exists today does not look as it should, of course, but this is quite different than claiming it to be evil, inspired by some sort of demonic force.

Even in light of these tensions, I think students found the film to be a helpful (if slightly literalistic) illustration of what Hauerwas means when he speaks of a community that is formed by the story of Jesus.

Hauerwas Goes to the Movies (Week 2)

This is the second post of a series on teaching religion in film using the work of Stanley Hauerwas. For helpful background, please see the first post from last week!

This week students came to class having read Chapter One in Hauerwas’s A Community of Character. In this chapter he outlines his “10 Theses Toward the Reform of Christian Social Ethics” in which he argues for the centrality of narrative to Christian social ethics and the formation of a community (the church) that can exist in a way that is faithful to the story of Jesus. “The primary social task of the church,” he maintains, “is to be itself–that is, a people who have been formed by a story that provides them with the skills for negotiating the danger of this existence, trusting in God’s promise of redemption” (10).

Hauerwas is not an easy read, and I was impressed by the number of students who seemed able to navigate this material with little to no difficulty (I should note, by the way, that of the twenty six students currently enrolled in the class, only a small handful are religion majors; most are taking this course as an elective or to fulfill a religion requirement in the core liberal arts curriculum). One student made the astute observation that what Hauerwas seems to be doing in this chapter is advocating for a sort of “secret clubhouse” mentality among Christians. While I noted that he would likely not want to frame the matter in those terms, I think he would at least agree with the sentiment: the church is a distinctive community that certainly exists within the world, but that exists as an alternative to much of what the world has to offer. And this distinctiveness is one of the things that makes the church the church.

Below is a word cloud that I generated from the first crop of essays (FYI – I will remove the word “Hauerwas” from future clouds):

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.02.23 PM

One of the things that students either loved or hated about this chapter was Hauerwas’s use of Watership Down to illustrate what he means by the role of narrative in the formation of communities. I think many were thrown off by the fact that the characters in Watership Down are rabbits – they thought this silly and not particularly fitting for a sophisticated theological treatise. Others just didn’t think that the stories did much to illustrate his point. Some loved the analogy, however. I only discovered about two days before the class started that Watership Down was made into a film. I’ve not had a chance to get a copy of it yet, but I will be interested in taking a look at it as a possible starting point for future classes.

After our discussion at the start of class, we watched Big Fish (2003), a wonderful film that illustrates the profound power that stories can have in the construction of one’s worldview. I gave the students a few questions to think about as they watched: When we talk about the importance of narrative/stories in the formation of our worldview, to what extent is it essential for these stories to be “true” stories What do we even mean when we talk about a story being “true”? Does this mean that it has to have happened in exactly the way that it’s told? And finally, I asked them to pay special attention to the role that mythology plays in this particular film.

Our discussion after the credits rolled was short (class only lasts so long) but fruitful. Students seemed to really enjoy the film, and one commented that it helped her to understand what Hauerwas had been arguing in the chapter they read for that week. I was pleased that she said this (without my prompting!) because that is, in fact, the goal of the class: read a difficult theological text and use film as a medium to better understand that text. Two weeks in and we are on the right track!

I’m a bit late posting this, and I plan on having my reflections on Week 3 up in the next few days.

SBL/AAR 2015: A Retrospective

Today is my first full day home from the 2015 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion. As is typically the case, I find myself in the aftermath experiencing a combination of exhaustion and exhilaration and, incidentally, in the mood to write a blog post (more on why at the end).

I gave two papers this year. One was on reading the death of Moses through first-century eyes and in light of the Synoptic transfiguration narratives (available here). The other was an intertextual analysis of some central themes in the Gospel of John and The Polar Express (available here). Both went well. I IMG_0698encountered some pushback on the Synoptic paper, but it was the kind of pushback that you want; several in the audience questioned parts of my analysis and offered some helpful avenues for further explanation that I’d not considered. Both of these papers happened on Saturday, more or less back to back, which made for a long day. But in retrospect, it was nice to not have them hanging over my head for the rest of the conference.
I also chaired a Christian Apocrypha session on Monday afternoon, where I got to hear phenomenal papers by Alexander Kocar (Princeton), Meghan Henning (University of Dayton), Andrew Mark Henry (Boston University), and Mark Bilby (Claremont). Tony Burke (York University) gave a response, and we closed with some discussion. I very much enjoy the Christian Apocrypha group at SBL, and not just because of my research interests. I like it because it’s relatively small, so you have a chance to get to know those who attend. And in the sea of humanity that is the annual meeting, a bit of familiarity here and there never hurts.

The book room is always a highlight, of course. This year there were actually two book rooms, on two separate floors, which was far from ideal. The “main” room upstairs housed the big publishers (Oxford, Eerdmans, Baker, Wipf and Stock, etc.), and the other room downstairs had the software people (Logos, Accordance, etc.) as well as a few other publishers (Notre Dame, etc.). I actually had no idea that the downstairs room even existed until late Saturday afternoon. I can’t remember ever seeing a divided exhibit hall like this, and I hope whoever organizes that aspect of the meeting will avoid similar situations in the future.

My goal this year was to avoid purchasing books that were not directly relevant to my teaching or research. I was actually able to avoid purchasing anything at all, but not because I didn’t find anything worth purchasing. Several publishers that I visited were interested in sending me on my way with gratis examination copies. From Oxford University Press I received a copy of Mark Noll’s In the Beginning was the Word, and from Baker I received Introducing World Religions: A Christian Engagement. And Fortress Press provided me with a new desk copy of a text I’m using next semester: Rhoads, et al., Mark as Story (3rd edition).

I also quite by chance ended up dining with Markus Vinzent on Sunday evening. We chatted for over an hour about his intriguing hypothesis on the origin of the canonical gospels, namely, that they are all in some form drawing from Marcion’s Gospel. He very graciously tracked me down the next day and gave me two of his books: Christ’s Resurrection in Early Christianity and the Making of the New Testament (Ashgate), and Marcion and the Dating of the Synoptic Gospels (Peeters). I will look forward to reading through those and then, hopefully, posting some sort of review/engagement in this space.

One of the best parts of the annual meeting, of course, is reconnecting with old friends and meeting new ones. This year I was fortunate to be able to spend time with colleagues from graduate school, many of whom were giving papers or interviewing for jobs. I also got to meet in person several colleagues who were, until this weekend, only digital colleagues. Over the past two years or so Facebook and Twitter have clearly emerged as accepted and effective means of networking.

This leads to a question that I’d like to respond to briefly right now, but hopefully address further in a dedicated post at some point in the next few weeks. The question is that of blogging and other social media and the degree to which young scholars (graduate students, untenured faculty, etc.) should be involved, if at all. I attended the final twenty minutes or so of a session on blogging (James McGrath’s summary is here) in which several panelists argued that young scholars should not be blogging. Two reasons were cited: 1) it’s a time suck, and 2) it can attract controversy.

I agree wholeheartedly that social media can be an enormous waste of energy. Blogging in particular can demand long stretches of time that could be better spent working on other, more meaningful writing (journal articles, conference presentations, etc.). And I’ve also watched graduate students come close to committing career suicide with tweets, blog posts, etc. that aren’t particularly well thought out. Simply put: social media can be dangerous.

Yet at several points this weekend, even after attending the blogging session, I found myself advising younger colleagues to build up their social media presence. Because at least to some extent, many of the dangers of social media are avoidable ones. I say “to some extent” because there’s always some risk involved in putting yourself out there. And really, that is the case regardless of the medium: one could say the same thing about a book review, conference presentation, or journal article, and we nevertheless encourage these.

It is both possible and wise to limit the amount of time you spend engaging in social media, as academia requires that you commit a substantial portion of your energy to other, more scholarly pursuits. But I do think that social media can be a valuable tool for the young scholar, if used carefully and with an acknowledgment of its limitations. More on that in a future post, I hope (the previous four paragraphs are little more than a knee-jerk reaction to the question, so please read as such and mind the gaps).

For now, time to enjoy another cup of coffee. See you next year in San Antonio!