I Asked Twitter About the Bible, and It Responded.

This past Tuesday, I posed a question to Twitter: “What’s your favorite example of something that people see in the biblical texts but that isn’t actually there?” Forty eight hours later, and that tweet has been seen over 65,000 times, and has garnered thousands of responses. As I write this, the conversation is actually still going.

In my tweet I gave two of my favorite examples of things that people see in the biblical texts but that aren’t actually there: an apple in the Garden of Eden and the image of Moses floating down the Nile River as a baby. A couple words on those.

In Genesis 3, where we find the famous story of the “fall” of humankind, the author does not specify that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil produces a specific type fruit, much less an apple. But, thanks to a number of factors (artistic, linguistic, etc.), when people read the story involving the tree, they often see an apple because that’s what they’ve been conditioned to see.

Likewise the story of Moses: nearly every Hollywood production involving Moses begins with his family floating him down the river in a basket. But if you read the story in Exodus, you see quite clearly that Moses’s mother doesn’t float him down the river; she places him near the bank of the river, among the reeds. People see Moses floating down the river when they read the story because that’s what they’ve been conditioned to see by the cinema and, more likely, their children’s Bibles.

These are two relatively insignificant examples, of course, that in the grand scheme of things have little impact on really anything. They’re favorites of mine because I see them pops up regularly in my classrooms.

But I was curious to see what other examples people could come up with, hence my tweet. My question gained a lot of traction quite quickly thanks to two commanding voices on Twitter. First, Nyasha Junior responded with what I continue to think is probably the best response to the question: white people.

And second, the tweet got the attention of Chris Stroop, who then amplified it to his 40,000 or so followers. The past couple of days have been busy to say the least.

When tweets becomes as popular as this one did, it’s easy to lose control of them, and to lose track of who’s responded and what those responses were. But as I’ve been scrolling through the thread, I’ve been struck by a number of responses that seem to appear over and over again. There were two in particular that stuck out to me: one doctrinal and the other moral. A few words on each of those, beginning with the doctrinal.

By far one of the most common responses to my question was “the Trinity.” And there’s nothing terribly controversial about this. After all, the theological definition of the doctrine of the Trinity did not occur until the early fourth century, long after the texts of the New Testament had already been written. As such, those who find the doctrine of the Trinity spelled out in clear terms in the New Testament are wishful thinkers at best. But it’s also interesting to note the extent to which the ideas that would lead to the doctrine of the Trinity are present in someway in the New Testament. Relevant here is David Yeago’s important distinction between “judgments” and “concepts.” While the concepts of the Trinity and the eternal coexistence of the Son with the Father are not present in the first century, the judgment that Jesus is somehow God most certainly is, at least in some New Testament texts. One does not have to read too deeply in John’s Gospel, for example, to see this spelled out relatively clearly. So while the Trinity is certainly not present in the New Testament, I think that it’s important to acknowledge that the seeds that would grow into this doctrine almost certainly are, at least in some form.

Another extremely common response to my question was “condemnation of homosexuality,” or some variant of it. This one struck me because it is really only a half truth (don’t go anywhere – keep reading). There are, in fact, a number of places in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament where homosexual acts are spoken of in less than positive terms. The most famous of these is found in Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (NRSV). But Paul also probably had a few things to say about it (see Rom 1:26-27, 1 Cor 6:9-10).* So in one sense, the idea that “the Bible” doesn’t condemn homosexuality is untrue.

But, on the other hand, the statement that the Bible doesn’t condemn homosexuality is also actually quite true. Because while the biblical authors do have some things to say about homosexual acts, none of them probably have any conception of sexual orientation, our understanding of which developed in the twentieth century. Would Paul’s thoughts on the topic have been different had he had a concept of orientation? Maybe, or maybe not. It’s a fascinating question that is relatively impossible to answer. The bottom line regarding this and other moral/ethical issues is that it’s unwise to presume that the authors of the biblical texts are necessarily addressing the same issues that we (in the 21st century) are.

In addition to these common threads there were also a number of responders who revealed through their responses that they had spent little time actually reading the texts themselves. One gentleman, for example, responded: “the idea that God is love.” Well, regardless of whether you think that to be true, that’s a claim that the author of 1 John makes. Others responded with: “the idea that the gospels are written by eyewitnesses.” My own opinion as a biblical scholar is that the gospels were not, in fact, written by eyewitnesses. Luke goes so far in his prologue by distinguishing himself from eyewitnesses (Luke 1:2). But at least one of the evangelists (John) does claim to be an eyewitness account. Does this mean that it actually is? Of course not. A claim is not necessarily true just because an author says it is; to think otherwise is madness. But, if the question is “what do people see in the texts that isn’t actually there?”, then in order to answer that question, you first have to be aware of what is actually there in a plain sense. The question of whether you “agree” with or “believe” what’s there is a question that you answer later.

At any rate, those are some thoughts on the last 48 hours. And now that I’m finishing this post up, I see that the original tweet has been retweeted by Rachel Held Evans, so it looks like things will get more interesting before they get less.



* Some have suggested that Paul’s language here and elsewhere is meant to address exploitative sexual relationships like pederasty rather than homosexual relationships more broadly. See, for example, the work of Victor Paul Furnish, Dale Martin, and Robin Scroggs, among many others.

Why I Started Having Students Schedule Office Hours

Where I teach, most students do not like visiting faculty during office hours. Athletes who need progress reports signed will typically approach faculty before or after class, and random questions about course material or assignments will often be posed during random run-ins with students in the library or coffee shop. Most of my colleagues have experienced the same thing.

During my first year of full-time teaching, I met with ten students in my office. (I know this because I keep track of every student who comes to visit me; it’s a quirk.) During my second year, that number rose to twelve. At the end of my second year I started asking students in my classes why they don’t use faculty office hours more. I received two answers time and again:

  1. They are afraid that when they just “drop by” that they are going to be interrupting something, and
  2. Many of their professors actually aren’t in their offices during office hours to begin with (presumably because not many students stop by, because of the reason noted above).

As I entered my third year I decided to try something different: set aside office hours as I had always done, but request that students make an appointment before dropping by. To
accomplish this, I used a scheduling app called “YouCanBookMe” (see image, below). There are a few other options out there, but this one is free and it works well enough.

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With this app, you set up what times you want to be available, connect it to your iCal or Google Calendar, and then anyone with access to your scheduling link can reserve a meeting time in ten or fifteen minute increments. When they set a meeting, the app adds the event to your calendar and sends you and them a notification e-mail. It works flawlessly and instantaneously.

The first semester I used this app, I met with over forty students over the course of the SEMESTER (compared to a total of twenty two over the previous TWO YEARS), and many of those came to meet with me several times. The second, third, and fourth semesters that I used this app brought the same or even better results.

At first, a number of my colleagues expressed concerns that having students set appointments for office hours would make me seem less “accessible.” But the data would suggest the exact opposite: this practice makes faculty more accessible, not less. I’ve since converted a number of colleagues to this app, and every one of them has seen similar results.

Nowadays, my office hours availability is posted on my course homepages so that students can check, week by week, when I’m going to be available to meet with them. On the first day of class I show them how they app works, and I have a few students set fake appointments during class while I broadcast my calendar page on the classroom projector. They like seeing how the process works, and it affords me the chance to emphasize that I want them to stop by, and that this makes it easier for that to happen.

I still advertise “drop in” office hours on my office door, and I’m always clear with students that they are more that welcome to stop by unannounced. But I remind them that the best way to ensure that they have my undivided attention is to give me a heads up that they’re coming.

I Deleted My Twitter Feed (on Purpose)

For the past few weeks I’ve been noticing more and more people on Twitter talking about wiping out their Twitter feeds and starting over. At first I considered it a ridiculous idea. Why would anyone do such a thing?

But the more I thought about it, the more it fascinated me. I started on Twitter back in 2011, and at first I used it as a means of just promoting blog posts; I didn’t really interact with anyone for the first year or so. But since then I’ve used it for a number of different things: networking with colleagues, sharing news, communicating with students, ranting about politics, etc. Suffice it to say that my Twitter history was a bit of a mess.

What finally pushed me over the edge the other day was an anonymous troll who responded to a post I made two years ago. That’s right: someone that I don’t know tried to pick a fight with me over a random post that I made two years ago and had totally forgotten about. To be fair, the post was pretty inflammatory (it was political), so I guess it got the reaction that I had hoped for initially. But I had no memory of writing it, and it got me thinking about how much else I had posted that I had forgotten about.

Rather than wade through ca. 14,000 tweets and delete one every now and again, I decided to just wipe the slate clean and start over. Like ripping off a bandaid.

There are a number of ways to do this. I ended up using a service (recommended by one of my Twitter colleagues) at GoCardigan.com. It worked perfectly.

They recommend first downloading an archive of all your old tweets and then uploading that archive – something about the Twitter database limits them otherwise to only wiping your 3,000 most recent tweets. I did this, clicked go, and watched my history disappear. The process was remarkably quick and entirely painless.

I’ve also just discovered another service called Tweet Delete that keeps your history clean by deleting old tweets when they reach an age that you specify (3 months, 6 months, 1 year, etc.). I’m considering setting this up as well.

Curious to hear if any of you have done similar things.

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 5)

This post is part of a series on teaching religion in film using the work of Stanley Hauerwas. You can get caught up on our progress so far by reading the posts from Week 1Week 2Week 3, and Week 4.

For this week students read the fourth chapter in Hauerwas’s A Community of Character — “The Church and Liberal Democracy: The Moral Limits of a Secular Polity.” This chapter’s central claim is that Christianity and Liberalism are characterized by competing and irreconcilable ideologies. I therefore anticipated that it would generate some pushback from students, and it did, but not to the extent that I had feared (or hoped?). Discussion at the start of class was fruitful, and I found that many students seem to appreciate the line that Hauerwas draws.

One of the things they seem to have found most compelling in this chapter is its analysis of Liberalism’s emphasis on personal freedom and self-interest as cardinal virtues of sorts. Hauerwas notes that in the early days of Liberalism (liberal democracy in the United States, specifically), the assumption underlying liberal ideology was that people were, in fact, virtuous. Yet as time progresses, the situation will change. Now, Hauerwas argues, “people feel their only public duty is to follow their own interests as far as possible, limited only by the rule that we do not unfairly limit others’ freedom” (79). “Liberalism,” Hauerwas maintains, “thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; a social order that is designed to work on the presumption that people are self-interested tends to produce that kind of people” (ibid).

Below is a word cloud generated from student essays on this chapter.

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Over the past few weeks one of the things I’ve noticed in essays and in our class discussion is that students have started asking serious questions about what precisely Hauerwas envisions when he speaks of “the church.” In a previous post I mentioned that one student went so far as to argue that he seemed to be advocating for a sort of “secret clubhouse” mentality.

As we’ve moved further into the book, questions about the relationship of the church to the world have become increasingly more common. Many found the section at the end of this chapter on contrasts between Liberalism and the church to be helpful, and we spent some time at the start of class going over this section.

After some preliminary discussion we watched M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (2004). To be honest, I actually don’t care much for the film; it’s quite tedious at points, and it’s far from Shyamalan’s best work (in my opinion). But it’s a fantastic illustration of what a truly sectarian society looks like in practice, and in my mind it is a perfect antithesis to how Hauerwas conceives of the church.

“The Village” is made up of people who seem to be living in the late-nineteenth century, deep in the forest and far from civilization. The woods that surround them are said to populated by vicious monsters who are drawn to the color red. Toward the end of the film it becomes clear that these monsters were created by “the elders,” the group of people who started the community. The stories of the monsters function to keep people in the community and to keep them at peace with one another.

At first glance the village seems like a suitable analog for the church. The people are loving, peaceful, and faithful, and they consider money the root of evil and don’t use it in their society. It is only when you consider the means by which the society is maintained that the serious issues with it become clear. In contrast to Hauerwas’s insistence that the church be formed and sustained by narratives/stories that are “sufficiently true/truthful,” the village is a society built on a series of elaborate lies.

What is more, the story of the monsters is in fact contrary to the values that the elders wish to instill in their progeny. They want their children to be peaceful and loving, but they teach them to be peaceful and loving people by surrounding them with threats of violence: “The monsters are drawn to the color red, so if you cause someone to bleed the monsters will come and get you.” Even though this threat of violence is intended as a preventative measure, it nevertheless instills in the people the belief that violence is a legitimate way to solve problems. And this ends up having disastrous consequences for more than a few characters.

Our post-film discussion was rich; students seemed to enjoy the film, and I was impressed at how effectively they were able to grasp its mythology. One of the critical differences they identified between the village and Hauerwas’s conception of the church is that the former in no way benefits the world that it has chosen to exist apart from. The elders seek to build a society of faith, hope, peace, and love, but they do so in radical isolation from the world that they perceive as violent. The church, on the other hand, seeks to cultivate similar virtue in its members, but this is always done in the context of the world. The church is an alternative to secular polities, but if it is to be a true alternative, then it must exist within sight of the polity to which it is serving as an alternative.

More next time!

How I Force My Students to Read Their Bibles

A post I wrote a few weeks back for TheoDepot.


Half of my teaching load is a survey of the Bible course. Genesis to Revelation in one semester. Fun, right? For the most part, it is. The most challenging part of this course is not the pace; it is convincing my students to complete the readings.

The majority of my students self-identify as some variety of Christian (whether they are practicing or not is a different question). Most come from relatively conservative backgrounds, and many will use language like “inspired and literal word of God” in reference to the biblical texts. This is to say that a good portion of my students enter my class with the conviction that, somehow, God wrote the Bible. Literally. It’s interesting to me, then, that with such a lofty view of the words on the page, they seem so resistant to actually reading them.Unknown

This semester I am trying an experiment that is…

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