The AAR/SBL Academic Culture – A Challenge (Gupta)

academic-conference.jpgThis is about my 10th or 11th SBL. I remember those early years of being starstruck when I saw Luke Timothy Johnson in the flesh, or when I got a few minutes in line at a cafe to talk to D. Moody Smith. The first papers I presented – how much I prepared and rehearsed. There are so many wonderful things about SBL. It has always been a highlight of my year.

I am trying now, settling into a decade of SBL-ing, to find ways to strengthen the experience. So, here are my bits of advice for everyone, but especially those who have been around for a while, like myself.

#1: You’re not too cool for anyone, so don’t be a jerk. Don’t make SBL about showing off your status, or kissing up to someone. Remember what it was like to be blown off by someone (as they look for someone else more important to talk to). Don’t do it. If someone wants to meet with me or chat with me, I try to find time in my schedule. When someone comes to me and introduces themselves, I don’t wait to find out how important they are – I try to take a minute and get to know them.

#2: Remember the disenfranchised. I have lived in a majority white culture all my life, it’s all I know, and I am not upset about it, but that does not mean that I am always “comfortable.” In recent years I have been trying harder and harder to make sure I am noticing everyone around me. Be friendly and inviting.

#3: Come alongside an underdog. I was (am?) an underdog. I am not the smartest guy in the room – I work hard, but, confession time, I bombed the GRE (twice). Several people at SBL took a chance on me and believed in me, they sent opportunities my way that I didn’t deserve, but they believed I could rise to the occasion. I am trying to do that for others now. Come alongside an underdog at SBL.

#4: Encourage the women in your sphere. Not in a condescending way, but open your eyes to the sexist world of academia. Nobody wants to be sexist, but many of us are. It’s an old boy’s club. It’s changing, thank God it is changing. I work with many incredible women  – academics and editors. But we have a long way to go. Invite them into collaborative projects. Invite them to your social outings. Some women academics receive little or weak support even from their institutions. Let’s do things differently.

#5: Treat exhibitor staff, hotel staff, and SBL staff with utmost respect. Our tendency is to think everyone is there for ME. My books, my papers, my response, my interview. Yeah, I’m sure they go home at night and all they want to do is talk about how amazing you are. (cue eyeroll). Take a minute every once in a while and be friendly to staff people. Surprise, surprise, many of them work excruciatingly long hours and have to be away from family for many, many days to serve you. Kindness helps. (Is it obvious I used to be one of these exhibitors?)

#6: Don’t diss anyone behind their back. I am guilty of this. I have done this. I know better, and I want to raise the bar. When gossip comes up, change the subject.

#7: Be yourself. (Your best self.) Don’t put on a mask at SBL. If you are evangelical, don’t pretend you are not. If you don’t like to drink, don’t get pressured into it. If you feel led to pray for someone with you in public, just do it. Don’t let “SBL” stifle you – we are SBL. We are human. Go for it.


Rowan Williams – Being Disciples (Gupta)

Being Disciples.jpgRowan Williams has a clear knack for homiletical and devotional writing. I greatly enjoyed his previous work, Being Christian, which focused on the topics of baptism, the Bible, Eucharist, and prayer. I found many of his brief reflections utterly profound and spiritually inspiring. Williams has a way of drawing in wisdom from great theologians without it being too “academic.”

This new work, Being Disciples, has the same format, though here split into six chapters: being disciples (ch 1), faith, hope, and love (ch2), forgiveness (ch3), holiness (ch4), faith in society (ch. 5), life in the Spirit (ch6). I found this book less fluid than the previous one, and perhaps it is because this one appears to be comprised of a collection of sermons Williams gave on several occasions (see links to those sermons on p. 88). That gives this book a sort of “kitchen-sink” feel, where “disciple/discipleship” seems to include just about everything related to the Christian life.

Something to keep in mind – Williams is not doing exegesis, he is not doing word studies. He is giving a series of “life reflections” on these themes. Sometimes that does rub me the wrong way – I would have wanted Williams to draw from the text a bit more. But it is what it is and there are some very rewarding moments. For example, his work on forgiveness (ch 3) is excellent. Here are a handful of lines

We should…think of those extraordinary words in the prophecy of Hosea (11:8-9) about the mercy of God: ‘How Can I give you up, Ephraim?…for I am God and not a mortal.’ To forgive is to share in the helplessness of God, who cannot turn from God’s own nature: not to forgive would be for God a wound in the divine life itself…The disciple rooted in Christ shares that powerlessness, and the deeper the roots go the less possible it is not to forgive. (42)

Many more striking reflections from Williams in these short 80-some pages. It makes for very rich devotional reading.


How I Do Research – Gupta (Part 3)

What Kind of Tools and Resources Do I Use for Productivity?

In the previous post on this, I mentioned the following

GoogleDrive/GoogleDocs – just this year, I am in the habit of storing all my notes and files on GoogleDrive and as GoogleDocs. They productiveoffer stronger searchability and can be accessed easily from anywhere.

ATLA database – I do a lot of my initial bibliographic compiling on ATLA. I figure out what I can get as pdf right away, and what I need to order.

Here are some other things I use:

Dropbox  – For the past 7-8 years I stored everything on Dropbox. I still have Dropbox and use it, but I am in the process of moving everything over to GoogleDrive (again, mostly because my institution offers endless space).

Seagate 2TB External Hard Drive – A handful of years ago, while I was using Dropbox, I lost 60% of everything on my computer. It was mostly my own fault (long story!), but I learned my lesson about backing up. To back-up my hard drive now, I use Mac’s “Time Machine” feature and externally back-up to a Seagate (great deal at Costco). Every month or so I do an external back-up, but everything is in Dropbox or GoogleDrive anyway. The Seagate is just for a doomsday scenario.

Bibleworks – I started my academic life on PC, so I learned to do research on Bibleworks. A few years ago I switched to Mac and couldn’t learn Accordance, so I run BW on Mac. Most of the time it is fine, but sometimes I have a hard time copying and pasting, or the display gets scrambled. Otherwise, I am happy with it. I use BW for Greek/Hebrew word study and copying text. I also utilize their lexicons (esp BDAG and Louw-Nida).

GoogleBooks – I don’t know how I would do research without Googlebooks. This tends to clue me in to books on the subject I am interested in. Sometimes I can access a few pages to get a sense for the book  – esp ToC. Then I can order it ILL if I want it.

Bookends – I mentioned before that I have tried to start using Bookends to collect bibliographic information. I have not been consistent, so not sure if it is a real long-term tool for me.

Microsoft Word  – I still use Word (or Google Docs) for my work. I am transitioning to using only Google Docs. They are not perfect word processors, but I am just too lazy to change to Nota Bene or something else. I did try Scrivener for writing books, but ultimately did not like how it felt, especially for using multiple languages with ease. It was nice to track my notes and the actual chapter sections side-by-side, but ultimately Scrivener was not my favorite.

Google Keep – I used to use Evernote to write down my “to do” list for life. But I heard that it was not going to be a good “free” option as their pricing scheme was changing. So I switched to Google Keep. For the basic needs I have of quickly jotting down some sticky-note kind of reminders and lists, it has been fine.

Logos – I tend to use Logos mostly for quick access to biblical commentaries, maps and images I might want to use in class, dictionaries, and other reference works. I don’t use it for word studies as I prefer Bibleworks. However, since Logos connected with the Perseus database of Greek literature, I do use Logos to do word studies that include non-biblical, non-Jewish Greek literature. Logos has improved significantly over the years in terms of the program not crashing. It used to be that it always crashed, now it does so only rarely.

Tyndale House Catalog – sometimes I use a library catalog to search for themes and subjects to find resources. I use Tyndale House’s catalog for this sometimes. In the past I have done the same with Harvard’s catalog. George Fox’s library catalog recently had a major upgrade so it integrated all digital resources within its permissions and also beyond, so now I am quite happy with it.

Scanbot Iphone App  – This is a smartphone app that takes pictures of physical documents through your camera and automatically scans them to pdf. What I like about Scanbot in particular is that for a few extra $$$ you can upgrade to the OCR version – so handy! So, when I visited Tyndale House a couple of summers ago, when I needed just one page or a few pages from a book, I would just scan them using Scanbot. The picture is really clear and scans with good detail. Just make sure you take a pic that is not blurry.


How I Do Research – Gupta (Part 2)

taking-notes-clipart-taking-notesHow Do I Take Notes?

Throughout the years I have tried different approaches, software, and philosophies for taking and tracking my notes. Like others, I have not been good at being consistent or even particularly well-organized. But I have a plan at present that works for me.


Whenever I start a project, I create a Google Doc. In that doc I make a series of section titles for parts of the research project. I have Google Doc create a ToC for the document so I can click on the section I am working on. The reason I like Google Docs is that it can be accessed from any computer pretty easily, my institution (George Fox) gives us endless storage, and it is easily searchable.

Now, when it comes to what I PUT in the document, it ends up being a lot of quotations. I want to make sure I got the author right, so I copy a lot of quotes from the material to have on-hand. So as to make sure I don’t mix up quotes I label them very carefully. If I have my own thoughts about an issue, I will use my own initials (NKG) so I keep track of my thoughts vs. the others in the document. The document does tend to be very long, sometimes dozens of pages, sometimes hundreds of pages. But, again, nice to have it in one place.

The main thing I have learned how to do is to keep organized. The better I organize these notes, the clear my thinking is when it is time to write.

Now, just in the last year or two I have tried using Bookends to keep track of bibliographical items. I did start to put some notes in there, but I have found that I am not as comfortable using Bookends as I thought I would be.

My priority when it comes to making and storing notes is (#1) ease of use, (#2) security – not losing my data, and (3) ease of access/search-ability. So many times I have thought- I read an article on that, where did I put those notes? I am realizing now that the “finder” on my computer does a poor job of searching for one-off words or phrases in a Word Doc, and that Google Docs and Google Drive does better on this.

In the end, I could scrap it and try something new next year, but I am in a good groove, so I am content for now.

Was St. Paul a Jerk? (Gupta)

PBB.jpgAllow me to introduce you to an interesting new book called Paul Behaving Badly: Was the Apostle a Racist, Chauvinist Jerk?, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien (IVP, 2016). This is the third in a series including God Behaving Badly (David Lamb) and Jesus Behaving Badly (Mark Strauss). As the authors of this third book note, talking about Paul is a bit different because he was a “regular human” (not God or Jesus), so it very could be that he was severely flawed. This book accessibly and transparently engages with a long history of controversy around the personality, attitude, and beliefs of Paul as divulged from his letters.

It would have been tempting for Richards and O’Brien to simply sweep Paul’s problems under the table -they don’t do that. They put the Apostle on trial and examine his reputation and apparent flaws in a fair manner. And even when they are tempted to come to his defense, they still leave tensions in the end, recognizing that he was not perfect and didn’t need to be perfect for God to speak through him in Scripture.

This book is a handy engagement with Paul especially for those who tend to prefer the Gospels over Paul’s letters. It is for Christians who find Paul cocky, cold, and doctrinaire compared to the hippie hug-everyone Jesus. There is something cathartic about putting all these cards on the table. If I were still teaching first-year college students, I would definitely be using this book to talk about Paul.

Anthony Le Donne on His New Book, Near Christianity (Skinner)

near-christianityMy friend, Anthony Le Donne, has recently written a book entitled, Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved My Faith in God (Zondervan, 2016). I have long been a fan of Anthony’s more academic writing (here, here) and his student-oriented (here) and popular-appeal books (here) about Jesus, but this book is a departure for him. I recently had an opportunity to interview Anthony about the book and the motivations for writing about such different subject matter.

(CWS): You say at the start of the book that you’re writing for fellow Christians. How much of your motivation was to expose Christians to an alternative history of Christianity?

(ALD): I am interested in alternative versions of history. Our histories are always being revised. Sometimes this is good, sometimes not. Christians in particular tend to revise our histories to suit our positive self image. We remember great “fathers” and historic episodes heroically. We tend to see the expansion of Christianity as a spread of the good news. I guess part of my book is about trying to listen to voices from beyond the Christian echo chamber. It turns out that our religious neighbors remember the expansion of Christianity differently. We need as many different voices in the study of our history as possible.

(CWS): In the book you write: “How did Christian morality look in Nazi Europe? What dogmatic shape did it take? And if we find that it looked similar to the Christian moralities at work in the heresy hunting of early Christian theology, or Constantine’s vision, or the Crusades, or our major church splits, or manifest destiny, or the Salem witch trials, or Confederate America, or the Red Scare, or countless acts of harm to LGBTQ+ children, should we not stop to wonder if there is a deeper sickness at work?” Do you think that a deeper sickness is at the heart of Christianity? And if so, what is it?

(ALD): I call this the “mythological foothold.” It is the very old Christian strategy to create a caricature of an “other” who represents some sort of danger, and then triumph over the caricature we’ve created. I don’t think that this needs to be the heart of Christianity. But, for some reason, many Christians need an ideological enemy. This is a very old problem in Christian thought and it began with our attempt to supplant Jews and Judaism. But we’re now seeing the same sort of ideological strategy at work in western Islamophobia. We’ve created a stereotype of Muslims and we’re using it as a rallying cry. It really is the worst version of Christianity. The good news is that we don’t need an enemy to be faithful Christians. We have it in our spiritual DNA to remedy this.

(CWS): In your chapter on Christmas, you denounce Donald Trump as a demagogue. I imagine that ledonnemany evangelicals will not like this description, and this book is published with Zondervan, an openly evangelical press. What, do you think, is the appeal of Trump’s politics to conservative Christians?

(ALD) : Well, I guess that I ought to define “demagogue” as I neglect to do it in the book. So here the Merriam-Webster definition: “a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power”; or “a leader championing the cause of the common people in ancient times.” Aside from the “ancient times” portion of this, I think that this is a perfect description of Mr. Trump. He comes up in the book because he contributes to the so-called “war” on Christmas. My point is that Christians ought to be focusing on Advent rather than fueling a culture war. As a Christian, Advent is important to me. But national surveys show that most American Christians do not observe these important weeks of preparation before Christmas. We have allowed something sacred to be lost. Advent is a time for anticipation, remembrance, and listening for God. But we’ve allowed this time of year to become a consumer frenzy. This is what C. S. Lewis called his “pet abomination”—one can only imagine what he would have thought of people being trampled at Wal-Mart or Best Buy. One of the consequences of this secularization of the Christian calendar is that we’ve created a season of protest. We’ve allowed the news media to draw us into culture wars and Advent becomes a time of celebrating Christmas as a show of religious freedom.

(CWS): Since this book is about your “journeys along Jewish-Christian borders,” can you give us a preview of some of the important insights that have come to you in your interactions with Jewish friends, Jewish customs, and Jewish texts?

(ALD): Sure. But first let me say that my experience of Jews and Judaism is idiosyncratic. Everything that I write in this book reveals only my particular experience. I imagine that others might gain different insights from different sort of inter-religious conversations. In other words, nothing that I say should be used as a general stereotype. This book is more about what I’ve learned from my conversations and less about simply retelling bits of wisdom I’ve digested. That said, here are a few things I’ve learned about Christianity: (1) Christians are much more powerful than we know. We have to get over the us-against-the-world myth. Our inferiority complex is dangerous on a global scale. There are 2.7 billion of us. That we have considerably more power than we think we do is both good news and bad news. It is an enormous responsibility. (2) The best and fastest way to make the world a better place is for Christianity to become the best version of itself. This is not something that I learned from a book or a rabbi or some ancient bit of wisdom. It’s just something that would have never occurred to me unless I had journeyed along Jewish-Christian borders and fault-lines. Finally, (3) most of my Jewish friends want me to become a better Christian. I find this especially motivating. My devotion to God through Christ actually makes me a more interesting dialogue partner at this particular table. For whatever it’s worth, I don’t think that I can say the same thing about my Christian friends. I find that the more time I spend at the Jewish-Christian fence, the more I want to be a good neighbor.

I hope this is enough to whet your appetite. I never cease to be entertained and informed by Anthony’s writing. This book is no exception. Now that you have read the interview, you should go and buy a copy of the book (or two). I’m sure Anthony would appreciate that.

How I Do Research – Gupta (Part 1)

Book-research-2.jpgLast year I did a set of posts on how senior scholars do research (Gorman, Dunn, Attridge, Bond, Blomberg, etc.). A few commenters asked if I would share how I myself do research. Well, I am still learning, which is part of why I wanted to do the series in the first place.  But I am now about a decade into my life as a researcher, so I thought I would share where I am on this at the moment. I will tackle this in multiple posts.

The Big Picture: How I approach the task of research

Smaller projects tend to come to me by invitation, but I when it comes to bigger ones, about half the time it is my own initiative and interest. Currently I am working on a few commentaries, a NT textbook (with my co-blogger, Chris), a reference volume on 1-2 Thessalonians, and a monograph on Paul’s faith language. After I decide to write a book, I do some mapping of the work. When it is a commentary, the mapping is rather straightforward. I make some deadlines for myself regarding how long it will take me to write section-by-section. I try to spend the first 6-12 months delving into primary literature. For a commentary in particular, I print out the Greek text (triple spaced) and put it into a binder. Then I translate and analyze that Greek text with colored pencils or pens and go over it again and again. I want my commentary work to be inspired by fresh thought.

Also, I try to go out of my way to do published book reviews on new books in the area of my research, so that I force myself to stay up-to-date on the scholarship. Also, as best as possible, I try to ensure that I get a chance to teach on the subject(s) of my research. This gives me a good chance to test my ideas out on students and to receive their questions and feedback. This has been invaluable throughout the years.

In terms of tackling the secondary literature, I go to ATLA and collect the major bibliography list for my work. Some of it will happen to be in my personal library, some able to be downloaded as pdfs, but I keep a special list of those items I need to order (through ILL or our local consortium). If there is simply too much material for me to wade through, I rank items – (A) if it is high priority and if it seems most pressing and relevant, (B) if it may be relevant; all else tends to get put on the back-burner.

To be continued…