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…


Four New Biblical Commentaries (Gupta)

Check out these newly-released biblical commentaries

JohnsonTH.jpeg1-2 Thessalonians
by Andy Johnson, Two Horizons (Eerdmans, 2016). There are a number of very good volumes in the THNT series including Marianne Meye Thompson on Colossians and Stephen Fowl on Philippians. Johnson’s work on 1-2 Thessalonians meets that high bar of excellence. Perhaps what drew my interest the most is the way that Johnson puts together the ideas of sanctification/holiness and the Missio Dei, and how both of these drive Paul’s theological message in these short letters. He also happens to agree with me that we need a big re-think about how we approach pistis, and that in 1-2 Thess it is certainly appropriate to translate it in most cases as “loyalty” or “fidelity.”

Image result for Colossians Foster
, by Paul Foster, BNTC (Bloomsbury, 2016). Hot of the press, this volume on Colossians offers a penetrating exposition of the letter. Foster takes the position that Colossians is mostly likely pseudonymous, written not long after Paul’s death to a community that is probably geographically close to Colossae. Some distinctives of this commentary – attention to text-critical issues, early reception of Colossians, and socio-historical contextualization. It is not a foot-note heavy commentary, but it will be clear to readers that Foster has invested much in understanding scholarship on Colossians.

Longenecker Paidiea.jpgPhilippians and Philemon
, by J.W. Thompson and B.W. Longenecker, Paideia (Baker, 2016). I have really enjoyed the Paideia commentaries, some good volumes already from Peter Oakes, Frank Matera, Charles Talbert, Mary Ann Beavis, Jo-Ann Brant, and others. Thompson wrote the material here on Philippians, and Longenecker on Philemon. As for Philippians, Thompson shows his expertise in Greco-Roman context, and in his comments on the “theological issues” in Philippians he gives attention to the reception of Philippians, esp in the Patristic period (e.g., Chrysostom). Thompson is also interested in how Paul shapes his converts morally. Longenecker brings to the study of Philemon his expertise in Roman social history, particularly his knowledge of Roman economics and Roman slavery. Truth be told, there are already a number of very good commentaries on these Pauline texts, but Thompson and Longenecker are able to engage the reader with the Greco-Roman world in an attractive and accessible manner.

Dunn Acts.jpegActs of the Apostlesby James D.G. Dunn, 2016 reprint (Eerdmans, 2016). OK, this is not a “new” commentary, but rather a reprint of a 1980’s commentary. But what I love about this book is that Dunn focuses squarely on the text and does not get bogged down into the minutiae of academic scholarship. There are no footnotes, just Dunn’s mature exposition and judgment on the flow and understanding of the text. As far as I can tell, the commentary is 99% the same as the original version, but now with a foreword by Scot McKnight. If you want to get some of Dunn’s more recent thoughts on Acts (though clearly in line with his earlier work), check out his Beginning from Jerusalem (also Eerdmans).

Characters and Characterization in Luke-Acts (Skinner)

dicken-snyderI just received my copy of a new book edited by my friends, Frank Dicken (who is also a former student) and Julia Snyder. The book, Characters and Characterization in Luke-Acts (LNTS 548; London: Bloomsbury/T & T Clark). Here’s a description from the back of the book:

Like all skilful authors, the composer of the biblical books of Luke and Acts understood that a good story requires more than a gripping plot – a persuasive narrative also needs well-portrayed, plot-enhancing characters. This book brings together a set of new essays examining characters and characterization in those books from a variety of methodological perspectives.

The essays illustrate how narratological, sociolinguistic, reader-response, feminist, redaction, reception historical, and comparative literature approaches can be fruitfully applied to the question of Luke’s techniques of characterization. Theoretical and methodological discussions are complemented with case studies of specific Lukan characters. Together, the essays reflect the understanding that while many of the literary techniques involved in characterization attest a certain universality, each writer also brings his or her own unique perspective and talent to the portrayal and use of characters, with the result that analysis of a writer’s characters and style of characterization can enhance appreciation of that writer’s work.

Part One consists of seven chapters devoted to character issues in the Gospel of Luke. Part Two consists of six chapters devoted to Acts. The book also boasts an all-star lineup of scholars working in the US, UK, and Germany, including: Sean A. Adams, Cornelis Bennema, Hannah M. Cocksworth, John A. Darr, Frank E. Dicken, Stephen E. Fowl, David B. Gowler, Joel B. Green, James L. Ressguie, Julia A. Snyder, F. Scott Spencer, Steve Walton, and Brittany E. Wilson.

Receiving this book made my day for two reasons. First, I am proud to be associated with both Frank and Julia and happy for their accomplishment. Second, I am excited to see further work being done on characters and characterization in the NT narratives. This represents the third book on the subject in the Library of New Testament Studies; the first two were my books, Characters and Characterization in the Gospel of John, and Character Studies and the Gospel of Mark (co-edited with Matt Hauge). As I understand it, Matt Hauge is also working on Characters and Characterization in the Gospel of Matthew. I am excited that this work on characterization is continuing.

Congrats to Frank and Julia!

Interview with Douglas Estes on How John Works (Skinner)

douglas-estesA few weeks back I mentioned the publication of a really great new book entitled, How John Works: Storytelling in the Fourth Gospel (Atlanta: SBL Press), co-edited by Douglas Estes and Ruth Sheridan. I was privileged to contribute one of the fifteen chapters to this volume, which boasts an international lineup of Johannine scholars. I recently had a chance to interview Douglas about the book. Here’s what he had to say.

1) With the proliferation of books in biblical studies, what makes this book special?

“This book is special because it fills in a needed gap between an in-depth commentary and a more topical survey of the Gospel’s features. How John Works is neither a commentary, nor a monograph; instead, it explores fifteen of the most important issues that makes John ‘work’ as a gospel. Each of these issues are part of the ‘narrative dynamics’ of the Gospel—what makes the story John’s story. Also what makes this book special is that it covers the Gospel in a wide-ranging way but without getting too bogged down in the details (as a commentary does, for good reasons, of course) or only looking at one issue (as a monograph does). (We could just say that ‘Chris being a contributor’ is what makes the book special—and while I agree!—it is not the only thing!)”

2) Who are the primary readers of this book; how do you see it being used?

“The original plan for How John Works was to create a textbook that students could use to understand how a narrative like the Fourth Gospel has proven so effective for almost two millennia. As Ruth and I were planning and editing the book, we kept coming back to the question “Will this help a student?” I see the book being used two ways: first, it can be used as a textbook in a NT Literature class, especially one where there is a focus on the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of the Christian texts; and second, as a general introduction to the literary design of the Gospel.”

3) With such a broad group of scholars—literally from all over the world—with different backgrounds, do the chapters come together? Or are there notable divergences?

“One goal that Ruth and I had from the beginning is that the book would not be “just a book of essays.” To that end, we worked with SBL Press and our contributors to have unique voices that fit well together. Whether this would work in practice was a conversation point between a number of us during the process—but in my humble opinion, it actually worked very well. Each contributor brings a unique perspective, of course, but the perspectives do fit together very well and bring a complementary perspective to the whole book.”

4) What is one way that your thinking about the Gospel of John changed by putting together Estes Sheridan Front Cover.inddthis How John Works?

“One way my thinking changed while working on this book is in the area of how important the literary study of this Gospel really is. As a scholar, I admit that I have always leaned more to the literary side of things than the historical (though I believe the separation between the two is often needlessly overblown). When we planned the book, as a textbook, I was thinking more that it would summarize important elements for students, and did not think about it cutting new ground. But, How John Works definitely does cut new ground. Sometimes literary approaches get knocked in scholarly circles as simplistic or limited, but editing this book reminded me how much that is not accurate—at least, when literary concerns are taken seriously, interact normally with historical concerns without artificial brackets, and address big issues in a profound way.”

5) How John Works covers fifteen ‘narrative dynamics’ found in John. Why fifteen? Are these the most important?

“This was a lengthy discussion that Ruth and I had as we were first putting the book together. There was nothing special about fifteen, though we knew that we wanted more than only a few. We also knew that it wouldn’t work to have, say, forty. So what we did was to try to pick the most important narrative dynamics, and we came out with about fifteen. Beyond that number, there were other narrative dynamics that would have been worthy of a chapter … but we wanted to be as broad as we were deep.”

6) Is there much more that can be said about the literary features of John? What is the future to this?

“Yes, there definitely is much more that can be said about the literary features of John. On the one hand, there are always details that some enterprising PhD student will discover in the process of writing their dissertation. Plus, there will also be plenty of opportunities in the future to do comparative studies of literary features with other ancient texts (which really has only begun, what with so many discoveries and recent, computerized access to them in the last century). On the other hand, there will always be a need for reevaluations and summarizations. As to the future, no, this is not the last word; I am hoping to start on a follow-up volume to this one in the near future, perhaps a Vol 2 of Storytelling in John, that will look at literary issues in John from a quite different perspective.”

Thanks to Douglas (and Ruth) for their great work on this book, and also to Douglas for answering our questions! Stay tuned because we are actually going to be giving away of copy of this book in the coming days. . . . .