Destroyer of the Gods by Larry Hurtado (Gupta)

Hurtado.jpgI took two books with me to read on my way to and from SBL – Larry Hurtado’s Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World was one of them (the other was Gaventa’s When in Romans). I am currently fascinated with early Christian social history, so I was eager to see what Hurtado had to say.

There have been several interviews and online discussions about this book already, so I won’t spend time here summarizing the book (You can see Hurtado give a lecture-version of this book HERE). Needless to say, Hurtado sets out to outline how the early Christians were unusual as a religious group in their time, and also to look at the kinds of things that Christians were accused of by others. Hurtado is clear that this is not a volume that intends to break much new ground in the study of early Christianity. Rather, it is more of a big-picture look at how Christianity was perceived by outsiders.

Overall, this work does a fine job of synthesizing the unique elements of early Christian composition (trans-ethnic), habit (rituals and text-orientation), and ethos. There is one blogger who faulted Hurtado for not discussing the cross as a feature of Christianity offensive to pagans. Hurtado responded to this criticism of his work, noting that “the sources don’t foreground that as the key point of contention.” I too had a similar concern about the lack of discussion of Jesus’ crucifixion as a point of shame and potential mockery, but I take Hurtado’s point that it simply is not a main topic raised by opponents of the early Christians. (Still, it is worth asking why critics of Christians did not raise this easy target – i.e., they honor an enemy of the state who was eventually stripped of his honor and dignity)

Furthermore, two things give me pause. Firstly, the shame of the cross is addressed enough in the New Testament (even if obliquely, Heb 12:2; Rom 1:16-17; 1 Cor 1:18; Gal 3:13) that it should factor in somewhere in a book on “distinctiveness.” That is, I find it fair to mirror-read the NT such that the early Christians themselves seemed to anticipate this criticism. Also, I might have included the “Alexamenos” graffiti as part of the critique of Christians, since it is so early (presumably) and a clear mockery.


A second concern I had with the book is that it was difficult for me to get a grasp on the intended audience. It was pitched “popular” enough to be non-technical, but certainly serves as a rather niche topic given the kinds of dialogue partners involved in this kind of discussion. This makes the book difficult to assess. One of my biggest concerns was that Hurtado often talked about criticisms of early Christians, but almost never gave block quotes of those texts. Most of us don’t have that material ready at hand, so we can’t look it up to get context and learn more. I would have greatly desired either the inclusion of more primarily material in block quotes, or an appendix that included extracts from those anti-Christian writings.

These criticisms notwithstanding, I have always admired Hurtado’s work (and assigned some of his Christology books as textbooks), and this is no exception. He has a clear and smooth writing style. He knows his history and has done his homework throughly. He is a measured and careful historian that also can be innovative and creative in analysis. This is definitely one of my favorite reads of 2016.

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.