What Kind of Person Would Write That?

June 19, 2010

In my day job I write technical documentation that explains how to use software. Everything I write goes to an editor, and documents often go back and forth between us several times before both editor and writer are happy with the final product. When we’re done, a document is still not ready for publication, though – the programmers who write the software have to review it to make sure my editor and I got everything right.

The editors and programmers who review my documents naturally address their comments to me since I, after all, am the author. But some of what “I” write doesn’t really come from me, so it isn’t all that unusual that I get credit or blame for things I didn’t do, or even things I did against my better judgment.

A document of mine that went through the edit process recently is a case in point. This document began with directions from marketing about how to write it. The goal was to make it sound less technical and more “friendly” than most of what we produce. To that end, the marketing analyst sent me samples of text the way he wanted it written, and he made it a point to use exclamation marks to drive home how informal and friendly the text should be, as in sentences such as “… works right out of the box!” He also insisted that friendliness for the developer community necessitated using abbreviations such as “app,” in phrases such as “popular open source apps.” Neither of these is my style but I dutifully sprinkled exclamation marks and “app” throughout my text.

After writing the document per marketing specs, I forwarded it to my editor. It came back, as usual, full of revisions and comments. One of the latter pointed at one of my exclamation marks and exclaimed:

Oh, please. As one of my writing managers said about 15 years ago: “Nix. Too exciting.” Seriously, exclamation points in docs are strictly Amateur Hour.

This same editor didn’t think the introduction that I wrote for this document was adequate, so he added a whole paragraph of his own in front of my text. I won’t quote the entire paragraph, but it ended with a sentence announcing that this software product would make programming “easy and fun.”

Because several groups were cooperating to create this product, my document went on to get reviewed by a second editor, from one of the other groups. That editor didn’t like “app”:

Is this abbreviation acceptable jargon? Maybe so? Only for this walkthrough? Certainly non-standard.

And he in no uncertain terms condemned the word “fun”:

This is extremely informal, bordering on condescending. I realize that we want a friendly tone, but is “fun” really an appropriate term? Is that a term used in—for instance—competitors’ docs?

So I dutifully ratcheted down the friendliness level and removed “app,” “fun,” and exclamation marks before forwarding the document to the responsible programmer for review. The first thing, that person saw, of course, was the initial paragraph that my editor had written (from which I had removed “fun” because it provoked such outrage from the second editor).  His comment:

Yikes J remove this para.

So I dutifully removed the paragraph.

Thus, two editors and one programmer may well have assumed that I wrote things I didn’t write, or that I was responsible for features of the text that were actually imposed upon me by others. When this document is finally published it won’t be under my name, but if it were, readers would not only get technical information from it but might also draw conclusions about me personally that would certainly be misleading.

I’ve been on the other side of the writer-editor fence as well: for years I copy-edited books for an author who was comfortable with me making major changes to his text. In places where there were gaps in the provided text, I would not infrequently write sentences, paragraphs, and sometimes whole pages of text. I didn’t even have to change the style of my writing to do that, because everything else the book had been reworked by me anyway. These books were then published, and every reader would then naturally assume the entire text came from the pen or keyboard of the book’s author.

This text-doesn’t-necessarily-come-from-the-author phenomenon does not only apply to technical or scholarly publications; fiction writers go through a similar editorial process. Nor is it unique to the modern world. For as long as there has been writing, there have been editors reworking what a writer wrote and sometimes substantially changing its character.

We have abundant evidence from the ancient world testifying to the fact that people were freely editing material written by others, sometimes without the original author’s knowledge and after the original author was long gone. Sometimes the author did the editing himself to make sure he presented the right image of himself. Any twenty-first-century blogger will understand how that works: if you’ve posted a blog entry, you are well aware that you must be much more careful about what you write than you are in a private letter. If you want to take material from a private letter and put it up on a blog you have to rework it. Well, ancient writers had exactly the same concerns. They might write a private letter expressing themselves freely, and then later rework it to make it presentable for a broader audience.

in Paul’s Letter Collection: Tracing the Origins David Trobisch finds evidence of the same kind of editorial work in Paul’s epistles. Actually, his thesis (for which he presents a good deal of evidence) is that the epistles of Paul in the New Testament were also heavily edited for publication. What then do we actually know about Paul, the person? Or rather, how certain can we be that any conclusions we draw from Paul’s epistles about Paul the person are accurate? We most likely have no unedited epistles of Paul, so caution is certainly called for, yet one tries with little success to find in the scholarly literature a realistic appreciation for how limited is our knowledge about Paul as a person.

Dirty Harry’s Peak with Buck

June 16, 2010

Last Saturday Buck and I hiked up Dirty Harry’s Peak, a great hike I recommend to anyone and especially with a dog.   It’s not far from Bellevue — exit 38 on I-90; and it’s not crowded — on a mid-June Saturday I started at 9:00 AM and did not see a single hiker going up and only 11 people with 4 dogs on my way down.

It’s a bit of a climb – 5 miles each way and 3,300 feet elevation gain.  Including rest stops, it took us 3 hours up and 2 hours down.  After you gain about 1,200 feet of elevation (about 45 minutes for us), there’s a short 5-minute spur that takes you out on a ledge with a fantastic view of I-90 and the mountains on both side of it.

The cutoff to Diry Harry's Balcony.

Buck on the "balcony."

I-90 and surrounding mountains from the "balcony."

The trail is not officially marked and there are a few forks.  In this one, the trail to the right looks like the right one at first glance but it leads to a swamp.  The trail to the left goes to Dirty Harry’s Peak.  Other hikers have tried to mark it by placing stones pointing that direction and some dug chips out of a tree.

One of the ummarked forks

Much of the way up after the cutoff to the balcony the trail is a wide stream of water from all the melting snow, and at one point there’s a creek with no bridge that you have to cross by stepping on the rocks.

Crossing the creek.

The trail itself is a creek.

Buck takes a break in the shade.

Snow on the trail.

Buck looking for mice under the snow.

Buck at the peak.

Snow and views at the top.

A view from the top.

More views from the top.

More views from the top.

Another view from the top, with Mt. Rainier in the distance (blends in with the clouds).

Literature, History, and Rorschach Blots

June 13, 2010

In Mark 3:21 and 31-35 Jesus’ family is presented in a very negative light (in typically Markan “sandwich” fashion, 3:22-30 is a digression; Mark often begins a story, then relates a different story, then returns to finish the story he started earlier).

And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is beside himself.” … And his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting about him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking around on those who sat about him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

It is interesting to see the interpretive legerdemain some commentators get into as they try to read this as though it was actually not meant to reflect negatively on Jesus’ family. One I read recently tries to argue that the Greek phrase hoi par autou in 3:21 should not be translated “family” — although that is a common meaning of the phrase and is clearly the appropriate one since Jesus’ “mother and brothers” are the people who actually show up after hoi par autou “go out” to seize Jesus. The translators of some English versions get into this act as well, translating elegon gar (“for they were saying”) as “for people were saying” to try to make it sound as though it was someone other than Jesus’ family who thought Jesus was out of his mind.

This is the sort of thing that Spinoza had in mind when he criticized biblical scholars’ common practice of distorting meaning “in order to make it conform with some truth already entertained.” That quote appears in Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy in a discussion where Kermode criticizes biblical scholars for what he sees as futile efforts at historicizing. He argues that biblical scholars go astray when they “ignore what is written in favor of what it is written about.” (119) Or to use the terminology of Spinoza, they try to focus on the truth of texts rather than what they mean.

Clearly in one respect he is right and the text from Mark ch.3 is a great example of that. These interpreters are so focused on what the text is apparently about and linking it to what they think they know about Mary in particular (after all, Luke says she knew all about Jesus, right?) that it becomes impossible for them to accept the plain meaning of what the text actually says. To solve this problem Kermode says we must read the texts as literature and not as history; we must focus on what they mean, not on whether or not they are true. We must give up entirely on trying to ascertain the historical basis behind the texts or finding the truth of the matter:

Insofar as we can treat a text as not referring to what is outside or beyond it, we more easily understand that it has internal relationships independent of the coding procedures by which we may find it transparent upon a known world. We see why it has latent mysteries, intermittent radiances. But in acquiring this privilege, the interpreters lose the possibility of consensus, and of access to a single truth at the heart of the thing.

However, Kermode, and with him many modern scholars of literature (that is his specialty; he’s not a biblical scholar himself), are throwing the baby out with the bath water. They treat literary texts as elaborate Rorschach blots – i.e., for them a text has no intrinsic or intended meaning, or if it did have an intended meaning, that meaning is so inaccessible as to not be worth even trying to ascertain. In effect, a text is an elaborate ink blot into which people read their own personality or desires, and they are perfectly justified in doing so. Anything anyone finds in a text is just as valid as whatever anyone else finds in it.

The “possibility of consensus” is something that people I’ll call non-historians take for granted about history in general. Non-historians assume that not only is consensus possible, but when consensus is achieved you have certainty about the “single truth at the heart of the thing.” Not so. When I taught introductory world history one of the hardest tasks I had to accomplish was to instill even the vaguest appreciation for just how uncertain are the historical reconstructions that students find in their history books. I tried to foster a realization of this by comparing history to a criminal trial.

In a trial, the jury tries to decide a simple matter of fact to which the answer is little more complicated than “yes” or “no.” The jury itself is a panel of people carefully chosen for their lack of bias. They listen to a long train of witnesses who live in their culture and speak their language. They look at evidence which is readily understandable because it is drawn from their own culture. The events they are learning about occur within their own lifetimes. The circumstances are absolutely ideal for attainment of consensus and ascertainment of truth. And yet trials sometimes end in hung juries and all too often it is discovered years later that the jury convicted John when Jane did the murder.

If the nearly perfect setup fails and consensus even there is no guarantee of truth, what about when the deck is stacked against an accurate determination of “what actually happened?” And what about when the attempt is not to determine simply what happened but the far more difficult and complex question of why it happened, which is what historians are always trying to do? With history no living eyewitnesses who can be cross-examined and we are typically dealing with texts that were written from only the winning side of some of historical struggle. Our evidence comes from a foreign hard-to-understand culture from halfway across the globe and from texts written hundreds to thousands of years old written in a dead language. We often don’t even have the original manuscripts of these texts because we only have handwritten copies of copies of copies with thousands of errors deliberate and accidental in them. Add to that the fact that historians themselves are not exactly a massive worldwide jury chosen specifically for lack of bias. This last point is especially an issue in biblical studies because many or most of these scholars desperately want the text to mean something that confirms their own religious persuasions. In this situation, consensus is bound to be elusive, and even if you could get to consensus, that would be no guarantee of truth.

So is Kermode right, then? Are texts, especially biblical tests, best treated as elaborate Rorschach blots? Should we use a text as a fun-house mirror that reflects back to us bits and pieces of our own personality and desires? Should we forget about whatever historical reality might be behind it? Certainly it’s true that consensus is elusive and any understanding anyone reaches about human history is not objectively verifiable and is thus uncertain. History is not an objectively verifiable science; it’s more like a belief-based religion such as Christianity is commonly assumed to be. Historians are like religionists who are attempting to win over converts to their “faith.” Some are more successful than others because they can put together their arguments more effectively, and some more than others because they tell people what they want to hear. But in the end it’s all a belief game.

Belief games are not just games, however. The course of every human being’s life is determined at every moment by his or her conception of the past. Every action I take today is based on my understanding of who I am. That is determined not only by what I remember about my own past but also by what I know about the human culture and human society in which I live. And that in turn is determined by what I understand about the history of my culture and my society. No matter how much we try to live in the present, we are who we are and we do what we do based on our understanding of the past. It behooves us to try to correctly understand that past, lest we make choices that take our lives on a course that some day, looking back, we might wish had been otherwise.

For many people, religion is a key determinant of their actions, so religious history is especially important in determining life choices. So for example, if today at age 25 I treat the texts of my religion as Rorschach blots that confirm my current belief system, what will I think if at age 75 after I have gradually learned to see them as historical texts that actually show some of my earlier beliefs to have been mistaken? Will I at age 75 look back over my actions over the past 50 years as being ill-considered? On the other hand, what if at age 25 I listen to a historical analysis of biblical texts that makes me rethink some of my beliefs and change some life choices as a result – will I not at age 75 look back and have a better chance of concluding that I made the right choices?

Real people wrote the biblical texts. Real people with human motivations and emotions and intentions. An attempt to understand those real human beings may have no guarantee of success but it’s a worthwhile effort. Certainly more worthwhile than analyzing texts as Rorschach blots. Both approaches may well be no-win games, but one of the two games has a better chance of helping us make choices that we won’t have to regret later.

Frank Kermode and “Ecclesiastical Formation”

June 5, 2010

In The Genesis of Secrecy, Frank Kermode observes that religious scholars increasingly study secular as well as religious texts, but the reverse is not true (or at least not in 1979 when he published his book):

For a secular critic to work on the reserved sacred texts, as I have chosen to do, is rarer. It is easy to understand why this should be so: there is a lack of interest (which I deplore but recognize); and there is a lack of necessary skills. The volume of scholarship is dismaying, and any outsider is bound to make mistakes. I am sure I have done so, in the teeth of good advice. (ix)

He explains his own lack of skills by observing that he does not know Aramaic or Hebrew, knows just enough Greek to get by, and his German is “so enfeebled that whenever possible I use translations.” Why does he even try, then, not only to study the subject but also to publish?

I have undertaken the studies here reported only because the importance of the subject, and the need of a secular approach, justify a measure of rashness. I think the gospels need to be talked about by critics of a quite unecclesiastical formation. (ix)

I agree. With few exceptions, scholars who specialize in scripture are members of religious traditions that influence or determine the perspective from which they approach the texts. These scholars’ interpretations willy-nilly tend to favor one religious tradition’s view of things over others, which arguably tends to promotes a certain narrowness of mind and sense of exclusivity among vast numbers of people who continue to regard these texts as life guides.

Of course it is possible to take a “secular approach” even while remaining within a particular religious tradition. Peoples’ minds are malleable, and an “ecclesiastical formation” can be transformed into “unecclesiastical formation.” I count myself among those who have managed this transformation. For three years I attended a seminary, and in spite my own firm conviction at the time that I retained full independence of thought and opinion, I emerged from that experience with a mind quite ecclesiastically formed. The last twenty years since then have been a process of gradually shaking off those mental fetters. Many factors contributed to this, but I’ll mention two.

Instead of continuing graduate studies with the Master of Divinity as a start, I started over with an M.A. and then a Ph.D. in Russian history. This gave me a secular historian’s “formation,” which is decidedly unecclesiastical. That mindset was reinforced by teaching college courses in both Russian history and world history at secular institutions.

Another important part of this fetter-shaking-off process resulted from a course in world history that I taught at Bellevue Community College. It covered the beginnings of civilization to 1000 AD, a period during which many of the world’s major religions came into being. Until then I had been a Christian who investigated other religions only superficially and saw them as traditions or institutions which could not and did not ever quite live up to the innate goodness and truth and moral purity of Christianity. (OK, that’s naïve, but ecclesiastical formation does that to you.) Suddenly I had to study and understand a whole series of other religions in some depth and on their own terms in order to teach them. That broadened my perspective and gradually let the air out of my smug sense of the absolute uniqueness and superiority of Christianity.

The religion that effected this realization most effectively for me was Buddhism. The more I read, the more I saw that at heart it shared everything that I held to be good about Christianity even though most people consider the two religions to be worlds apart, one theistic and one not. At one stage in this process I even developed an informal list of the evidence behind my new conviction that Eastern Orthodox Christianity was actually more like Buddhism than it was like Western Christianity.

In time I even began to realize that Buddhism had some spiritual resources of great value that were altogether absent from Christianity. This led eventually to my attending a Soto Zen Buddhist retreat four years ago, and in some ways that experience has had more of a lasting positive effect on my life than the three months I spent one summer in an Orthodox monastery on Mt. Athos (see my journal from this retreat). I know there are those who believe that Christians effectively abandon their own religion if they seek to experience the benefits that other religious traditions may offer, but in my view this is part of that narrowness of mind and exclusivity that ecclesiastically formed scholars of scripture tend to promote.

By now my “formation” is as “unecclesiastical” as Kermode’s. Plus I have relevant academic qualifications that he does not — an academic background in scriptural studies and knowledge of both Greek and Hebrew. In addition I have ongoing connections with certain scriptural scholars who have devoted their lives to the study of the subject. I may not be a full-time university-employed professor of scriptural studies, but I am well prepared to act as the proverbial “dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant.”