Monthly Archives: August 2012

A Very British Olympics

The closing ceremony for the London Olympics kept us up until 1am last night, as did the opening ceremony two weeks ago. We’ve had a rather sporty two weeks here, seeing some new sports, and catching up with others. Full coverage of all sports was available online for the first time ever, so I got to watch the whole fencing and canoe/kayak slalom competitions (sports I’ve done a fair bit of in the past), which normally only get a half hour in the programming.

All in all, great fun.

The opening ceremony I thought was more Christian than I expected, leading off with the hymn Jerusalem, featuring Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah, and Abide with Me towards the end. I didn’t expect that, but it was nice to see (all great hymns, imho).

The closing ceremony featured Lennon’s Imagine very prominently: a hymn to secularism, with lyrics specifically in opposition to the divisions religion causes. That was more expected, and probably reflects British culture a little more, but was also good to see.

But ultimately the spectacle was a big reminder that people are just people. We cheered for the Brits here, of course, but its easy to forget how far we’ve come even there: one of GB’s biggest stars of the games was Mohammad Farah. But the triumphs and disasters knew no boundaries, my jaw dropping moment of the games was Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba annihilating the competition on the last 600m of the 10k to defend her olympic title. I cried with South Korean Shin A-Lam as she sat distraught on the piste denied her dreams by a technical glitch in the women’s épée. And I felt the warm glow of humanity as the Ugandan national anthem played in the closing ceremony signifying Stephen Kiprotich’s marathon win: the country’s first gold for 40 years.

Sporting success takes money. Britain spent between $5m-$10m per gold medal, using our disproportional national wealth to buy our success. The staggering success of the US olympic teams reflects the staggering level of investment in their elite athletes. So in the spirit of the indomitability of humanity, let’s all particularly celebrate, Grenada, Jamaica, Mongolia, Georgia and Kenya, who top the GDP-per-medal table.

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How to Write a Textbook

I’m the author of two textbooks. So I am interested in the pedagogy of non-fiction writing. And I’m starting to think I’ve been doing it wrong.

Knowledge is hierarchical. But in writing, I only really pay lip-service to that. In my introduction I summarise the bits of the book to come. I add summaries to the end of each chapter, and a little introduction at the start. But mostly I see them as ways to support the main text, they aren’t the real content.

What would a book look like that was radically committed to being hierarchical? You could access the central thesis by reading only the first page, the general argument within the first ten, the details in the first half and the hardcore analysis only if you need it (few do).

I’ve never seen it done.

My wife commented that, as authors, we are rather narcissistic. We don’t like the idea of someone not reading every last word. Most of us would pale at the idea of condensing the whole book into the first page. The thesis will be obvious once we’ve taken our readers through the full analysis and synthesis, there should be no short-cuts. Our expertise may be missed in so abbreviated a form.

Yet a week after finishing my book, most readers will only remember the overview. Even (perhaps especially) professional readers. As a scholar, you certainly want the details for works in your areas of interest. But there’s a much bigger hinterland of books you read to fill out your broader knowledge, to keep track of related areas, to find out what the main arguments are, where the controversies lie.

Is there any reason beyond vanity for this? Am I missing an obvious reason why this wouldn’t be just a much better way of approaching academic writing? In the age of Wikipedia, when we’re all used to consuming knowledge by drilling down, is it not obviously a better way to write?

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Gay Hate and Censorship

Jim West, doyen of the biblioblogs, made this post last week. Challenging marriage-equality advocates to defend the defacing of a Chick-Fil-A. In the comments I did so, and we batted back and forth a couple of times. Then, for some reason, Jim decided not to publish my comments, or respond to asking him why.

I guess he felt the post would be better looking as if he’d seen off any objection with his principled stance.

Head to the post if you want my rather (too) lengthy first comment, but I’ll pick up with Jim’s response:

Jim wrote:

it’s a shame that you’re willing to justify hate-speech.

I wrote:

It’s a shame you aren’t willing to join with your Christian brothers and sisters who are campaigning for equal marriage!

You’d do well to re-read the Letter from Birmingham Jail and see how close the correspondence. There are always those who try to silence civil rights campaigners by claiming that they are the real bigots, their statements are the true loci of hate, their demands are the real oppression. Those with systematic privilege will always squeal at the unfairness of ceding any of it. It is a predictable, regrettably base human reaction.

I can’t think of any feature of the reaction of whites to the civil rights movement that isn’t writ large among anti-gay activists now.

Jim wrote:

i do well to adhere to the clear teaching of scripture rather than align myself with a viewpoint that is tendentious and has no scriptural foundation.

And refused to publish my response, which I don’t have a copy of exactly, but consisted mostly of a quote that I do:

As I said, plus ca change:

“Frankly and unreservedly, but I trust not unkindly, I have set forth “the truth wherein I stand.” It is the same truth which was held from the beginning, founded on the absolute Will of the Almighty and all-wise Creator, taught by Moses and the prophets, sanctioned by the inspired Apostles, and maintained by the Holy Catholic Church throughout the world, even to our own day. It is none the less true, because, in many portions of the land, it has become distasteful.

And, therefore, being myself the “bond-servant of Christ,” our divine Redeemer, I can not be diverted from my obligations to contend, under his banner, for the authority of His Word, for the judgment of His Church…. Relying on His strength, which is “made perfect in weakness,” I hope to persevere in the fearless and honest performance of my duty, whether popular or unpopular, whether “in honor or in dishonor,” looking for no human praise, and dreading no human censure, but depending, with all humility, yet with all confidence, on Him who is “the way, the truth, and the life,” whose Word is the only standard of right, and whose power alone can secure the final victory. “

– John Hopkins, “A Scriptural, Ecclesiastical and Historical view [in support] of Slavery.”

I’d recommend anyone interested in the equal-marriage fight read this book. The rhetorical structure and mode of biblical interpretation are frighteningly recognizable.

I’m happy to discuss these parallels further with any opponents of gay marriage rights, and I promise I’ll not censor your comments!

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