Archive for the ‘Conferences’ Category

About a week ago, I participated in a conference, the venue – and most participants – being about 9000km away. Nothing new, one might rightfully say. Of course, I participated through electronic means. Welcome to the future, Alexander G. Bell, you might say.

The uniqueness, at least from my perspective, was the medium through which I participated – twitter.* To my delightful surprise, I could follow a lot of what was happening. I am no expert on the subject – the conference was that of the Southern African Missiological Society – but I could gauge pretty well what everyone was arguing. This, even though what I received where pretty much only short bursts of information. True, someone with almost no knowledge of the subject would probably have lost the thread; but this will be the case in “real-life” participation too.

Some of the speakers had put their papers online, and links to these papers were passed around on twitter. This meant that

a) one could read up on the matters later on, and

b) people attending the conference could probably follow the speaker even better, if they had internet access.

To illustrate another useful aspect of twitter’s ability to share links quickly: a few links to speakers’ blogs made the rounds. The audience (even those abroad) could get a general background perspective on the speaker – and these links and blogs are, of course, useful for the future too. Not only the blogs, but also simply other twitter users participating came to my attention. I will hardly go looking for twitter users; let’s face it: the 140 characters biography say almost nothing. But a shared interest, in this case identified by the hashtag #SAMS2011, did point to some interesting voices that I will listen to from now on.

Among other things, the usefulness of twitter for missiology was discussed (in a report back paper, worth the read!). I would like to emphasize here that twitter is a relatively cheap and accessible means of communication. Added to this, Africa has rather good cellphone reception (contrary to what some may think). The SAMS conference set up a screen with incoming tweets in the background – meaning just about everyone could make themselves “heard”.

I’m not hailing twitter as THE solution, or as the new way of holding conferences. In fact, I think a lot got lost in summary, so to speak. Some questions were left unanswered; some themes dropped, as is the twitter way. Obviously a lot of non-verbal communication went flying. And although meeting new people electronically was great, it’s no substitute for meeting someone in the flesh.

A lot of useful academic discussion (most useful academic discussion?) occurs after the day is done; over lunch; over dinner; over coffee. I’m sad that I’ve missed it – this time. Nevertheless, I at least got SOME input.

By the way, I’m sure some of the papers will make their way into Missioniala, SAMS’s journal.



* Members of the Society of Biblical Literature have been using twitter as a medium dating at least as far back as 2009, through the hashtags #SBL2009, #SBL10, etc. My hashtag search for the International meeting – I’m assuming it will be #SBL11 – is already on. I’ve also participated in other such experiments, where I’ve had a similar experience.

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I had the great privilege of attending a mini-conference on the 6th commandment last Friday & Saturday. (“Thou shalt not kill … ” ) Although I found all the papers read quite brilliant, one that really stood out for me was a paper read by Prof Ed Noort of Groningen University. (Now, I’m not sure if I understood everything correctly, so what follows is my reception of his paper.) The part that interested me most was his analysis (and my understanding thereof) of the book of Job. Especially the following, very vital information: we, as readers, know what is happening in the heavenly court, while poor Job is quite oblivious in all his suffering down on earth. He remains faithful throughout, while quite frankly, God and the devil is betting up there! This is almost ironic. In a  way, we can speak about the Darker Side of God. (One could add to this a whole host of other texts in the Old Testament, but that is not quite my point here.)

The really interesting part surfaced in the Q&A session. A comment was put out there that, unlike the other (Greek and Roman) traditions, which simply relegated tough questions like why pain and suffering exists to the realm of myth*, the book of Job actively levels critique and asks questions. Even more to the point: the book of Job spills into the “real world” by challenging the reader – if one is confronted by pain and suffering, is it simply God and the devil betting up there? The book challenges our interpretation in the interaction that we have with the real, physical world every day. The first scenes in the book open the possibility for us, the readers, to doubt the intention of God – in real life!

Perhaps this discovery is not new. In fact, to me, it seems very akin to Walter Brueggemann’s “core testimony” and “countertestimony“, as he developed it in Old Testament Theology: An Introduction. (Again, how I understood / remember it – I’m no old testament theologian.) Perhaps, too, Prof Noort’s paper especially struck me because of recent discussions and a recent blog post by a friend of mine on why we read the Bible. To summarise (and probably do violence to) his conclusions: one should be willing to disagree with the Bible.

In fact, to  do exegesis and always “agree” with the biblical text is simply dishonest. This would in many cases actually imply that one disrespects the author(s)’s intentions** and misuses the Bible to suit one’s own purposes. Sometimes, the best way to respect the text is to disagree with it – just as one can only be a true friend to someone if one is willing to also level respectful critique*** (and be willing to take the same – NB!). In reflecting on our tradition, this might be called an outside argument for reading the Bible – to honestly, honestly, honestly and respectfully read our tradition, and also point out how we disagree with it. Although it is still part of us.

In reflecting on the exposition of the book of Job with which I started this post, I would like to supply too an inside argument for reading and disagreeing with the Bible: the aspect of debate has been part of our tradition since – well, since time immemorial. In this we discover ourselves and are, again, formed by our tradition – even as we are shaping it.



*With myth, in this case, I mean mythological language and stories about the Gods. One might argue that this is also the case with Job – that it is a mythical telling of a heavenly scene. This argument has some merit; but my focus here is on the implicit critique that goes along with the narration.

** Yes, I know the “author’s intentions” is impossible to determine. But there are some cases where we can be pretty sure that what the author meant is not how we understand it today. To me, this also underlines the importance of historical-critical studies of the Bible. One should at least attempt to understand the intentions of the author(s); otherwise, one is misusing the text.

*** I thank all my friends for their past and future critique; also on this blogpost.

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Goodbye, Dortmund!

In a short while, I’ll leave for Münster – and will have to wave Dortmund, my home for the past four months, goodbye. How fast everything has blurred past! I can’t even begin to recap.

So, what to tell? The first thing that springs to mind is the multitude of people that I met while at the Carl Duisberg Centrum, where I took part in a German course. These folks came from all over – Europe, off course, but also Latin America, different parts of Asia, Africa. What a lot I learned from them – about their countries, cultures, religion, and lots more! My only regret is that I didn’t spend even more time with them.

Travelling made up a big deal of my time here in Dortmund. In Paris, we had the privilege of being shown around by a British lady who had lived there for quite a while. Here I was also forced to buy a shirt in order to visit the Moulin Rouge (obviously, the cheapest decent shirt I could find, but which I think has since become my favourite). In Amsterdam I found the grave site of some of my relatives; visited a church service in the Keizersgrachtkerk, simply enjoyed the beautiful city, and had a mouthwatering cheese-fest, probably adding half a kilo in weight on the spot. I presented my (seminal? hopefully) paper at the SBL conference in Tartu, Estonia, and I got some good critical feedback. I also had a joyous reunion with my friends and colleagues from the University of Pretoria’s Department of Ancient Languages. During a trip to the Schwarzwald, I felt the cold creep up on me for the first time. Nevertheless, we had a great time – eating black forest cake, of course, and afterwards having dinner in the rain. (We refused to move, so we could have a view on the lake. Was worth it.) I met with a friend in Cologne, after cycling there via Wuppertal. Another time, a group of us South Africans (we travel in packs) simply stopped over there on our way to Aachen – also a worthwhile experience!

Of course, I did a lot of cycling in- and around Dortmund, too. Cycling is quite a solitary exercise, and perhaps that’s why I enjoy it so much. Of course, it’s much better still if you cycle with someone, but even then, you’ve got lots of time to mull over things. And mulling over I did! Cities close to Dortmund were my first target – those that impressed me most being Soest and Haltern-am-See. I visited a bunch of museums, including the most impressive Bergbaumuseum (mining museum) in Bochum and the DASA (German Occupational Safety and Health Exhibition) in Dortmund – twice. Worthy of note is also the Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, where one of the biggest finds of gold coins from the Roman era is on exhibit.

Naturally I travelled not only by bicycle, but also by train. Not all experiences on the train were so great; at least once, in trying to navigate during ExtraSchicht, a most wonderful cultural happening in the Ruhrgebiet, I got totally depressed.

I remember another time when I travelled with a (male) friend, and we ended up in Essen, during a gay festival. My friend, being from Iraq, was at first quite unsuspecting – I found it rather funny, especially when a more-than-drunk man complimented my friend on his shapely legs. The night ended in another highlight, namely, an Iraqi restaurant. (Well, the cook was from Iraq, anyway.) Good food, good times! I especially liked the drinkable yoghurt.

Another special night was when the Mongolians arranged a dinner party. What a great night! I had been learning about Mongolia all the while, 7 of the people in my class being from Mongolia, but this night was really special. We ate Mongolian food (OK, it was Russian food, mostly; real Mongolian ingredients are hard to come by in Germany, but it was good nonetheless) heard a Mongolian poem, a Mongolian song, and generally basked in the friendliness of the people of Mongolia. They are so proud of their country – as is most ambassadors here at the language course – that I involuntarily had to think about what makes me proud of being South African. (Another day, another post.)

There are a number of other experiences that I could relate, but these will have to suffice. One more needs to be added, though, as an afterthought. Last week, I met with my “Doktorvater”, Prof Gert Steyn, along with one of his other doctoral students, Peter Nagel, in Münster. Three years ago, I wouldn’t have thought this would be possible – but there we were!

Yes, I am very excited to start my studies in Münster. Thus far, I have been a bit lazy – just soaking up what’s happening in Dortmund and Germany. (And reading. Oh, my goodness, did I read! German books, mostly, but also some English books. My must-read list expanded considerably; it now includes Dostoyevski, Oe, Rafik Shami, Galsan Tschinag, Nâzım Hikmet, Can Yücel and Goethe).

From now on, it will be back to the (academic) books. First, however, I’m going on a cycle tour. Here’s a map, if you want to have a look. I’ll blog about my experiences when I get back; but for now, I know it’s going to be cold and rainy. Looking forward already!

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A lot has been written on the New Orleans SBL conference – especially since I’m so late in reporting my attendance. (In fact, it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything!) Summaries of papers abound, which is quite easy to find – thanks to Google!

Nevertheless, I thought I’d post some of my highlights – which is hardly all of them – even if just to remind myself why attending conferences is always a good idea (albeit expensive).

First off, meeting people in person is always a great experience. Especially if you’ve read some of their work. This time around, meeting Karen Jobes, even though only for a fleeting moment, was a real privilege. After reading Invitation to the Septuagint, which I highly recommend, I’ve always wanted to meet her. I also had an interesting discussion about the social dimensions of textual criticism and possible research avenues with Dietmar Neufeld after being invited to the Context Group’s social event one night by Ernest van Eck. Perhaps it might be better not to name anyone else, for fear of leaving someone out. Although I would like to add that meeting some textual critics – Prof Holger Strutwolf of Münster, and a number of people from the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing.

A second reason for attending conferences, of course, is seeing people you already know. This is (luckily) too many to list. Many of these people I have met at conferences – and especially the SBL (including the international SBL meeting). The social aspect of conferences can (and should not!) not be denied. For SBL NO, some social highlights included a dinner with the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog (we numbered around 30 people!) and with some of the faculty and alumni of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. At both of these dinners, I met new people as well.

Seeing people at the sessions of the conference was great too. Obviously, people attending the same sessions generally have the same interests. In the NT Textual Criticism and LXX sessions, I saw quite a number of familiar faces. These also included some young scholars who are only at the start of their career. This is fertile ground for acquiring life long friendships – which, of course, naturally develops if one shares the same interests. I would venture a guess that online collaboration would not have the same effect as meeting someone – more than once – face to face.

Seeing the giants of the field is, without doubt, pretty amazing. One can keep abreast of what is happening across the globe – hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth (is that an English or an Afrikaans expression? Colourful nonetheless!). Conferences are good places to announce new findings – officially and unofficially. This time around, for instance, some noteworthy evidence was presented for the omission of “Son of God” in Mark 1:1. There was also a lively debate about the usefulness of text types in NT Textual Criticism – and it is clear that the debate is only starting!

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Things went well in Stellenbosch. Although my papers weren’t completely written out – due to time constraints – my presentations went well. At least, I convinced myself that I was on to something!

I spent the past two days driving back from Stellenbosch to Pretoria with a professor and three fellow students.

I’m taking a breather before leaving for Rome tomorrow night – for the International SBL conference. This is going to be fun! I will be delivering a paper entitled: “Critical Spatiality and Narrative Space in John 18:28-19:16.” Have to prepare a handout still, but at least the paper is completely written out.

After Rome, I will be off to London for the Birmingham Colloquium – this year, it will be all about Codex Sinaiticus. Really looking forward to this experience!

Perhaps, if I get time, I’ll report some more on the Stellenbosch conferences.

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