Similarity, Influence, and Legitimacy in Ancient Near Eastern Religious Texts

There haven’t been any posts here in a while because I’ve been very busy with classwork–teaching as much as I do tends to be a good excuse not to write. We’ll see how much that changes, but one thing I came to realize is that I do write all the time–in LMS’s, to students. If I’m so starved for time to write, what if I just republished something I liked from an LMS course here? Voila–here is my first reproduced submission.

Context: We are discussing texts from Egyptian religion, Babylonian religion, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism, and how Judaism may have either influence or been influenced by these texts. My student, here pseudonymed Sally, has just written a piece about how the different religions did influence Judaism’s writings and ideas–quite a good post, actually, replete with examples.

Hi Sally, these are some great comments. Thank you for sharing! In response, I’d like to talk about the difference between similarity and influence and legitimacy.

A common assumption when a person hears that these stories are similar is to say, “Well, none of them are true in the accurate sense; on top of that, Judaism is just a copycat, which makes Christianity and Islam copycats, which means 3 billion Jews, Christians, and Muslims on this earth are fools.” (Okay, so no one says that last part, but I bet some of us think it!) I’d like to suggest that this may be an inaccurate way to view these similarities.

To say two things are similar is not to say that they influenced each other. Both the ancient Olmecs in Mexico and the ancient Babylonians in Iraq used canals, but they didn’t teach the skill to each other! But what about similarities between groups that had contact? Did they influence each other?

It depends on what one means by the verb “influence.” There’s influencing in the sense of borrowing common motifs and images and symbols to give a similar message, and borrowing those things to give a different message. Ma’at might have been an inspiration for the Wisdom figure in Proverbs, but the Wisdom figure in Proverbs makes clear she is not a goddess, only one of the more valued servants of the one God. In the Babylonian flood story, a man is saved thanks to a warning from a god who liked him, but he wasn’t supposed to survive. In Noah’s flood, God explicitly chooses Noah to be saved, including giving him clear instructions on how to build the ark as well as save animals. Noah is to be part of God’s plan to start over; in the Babylonian version, the survivor and his wife are whisked away to another land where they will never see another human again. In the Mesopotamian creation story, the god Marduk creates the world only after a titanic struggle with the goddess Tiamat (salt water), whose carcass he uses to build the earth. In Genesis 1, there is only God, and while he uses water as well to create, to do it he simply has to speak, this deity is so powerful.

So these are definitely borrowed motifs, but are the messages the same or unique? What level of influence do we mean here?

Finally, the idea of legitimacy. Let’s say I borrowed the content of this post from others–in fact, a great deal of what I just wrote you I got from a handful of scholarly books I’ve read as well as some of my old grad school professors. I didn’t make it up; it’s not original. But does this mean that what I said is illegitimate, or that it somehow doesn’t count because I didn’t say it first? No one would say this.

Thanks for reading this book-length post. I kind of hope it gets read by at least several people–and not just because it took me some time to write. I’d love to know what you or anyone else thinks about these ideas and how they shape the way we look at the similarities and influences between Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Egyptian religion, and Babylonian religion.




Working at Resting

Noon, Rest From Work - Vincent Van Gogh

Above: Noon, Rest from Work, by Vincent Van Gogh.

I’ll be the first to admit here, I’m not very good at resting. But the title of this post is not about me and my resting habits, it’s about you and yours: you need to work on resting.

This may sound kind of strange, but think about this: if you’re a student, chances are you are working (and often enough, working multiple jobs like I do). Many of my students are also parents, with one or more little ones ranging from toddler-age to teenage. Students also have the stresses of paying for school while affording a basic lifestyle, and some academic programs require internship hours which may not even be paid. All this is a recipe for exhaustion.

If you’re an instructor, consider this: if you are an adjunct, you might be teaching at multiple institutions (that’s 2+ sets of academic calendars, plagiarism policies, emails, LMS’s, etc.). I’m not convinced full-time faculty have it easy, either: there are the enrollments to keep watching, the not-fun decisions about which classes to cut and which adjuncts aren’t getting paid (which can’t be fun), administrative responsibilities, the committees, the end-of-term student awards ceremonies, commencement, and list goes on. And all faculty regardless of rank have the fun of more frequent and more frantic student communique as the semester comes to a close and everyone is trying to pass.

In other words, I don’t think I’m the only one who needs to focus on resting better.

Please note that I did not say resting more. Some of us just don’t have that availability (I don’t). I said resting better.

What are the ways you can regularly, on a weekly or even a daily basis, find some return-to-sanity time?

Here’s a few that work for me:

  • Catnaps. If I close my eyes for just twenty minutes, even in the car if I’m in the middle of a long day of teaching and can’t get home, I’m a newer person. I’m no scientist, but it’s my understanding that even a few minutes of closed eyes, without doing anything, can serve to recalibrate our busy brains and clear our heads, in addition to the energy boost.
  • Walks. If I’ve put in about 90 minutes of work, and I feel myself losing focus or dallying, a ten-minute walk at a normal pace with deep breaths can go a long way.
  • Spending time outside. There’s something about the outdoors that rejuvenates me. If I can, I take that aforementioned walk outside. If I can, I bring my work outside, or at least situate myself where there’s a window I can either look at nature through or which allows actual sunlight in.
  • A weekly day off. For me, a day is often a 24-hour period, not exactly a day of the week. I might stop on a Saturday afternoon, and pick up again on a Sunday evening. But during that time, I just shut off the machines, put the books away, hide my work bag, and stop checking my phone’s emails. The world can wait.
  • Playing with my kids. They’re better at playing than I am, so some time wrestling with my boys or reading to my daughter (Harry Potter! Woot woot!) or playing Monopoly Junior or Candyland usually works well.
  • Long hugs with said children. Snuggle time with the littles is always a restful win–I’m reminded of what I’m doing all this work for.
  • Detaching from devices. I mentioned this a bit already, but just putting the phones on the windowsill, either off (preferable) or on a loud ringer (if I’m expecting a call, so I can hear it without having to check it), goes a long, long way.

Here are a few things that don’t rest me up; I’d wager they don’t rest you up either.

  • Phones. There’s a theme here. I love my phone, and I love technology. I love that to pass the time today I re-downloaded Plants Vs. Zombies 2 and blew the snot out of some dead Egyptian brain-eaters using battle-hardened flora. And yet, technology can be controlling of me. I have to learn to set it aside. There’s a big difference–no, a huge difference–between ten minutes on my phone or ten minutes walking, ten minutes on my phone or ten minutes with my eyes closed, ten minutes on my phone or ten minutes breathing the outside air and staring at the mountains. This isn’t a diatribe against phones, it just is.
  • Thinking I can fit one more thing. The truth is, I often can fit one more thing in, it’s a fun challenge, and I feel good about myself afterward. During the workweek, this is a great idea. But to think that this is somehow restful is mistaken. I’ve done nothing but alleviate one more potential stressor; I haven’t actually acquired any rest. There’s a place for getting one more thing done, but it’s not restful.
  • Multitasking. I’ve heard that people, men in particular, don’t multitask–we just do one part of a task, then switch tasks to complete a step, then return to the first task to do the next step, and go back and forth like this. I won’t hazard to say this is true for all males, but it’s true for how I multitask. And I find this kind of multitasking pretty helpful in some situations–after all, I can waste one minute while the computer loads an Outlook email inbox, or I can use that time to open all my emails simultaneously so I can run through them all one by one and feel good as I close each browser window afterward. Truth is, though, there’s something to be gained from focusing on one job at a time, letting myself get lost in the details and engrossed, until my calendar ticks off for the next appointment or I finish the task completely. This kind of focus isn’t restful by any means, but it’s far less draining and flitting from one thing to another, and I tend to produce higher quality work this way.

So what works for you? What doesn’t work for you? What are you doing that you need to stop doing? What’s an experiment you should start? We’re not made to work forever–don’t forget to fit some restorative rest in your life.

Nine Analytical Approaches to Mythology

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In my mythology classes, generally we don’t cover just mythological information; we also look at how to understand and analyze the data. Put a different way, we don’t just look at the stories: we practice understanding them as well.

There are nine principle approaches I use; here they are below with a simple definition my students will be familiar with. Enjoy!

The Nine Approaches

  • The Cultural Approach – Discovering values in the myth held by that myth’s culture of origin.
  • The Literary Approach – Using the mono-mythic cycle to find the “moral of the story.”
  • The Cosmological Approach – Using a myth to determine a blueprint of how the universe is designed.
  • The Historical Approach – Either showing how the myth is based on historical events, or using details in the myth to paint a historical picture of how people of that culture lived.
  • The Comparative Approach – Comparing multiple myths or versions of the same myth to find  insights based on patterns of sameness or difference.
  • The Metaphysical Approach – Exploring how the myth discusses philosophical questions.
  • The Psychological Approach – Exploring how character(s) in the myth grow into mature persons.
  • The Aetiological Approach – Showing how the myth explains the origin of something.
  • The Ritual Approach – Discussing how a myth’s ritual influences that myth and vice versa.

A Philosophy of Tolerance?

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I’m working this week on a talk for a small philosophy conference, and it’s being a booger. This is because I’m talking about the subject of a philosophy of tolerance, and I just can’t find anything out there on the subject.

Which is more disturbing, I wonder, the subject matter or the fact that I can find nothing on it?

This all started in the fall, when I started teaching an intro to ethics course that included intro-level philosophy topics. I had the freedom to integrate what I wanted into the intro-level topics, and so when designing the schedule I threw in the title, “What is Tolerance?” I figured, this is an ethics class, it needed talking about.

When it came time to put the lesson together I went searching through all of my philosophy textbooks to see what else had already been done on the subject (no need to reinvent the wheel, I thought; and I might find some inspiration). Nothing. Nada. No intro-level books that I’m familiar with talk about this.

So I started from scratch. It started with a simple claim, that there are two conflicting definitions of tolerance in western society. Here they are:

  1. Tolerance is agreeing to disagree.
  2. Tolerance is allowing anything that doesn’t disagree with me.

When I put the first opinion on the board, students nodded and there was virtually no discussion. When I put the second on the board, students were confused. Wasn’t this the very definition of intolerance?

I realized that, if I were to show this opinion may exist in western culture, I would need to demonstrate it. And, I realized that students would in the process of analyzing the presence of the second definition be forced to further elaborate on the first definition.

Because I have a propensity to bring up the most current ethical debates in our culture in ways that seek to hear both sides rather than indoctrinate, the particularly fiery topic of transgender rights came to mind. So I framed for my students a fictional conversation between Jon and Jim:

  • Jon: “I’m a woman.”
  • Jim: “No, you’re not.”

Now, I asked my students, is Jim being intolerant? If so, why? Students wanted to know more context, so I told them Jim and Jon were coworkers at a small employer, who were more than acquaintances but weren’t close friends. In this scenario, students generally agreed that Jim was entitled to his opinion, but he should probably keep it to himself.

Next, I added to the conversation:

  • Jon: “I’m going to use the women’s restroom.”
  • Jim: “No, you can’t.”

Is Jim being intolerant now? Students started to get stuck: some said that to deny Jon the right to use the bathroom of Jon’s identified gender was intolerant. Others, after receiving further context that at this stage Jon is still biologically male with male parts, argued that Jim was being reasonable and that while Jon’s identified gender should be respected Jon should also use the bathroom corresponding to Jon’s current biological sex. Were Jon to have sex-reassignment surgery, they reasoned, Jon should at that point be allowed to use the women’s restroom. Other students asked why there couldn’t be a gender-neutral or all-gender restroom, at which point I reminded them that this is a small employer with limited facilities and no resources to implement a third bathroom or make both bathrooms genderless.

I added one more factor to the conversation:

  • It’s now bring-your-child-to-work day, and Jim has brought his 7-year-old daughter Gracie to the office. Grace has to pee and goes into the women’s restroom.
  • Jon: “I’m going to use the women’s restroom.”
  • Jim: “No, you can’t!”

Now what? I asked my students. (At this point, I might add, they weren’t merely engaged; some of them literally howled in anger at the developing situation with Jim and Jon and Gracie.) Students from more socially conservative backgrounds, arguing in favor of Jim’s right to disagree with Jon all along, were adamant that Jon should not enter the women’s restroom; moreover, to make such a demand was not intolerant because it respected long-held societal norms. The more socially moderate students, who advocated that Jon should use the bathroom corresponding to Jon’s biological sex, held that opinion. The more socially liberal students, who had only hesitantly said earlier that Jon should use the men’s restroom until sex-reassignment surgery makes Jon a biological female, now said that Jon should be free to use the women’s restroom but out of respect for Jim should wait until Gracie was finished or use the men’s restroom that matched Jon’s biological gender on this specific occasion.

I reiterate my question: what is tolerance? What does it mean to agree to disagree?

I walked away from this lesson certain that this is a necessary discussion. Tolerance and its meaning ought to be discussed and reasoned carefully, with implications that will affect societal discourse, policy-making, and various working and educational environments.

The more time I have spent thinking about tolerance, the more I see it in the world around me. For example, here is a simple example courtesy of YouTube by tongue-in-cheek comedian JP Sears.

I’ve since begun using this video at the end of my lessons on the subject. We watch the first thirty seconds, and then I ask students if they’ve ever known anyone like the character JP Sears portrays. They inevitably nod an affirmative. Then I go back to the original two defintions of tolerance, point at the second one (“Tolerance is allowing anything that doesn’t disagree with me.”), and ask them if they’ve seen this definition in the world around them.

This time, they nod.

At this point in my thinking, I’m not comfortable stating a detailed definition of applied tolerance in society, because I’ve found this debate goes deeper than I originally suspected. That being said, I definitely lean toward the first defintion (“Tolerance is agreeing to disagree.”) over the second. I’m very open to hearing ideas and arguments about how such a definition should parse itself out in the world around us.

“Macro” Revision

Image result for erasing

If you’ve written a paper, done the work, even followed the steps outlined on this website, then it’s easy to think you’re done. And, if you’d like to have a mediocre paper, you are. But most of us need to revise our work:

  • When we’re writing feverishly, finally feeling inspired, we rush and miss some things; or, things might suddenly make sense to us that we didn’t explain well enough to a bewildered reader;
  • When we’re writing at four in the morning (and let’s be honest, many of us are), we’re liable to make errors in grammar and spelling;
  • When we write anything in the first go, we typically make mistakes worth fixing and easy to catch.

In undergraduate school I used to never revise, because I knew what I wrote was brilliant. (No kidding, I was that full of it.) And then I would get my papers back, whether they were short or long, and inevitably I’d be a few points down with a few red marks pointing out errors. I’d look at those errors and think to myself, How did I miss that!? That was obvious! When I started revising, following only a few of the practices that I’ll share here, my papers went up a letter grade. Most of these techniques take only a couple minutes, too.

So this is the first part of a two-post series on revision. First, a premise: Revision happens at the micro level, and the macro level. This post will deal with macro-level revision; that is, looking at your paper with an eye on the structure. This is editing from 30,000 feet, so to speak, not nitty-gritty editing.

Macro revision involves three steps:

  • Look at your frame (that is, your introduction and conclusion).
  • Move on to your overall organization.
  • Review individual paragraphs.

Here’s each of those steps described briefly.

Looking at Your Frame

Any good paper is framed by an introduction and conclusion. When you review, look to these and ask yourself if they follow the basic format of introductions and conclusions. Introductions ought to follow this pattern: engaging anecdote/statistic/quote, topical focus statement, thesis statement, roadmap statement, and possibly defining specially used terms. Likewise, conclusions follow these steps in this order: multi-sentence summarization of thesis argument, exhortation by suggesting further research or practical application.

Should you deviate from these patterns? Only at your own risk. Remember, research writing is not the same as literary writing. Your reader is a grader, and they’re interested in getting through your paper as quickly and as painlessly as possible. The key to this is clarity, and clarity comes in patterns.

Moving On to Your Overall Organization

At this point, you’re looking at the main points of your paper. This is the essence of your flow of thought, written down into words. Ask yourself

  • Does the order of my main points match the order given in my roadmap statement?
  • Does it make sense to put the points in this order? (Hints: if it feels like you’re bouncing around, or if an earlier point requires knowledge you don’t share until later, then they’re not in the best order.)
  • Do each of my main points directly support my thesis? (If a main point doesn’t, does it support it indirectly enough to still be included, and do you spell out exactly how it connects to your thesis?)

If you can answer yes to these questions, you’re set. If not, change things so you can say yes.

Reviewing Individual Paragraphs

This means going one paragraph at a time. For each paragraph, you need to see most if not all of these elements, usually in this order:

  • Transitional sentence or clause;
  • Topic sentence, to which a transitional clause could be attached;
  • An explanation of the topic statement as needed, one or more sentences;
  • Details supporting the topic sentence’s claim(s), one or more sentences; this usually includes raw data, but that raw data needs to be interpreted by you, the writer, somehow;
  • A summary topic restatement sentence;
  • A transitional sentence or clause, preparing your reader for the next topic.

Again, not all of these are needed, but I suggest making sure at least four of the six are included.

With that, you’ve now revised at the macro level, looking at the structure and thought flow of your paper. In our next post we will examine micro-level revision, which is where the nitty-gritty grammar and punctuation and spelling comes into play. Happy revising!

Writing Killer Conclusions

Image result for writing a paper

It’s time to finish that darn paper. What’s a good conclusion look like?

Every good conclusion has only two elements:

  • An expanded summarization of the thesis
  • An exhortation

On top of that, the exhortation will have two subcategories for you to pick from: you will suggest either further research or a practical application. Let’s break it all down.

A paper’s conclusion is less than 10% of the whole paper and is definitely shorter than the introduction. The summarized thesis is not a straight-up repeat of your thesis statement per se; that would be a bit redundant, and part of the point of a thesis is to give your paper in a single-sentence nutshell in a way that readers who haven’t done your research can understand it.

But now, your readers have read your research in your paper. They’re informed. So, this time, give a slightly longer version of your thesis. In a couple sentences, give the point of your paper. Be confident in your tone, as if you’re persuading with a sense of finality.

As a last sentence, exhort your readers. I know, exhortation is an older term, but it simply means to give a strong suggestion or urging. Exhort your readers to either suggest further research by giving a specific topic they should look up next, or encourage them to do something practical. Typically, if the topic is not a practical topic, you’ll suggest further research; if your topic is a practical one, however, go ahead and give a practical application.

Using the same examples from other posts in this series, here are three sample conclusions. They’re also shorter than the introductions given in the introductions post, as well (remember, they’re supposed to be shorter).

Example #1

Throwing a good party continues to be a key part of any Superbowl Sunday, and good food throws a good party. As this paper has shown, the data reveals over and over again that nachos, wings, and beer are the favorite food for Superbowl partygoers. Pick some up today!

Example #2

As has been shown in this paper, a “notion” when regarding the Trinity is demonstrated by Aquinas to be a relational attribute between individual Trinitarian Persons. The most notable notion concerning the Father is paternity; concerning the Son, filiation; and concerning the Spirit, procession. By no means are these the only notions, however; for example, the Spirit also possesses a notion called aspiration. Researching other notions of the Trinity would be a good next step in the notions debate.

Example #3

The fete galante became the standard painting of the Rococo style. Its natural settings, relaxed social scenes and depiction of average bourgeoisie people enjoying themselves helped create the a delightful fiction that distracted people from the real-life tensions related to the causes of the French Revolution. To better understand the falseness of the fete galantes, further research into the French Revolution’s causes and their relationships to the paintings is suggested.

How Do I Write An Introduction?

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You’re writing a paper. You’ve got a great central research question by using the topic statement. You’ve used that question to look up a bunch of stuff to find your research. But now what you do?

If a paper doesn’t answer a question, it’s a pretty worthless paper. As a professor who’s graded a ton of these papers, I feel pretty confident calling it that. Your question must have an answer, and that answer is your thesis statement.

A thesis statement has three components: a subject, a complement (sometimes more than one complement), and a full combined sentence. It’s pretty easy, but it does take a bit of thought.

  • Your subject is simply your topic question.
  • Your complement(s) is/are your answer(s) to your question, written succinctly and based on your research.
  • The full sentence is when you put your subject and complement together with as little substantive changes as possible.

Let’s pretend we’re writing three papers, we’ve done the research, and now we’re ready to get a thesis. Here’s what we’d do for each:

Example #1:

  • Subject: What are favorite foods for Superbowl fans?
  • Complements: Nachos, wings, and beer.
  • Sentence: Nachos, wings, and beer are the favorite foods of Superbowl fans.

Example #2:

  • Subject: What does Thomas Aquinas mean by “notions” of the Trinity?
  • Complement: He means the way each Person of the Trinity relates to each other.
  • Sentence: By “notions” of the Trinity, Thomas Aquinas means the way each Person of the Trinity relates to each other.

Example #3:

  • Subject: What is a fete galante?
  • Complement: A painting featuring festive scenes, usually in the outdoors, and featuring normal people.
  • Sentence: A fete galante is a painting featuring festive scenes, usually in the outdoors, and featuring normal people.

That sentence part? That’s the thesis.

Give it a shot and see how it goes!

Disclaimer: I didn’t make this up, though I did adapt it. For the original material I’m indebted to Dr. J. Kent Edwards, currently of Biola University.