Back to Oral Culture: The World of Hypertext

Robert Fowler has penetrating observations about What Hypertext Can Teach Us About the Bible, and confirms some of my own ideas which have been brewing for years. In a series of posts I will be using Fowler as a springboard for drawing out certain comparisons between hypertext and oral/biblical culture. Do computers make us more like the ancients after all?

Let’s begin with his seven-point summary, From Orality to Literacy to Hypertext: Back to the Future?, based on Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy.

1. Orality is evanescent, not permanent. “Hypertext returns us to fluid, shifting, open-ended, evanescent communication of an oral culture.”

2. Orality is additive rather than subordinative; aggregative rather than analytic. “Hypertext resurrects the associative, non-linear, non-hierarchical organization of information of orality.”

3. Orality is close to the human lifeworld. “Hypertext returns us to an immediate, hands-on approach to communication and to other dealings with the world around us… and to a classical, rhetorical model of education and social existence generally.”

4. Orality is agonistically toned. “On the Internet, the phenomenon of ‘flaming’ — heaping bitter invective upon one’s interlocutors — is wide-spread.”

5. Orality is empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced. “In hypertext, as in orality, the distinction between author and reader once again melts away in the midst of the collaborative effort of navigating the hypertextual network.”

6. Orality knits persons together into community. “Hypertext, like the spoken word, knits people together into community.”

7. Orality is homeostatic. “With the resurgence of ephemeral communication, hypertext culture begins to undergo a constant, slow, and unconscious metamorphosis, like oral culture.”

These are all important (be sure to read Fowler’s web-page for full explanations), but (4) is of particular interest to me. The internet is a perfect medium for conflict-based communication, mirroring in many ways the challenge-riposte phenomenon seen in honor-shame cultures. Chat rooms are “halls of flame”, list-serves and blogs the battlegrounds for our contests of wit and intellectual superiority. The web is saturated with an “art of invective” which surely does the biblical writers proud.

The other six points are closely related to one another and best summarized in (6) and (7). They underscore a community-based culture open to change (if slow and unconscious), against the tendencies of a print culture to “freeze” traditions and thereby facilitate a hunger for dramatic (but artificial) changes involving fads and in-vogue paradigms. Fowler thinks the electronic age may return us to a “vibrant” communal culture rooted in more heritage and tradition.

It’s possible. Watching my work environment evolve hypertextually over the past decade has been interesting. Today patrons visit their public library for “an experience” as much as to “check out a book”. Teens come for social networking (Myspace, chat rooms, etc.) more than anything else. You don’t tell people to “hush” in a library as much as in times past, because of their increased communal dimension. Functions, concerts, exhibits, films, and special programs have become as important as circulation. The hypertext culture is definitely leaving its mark.

In the next post we will examine the phenomenon of internet flaming in more detail, compare it to the challenge-riposte strategies of three particular oral cultures, and then assess whether or not flaming can sometimes actually be a good thing.

Witherington Protests Too Much

Regarding Witherington’s strident attack on the Jesus/Talpiot tomb, Jim West calls attention to commenter Joe who writes as follows:

“If Witherington can be such a zealot about his own wacky claims about his own phony ossuary, it would only seem sporting that he would cut Simcha Jacobovici (Witherington’s former partner in crime. He was the man who helped Witherington create and hype his documentary on the phony ‘James Ossuary’ about 4 years ago — shown on, you guessed it! The Discovery Channel!) and James Cameron some slack.”

I agree. Precisely because Witherington was hoodwinked about a fake he found so attractive, he is now over-reacting to the new claim which he finds odious in the extreme. In his recent book he also hailed Stephen Carlson’s book as a devastating critique of Secret Mark. He’s right about that, of course, but it’s not hard to see that he’s “evangelically” thrilled about it. All three of these — ossuary, tomb, and secret gospel — are as authentic as the Donation of Constantine. It’s when a scholar is duped by one but over-bashes the others that his credibility and objectivity are called into question.

UPDATE: Mark Goodacre raises the same question as “Joe”, but more tactfully: “One element that puzzles me about the single-minded nature of Ben Witherington’s criticism of the new claims is that they contrast somewhat with his thorough endorsement of the authenticity of the James ossuary and its connection to the James of the New Testament…” In comments Mike Grondin responds as I have above.

"An Eye for an Eye, With a Rock Through the Head as Well"

The “eye for an eye” proverb (Exod 21:24) sought to curb feuding in a violent world of honor-shame. The problem is that it escalated conflict in the name of limiting it, more often than not leading to “a rock through the head as well”, as I like to think of it. Jesus saw this hidden contradiction and counseled turning the other cheek (Mt 5:38-39) to break the cycle of violence.

Turning the other cheek is one of the many so-called “antitheses” from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The sermon-antitheses (Mt 5:28-42) served the same function as the Ten Commandments and other parts of the Torah. Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh should be cited at length:

“The purpose of the Ten Commandments, historically, was to prevent feuding and thereby to halt internally generated group annihilation. Honor-shame societies are agonistic (conflict) societies; hence challenges within a group can escalate and actually lead to such annihilation… What the scenes described in the antitheses [of Mt 5:21-48] offer is a way out of the honor-shame impasse that requires taking satisfaction. If repentance, reconciliation, generosity, or the intervention of third parties exist, feuding rooted in the defense of honor need not mar the social landscape of the Jesus faction… Given the situation-based quality of Mediterranean moral sanctions, it is doubtful that such strategies involved the inward, psychological healing that U.S. persons imagine. But they would provide freedom from the in-group feuding that is pervasive in agonistic societies.” (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 2nd edition, pp 43-45)

The Torah and Sermon both addressed feuding and violence, though Jesus one-upped Moses either by intensifying prohibitions internally or reversing those that backfired. Intensifications like “do not get angry” and “do not lust” took the law a step further in the way prophets like Jeremiah urged: if you don’t get angry, you will less likely murder; if you don’t lust, you will less likely commit adultery; etc. But reversals like “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” turned the law or cultural norms upside down. These reversals foster a misleading perception that Jesus was somehow against the system of honor-shame, but that’s not true. Malina and Rohrbaugh continue:

“It is important to understand, however, that Jesus does not call the system of honor itself into question. He does redefine the quality of behaviors deemed worthy of honor and thereby offers a new assessment that leads to a reversal of values or worth. But the social-psychological pattern of claiming worth (honor) and having other persons second that claim remains intact… What is called into question is the way in which the honor system is made to work, and the way it is made to fuel feud-based satisfaction.” (p 45)

Indeed, if Jesus thought conflict should be avoided physically, he loved escalating it verbally, as much as any macho man of his time. When confronted by adversaries like priests and Pharisees, he never responded directly to their questions (answering questions is a sign of shame and defeat in agonistic cultures), preferring to “burn” them with counter-questions, counter-accusations, scriptural one-upsmanship, and nasty insults.

Jesus was an honor-shame man to the core. The question was what constituted honorable behavior. Just as peasants operated out of a different code than elites (to peasants, for instance, wealth was dishonorable thievery; to elties it was a sign of honor), so Jesus operated out of an honor-shame code particular to him and his followers. The Sermon on the Mount invoked elements which would later find a home in integrity-guilt cultures, but Jesus favored these elements for different reasons. We “love enemies” and avoid vengeance (or try to) for the sake of integrity and inner peace — because it’s the morally superior thing to do, regardless of what others might think. Jesus advocated doing so to prevent group annihilation. “An eye for an eye” wasn’t honorable in the long run (in his view), because it was self-destructive.

To Rebuild the Temple or Not (Thom 71)

There’s been a lot of interesting discussion over at April DeConick’s blog, in comments under posts about meta-narratives, sexism, and the temple saying of Thom 71. Regarding the last, in response to April’s claim that “the Gospel of Thomas is preserving the oldest, harshest, and least popular remembrance of this saying, that the temple would be destroyed unconditionally [without being rebuilt],” I responded as follows:

April wrote:

“Since the Temple did indeed fall, the account that Jesus predicted its fall certainly would not have been embarrassing, but it very well could have been unpopular.”

It’s the part about rebuilding which was embarassing/unpopular, since it never happened. If Thomas’ version — which lacks any reference to the rebuilding — were original, how did the embarassing idea of rebuilding enter the tradition to begin with, necessitating the damage control in Mark/Matthew (where it’s denied) and John (where it’s spiritualized to refer to Jesus’ resurrection)? Doesn’t it make more sense that Jesus predicted the temple’s destruction and rebuilding, and that Thomas’ version controls the damage as much as Mark/Matthew and John?

“Bear in mind how Matthew, Mark, and John labor to revise it in light of Jesus’ death, suggesting that the saying referred to Jesus’ body, its entombment in the earth for three days, and its resurrection on the third day, NOT the actual destruction of the Temple.”

As I understand it, Mark and Matthew do no such thing. They simply deny that Jesus predicted that he (God, more likely original) would “destroy the temple and rebuilt it in three days” by placing the prophecy on the lips of false witnesses. (Mk 14:55-58/Mt26:59-61; Mk 15:29-30/Mt 27:39-40). Only John revises the prophecy by applying Jesus’ resurrection to it (Jn 2:19-22).

“The opinion that such a saying could only be explained in a post-Jewish war context is nonsense, and does not take into consideration the rich Jewish expectations about the Temple at the End of time – its destruction, either temporary or permanent.”

There wasn’t much precedent in Jesus’ day for the temple’s destruction without being rebuilt. You call attention to many passages involving rebuilding (Jub 1:29, 23:21; I En 14:8-25, 71:5-6, 89:73, 91:13; II Bar 4:2-6, T Levi 5:1, 18:1-14; 4Q266 3:20-4:3), but only one where it is not (T Moses 5-10), in Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas (p 142). But even in the last, the temple’s actual destruction isn’t made plain.

“So it may be that the Gospel of Thomas is preserving the oldest, harshest, and least popular remembrance of this saying, that the Temple would be destroyed unconditionally.”

I don’t mean to imply that Jesus was slavishly unoriginal — he was capable of manipulating his traditions in many cases. But in this case, for the above reasons, doesn’t it seem rather likely that he predicted the temple’s destruction and its rebuilding, and the latter half was later denied (Mk/Mt), revised (Jn), and dropped (Thom) on account of post-70 embarrassment?

To rebuild or not, ’tis the question…

The "One Asshole Rule": Can a Little Yeast Be Good for the Dough?

(First half of this review here.)

“A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough.” (I Cor 5:6)
“A rotten apple injures its neighbors.” (Chaucer)

In his excellent book Robert Sutton argues that a “one asshole rule” can complement the no asshole rule (pp 84-87), based on studies of norm deviance. “Decades of research on how human groups react to ‘deviant’ members implies that having one or two assholes around may be better than having none at all…one conspicuous rule-breaker can spur others to do the right thing” (p 84). For instance, while people are less likely to litter on a clean surface than a messy one, they are even less likely to litter on a surface with a single piece of garbage than on one with no garbage at all (pp 85-86). The norm violation sticks out like a sore thumb and reinforces good behavior. “A token asshole reminds everyone how not to behave” (p 86).

Or at least in theory. In a recent blogpost Sutton second-guesses himself based on an article written by William Felps and Terrance Mitchell:

“Their analysis of 20 published studies suggests that ‘one bad apple’ is enough to push a group into a downward spiral, as a Science Daily put it,

‘They found that a single “toxic” or negative team member can be the catalyst for downward spirals in organizations. In a follow-up study, the researchers found the vast majority of the people they surveyed could identify at least one “bad apple” that had produced organizational dysfunction.’

Sutton notes, however, that

“It seems that the authors focused on small groups, where bad apples are especially like to have powerful effects. So perhaps a bad apple in a bigger group might still help crystallize ‘no-asshole’ rather than ‘pro-asshole’ norms. And another factor might have to do with the power of the ‘bad apple,’ so if the nasty person widely seen as behaving badly and plays a marginal role in the group, then perhaps they do less damage.”

So in other words, a token asshole in a large group with little power loses contaminating potency, but in a smaller group with more power is probably going to poison the group.

Sutton’s revised approach squares with my own perception, though I suspect that size of the group is the stronger determining factor. But I think there’s a third factor too. Some people are just more asshole-prone than others. I’ve known people whose personalities shift amazingly accordingly to the company they’re in: sunny and positive when around like people, nasty and negative as soon as an asshole walks in the room. They seem to be just looking for an excuse to lash out and cause trouble, and one asshole is all it takes to trigger their appetites for discord. (Maybe their jobs aren’t exciting enough as is.)

I’d be inclined to say that after the size of the group, malleable (asshole-prone) personalities become a greater factor than the power of the asshole per se. Aside from managers and supervisors, lone assholes have only as much power as their colleagues give them.

The one asshole rule, as Sutton notes, is thus a double-edged sword. A rotten apple can work wonders if carefully monitored in a large enough barrel, and if the other apples are exceptionally fresh and healthy. But under less than ideal conditions, we should probably listen to Paul and Chaucer, and assume that the tiniest bit of rot will poison the mass.

Thomas’ In/Dependence

Over on The Forbidden Gospels, April DeConick tells us how the gospel of Thomas was written — or actually, more how it wasn’t written. I particularly like her point that

“The Academy is about 100 years behind in its understanding of ancient compositional practices. I still cannot believe that we are operating with unmodified Form and Redaction Criticism models of production, when they don’t work beyond schoolhouse exercises. The ancient world was a rhetorical culture wholly dominated by an oral consciousness. Scholars in the Academy must start learning about orality from sociologists and anthropologists. The studies are there. But they do not jive with what biblical scholars in our field keep saying and want to keep saying. Read Professor Ong, read Professor Foley, read Professor Lord, read Professor Kelber. We must stop looking at the ancient people through our own literate lens.”

But she targets the purists of both camps, i.e. those who argue for Thomas’ direct dependence on the synoptics, and those who maintain his complete independence. I lean far more in the “dependent” direction, but am always open to new ideas; the truth may well lie somewhere in-between. I just wish her ideas for a rolling corpus could have persuaded me more.

UPDATE: Mark Goodacre interacts heavily with DeConick, suggesting that we eschew terminology of “in/dependence” in favor of “familiarity”:

“Given that only about half of Thomas has parallels with the Synoptics, we need to hold open the possibility that the most important thing about Thomas is not the Synoptic parallel material but the non-Synoptic material. Perhaps it is in that 50% that we will learn most about Thomas. My preference, therefore, is to move the terminology away from ‘dependence’ or ‘independence’ and instead to talk about ‘familiarity’ or otherwise. The term ‘familiarity’ allows us to ask the question whether Thomas knows the Synoptic Gospels without prejudging the extent of their influence on his thinking… The obsessive focus in so much Thomas scholarship with Synoptic parallel material, whether among ‘dependence’ or ‘independence’ people, tends to focus attention on reconstructions of the Gospel’s evolution and development, sometimes at the expense of working on the text as we have it, and building from there.”

Shogun and Biblical Studies

The novel Shogun is an engaging account of Will Adams’ expedition to Japan in 1600 AD and success in befriending a dangerous warlord. Stephen Carlson notes how the story provides an education in honor-shame cultures, such as that out of which the bible came, for all the differences between East and Middle-East.

One of the limitations of works written by The Context Group is that honor-shame values are frequently explained in the abstract, making it hard for the western initiate to grasp the alien mentality. Stories like Shogun show more than tell. By the time you finish Clavell’s novel, you feel like you’ve lived and breathed feudal Japan, and think in terms of honor and shame.

I’d once thought about making an exhaustive list of Shogun passages which “parallel” biblical ones, much in the way Stephen compares an incident from the novel with Rom 4:

“One passage in Shogun gives an insight into how grace operates in that honor-shame culture. The following passage occurs shortly after the English pilot, John Blackthorne (a.k.a ‘Anjin-san’), saved the life of the future Shogun Toranaga (chapter 39):

‘Then he heard Toranaga say, “Today I was almost killed. Today the Anjin-san pulled me out of the earth. . . . But though it is bushido that vassals should never expect a reward for any service, it is the duty of a liege lord to grant favors from time to time.”‘

In Romans, Paul exploits on a similar contrast between earned rewards and favors:

4:4 ‘Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5 But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. . . . 16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all [Abraham’s] descendents…'”

This is a good illustration of why the Lutheran understanding of grace is so misleading. Pharisees in Paul’s day didn’t expect rewards for keeping the Torah (anymore than medieval samurai expected rewards for serving their daimyos), but God had a duty to grant such rewards on occasion, often unexpectedly. That’s what “grace” is about in the honor-shame/patron-client context.

Here’s one of my favorites: When the daimyo Yabu assigns an entire village the task of teaching Blackthorne the Japanese language, he threatens mass murder. If Blackthorne has not learned satisfactorily within six months, Yabu will burn the village down, but before that crucify “every man, woman, and child”. Blackthorne is appalled by the threat, and manages to extract a promise from Yabu not to harm anyone no matter what. Yabu finally does so, but “of course, he had no intention of keeping any promise” (chapter 31), and thinks this western man a fool for actually believing him.

The phenomenon of breaking promises — as common as breathing air in honor-shame cultures — is what lies behind the Antioch incident (Gal 2:11-14), and which I wrote about in Treachery at Antioch:

“The pillars had revoked their own agreement: in Jerusalem they had agreed to leave Gentiles free of any obligation to become circumcised (Gal 2:7-10). Why the about-face at Antioch (Gal 2:11-14)? The immediate answer has to do with honor and revenge. Esler should be cited at length:

‘[Paul] had extracted an agreement from the Jerusalem leaders without giving away anything himself. True, he had consented to remember the poor…but his point [“I was eager to do so”] is that he would have done it even without any action taken by the pillars, so that they really got nothing in return for the promise of fellowship…’ (Galatians, pp 135-136)

Not only did Paul get the better of the pillars, but of outside factions, like the “false brethren” of Gal 2:4-5. Esler goes on:

‘The defeat of the circumcision group in Jerusalem would have left them steaming with the desire for revenge. Their honor had been besmirched by Paul’s very obviously getting the better of them, and in this culture we expect that they would seek to turn the tables on Paul, just as Israel did on Ammon in II Sam 10-12… When Paul left Jerusalem, he would have been well advised to watch his back… Persons in this culture who are shamed to this extent do not forgive or forget… With Paul and Barnabus, and later Peter, out of the city they would have been left with James and John upon whom they could exert pressure to revoke the agreement.’ (pp 132,136)

To western readers, this kind of back-biting seems to make James and Peter dishonorable liars, but actually the opposite is true. Lies and deceptions are honorable and expected of people in these cultures. As rival apostles, the pillars were under no obligation to keep any ‘promises’ made to Paul, and indeed they would have been childish to do so.”

That’s why the Antioch incident was about treachery more than “hypocrisy”. Paul called Peter a hypocrite (rather than a liar), because that’s the best he could do. Otherwise he’d have made a fool of himself.

Try reading Shogun and then revisit your favorite parts of the bible. You’ll probably start seeing them differently.

The "No Asshole Rule": A Question of Ethnocentricity

“Every organization needs the no asshole rule because mean-spirited people do massive damage to victims, bystanders who suffer the ripple effects, organizational performance, and themselves… The effects of assholes are so devastating because they sap people of their energy and esteem mostly through the accumulated effects of small, demeaning acts, not so much through one or two dramatic episodes.” (Robert Sutton, The No Asshole Rule, pp 27,29)

Robert Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule is a book every manager should read, and indeed everyone should read. Those of us who enjoy healthy work environments tend to forget that others don’t have the same luxury, and spend most of their lives surrounded by bullies, creeps, jerks, weasels, tormentors, tyrants — assholes, in other words, who should be fired without second thought.

Sutton stresses at the outset that he doesn’t advocate recruiting wimps: “I am a firm believer in the virtues of conflict, even noisy arguments… My focus is squarely on screening, reforming, and getting rid of people who demean and damage others, especially others with relatively little power.” (pp 16-17) He further acknowledges that everyone acts like an asshole from time to time, and he himself has been an offender. It’s the “certified assholes” he has in his sights.

The certified asshole, then, is “one who displays a persistent pattern, and has a history of episodes that end with one target after another feeling belittled, put down, humiliated, disrespected, oppressed, de-energized, and generally worse about themselves” (p 11). You can find out if you’re a certified asshole by taking the author’s test, found either in the book (pp 124-126) or online here. (I’m apparently clean: I got 4 asshole points out of 24; according to Sutton’s grading, under 5 means you’re okay.)

Sutton then lists “the dirty dozen” everyday tactics used by assholes (p 10):

1. Personal insults
2. Invading one’s “personal territory”
3. Uninvited physical contact
4. Threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal
5. “Sarcastic jokes” and “teasing” used as insult delivery systems
6. Withering email flames
7. Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
8. Public shaming or “status degradation” rituals
9. Rude interruptions
10. Two-faced attacks
11. Dirty looks
12. Treating people as if they are invisible

He believes that more companies and organizations should enforce a “no asshole rule”, and fire employees who make their colleagues’ lives miserable through repeated use of any of the above.

Speaking personally, I’m inclined to agree with Sutton. I have no tolerance for assholes, and count myself fortunate to have worked with few of them. Those I’ve had the misfortune to know were damaging to people in ways they may never understand. I would support the implementation of the no asshole rule in almost any work environment. But at the same time, something about the “dirty dozen” list gives me pause: most of these tactics are not only acceptable, but expected, of people in honor-shame cultures. Is there an ethnocentric bias here that needs to be addressed?

In Asian and Middle-Eastern (and other) cultures, insults are fine and frequent arts; belligerence a commendable show of machismo; public degradation a staple of life; two-faced attacks (and backhanded compliments) prestigious displays of wit; and “treating others as if they are invisible” a proper way of snubbing inferiors and equals. What constitutes being an asshole in one culture can be honorable in another, and not nearly as psychologically damaging.

Sutton seems aware of the ethnocentricity behind his rule. In the middle of the book he not only brings honor-shame cultures into the discussion, but honor-shame subcultures — like that of the southern United States:

“People raised in these cultures are especially polite and considerate in most interactions, in part because they want to avoid threatening the honor of others (and the fight it provokes)… [But] once they are affronted, men raised in these places often feel obligated to lash back and protect what is theirs, especially their right to be treated with respect or honor.” (pp 116-117)

He then cites an intriguing study conducted in 1996 at the University of Michigan, in which the behavior patterns of southern and northern Americans were contrasted:

“Subjects (half southerners and half northerners) passed a stooge who ‘accidentally’ bumped into him and swore at him. There were big differences between how the northerners and southerners reacted: 65% of the northerners were amused by the bump and insult, and only 35% got angry; only 15% of the insulted southerners were amused, and 85% got angry. Not only that, a second study showed that southerners had strong physiological reactions to being bumped, especially substantial increases in cortisol (a hormone associated with high levels of stress and anxiety), as well as some signs of increased testosterone levels. Yet northerners showed no signs of physiological reaction to the bump and insult.” (p 117)

In other words, if you are from an honor-shame culture like Asia or the Middle-East — or from an honor-shame subculture like the southern United States — “you will likely be more polite than your colleagues most of the time, but if you run into an even mildly insulting asshole, you are prone to lash out and risk fueling a cycle of asshole poisoning” (p 118). The implication seems to be that people from honor-shame cultures, or subcultures, are inherent assholes (or at least have strong asshole-leanings), even if Sutton doesn’t spell things out this harshly.

But this should be clarified: “assholes”, as defined by Sutton, do a lot more damage in guilt-based cultures than shame-based ones. In the latter, people are conditioned to defend themselves constantly and forcefully against abuse, and they aren’t psychologically wounded by the kind of things presumed in the no asshole rule. “Asshole” is thus a misnomer for such people, even if their behavior should not be excused in a western work environment.

We’re not done with Sutton’s book yet. In the next post we will look at his interesting complement to the no asshole rule — the one asshole rule. Ponder the following until then: Was Paul right about a little bit of yeast leavening the whole batch of dough (I Cor 5:6)? Or can the opposite be true?

UPDATE: See Bob Sutton’s blogpost and comments underneath, where a librarian named Daphne Chang objects to some of my remarks.