Archive for February, 2004

Of Dangers, Pitfalls and Fallacies

Published: February 16th, 2004

One of the books I end up recommending again and again is D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies (Baker, 1996 – 2nd. ed.) We can hardly deny the need for careful exegesis these days, when so much wishy-washy preaching and teaching seems to be in vogue. And I say this because Bible software is a great thing, but it needs to be handled with care. Cars are great tools, but I just saw one bumping into another on my way home today… So, watch out!

A few years ago, Terry Taylor wrote a short article on Computers in Bible Teaching: Bible Study Software, where he warned against a number of traps to be avoided by people using Bible software. More recently, David Lang has written another interesting piece along the same lines: The Dangers of Bible Software.
It may be old hat to many, but it is something worth reminding ourselves.

I can think of a few of these pitfalls to avoid off the top of my head. They relate to the use of Bible programs, but are in no way limited to it. Maybe we could build a more comprehensive list another day.

1. A very frequent thing that can happen to us when we use Bible software is that we reach a point where we can’t see the forest for the trees. Terry Taylor calls it the “tunnel-vision trap”. The need to stay in context, as David Lang also alerts us, is something we have to have clearly before us all the time. In this age of increasing
specialization we must never lose sight of the larger picture.

2. We must also carefully avoid the cut-and-paste syndrome. This reminds me of the preacher who had jotted down the following remark in his sermon notes: “Weak point. Shout louder!”. The equivalent to that would be the urge felt by some people to back up some particular point with tons of references taken from the myriads of electronic tools available nowadays (including Internet resources, of course). Terry Taylor’s “laziness trap” and “verse dumping trap” would fall under this category. An off-shoot of this syndrome is the pitfall of plagiarism. Let’s try to think things through for ourselves, and if we want to quote some interesting or witty sentence or paragraph, let’s
give credit where credit is due!

3. We have all heard that “a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing”. Well, it surely can in the field of Biblical languages. There was a thread on B-Greek a while back where members discussed at great length the danger of knowing just a little Greek. Bible software grants us access to the underlying original text of any given passage like never before, but getting to know how to perform word studies and other similar exercises
will not turn us into Greek or Hebrew scholars overnight! As David Lang puts it, we must avoid the danger of becoming “gnostics” (or falling into the “Greek geek trap”, in Terry Taylor’s words).

4. Last, but not least, there’s the danger of suffering from an information indigestion. This happens when we cannot process the huge amount of information we have at our disposal, and simply pile it up. Computers can retrieve
information at great speeds, but it is up to us to analyze and reflect on it. Maybe one of our main problems is that we need time. After all, exegesis will never be an instant, ready-made, computer-generated product…

There was a quote I once read (not sure where it came from) that said: “With computers we can now misinterpret Scripture at speeds never before possible”.
Well, I think whoever said it got the point across pretty nicely. I’m not a pessimist, and I firmly believe in the advantages of using new technology, but we would do well to keep our eyes wide open in order to avoid, to the best of our ability, some of these traps in the course of our study. BTW, If you want to share more dangers and pitfalls, by all
means do!

Where to Start Reading about Bible Software (II)

Published: February 16th, 2004

As a follow-up to my previous comments on this matter, I would like to recommend another useful online reference: Your Online Guide to Bible Reference Books & Software, by John R. Kohlenberger III. It’s a more general resource, centered around Zondervan’s own resources, but worth checking out nevertheless, particularly the section on Bible Study Software.

[Ed.] The link is no longer available. Sorry about that.

Features versus Content

Published: February 15th, 2004

There’s no doubt that Bible software has become increasingly complex, with lots of “bells and whistles” that many users are likely to underuse, or misuse (or both!). This problem is here to stay, I’m afraid. And there is a very simple reason for it: either most people just don’t read the user manuals or, even worse than that, very often there is no manual to read! And I don’t mean a nice online help (that should be taken for granted), but the traditional, old-fashioned, printed manual with step-by-step instructions and lots
of screenshots. When I review software package I always value very highly the availability of a printed guide. To be able to print the help files or documents yourself is not quite the same, but it’s better than nothing. Anyway, let’s not get sidetracked!

At the heart of any Bible program there is always a more or less sophisticated electronic Bible concordance. This concordance may look and feel better, nicer or faster, but at the end of the day it’s a concordance after all! So, the point is that a concordance won’t be of much use unless we have an appropriate set of databases to concord. And here is where the quality of the contents comes into play. Companies
spend quite a bit of their resources developing neat graphical user interfaces and “wow” features (and rightly so, I hasten to add). But the key to usefulness and accuracy lies in what happens behind the scenes. To get a machine-readable text (MRT) is a relatively easy task. To tag a text is a very involved and time-consuming one.

John J. Hughes, in his milestone work Bits, Bytes & Biblical Studies (Zondervan, 1987, p. 496), defines tagging like this:

Tagging is the process of attaching descriptive codes to words. Those codes, or tags, may consist of any information – textual, morphological, syntactical, or semantic – that is to be associeated with a particular word or form.

Therefore, tags typically include anything from Strong’s or Goodrick-Kohlenberger’s numbers (in English texts), to full morphological and grammatical details (in Greek and Hebrew texts). The more information that is tagged to a given database or corpus, the
better. But more coded information also means more grunt work, and a greater chance for errors to creep in. Tagging is a very costly job, but it’s an essential part of developing good software packages.

Does this mean we have to underplay the functionality of a Bible program? Not at all! But features and sheer search power will be rendered meaningless unless we can rely on good, coded databases ready to be searched at different levels (as many levels as the number of descriptive codes available).

In sum, I believe we have a debt of gratitude with the people who are working so hard, often without proper financing or recognition, in order to develop those tagged texts that make our lives so much easier.

Where to Start Reading about Bible Software

Published: February 14th, 2004

Although some of the specific contents are badly outdated, I would still recommend reading Harry Hahne’s course notes “Using a Computer in Biblical and Theological Studies”. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since 1999, particularly so in the field of computing and computer-assisted Bible study, but many of his general insights still hold true (see, for instance, the first section: “Introduction: How a computer can help in seminary and ministry”, where he deals with subjects such as Computer Basics, Major types of software, Computing and the Process of Research and Writing, What a Computer Can and Cannot Do, Working Efficiently With a Computer, etc.) The comments he makes, later on in the course, on certain programs and Internet sites only apply to the current situation at the time of writing, and should be taken with a grain of salt.

Harry Hahne was also the editor for the Bible Analysis website, which unfortunately hasn’t been updated in a long, long, time. However, his essay “Interpretive Implications of Using Bible-Search Software for New Testament Grammatical Analysis” remains a must-read, IMO, for anyone interested in the rigorous study of the Greek New Testament with the aid of computer tools, despite the fact than most of the programs he mentions in the test cases have been vastly improved over the years.

More on New Technology for Webs and Blogs

Published: February 13th, 2004

I have followed with interest the recent technical discussion presented by Stephen C. Carlson in his blog. He replies to my previous comment
on the subject, particularly my question about whether this “In-line Glossary Technique” could be used for footnotes. He suggests a somewhat different approach for publishing footnotes on the Web. Here is what he says:

Some people have suggested from time to time the use of sidenotes rather than footnotes for annotating texts on web pages. To me, it makes theoretical sense because, unlike book pages, which are taller than they are wide, browsers tend to show web pages with a greater horizontal width than its vertical height. Thus, the sides, not
the foot, constitute the area of the web page with potentially the most space for notes while still being in view.

He has posted two examples: an article with footnotes and the same article with sidenotes. Since his blog doesn’t have a commenting system implemented (hint, hint, hint…), I’ll state here that I like the sidenotes better. It seems to me that they look more elegant (though maybe some will find the page a bit too crowded, depending on the display’s resolution being used), and save us from having to click and move forward and backwards all the time. By the way, when it comes to printed books, I much rather have footnotes than endnotes. One of the links he points to is particularly useful.

Fancy Another Interview?

Published: February 13th, 2004

As I had anticipated, there is now another interview available. Today is David Lang who shares with us some of his insights. Incidentally, OakTree Software has just Posted in BSR Update, Update | No Comments »

Recommended Review

Published: February 13th, 2004

Late last year, Jim Barr pointed me to an excellent review by H. Van Dyke Parunak, published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS 46/3, September 2003, pp. 465-95) and entitled Windows Software for Bible Study. I have requested permission to make this review available online.
Meanwhile, you can download a PDF version of the full article by clicking here. I will be referring to this review in the next few days.

Blogs on Bible Software

Published: February 13th, 2004

I am not aware of the existence of many other blogs related specifically to Bible software. Apart from the occasional reference to the subject in some people’s personal blogs, I can only think of Bob Pritchett’s thoughts . You might find it interesting, but he only blogs from time to time… Another blog from someone directly involved in Bible software is Brandon Staggs’, although very often what he posts has nothing to do with the subject at hand.

Another Interview Posted

Published: February 12th, 2004

Things are developing rather nicely. It’s a sunny bright day, and I’ve just posted an interview with Michael Bushell. I should have at least another one ready tomorrow. It’s interesting to see how each individual approaches the same questionnaire in a different way. Hope you’ll find this section both informative and enlightening.

Updating Website

Published: February 11th, 2004

Now that the hardware part seems to have been taken care of, things will gradually get back to normal (I hope!).

Today we start a new section
with interviews with key people from the Bible software industry. I have sent them a survey, and the first replies are already coming in. Ivan Jurik is the first of what will hopefully be a rather long list. More should be posted in the next few days. There is now a handy “What’s new” area where all updates will be duly recorded. I’m glad things are taking shape, and would remind you that I am open to your suggestions.

Giuseppe Regalzi, a correspondent from Italy, has brought to my attention that the site doesn’t display very well at all at 800 x 600. I promise I will revisit this issue as soon as I can, but for the time being my plate is too full. If there is a real demand for it, I’ll do my best to care for those visitors who use lower resolutions. I wouldn’t want anyone to miss the opportunity to join us! Meanwhile, I have set the blog to use slightly smaller font sizes. This should help some of you.

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