Sunday, January 28, 2018

Digging Up Abraham

They called him "the father of pots.” It takes a certain kind of temperament to spend one's life digging around in the dirt. But eccentric Egyptologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie understood how archaeology would henceforth and forever be defined: the study of pots. It was he who declared that the construction of the ancient past is best accomplished not by considering gigantic monuments left behind, but by piecing together the tiny remnants of broken earthenware, the "unconsidered trifles.”

However, in the last decade of the 19th century Petrie was destined to stumble upon something that, while previously unconsidered, was hardly a trifle. It would in fact write a new chapter in the contentious field of biblical archaeology. Who was this William Flinders Petrie? The grandson of the first person to map Australia, here was a fellow with exploration in his blood. A sickly child, his mother, a scholar in her own right, taught him Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Though he lacked formal education, his father taught him surveying, which contributed to his later career as an archaeologist. As an eight year old boy he overheard a family discussion of an archaeological dig of an ancient Roman villa on the Isle of Wight, and protested that the earth ought to be cleared away with care rather than roughly shoveled out. As an elderly man, he later wrote: “All that I have done since was there to begin with, so true it is that we can only develop what is born in the mind. I was already in archaeology by nature.”

Monday, March 28, 2016

Whose Holy Land?: Archaeology Meets Geopolitics in Today’s Middle East

Biblical Archaeology today is more than just an obscure field for academic eggheads. It’s a mine field, with implications that may well determine the course of events, geopolitically, for the Middle East and the entire world. It’s exciting enough that there are always “Indiana Jones” adventures lurking in the background, including fantastic new discoveries, as well as age-old discussions about the fate of the Ark of the Covenant, among other things. But more than that, there’s the modern struggle to flesh out a “narrative” – a story about the origins of the “Holy Land” and to whom it belongs. The artifacts of archaeology are more than just museum pieces; they’re the storytellers, witnesses in stone, relating, in unbiased fashion, what the unvarnished truth is behind who lived in this land and when. It’s not surprising then, that modern parties to the Middle East conflict would be locked in dispute about the ownership of the artifacts as well as the land. The bottom line is: Whoever controls the artifacts controls the narrative. And the narrative is what it’s all about.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Passover, Easter and the “Apocalypse”


Springtime is a season that's all about rebirth and renewal, and it also has as its spiritual centerpiece two religious holidays, Easter for Christians and Passover for Jews. But hardly anyone recognizes that each of these holiday has much in common with the other, though not as one might think. What I mean by that is that both Passover and Easter share an undercurrent of apocalypticism, the origin which is in Judaism itself. Indeed, the whole concept of eschatology, that is the “end of days,” normally associated with Christianity, is at its core Jewish, and intimately connected with the springtime feasts celebrated by both Jews and Christians.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Teaching the Most Depressing Subject on Earth: The Professor and the Green Screen

The history of the Holocaust. What a topic to have to teach! But of course I'm a professor, and that's my job. Complicating matters has been the fact that my course on the history of the Holocaust is totally online. So I'm supposed to assign some readings, ask for written responses, and hope we don't all die of boredom. No way! We have a gorgeous TV studio on campus, with state of the art editing equipment, a green screen, and even a Teleprompter. And nobody's using it. Of course I had to figure out exactly what to do with all this equipment. By now we've probably all seen at least a few examples of traditional video lectures, delivered by traditional professors in the traditional way. But let's face it; a lot of these are barely more engaging than reading a phone directory. The goal I've set for myself has been to reinvent teaching. Not just thinking outside the box, but teaching outside it! And that means you don't stand in front of the podium reading stale old notes. We’re producing television here; and that means it all starts with a script. I cut out everything extraneous and get to the nub of what I want to teach. Amazingly, I find that it's actually possible to compress what I would normally teach in an hour and a quarter down to 20 minutes or so. Naturally, a story like this involves a lot of historical characters. But rather than just talking about them, why not become them? All it takes is a little costuming, putting on an accent and maybe a few props. It dawned on me that I could become any number of characters in the larger saga. And the green screen can place me anywhere in the world. Of course I'll still be the professor, dressed in suit and tie, introducing the people I impersonate. But when the moment comes, it's off to the green room, where I do my costume change and return to shoot my character segment. The editing for that segment is all done in sepia color, with a filter that makes it all look like old time news real footage. The audio is even made to sound a bit tinny. What we produce in the end isn't really a university lecture at all. It's something akin to a documentary, though not exactly. What we've done is to invent a whole new medium. There's nothing like it anywhere. Potentially, we can take this far beyond the confines of academia. The possibilities are endless, and we're just getting started. Stay tuned...

Friday, August 28, 2015

Creative Destruction

Creative destruction. That's what happens when new technology effectively kills off tried and true ways of doing things, yet brings about new opportunities – that sometimes even allow us to make a dent in the universe.

I'm a professor at the second largest university in the United States. Pretty cool gig, right? But not when you watch your classes, some of the most popular on campus, dwindle in enrollment to just a handful. Why? Because with the dawn of online learning, students started abandoning my classes for anything taught on the web. And I taught face-to-face. I had to adapt, and fast. So I got myself certified in online teaching, and jumped into an amazing new “market.”

The immediate problem that arose was, how am I going to distinguish myself from everybody else, who just assign texts to read and assignments to turn in? Boring… Major-league boring. I asked myself: what do I do that really works? Why were my classes ever popular to begin with? Well, everybody seems to like my lectures, which weren't just lectures, but often semi-theatrical presentations. 

Then I realized that the university has a full television studio, with state of the art cameras, a teleprompter, a green screen, and a full editing suite. I can't imagine what it cost the taxpayers. And nobody's using it! So I teamed up with the videographer and editor-in-chief, and began to bring my lectures to life. Among other things, I teach the history of the Holocaust – a pretty depressing topic. But rather than just talking about various characters in the sad saga, why not bring them to life, with some costuming, some acting, and a good dose of chutzpah? Let's make television!

A year later, the creative side of the destruction is taking off, and I now have a record enrollment (sixty-five!) in a class that was struggling for survival the last time I taught it. Every week I magically “zap in” another character, who can be placed in front of any background in the world via the green screen. Online teaching will never be the same…

Check out a brief segment from one of my character impersonations (complete with feigned Polish accent). Meet Abba Kovner, a dynamic Jewish ghetto fighter during the darkest days of the Holocaust. Here he is at the end of the tragedy, issuing a warning, that the threat of genocide didn't end with the death of Hitler. There is a new “slaughtering knife” that waits in ambush for the Jewish people. When we look around at the world today, at Iran and even continental Europe, where it’s once again dangerous to be Jewish, he nailed it, didn't he?

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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Meet the Visionaries

It’s time we meet the “Visionaries,” a group identified by contemporary scholars, believed to have come into focus over 2,500 years ago, in the sixth century, B.C. The Israelites have spent seventy long years in exile, in faraway Babylon. It is in exile that they have learned a new kind of spirituality, schooled in suffering and deprivation. They have waited for the opportunity to return, one day, to their ruined city of Jerusalem and their destroyed Temple. Their dreams are at last realized when a great Persian emperor named Cyrus comes to power. He issues a historic edict allowing his Jewish subjects to come home and rebuild their capital and the sacred shrine they have so long revered. 
The monarchy established centuries before by King David and his son Solomon has long vanished, so the returnees are led by their priests, who serve as de-facto rulers. While the goal of restoring their homeland is noble, it soon becomes clear that they represent a new “ruling class,” an upper-class priestly hierarchy who are “in cahoots” with the Persians. In tension with this new “theocracy,” a grassroots movement spontaneously appears, united by a purer vision of what a restored Jerusalem and rebuilt Temple should resemble. They are the Visionaries, and, according to the theory, they are responsible for some of the most profound depictions of otherworldly encounters ever recorded. They are “anti-establishment” folk, meeting together in secret groups that cultivate spirituality. 

They feel alienated, deprived and marginalized by their own national and religious leaders, but that’s exactly what fuels their passion. Oddly enough, the bulk of the people are strangely drawn to them, as they begin to methodically record their visionary experiences, in the tradition of the great prophets (such as Isaiah and Jeremiah) of bygone days. The movement they begin will last for centuries and will cultivate scores of otherworldly encounters, recorded in books such as Enoch and Jubilees, and in the Dead Sea Scrolls, that were for whatever reason (perhaps because of the sensational visions they relate) systematically banned from the Bible. 
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Friday, August 21, 2015

The Paranormal Bible

We’ve all heard of “altered states” – of people in modern culture who have profound metaphysical experiences of one kind or another, ranging from out-of-body experiences to UFO encounters. But let’s “flash back” to biblical days. How many people in ancient times experienced “other levels” of consciousness? If such experiences occur in today’s world, doesn’t it stand to reason that people long ago would have recorded similar phenomena? In truth the ancients had just as many paranormal experiences as modern people, but they were recorded in texts that were systematically excluded from the Bible – precisely because they were “paranormal.” So I ask, what would the Bible look like if we put them back in? Unfortunately, today’s academicians don’t communicate very well across disciplines, so textual scholars aren’t even allowed to ask what experiences ancient authors had that might have been similar to paranormal phenomena across the centuries and down to the present. The next question is, who were these ancient authors?
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