Archive for the ‘School’ Category
Ellen Davis and Krista Tippett June 10, 2010 | 01:00 pm

It’s finally out! One of my favorite professors is on one of my favorite radio programs (probably my favorite, now that “In the Loop” is no more…)! Dr. Ellen Davis on “Speaking of Faith” has been attached into the blog’s podcast feed. There should be a player below: if not, visit the EnfranchisedMind post itself at

As usual, “Speaking of Faith” has a nice page for the episode:

If you want to hear more from Dr. Davis and you are on iTunes, you can hear her inaugural lecture as the “Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology” (yeah, Duke’s subtle with their chair names…):

Ellen Davis interviewed for “Speaking of Faith” May 14, 2010 | 03:46 pm
A photo of Krista Tippett looking content in the studio

Photo Krista Tippett interviewing Ellen Davis

Speaking of Faith (which I’ve talked about before on this blog) just interviewed Dr. Ellen Davis, who I took Hebrew from last fall and will be taking Exodus with this upcoming fall. She’s an awesome professor who is engaged in this area of “agrarian theology”, which asks questions about how we are to relate to the land we live on and what it means for us to be in a particular environment at a particular time. Subscribe to the podcast and you won’t forget to hear it when it comes out mid-June!

[EDIT: I attached the unedited interview below.]

New Wiki, and SBL LaTeX Papers Revisited May 5, 2010 | 03:08 pm

I’ve just created a wiki for EnfranchisedMind at It’s going to get the PeriodicalUpdater stuff shortly, but its inaugural article is “Using LaTeX for Society of Biblical Literature Style Papers”. People thought I was nuts to use LaTeX for SBL papers, and then they spent reading week griping about how hard it is to format their papers. There’s a better way, folks, and I’ve done up a tutorial here.

Heartbeat: Check April 27, 2010 | 08:48 am

Aside: Graphic Karma, who developed the theme for this blog, just overhauled their website. Check it out!

Just dropping a line to let people know that I am alive, despite all appearances to the contrary. Here’s what I’ve been up to.

Biggest thing in school, where I’ve been doing a lot of work on the book of Joel and Creation Theology, along with memorizing book/chapter of the New Testament. Did a fun exegesis paper on creation themes in Deutero-Isaiah and now I’m working on another interesting paper on how our relationship with dogs can inform Christian theology. Also, I discovered that Gregory of Nyssa wouldn’t be keen on me reading Song of Songs and that Hebrew students make the best home brew.

Over the summer, I will be doing my student pastor placement at a local Methodist church. That’s going to be weird. I’m chalking it up under the heading of “Growth Experience”. When I preach (and I will have to preach), I’ll put the sermon up here (like “That’s Great. Now What?” (The seven minute sermon)).

In the meantime, I’ve been working at the Climate Change Policy Partnership at Duke, which has eaten what little time my M.Div left behind. I decided not to apply for the Ruby Summer of Code, because my mandatory summer internship placement as a student pastor has killed my free time this summer: the weekly commute alone is a part-time job.

As for open source, all I’ve been working on is the [latex]LaTeX[/latex] SBL classes and packages, which allow you to use [latex]LaTeX[/latex] for Society of Biblical Literature papers and provide other nifty Bible language and citing support. (Many thanks to David Purton for letting me merge in the work I’ve done and provide an American accent to the SBL Latex project.)

Oh, and there was some work on Smokejumper-Commons which was relevant for the CCPP job—a bit of Java snuck in after all by way of EPA’s MOVES.

Work on Autobase and any of my other Grails plugins has pretty much bottomed out. The Ashlar programming language is on hold, as is work on Duby and BiteScript. Since jQuery PeriodicalUpdater is pretty easy, I’ll probably do a few tweaks, although I’m really looking for a JavaScript guru to help me figure out the nicest way to expose a stop() call to callback methods.

The book isn’t happening anymore. Long, kinda anticlimactic story behind that. The only good news in that realm is that it changed the way I thought about the Ashlar programming language. (Of course, Ashlar being put on hold means that it really has come to naught. But such is life.) I’ve also decided that if I do publish anything technical again, I’m almost certainly going to self-publish. I may end up self-publishing a few interesting bits from school, too. Remember, kids: Wil says, “Get Excited and Make Things!”, so I’m probably going to be reworking some of my academic work and throwing off some interesting little Pendle Hill-esque booklets instead of letting the work from all these cool papers drift off into the mist.

The Smokejumper IT site is probably going to be overhauled soon to focus on my open source projects instead of my consulting offerings, since my consulting offerings have become rather limited at this point. I do need a place to consolidate documentation, repositories, and comments at this point. I’ve thought about using a family of pages here for that, too: can’t really decide which web property is better to host that content.

That’s pretty much everything. See you eventually!

Using LaTeX to Write Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) Style Papers April 18, 2010 | 09:18 am

[NOTE: See my wiki page on SBL LaTeX for more and more up-to-date information than this blog post.]

My Duke Divinity School classes all require Society of Biblical Literature format for their papers. Having become horribly annoyed with Word and OpenOffice’s inability to handle intermingled Hebrew and English words (not to mention annoyed with manually typesetting all the appropriate formatting), I decided to shift to LaTeX for writing papers. David Knauert (RIP) used LaTeX (and emacs) for his doctoral dissertation, so if its Hebrew support was good enough for him, it should be good enough for me.

It’s been a pain in the ass to get it to actually work well, but I’m rather pleased by the results. I’m still working on getting the SBL format just right, but it is coming along rather nicely. I’ve also discovered a number of SBL formatting rules that make me happy I’m no longer using a word processor, such as the SBL’s rule that one shall not indent the first paragraph of any section. Here are a *.tex file and the resulting PDF to demonstrate the formatting.

If you don’t know what LaTeX (pronounced “LAY-tek”) is, check out An introduction to LaTeX, followed by The (Not So) Short Introduction to LaTeX2e.

If you’d like to use it and you’re on Mac OS-X, here’s how you can use it. (If you’d like to use it and you’re on anything else, you’re on your own.)

First, install MacTeX and BibDesk. Create a folder somewhere (e.g. ~/lib/latex), and drop rcfsblpaper.cls into it. Also unzip in that directory. Then modify your environment variables (instructions how to do that are here), assigning your newly-created folder and the frankenstein folder within it to the TEXINPUTS and BIBINPUTS variables: it’ll look something like /Users/myname/lib/latex:/Users/myname/lib/latex/frankenstein. Then use BibDesk to create a bibliography library named religious in the newly-created folder.

With that done, you’re pretty much ready to go. If you use one of the MacTeX GUIs to develop, you’re on your own to figure out how to work them. I’m using vi, although people new to terminal editors often find nano easier to work with (and if you’re new to the Mac command line, check out the many nifty tutorials out there). Use BibDesk to manage your religious library, and you’ll have a nicely-organized and infinitely citable repository of books (even for your Word docs).

The basic template for any SBL paper will now look something like this:

author{Robert Fischer}
date{Spring 2010}
title{Joel~2:1--17---A Passage to Train the Soul}
% Content goes here

In the body, you can use Hebrew by installing the SBL’s Hebrew font and keyboard drivers (I use SIL for my keyboard), and then wrapping Hebrew in the hebrew command: e.g. hebrew{שׁוב}. The fancy-cased “Lord” can be generated with the Lord command, and the Hebrew Tetragrammaton can be generated with the tetra command.

(Another aside on keyboard usage: if you go to the System Preferences, then into International, you can turn on the input menu in the menu bar (making it easier to figure out what you’re typing in), and you can check the box to add the Character Palette and Keyboard Viewer into that menu. If you leave the Keyboard Viewer up, you can see what you’re about to type, and if you hold shift and/or option, the Keyboard Viewer will change to reflect the modified keyboard. So that’s a nice way to go hunting for that character you can’t remember how to type. When you get rolling, it’s also kinda cool to watch it blink and flash with your typing speed.)

You can publish Bible abbreviations (e.g. NIV, NKJV, NRSV) by using the bibleabbrv command (also known as bibleabbr b/c I can never remember if I included the “v” at the end or not): e.g. bibleabbrv{NIV}. The result will be an appropriately small-capped.

If you quote the Bible, use the biblequote command, which will add the appropriate quotes, prevent awkward breaks (like the quote and the beginning of the citation being on different lines), and format the citation like the SBL expects. The arguments to the command are: quote, book, chapter:verse, version: e.g. biblequote{in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel}{Amos}{1:1}{NRSV}. The version is important because the SBL has particularly anal rules about when you should or should not cite the Bible version, which you don’t need to worry about if you’re using my document class. The only thing important is that if you always want the Bible version printed out, you can signal that with the ismultibible command.

For citing Bible verses, I’m currently using the bibleref package, so see its documentation for details. A very old version of it ships with MacTeX, but aside from one minor bug (which I work around in my document class), it seems to work out pretty well. I’m not impressed with its indexing capabilities (I’d like to have a separate index for Bible passages, sorted by order in the Bible), but it’s otherwise pretty nifty.

For long Bible verse cites, use the biblepassage environment. The verse marker can be written using the versemark command: e.g. versemark{2}. You can force the indent of a verse by saying
verseindent{} at the start of a line. Remember that LaTeX ignores carriage returns (*handwave*), so if you want a hard break, you have to end your line with \.

Right now, the footer is using the full author name. If you want to change that, issue a command like the following somewhere in the body of your document:

rewnewcommand{RCFSBLAuthor}[0] { Fischer } % Replace "Fischer" with the name you want in the footer

Here’s a little script that I run to generate PDFs from the LaTeX file. Drop it into ~/.profile and you’ll be good to go. To generate foo.pdf from foo.tex, you simply call sbl foo.

function sbl {
  rm -vf $1.pdf
  echo $ltxdir
  rm -rvf $ltxdir
  mkdir -vp $ltxdir
  cp -v $1.tex $ltxdir/ 
  cd $ltxdir 
  xelatex -file-line-error $1
  bibtex $1  
  xelatex -interaction=batchmode $1
  xelatex -interaction=batchmode $1
  #makeindex *.idx
  #xelatex -interaction=batchmode $1
  cp -v $1.pdf "$base/"
  cd "$base"
  rm -rvf $ltxdir

The commented-out lines can be put back in if you’re generating an index for your paper (which would be kinda odd, but there you go).

To spell check your paper, you need to install ispell (which you can get via MacPorts). Then just run ispell -t foo.tex, and you have a nice interactive spellchecker.

The word count of your paper can be determined by using texcount (e.g. texcount foo.tex).

Those last two are basically all I used OpenOffice/Word for, and the resulting papers via LaTeX are a lot easier on the eyes. Although I’m getting almost fetishistic about where line breaks are allowed to occur.

A few TODOs for the document class:

  • I need to come up with some good title format.
  • I want to be able to generate document indices in a nicer way.
  • I’d like to break out the package-y stuff into a package, because the goal would be to have a family of document classes.
  • I should get this up onto CTAN when it gets stabilized.
  • The bibref package is very powerful and very cool, but it needs some help to be just right: specifically, it needs a bit more space in the resulting output for the SBL to be happy. I’d also like it to generate a separate (and better-sorted) index for Bible verses if the multind package is loaded. It also needs to be able to break down multi-verse citations (e.g. Joel 2:1,15;3:5) into its constituent parts for indexing (e.g. Joel 2:1, Joel 2:15, Joel 3:5). But all of this involves some seriously tricky LaTeX coding, which I’m not up for right now.
  • I don’t actually have Turabian citation style kicking around: everything’s Chicago at this point, and it’s all inline citation style. I find that really, really ugly, and I’d prefer a footnote citation style if I could get away with it.
  • The biblepassage environment is annoyingly difficult to use. Some day I may make this easier by extending the verbatim environment and undoing all the font modifications it does, but that’s another time.
  • I really should make changing the footer name easier.

The style is maintained as a GitHub repository: RobertFischer/latex-sbl-paper. Its license can be found here (GNU AGPL 3.0 as of this writing).

Fall 2010 School Schedule March 29, 2010 | 01:06 pm

Here’s my (tentative) schedule for next semester:

  • Christian Theology — The course aims at furthering the active appropriation of the Christian faith in the context of the contemporary church and in engagement with the world of today. It treats principally the themes of the classic creeds or the traditional topics of dogmatics. It also introduces students to the epistemological issues of revelation, faith, authority, interpretation, and social location — Geoffrey Wainwright
  • American Christianity— A consideration of the nature of Christianity in America and the history of its development. — Grant Wacker (who went to Harvard and UNC but apparently got better)
  • Interpreting Exodus through Jewish and Christian Traditions — This seminar will look at the importance of the book of Exodus for theology and the formation of religious identity among both Jews and Christians. Further, we will look at how its central significance is evidenced in the homiletical traditions of both communities from antiquity to the present — Ellen Davis
  • Hellenistic Greek — a.k.a. Biblical Greek 101
  • Hebrew Reading — a.k.a. Biblical Hebrew maintenance

“That’s Great. Now What?” (The 7 Minute Sermon) December 29, 2009 | 01:39 am

While home for the holidays, I preached a sermon at Plymouth Presbyterian Church, the church where I grew up and where my parents still attend. The sermon title is “That’s Great. Now What?”, and it’s about the Christian experience of being given revelation and left to sort out the details for ourselves. It was the Sunday after Christmas, and I chose Deuteronomy 34 and Mark 16:1-8 as my Bible passages. Through providence or luck (depending on how you reckon such things), the Deuteronomy passage was where a church Bible study had reached, so that worked out well for them.

My mother told me that I had to keep it to 7 minutes, and those who know me from the No Fluff tour know that I barely clear my throat in 7 minutes, so I was moving at a good clip. There’s also a couple of major gaffes where I was thinking a bit ahead of what I was speaking. Instead of editing around those, though, I decided to just leave it au natural. All in all, I’m rather proud of it.

Here’s the link: “That’s Great, Now What?”.

Spring 2010 School Schedule November 9, 2009 | 07:51 pm

Registration just got settled. Here’s what I’m taking next semester.

  • OLDTEST 305. Creation, Cosmology, and World Order. One of the most exciting initiatives in current Old Testament scholarship involves a thoroughgoing reappraisal of the theme of creation. This course will investigate shifts within the field and their implications. At stake are the relation between cosmology and anthropology in ancient Israel, the shape of Old Testament theology, the relationship between the Old Testament and the New, and the Bible’s abiding relevance for contemporary ecological issues. Instructor: Chapman.
  • OLDTEST 12. Introduction to Old Testament Interpretation. The second half of a two-semester course that serves as an introduction to the literature, history, and religion of ancient Israel with emphasis on exegetical methodology. Instructor: Chapman.
  • NEWTEST 18. Introduction to New Testament Interpretation. An introduction to the literature of the New Testament with special attention to the perspectives and methods of historical-critical investigation and interpretation. Instructor: Campbell.
  • CHURHST 206 The Christian Mystical Tradition in the Medieval Centuries: Daring Mystical Theologians: Meister Eckhart, Marguerite Porete, Jacopone da Todi, Gregory Palamas, and Luis de Leon in their Historical Context. Reading and discussion of the writings of medieval Christian mystics (in translation). Instructor: Keefe.

Should be mind-blowing. Dr. Chapman is awesome (which is good, because I’ll be spending a lot of time with him next semester). I haven’t had Dr. Keefe or Dr. Campbell before, so that’ll be a new experience. Interestingly, at the end of next semester, I’ll have taken courses predominantly from Yale and Toronto graduates.

The other two years of my M.Div career are laid out here. Next year and fall of my senior year is pretty well laid out with knocking out core classes: not a whole lot of choice there. Limited electives dominate the fall of my senior year. Spring of my senior year is pretty much wide open.

Note to Particularly Attentive Duke Div Students: Yes, I’m pushing CHURCHST 14 to next year. It’s opposite the Creation class this year, though, and since Chaps’s Creation is NEVER BEING TAUGHT AGAIN, I’m taking it now.

EnfranchisedMind Podcast Series: Looking for a Name November 2, 2009 | 11:57 am

Being in the M.Div program, I’m going to have to do some preaching. I’m also signed up to do preaching December 27th at my parent’s church (Plymouth Presbyterian Church). In order to explore my pulpit voice and just to get some thoughts out of my head and into the wider world, I have a few relatively short monologues that I plan on sharing via the EnfranchisedMind podcast.

The issue is that I’m looking for a name of that series. I’ve always been bad at names and I’m stuck coming up with something that sounds right. Any recommendations?

Help with Spring Courses? October 28, 2009 | 11:31 am

Trying to decide what courses to take this Spring for my M.Div here at Duke. Here are my options:

  • PARISH 120: Food, Eating, and the Life of Faith: This course will be an examination of food systems and eating practices in the light of Christian teaching. Our aim will be to develop a theological framework and set of practices for faithful eating that honors God and contributes to a peaceable creation and a just society.
  • OLDTEST 305: Creation, Cosmology, and World Order: One of the most exciting initiatives in current Old Testament scholarship involves a thoroughgoing reappraisal of the theme of creation. This course will investigate shifts within the field and their implications. At stake are the relation between cosmology and anthropology in ancient Israel, the shape of Old Testament theology, the relationship between the Old Testament and the New, and the Bible’s abiding relevance for contemporary ecological issues. [Taught by a professor I know I really admire.]
  • PARISH 137: Writing as a Christian Practice: This course will teach the skills of writing for future ministers and theologians. The task of writing is central to these vocations: ministers need to write sermons, newsletters, pastoral admonitions, and even thank you cards. Theologians often feel called to write for an audience beyond their fellow trained academicians. We will foster the skills necessary to communicate to fellow ministers in Christian media or to an occasionally interested, occasionally hostile, outside world. [Taught by a once-editor of "Christianity Today".]

Currently thinking about doing the Creation course.