Fear of Offending

A Note on Educators, the Internet, and the Bible Browser

Richard L. Goerwitz
Lead Research Programmer/Analyst
Brown University Scholarly Technology Group
Providence, Rhode Island

D-Lib Magazine, April 1997

ISSN 1082-9873

The Bible is core literature. Expressions like "scapegoat" and "dark horse candidate" pervade our speech. We speak of leaders who can't read the "writing on the wall." We preach the "Golden Rule." We thrill at Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark. We long for King's "Promised Land." These phrases and images, and countless more besides, come from the Bible. The Bible is the fundamental work of Judaeo-Christian literature.

In addition to being the fundamental work of Judaeo-Christian literature, the Bible also provides important historiographic source material for the first and early second millennia BCE. It also forms the cornerstone of Judaeo-Christian tradition and theology. And it is the key for understanding some of the great ethical, moral, and political debates of our times.

Given its prominent place in literature, history, theology, ethics, and politics, it is hardly surprising that the Bible occupies (as a quick search of any Web database reveals) a prominent place on the Internet. There are hundreds of syllabi and reading lists for religious studies courses, thousands of home pages for churches and synagogues - not to mention countless sermons, papers, and essays on topics in one way or another relating to the Bible.

Despite its ubiquity, however, it is often difficult for educators to make much use of biblical materials found on the Internet. Why? Because very little out there is geared specifically for their needs. And much of it, whether deliberately or not, carries heavy ideological overtones.

The Bible Browser

It was in order to remedy this deficiency, i.e., to fill the need for an ideologically neutral, education-oriented Internet presentation of the Bible, that I created a system called the Bible Browser. The Bible Browser is a simple, powerful Web interface designed to help people of all faiths (or no faith) explore the Bible in ways that are not possible with traditional printed books. With the Bible Browser, users can retrieve individual biblical passages by book chapter:verse reference (e.g., Exodus 3:1-2). They can also retrieve passages by word (e.g., powerful), word-part (e.g., erful), or word-pattern (e.g., power(s|ful)). They can also perform Boolean operations on groups of passages (with ranges), jump from version to version, and restrict retrievals to individual chapters or books.

These functions are geared solely for information gathering, without any conscious ideological taint on my part -- other than to promote knowledge of a core literary, historical, ethical, and moral text.

Challenges, Problems

One critical problem I faced in ideologically neutralizing the system was deciding how to present the corpus. The Bible is many things to many people. To the Jews it is TaNaKh; to the Protestants it is Old and New Testaments; to the Catholics it is Old, New Testaments and Deuterocanon. Three faiths, three corpora.

My solution to the "corpus" problem was to include everything in the Bible Browser that could reasonably be called "scripture" by a Catholic, Protestant, or Jew, and then provide options to limit the corpus as desired.

I also took care to maintain the various terminologies - referring, e.g., to the Hebrew/Aramaic sections of the Bible as "the TaNaKh or Old Testament," and referring to the specifically Catholic sections of the corpus as "the Deuterocanon or Apocrypha."

Another problem I faced in creating the Bible Browser was dealing with widely varying skill levels in my users. Most users, I found, were intimidated by the wide range of search options and functions I initially offered. Not being one to intimidate users, I re-worked the Bible Browser into a two-tier system, consisting of a Basic Home Page and an Advanced Home Page. In hopes of making it even more usable, I recently outfitted the Basic Home Page with a gentle audio tutorial. The Advanced Home Page comes with a much longer, and more substantial, manual.

For even more advanced users (mainly teachers), I also created a page called the Connector Form. The Connector Form is a front-end to a utility that scans Web pages for biblical references, converting them into hyperlinks with no user intervention. Suppose, for example, that a teacher writes up a syllabus for a Hebrew Bible class, with the readings listed in some standard reference format (e.g., Gen 1:26-30, 2:4-7; or Genesis i. 26-30, ii. 4-7). He or she could run this syllabus through the Connector Form. Out would pop a new version that allowed students to do their readings online, right off the syllabus (e.g., Gen 1:26-30, 2:4-7).

Further Directions

Although I have found less time to work on the Bible Browser of late, I still add features. And I am now considering what to do when good support for languages like Greek and Hebrew (part of HTML 3.2) finally hits the Web.

I have also recently written a system very much like the Bible Browser for the Quran (the centerpiece document of Islam). Like the Bible Browser, the Quran Browser (as I call it) has a basic and advanced page, as well as a connector form, and a manual. Somewhat like the Bible Browser, it has found a niche as an ideologically neutral, education-oriented tool for the study of a fundamental document on the Internet.

Although many (especially secondary-school) educators argue that the Quran and the Bible are too hot for classroom use, and question whether there is any point in even attempting to create and maintain such tools, I believe that the success of the Bible and Quran Browsers speaks for itself. We receive between four and eight thousand "hits" each day on them -- many of these hits coming from on-line library catalogs, academic essays, reading lists, and syllabi.

I believe that educators must be willing to present fundamental documents of Judaeo-Christian and Islamic civilization to students, even if it means taking some heat. To do any less than this -- i.e., to resist teaching fundamental documents for fear of offending the fearful and narrow-minded -- would be to lose sight of what it really means to be an educator.

Richard L. Goerwitz


Copyright © 1997 Richard L. Goerwitz

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