working on Bible exegesis and theology papers, part 2: embedded prejudice and biased language

(This was originally written for and published by the Azusa Pacific University Writing Center.)

In Part 1 of this blog post, I offered some suggestions for working with biblical studies and theology students who make the mistakes of 1. starting with a thesis statement and working the text to fit that preconceived thesis, 2. offering confusing argumentation, and 3. writing theology papers when they should be writing history papers. Those mistakes are frequent and generally easy to spot and correct. However, students also often make deeper mistakes involving embedded prejudice and biased language. This post will help APU’s writing coaches understand the causes of prejudiced, biased writing among biblical studies and theology students and offer suggestions for steering students in the right (or at least a kinder, more sensitive) direction.

  1. Failing to reckon with embedded prejudice

This is a big topic, and often somewhat difficult to recognize and address. We all have prejudices (pre-judgments) and biases embedded in our systems of thought. It’s especially important to recognize and address these embedded prejudices when doing theological work. This blog post is less concerned with instances of overt racism, sexism, and other prejudices, and more concerned with the subtle prejudices involved in students’ general lack of awareness about the various biases shaping their observations of texts and events and students’ use of library materials.

In the theological fields, objectivity is commonly understood as being impossible to achieve. In other words, biases are impossible to eliminate completely. Therefore, the simplest way to address biases is to name them. For example, I am a white, heterosexual man, and I must be aware that others who do not fit this description might read texts differently. In response, I actively seek out scholarship from writers who do not fit this description. Additionally, I am from a wealthy nation (the USA), so biblical stories about miracle healings, food, etc. bring to mind different images and emotions for me than they might for someone from a majority-world nation. In response, I seek out scholarship from majority-world scholars. As a lifelong lover of the outdoors, I am more prone than others to notice the “land” in biblical texts and the ways in which significant theological works do not take the “land” into consideration. I have identified some of my biases, and I am aware of how they shape my observations and interpretations. When working with students, try to determine whether they have identified their biases and then articulated how those biases might impact their work. Simple questions can be quite effective at broadening students’ horizons: What might this text mean for people in poverty? How is this theological topic relevant to the refugee crisis? Have you read any commentaries by Africans or Asians or Latin Americans?

Further, embedded prejudice shows up when students work only with sources written by white, heterosexual men from the US or Europe (the authors of the vast majority of works in our theological library), thus limiting the perspectives available to students. Many students do not realize that European men have dominated theological scholarship for many centuries, and male scholars in the US have caught up quickly in the last 300 years, meaning much of “mainstream” theology is biased toward the concerns of European and American male scholars. Additionally, many students are unaware of non-mainstream theologies, such as Latin American and Black liberation theologies, postcolonial theologies, and womanist theologies, to name just a few. Occasionally, students who are aware of these traditions reject them based on misunderstandings of their ideas, origins, and motivations. This misunderstanding and rejection is often the result of a failure to reckon with the ways in which theology, the Bible, and Christianity have been used to oppress certain groups—think of the preachers who defended slavery in 19th century America; the white Protestant origins of the Ku Klux Klan; the violent conquests by Christian colonizers against the native peoples of Asia, Africa, and North and South America. Theological writers must find ways of reckoning with Christianity’s violent and oppressive past. The first step is to pay attention to the contributions of writers from the margins—people of color, women, and especially women of color. Encourage students to look for sources from liberation, feminist, and post-colonial traditions (for starters).[1] More importantly, encourage students to visit the theological reference librarians—Lindsey Sinnott (undergraduate) and Liz Leahy (seminary)—for help diversifying their learning sources.

  1. Using biased language

Similar to the previous section, but on a more immediate level, students must learn to write with bias-free language. The point is not to nitpick the use of certain words or phrases; instead, it is to “encourage sensitivity and common sense.”[2] As the Society for Biblical Literature (the biggest association of scholars in the theological fields) puts it, “Bias-free writing respects all cultures, peoples, and religions.”[3] Students must write with precision: when a student mentions the Jews, one might ask, “Which Jews? When? Where?” When writing about religious groups or other groups united by their belief systems, student writers frequently fail to recognize the diversity within those groups. The SBL explains, “Uncritical use of biblical characterizations such as the Jewsor the Pharisees can perpetuate religious and ethnic stereotypes.”[4] Students must learn that “there are ranges of beliefs and practices…among practitioners, such as Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews.”[5] Further, Israeli refers to citizens of modern-day Israel, established in 1948. It is not interchangeable with Jew—not all Israelis are Jews, and not all Jews are Israelis.[6] It is not interchangeable with Israelite—Israelite refers to the citizens of ancient Israel; there are no Israelites today, and there were no Israelis before 1948. Students should not make generalizations, but be specific.

If a student uses the generic man or mankind, then one might ask, “Which man? Which men? Only men, or women, too?” The generic man can cause confusion, as this memorable example shows:

The pastor said, “We teach that man was created free of sin with a rational nature, intelligence, volition, self determination, and moral responsibility to God.”
So I asked, “What about woman?”

As the SBL also explains, bias-free writing means that, generally, “the assignment of gender to God is best avoided,” and therefore gendered pronouns should be avoided. Of course, when working with historical sources, gendered language might at times be necessary and appropriate.[7] Again, instructing students to avoid biased language is not about nitpicking certain words or phrases; it is about helping students to develop greater sensitivity toward all cultures, peoples, and religions in an increasingly diverse society.

People with disabilities are often forgotten in discussions of diversity. I recently had a student describe a ministry to “disabled people (blind, deaf, and dumb).” The student simply had not learned that the preferred term is people with disabilities not disabled people, that most persons with visual and auditory impairments do not consider themselves to be persons with disabilities, and that the term dumb has not been an acceptable adjective to describe persons with physical or mental disabilities for many decades. Our job as writing coaches is to help students learn; my job with this student was to teach him to free his writing from biased language so that he could write with sensitivity and kindness about an often-mistreated population.

This two-part blog post certainly does not exhaust the mistakes students commonly make in exegetical and theological work, but it does address some of the most common mistakes and how we, as writing coaches, can steer students onto a better path. Much more could, of course, be said about embedded prejudice and biased language, but I have done my best to keep this post practical and immediate. I hope my tips prove helpful to you. As always, feel free to contact me with questions, concerns, or to talk through other problems you have noticed among biblical exegesis and theology papers.


James Hansen, MDiv

[1] The various traditions in recent biblical and theological scholarship that seek to address the concerns of minority groups have often been referred to as “contextual” theologies because they apply the methods of theological scholarship to specific “contexts.” However, this label fails to recognize that all theology is contextual; all theology seeks to address the concerns of particular groups of people in particular times and places. Labeling theology-from-the-margins as “contextual” implies that there is a “normative” theology rooted in a “normative” experience—which can only be the “mainstream” theologies of Europe and North America rooted in the experiences of the dominant groups. Further, all theology is inherently political, because theology and politics are both concerned with how we deal with people. In other words, theology makes value claims (i.e. claims about what is right, just, moral) and action claims (i.e. claims about how people should live); value claims and action claims are political; therefore, theology is political. Students should be slow to set aside theological works they deem to be “too political” or “not political enough.”

[2] Marilyn Schwartz, Guidelines for Bias-Free Writing (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 1.

[3] Billie Jean Collins and Society of Biblical Literature, eds., The SBL Handbook of Style, Second edition (Atlanta, Georgia: SBL Press, 2014), 21.

[4] Collins and Society of Biblical Literature, 21.

[5] Schwartz, Guidelines for Bias-Free Writing, 45.

[6] Schwartz, 62.

[7] Collins and Society of Biblical Literature, 21.

(If you found this post helpful, please consider donating via PayPal so I can keep this website up!)

1 Comment

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s