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.

Shalom,

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.

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working on Bible exegesis and theology papers, part 1: proof-texting, parroting, and failing to read the instructions

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

Many students struggle with, or are intimidated by, the papers assigned in biblical studies and theology courses. In this two-part blog post, I will describe some of the most common mistakes students make in exegetical and theological writing and suggest possible responses. In this Part 1, I will address the three mistakes of 1) starting with a thesis and working the text to fit that thesis, 2) offering confusing argumentation, and 3) writing about theology when the student should be writing about history. As writing coaches, we can help biblical studies and theology students attempt to learn something new with each and every assignment, write as clearly as possible, and interpret assignment instructions correctly.

(Click here for Part 2 of this blog post, which briefly addresses embedded prejudice and biased language.)

Common mistakes:

  1. Starting with a thesis and working the text to fit that preconceived thesis

“Exegesis” means basically “analysis of a text.” It cannot start with a thesis. Often, exegetical papers do not even require a thesis: the focus is on analyzing or explaining a text, and implications are left up to the reader to discover. However, many students start with a thesis and attempt to “prove” it is true. Instead, if a thesis is required, then it must be discovered along the path of reading, research, thinking, and writing. Try to figure out whether the student is writing a biblical exegesis paper, or an argumentative theology paper with exegetical support. If the student is in a church history class, then papers and thesis statements should look like a history paper, not a theology paper (in other words, church history students need to be researching and writing about history, not interpreting scripture; see below).

In true exegesis, students analyze the text and—eventually—arrive at some new insight or idea about the text. Interpreting a text in such a way as to read one’s own ideas into it is called eisegesis. It is also sometimes called proof-texting—using the text to “prove” that one’s preconceived ideas are true. This is inappropriate to biblical exegesis and theology papers—and most papers, for that matter.

Common causes of working the text to fit a preconceived thesis include:

A. Church teaching—students who grew up in church often parrot their churches’ teachings in their exegetical writing.

Possible response: Encourage students to take the risk of questioning or challenging the beliefs or assumptions they brought to their reading of the text. Encourage them to attempt to “see” the text with fresh eyes and not to be afraid of these questions or challenges. The best exegetical and theological papers are usually the ones that start by asking the toughest questions. This is a chance for you as the writing coach to minister to students by letting them know that God will meet them in their toughest questions. There are no questions too big or too controversial for God. When students make claims about God, scripture, church, etc., ask how they came to those conclusions. If a student ever says, ‘That’s what I’ve always believed’, then sound the alarm!

B. Picking a text they are somewhat familiar with—similar to A above, when students pick a text they are somewhat familiar with for an exegetical paper, they tend to bring prior beliefs or assumptions and have a hard time doing any analytical or interpretive work that doesn’t start with the familiar “thesis” of their previous readings of that text.

Possible responses: If students are at the very beginning stages of an exegetical paper and have chosen a passage they are somewhat familiar with, then encourage them to choose a passage they are less familiar with—something that confuses, angers, raises questions, or in some way seems odd. For students who are farther along in their projects, see A above: help students realize that it is ok to question their beliefs and consider alternative possibilities and perspectives. Help students attempt to learn something new in their exegetical and theological work.

  1. Confusing argumentation

Students, especially beginning students, will often jump from point A (the biblical text) to point B (an interpretation) without clear analysis or connections, leaving the reader asking, “how did we get from the biblical text to this interpretation?”

Common causes:

A. Failure to define terms. Students assume they know what certain words mean and assume that others use those words exactly the same way. Examples: sovereign, atonement, sanctify, justify, control, fulfill, prophet, almighty, omniscient, omnipotent, inspire. This is more frequently a problem for beginning students than it is for more advanced students.

Possible response: When you notice a beginning student using distinctly theological words such as those listed above, consider how well the student has defined those words. Ask the student, “What do you mean when you say, _______________?” “How is that word used or defined in the scholarly literature you read for this project?” You don’t need to know exactly how to define these terms. The goal is to help students learn to write as clearly as possible.

B. Taking verses out of context—both literary and historical contexts.

Signs that a student is taking verses out of context:

  • talks about one or a few verses but not the rest of the section/chapter/book
  • talks about the text itself but does not examine the text’s author, date, location, audience, etc.
  • ignores literary transition or conclusion words in their verse/passage (especially at the beginning of the passage), such as therefore, so, thus, this is, also, and, from there, etc.

Possible response: make sure students are attending to the literary and historical contexts of their passages. Ask them what study they have done on the rest of the passage/chapter/book and on the historical/cultural realities of the time of the events described in the text and of the time the text was written (these are not often the same!).

  1. Writing a theology paper when they should be writing a church history paper

Sometimes students have a hard time distinguishing between theological writing and historical writing. Even though church history classes are listed as theology classes, they are usually more like history classes. Therefore, student writing should reflect the standards of historical, not theological, writing. As such, students writing church history papers should not offer interpretations of scripture or their own theological opinions. Instead, church history students are usually expected to focus on the ways in which certain people, places, or events shaped Christianity. An examination of the assignment instructions, prompt, or rubric will help you identify whether the student needs to write a theology paper or a history paper.

Some questions to consider:
Is the student interpreting scripture instead of reporting on a historical person, group, place, or event in relation to Christianity?
Is the student attempting to demonstrate that a historical figure’s beliefs or ideas are/were right or wrong, valid or invalid, moral or immoral, etc. (theological writing)? Is this appropriate to the assignment prompt?
Or, is the student attempting to demonstrate that a historical figure’s beliefs or ideas had a specific impact on specific people, places, or events in church history (historical writing)? Is this appropriate to the assignment prompt?

Possible response: Review the assignment instructions or rubric together. If students are interpreting scripture or otherwise writing a theology paper when they should be writing a church history paper, then encourage them to shift their focus toward significant people, places, and events and how they shaped the history of Christianity. After doing all this work, students might become stressed. Feel free to remind students that, usually, they do not need to abandon their written content; they just need to refocus it.

Though students make these mistakes frequently in biblical studies and theology papers, our goals as Writing Coaches remain the same: help students learn, write as clearly as possible, and follow instructions closely and thoroughly. Be sure to check back for Part 2 on embedded prejudice and biased language. In the meantime, feel free to contact me with questions or other tips about working with exegetical and theological papers.

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