Looking for a balance between research and relevance

This is a rambling blog entry working out my thoughts on a subject, written mostly because I wasn’t able to write anything else. You have been warned.

I’ve been working on a set of essays for some time. Or I’ve been thinking about them. Every once in a while. And sometimes something gets written.

Right now, as I’m moving forward slowly and with a great many halts and fits and false starts, I’m trying to figure out what direction to take them. I have two main options, with the ever-present “in-between” to consider as well. I’m essentially just not sure how these should be written.

The essays are theological in nature, and deal with topics I find interesting and which I feel haven’t been covered well up to this point. It is a sad fact of theological writing that it’s generally filled with jargon and written to sound as academic and confusing as possible. This makes it unintelligible to most people, and often even to those who have studied the subject.

So how much should one rely on the research of others on a subject? Right now, I’m looking into matters of theodicy, and I can barely choke down most of the academic stuff I’m finding. I know I don’t want to write in that style, but when I start to submerge myself in research and cite it regularly, that’s the style that comes out. What’s more, I have little respect for most of the theological scholars I’ve read. Certainly, there are some who write well, providing excellent research and analysis, and I greatly appreciate those few. But for every one of those, there seem to be dozens who are just making stuff up. It feels more like debate in high school: we’ll pick a position, then use big words and whatever evidence is at hand to make that position sound correct; if need be, we can defend the opposite position just as handily.

On the other hand, if I rely on my knowledge and closer-at-hand sources (the authors I normally read, the Bible, lessons from years past, etc.), then my work isn’t scholarly. It’s much more likely to sound like musing and far less likely to reach a conclusion. It’s more a conversation and a story. Is that what ought to be written? I honestly don’t know.

Of course, I could to do something in-between. I could do the research, then write my own piece that is approachable and in simple language, but which sites all the complex sources for people to reference if they wish. Even just writing that sentence, though, I’m not sure that is what I ought to be doing. It certainly doesn’t feel right.

I place a good deal of value on what I consider “common sense,” which to me is another way of saying “logic.” In matters of Biblical interpretation, I think a great deal of scholarship is needed: what did a word or passage mean in the original language, what was the historical context, what were other people at the time it was written saying or writing about it? You can’t find the answers to these by employing logic. But by looking at some rudimentary sources and thinking about them, I think we can reach a conclusion on some topics.

The more I think about it–trying to get my vision and goals down–I think what I want is this: to start up a conversation on theological topics. I want to write something that is approachable, thought-provoking, and gives enough of a resource for people to start investigating and thinking about a topic on their own. In that case, doing a ton of research and trying to provide the “answer” seems counterproductive, or at least somewhat time-wasting. For most of these topics, I don’t think there is an answer. There may be a conclusion–a point at which we realize we are comfortable with what we’ve figured out, and we’ll leave it at that–but maybe we won’t get an answer in this lifetime.

What are your thoughts, readers? I’m leaving off here and going to bed, but I certainly haven’t reached any conclusions yet on this topic.

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