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.

What religious questions need answered?

I have been working on a book off-and-on for about five years now. The work began when I was asked a theological question and needed to do some research to find the answer, after which I blogged about it and sent the link to the questioner. That spawned more questions, and more people started to read, and before I knew it I had a regular following going where I was writing daily to answer questions. I managed to do this for about a year before I burnt out.

A couple of years later, I returned to review those essays and begin again. Realizing what rubbish they were, I began rewriting and coming up with new topics. I did this for a while before getting sidetracked with college ministry, school, and work.

Now I’m returning to it for perhaps the fourth time, determined to make some progress, and I’ve already got a couple of chapters in first draft form. As I began my research for the next chapter, though, it occurred to me that the subject has already been clearly answered. An honest reading of the Bible outlines the proper Christian doctrine pretty simply, and a ton of fairly straightforward essays have been published online that deal with the subject matter.

This leaves me with two thoughts.

Thought the first: Why bother?

It has already been written about, and written about well. Why should I repeat what has already been done? This sort of also raises the question, “Why do other people repeat what has already been done?” because the same subjects come up again, and again, and again. I don’t want to waste my time writing what has already been written.

Thought the second: Why do people still not know this stuff?

The second is the more interesting question, and one I find both intriguing and troubling. I learned last year that some of the long-standing questions I had about Christianity had mostly been answered by the Jews thousands of years ago in their interpretations of the Hebrew Bible. Doctrinal questions that Christians and non-Christians alike wrestle with on a regular basis have been laid to rest for millenia, but we never caught on.

Why don’t we learn these things, and why aren’t they taught in our churches? I want to make the connection between these two people groups, these two pools of knowledge, to get the answers to the questioners. I just have to figure out how.

Send me your questions

What’s been bugging you? Bothering you? What passage seems to stick out like a sore thumb? I’m just curious.

Thinking about the divine

The blasphemer is, indeed, fundamentally natural and prosaic, for he speaks in a commonplace manner about that which he believes to be commonplace. But the ordinary preacher and religious orator speaks in a commonplace manner about that which he believes to be divine.-G.K. Chesterton

Before I could become Christian, back in 2002, I first had to have all my questions answered, at least to a reasonable extent. Christianity had to make sense to me, and though this didn’t mean that every little question was completely answered (for there still remains a great many questions about God and this world), I needed to find my faith in his righteousness through understanding of his Word. My hope is to help others who seek the same understanding by writing about Christianity and addressing some of those questions.

I do not want to misrepresent myself, though, for I do not mean to imply by the title of this blog that my writing attempts to make the divine common. Rather, I hope to represent the common man by considering simple theological matters that confront us everyday and to discuss these thoughts in a manner that can be understood by all. Like C.S. Lewis writes in the introduction to Mere Christianity, it is not mere because it is small, but because it is foundational. It is the core of our faith.

The thoughts in this blog will wander in and around those core issues, touching on the tangents and seeking to answer the questions that frustrate, confuse, or tempt both Christians and non-Christians alike. It is through questioning and seeking answers that we find the Truth, which is Jesus, and draw closer to God. Therefore it is important that we at least think about these things.

Jesus says that he stands at the door and knocks. If you choose to open the door, but never ask or learn anything further, you haven’t actually walked through it. My hope is to make that step a little easier.