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.

A Consideration of the Medieval Inquisition and the Insufficiencies of Structuralist and Poststructuralist Religious Theory

It is difficult to separate the word “inquisition” from the connotations given it by decades of misdirection and pop culture references. The word has become strongly tied to images of torture, fiery executions, and unjust legal proceedings. Even the satire of the Monty Python troupe, which highlights the confusion and sometimes chaotic proceedings of the Inquisition, serves to confuse matters further. ((There are instances where the comedy of Monty Python has a decent amount of relevance to scholarship—for instance, its treatment of the mythology of King Arthur in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail contains a great deal of the actual mythos of what surrounds Arthur—but the Spanish Inquisition skit is not one of these.)) For most, the Spanish Inquisition is the only inquisition remembered, but even this period in history misrepresents the dealings of the Roman Catholic Church in regards to the Inquisition; after all, the Spanish Inquisition was enacted and directed by the monarchy of Spain, not the Holy See (Roth, 72)!

Regardless, over a period of more than fifteen hundred years, the Church sought to combat heresy through a variety of methods. In addition, its shift in response over the centuries from leniency to outright war is mirrored in the approximately two hundred years of the Medieval Inquisition. This period of history saw the full gamut of Papal response to heresy, and subsequently can serve as a cross-section for examination of orthodox doctrine and dealings. The stance of the Roman Catholic Church held that its truth was the only truth, mutually exclusive to all other religious beliefs and superior to conflicting philosophical consideration. Beliefs or opinions contrary to orthodox religion, defined as heresies, were a threat to the Church in many ways. Heresies had the potential to divert believers, reduce donations, undermine control over areas and territories, and to the mind of the orthodox Catholic, threatened to destroy the bastion of good and cast the world into darkness and evil. Despite that, most heresies went largely unaddressed by the Church until the eleventh century, owing primarily to their insignificance and lack of threat to Catholicism (Deanesly, 215).

The rise of Catharism in Southern France was too great to ignore, however, prompting the Holy See to appoint inquisitors to discover from whence the heresies came, what it was the heretics believed, and to convince the unorthodox to return to the Catholic Church (Arnold, 21). In spite of the conceptualization of the Inquisition that rests at the forefronts of our mind today, its aim was simple: first, to understand why people would turn from the truth of the Church and what it was that diverted them, and second, to persuade heretics to return to the body of believers. In addition, it also served to decrease the violence of the time and instill justice where mob rule had been substituted (Shannon, 67).

The motivations and stages of the Medieval Inquisition are complex and difficult to unravel, where faith and practicality were often at tension. To gain a clearer understanding of this time, we will first review the history of the Medieval Inquisition, beginning with the rise of Catharism, the initiation of the Inquisition, the Albigensian Crusade, and the restructuring of the Inquisition. Second, by applying structuralist theory we can gain an understanding for the spiritual motivations of the pope and the other actors during the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries, both their internal and external stimuli. Third, we will consider the insufficiencies of structuralist theory in understanding the Medieval Inquisition and turn our attention to poststructuralism with a consideration of extra-theological factors and pressures. Last, we will assess the weaknesses of poststructuralist theory and examine the complementary nature of these two methods. Continue reading

Researching the Medieval Inquisition

I’m not exactly maintaining radio silence this week, and I’ll probably be on Twitter very regularly for the next several days while I am in Blackboard 9.0 training (three days of in-depth training in preparation for our upgrade and migration), but I haven’t gotten any writing done. When I was working over the weekend, I was researching the Cathar heresy and the Medieval Inquisition. I have a paper due on this topic this coming Saturday and lots of research yet to complete.

So I’m going through a stack of books, making copious notes in Scrivener and compiling all of my materials before I actually begin writing. Despite the fact that this paper is worth relatively little of my grade and I’m not generally a very diligent student, I’m actually giving this one some effort. It will probably be the last research paper of my college career, so that’s worth something I guess.

No podcast this week, though I’ve got two prepped and ready to be recorded. Each takes about 40 minutes total of recording, a bit of re-recording, upload, posting, etc. I need to spend that 40 minutes elsewhere, unfortunately. I also haven’t made any progress on fiction recently… but its time will come!

Instead, I’ve been putting movies on in the background and scanning through books, copying down the passages and information I need. Hopefully I’ll start actually writing the paper on Thursday night, and finish it on Saturday.

And once it’s all said and done, I think I’ll actually post this one 🙂 I don’t publish most of my school work because I consider it all hopelessly boring and worthless, but I really am enjoying this paper.

Herbert the Trillionaire – Chapter 2.03

“They’ve told me a bit about who I am,” Herbert replied, gesturing at the committee all around who looked rather aghast. “How much money would it take to find a cure?” he asked.

“I… I don’t know,” the doctor replied.

“Here, there’s a checkbook in my pants over there,” Herbert said, gesturing impatiently at the contents of a chair, where a suit that cost more than most people make in a month had been dumped unceremoniously.

A startled committee member, a brunette woman with a navy blue skirt and matching jacket, found herself the center of attention. She was nearest the chair, and anxiously met the gazes of her committee members, some of whom seemed to be suggesting she ignore the request and others who were urging her to hurry with their eyes. She nervously picked up the pair of pants and, with two fingers gripping them by a belt loop, passed them to Herbert.

Herbert searched the pockets and pulled the checkbook out. Handing it to the doctor, he smiled.

“You know more about all this to me. Just make it out for something and I’ll sign it,” he said.

“You can’t… you can’t be serious,” the doctor replied, mouth open, adam’s apple moving like a piston.

“Why not?” Herbert asked. “She’s important to you, and she needs help. If research will help, and research takes money, well, maybe I can do something about that.” With a casual wave of his hand, Herbert gestured for the doctor to get on with it and hopped off the table. The committee averted its eyes.

“I think I feel quite well, actually,” Herbert asserted with a grin at the aversive committee, and began to get dressed.

A Change in Direction

When I broke my collarbone, I pretty much stopped doing the online Bible study (OBS). Studying the Bible isn’t something that comes naturally to me, so this whole scheme to read, write, and podcast about what I was reading was there to keep me motivated and moving forward. I elected to organize the study by book, digging into the verses and pressing through, with the goal of researching even verses that seem mundane to find out what they really mean.

Unfortunately, I never had the time to do this. Even the barest research on a few verses would take 2-3 hours, and then add an hour or so for writing plus half an hour for recording the podcast… that wasn’t so bad during the summer before I broke my collarbone. For a month and a half I had a sling on that prevented me from moving much, and once I took it off it still hurt too much to type more than fifteen minutes. Once I could type regularly, the school year had started and my weekly schedule exploded.

All this to say, I haven’t done the OBS in a while (in case you hadn’t noticed), and I’m not going to pick up where I left off. 1 John, as it turns out, was incredibly repetitive and somewhat boring, and while there is most certainly value there, there isn’t value in the way I was doing it. More importantly, it needed way more time and research than I could give it. The last OBS I wrote, which I never published, I spent quite a bit of time on only to discover I was completely wrong. I hadn’t done enough research, and when I realized how wrong I was and how much more I needed to learn, I begged off. It’s not really fair to the text or to you, but those are the circumstances in which I find myself.

In addition, I feel like my focus needs to shift from a general idea of, “Let’s read the Bible and write about it,” to a more specific topical study. Namely, I need to start focusing in on what the Bible has to say in regards to spiritual warfare, and I’m shifting my writing to that topic as well. Rather than picking a book and pushing straight through it, I’ll be reading for this topic and sharing what I find.

For those who are curious, the OBS won’t be the only place for information about spiritual warfare. When I was seeing what other people on the ‘Net had to say on the topic, all I found were platitudes, ambiguous or vainglorious statements, and long lists of Bible verses. I don’t think any of that is particularly helpful in regards to fighting demons and defending against Satan. So while I’m studying the Bible and podcasting about it, I’ll separately be sharing stories about my past experiences, suggestions for what to do, and some how-to guides (some written, some video).

I don’t know why these resources don’t exist on the ‘Net yet, but maybe it’s like Samson told me about worship. He said that when someone dances, raises their hands, and sings loud in worship, they give everyone else permission to do the same. Maybe someone’s too scared to step out on their own and raise their hands, or they want to sing but are afraid of what others might think. When they see someone else doing it, they’ll be less scared and maybe they’ll join in.

Maybe the reason no one talks or writes about this stuff is because everyone feels the same way I do: a bit silly, a bit scared, and that it’s easier to either go it alone or just ignore it. Hopefully by studying the Bible with this topic in mind, sharing my stories, and giving suggestions, others will be inspired to join in and share their words, thoughts, hearts, and strength.

I’ve got no timetable for the OBS, in regards to how often it’ll happen. Hopefully once a week again, and my plan is to start reading Isaiah and write when I come to something. I don’t recall what all is in Isaiah (though expect a follow-up to this article later this week), but something’s telling me to check it out. Maybe that urge is unfounded, in which case I’ll quickly end up in another book, but it’s worth following to see what happens.