Writing the essay


People hate to write

writersblockMost people hate writing. Even professional writers suffer from “writers’ block”, a combination of symptoms that lead to them doing anything else except actually write. Students with assignments do not have the luxury of years to prepare their masterpieces – they work with tight deadlines. The good news is that if you follow the advice in the earlier post “researching an essay” then you are already past the first barrier, you have begun to write!

Let me explain: As part of the research process, indeed as the goal of that process you have a title and a summary paragraph. I described the summary paragraph like this:

The first sentence should define the areas or issue. The last should present a conclusion. In between the sentences should each address one thing, and together they should present the arguments and sorts of evidence that lead to the conclusion.

If you have actually done this, instead of skipping over it as an unnecessary extra asd many of us (sadly) do, you have a framework that you will now expand into your essay.

From summary to essay

target-970640_1920You are basically going to turn each sentence into a paragraph or two of your essay. So, how many sentences do you have. (Remember they need to be short and focused, if they are long and complex edit them!)  If each sentence was a paragraph (of the average length of paragraph you write) how close would you be to the word target? If this estimate is over you may need to begin thinking of what to cut, or trying to write shorter paragraphs – often shorter simpler sentences will help you do this ;)  If the estimate is under you may need to make each sentence of the summary (or some of them) into two paragraphs. Ideally at this stage youi are aiming for an essay that will be 10-20% over the word target.

These paragraphs should be easy to write – you have already done the research. They will be focused – each expands on one simple sentence. They will lead your reader sensibly through the arguments and evidence to your conclusion. Congratulations. You are one ofd the few students to write a coherent essay!

Already you are on track for better marks – you would be horrified how many incoherent essays teachers have to mark – if you doubt this befriend some (ex)teachers on Facebook ;)

The final steps

According to the Daily Telegraph: Mark Smithers, from Kent, recently revealed that he lost 11 stone in one year

According to the Daily Telegraph:
Mark Smithers, from Kent, recently revealed that he lost 11 stone in one year

You have two tasks left:

Edit, then edit again. Cut the waffle. In speech we need time to think so we use words and phrases that mean nothing or which add little to the meaning to give us time to think. Cut them out! We think descriptive words, especially superlatives, make our writing and ideas stronger, usually they don’t – cut them. A slimmed down, taut and powerful essay will come out of this painful process!

Write a conclusion. What it will look like depends on the subject and type of essay. BUT it should say nothing new. It should merely repeat in compressed form what you have already said. It serves to remind your reader what you said, and draws attention to how cleverly and in what a focused way you arrived there.

Eucharist: when Fundamentalists fail to read Scripture literally


I love old hymns. They are so often full of such deep theology.  I love the eucharist, I need the grace that this sacrament transmits. A couple of us had a stimulating Facebook conversation about the riches of those old hymns. For me “old” here means before the invention of printing, not the 18th and 19th centuries ;)  I said in passing that two of my all-time favourites are Thomas Aquinas’ “Pange Lingua” and Fortunatus’ hymn of the same name – perhaps it is no accident that they start with the same exhortation Aquinas seems to have shared my delight in Fortunatus’ fine hymn. My liking for Aquinas hymn, though, shocked my interlocutor, unused (as they were) to high-church Baptists.

Actually I am more shocked by all those low-church Baptists, who persist in praying lengthily over the bread and wine carefully informing God, and through him the assembled people, that whatever Jesus may have meant by the simple words “this is my body given for you” he did not mean them to be taken seriously, let alone literally.

It’s funny how these words, so important in our regular celebration of the story of Jesus (I’d say “worship” but today worship means singing I’m told), are read paradoxically differently by “Fundamentalists” and Catholics. Catholics read the Bible (at least these words) over-literally. For it seems quite clear to me that, whatever Jesus meant, he did not intend to be understood literally. Just imagine his disciples’ reactions: “But the law forbids us to consume blood!” (Lev 17:14) On the other hand for my Fundamentalist friends, not only did Jesus not mean these words literally (however keen they would be to read other words – like the “days” in Gen 1 – literally), he hardly meant them at all! (Though for such low Baptists Jesus words about remembering seem for some reason to be less overlooked. Perhaps because they hold to the doctrine of the real absence of the risen Christ they are keen that communion should remember Jesus’ death.)

“This is my body, broken for you.” surely means, in some sense (though not a literal one), that the bread of the eucharist is the broken body of the Son of God who died for us. If we can believe in two-a-penny miracles, like healings and gems or gold teeth from heaven, what is so hard about the promise of the real presence of Jesus in the bread of the Lord’s Supper?

Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

"Starsinthesky" by ESA/Hubble. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Starsinthesky.jpg#/media/File:Starsinthesky.jpg
"Starsinthesky" by ESA/Hubble. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Starsinthesky.jpg#/media/File:Starsinthesky.jpg (edited)

“Starsinthesky” by ESA/Hubble. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Starsinthesky.jpg#/media/File:Starsinthesky.jpg (edited)

I confess, I have never really read the famous “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy”, the idea of defining the authority of Scripture in terms of lack of error in propositional statements strikes me as so wrong headed that I have never been really tempted to start. However a friend on Facebook showed me a post that linked to a copy of the statement.

Now I’m really puzzled. Article 12 reads:

Article XII.

WE AFFIRM that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.
WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

The first part of “WE DENY” seems to claim that the Bible (regardless of the intentions of its human authors?) can be used to learn about scientific questions – I assume this means things like the age of the universe/earth, how species came to be etc… and not that somewhere in Scripture Boyles Law is taught.

OK… but the second part seems to claim that whatever Science may with high degree of confidence assert cannot be used to “overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood”. Which seems to imply that those passages of the Bible that teach about creation and flood are exempt from the first statement?

Is there (even a twisted sort of) logic here, or is the statement just daft? In either case why do so many American, and American influenced, religious people find the statement helpful?

Please, these are serious questions and I just do not understand, so help me!

New blog well worth adding to your lists

While I have been away fromn home, and so busier than usual, Brian Harris has started a blog. Since Brian is a clear, creative thinker with a sense of humour his blog is well worth following. I have not read all his posts – I’m sure I could find something to disagree with if I did/when I do, I’ve read enough to know it’s an exciting addition to the blogsphere, with already lots of solid content.

Researching an essay


Literature search

The first step to a good essay is a “literature search”. The goal of this, whether conducted with the aid of an academic library or in the wild with “merely” the Internet to help, is two-fold:

  • to get an overview of the topic and if you do not have a narrow topic set for you to identify a precise topic on which to write (see below)
  • to begin collecting resources, useful resources are of two sorts:
    • Simple overviews of a broad topic (we called them “Noddy guides” when I was young ;-) Articles on the topic in specialised dictionaries or encyclopedias are usually good possibilities.1 A good noddy guide will help you gain a broad context of what experts have said and are saying about the topic. It will also probably help you to identify a narrower topic within the broad topic which is subject to debate and so might make a good topic on which to write.2
    • Specialist works you also need works written by specialists, often these are journal articles, but (in theology and biblical studies at least) will also include chapters from books3 focused on your narrow topic. As you search you should not read everything but glance through the works getting an idea what each is about. Gradually you will get a sense of which are the “best” works in the area, they are the ones that are mentioned in bibliographies and footnotes by other authors more often. They are the ones you will prioritise for reading later, and may be the only ones to reach the final bibliography for the essay – quality is usually better than qualtity in bibliographies.

Beginning to sketch out the field


The overview(s) you found should begin to give you an understanding of the topic and (hopefully) the issues that have been/are being debated in this area. At this stage one goal is to produce a provisional title for your essay. The title should (if you have a choice) should be short and identify a narrower area within the broad topic on which you will focus. (If you are working with a set title, unless the rubric demands that you offer a broad overview, you should create a private title that identifies the focus – within the official title – that you will give to your essay.

Draft summary and conclusion

When you have your defined area or issue to address try to write a first draft of a one paragraph (unless it is a long essay) summary of the relevant information or the sub-issues in dispute. This should suggest a provisional conclusion. (Usually in writing such a summary one side or other of the issue will seem weightier or more attractive.)

If significant things seem still really unclear you should read more.

Now revise your summary paragraph. The first sentence should define the areas or issue. The last should present a conclusion. In between the sentences should each address one thing, and together they should present the arguments and sorts of evidence that lead to the conclusion.

This summary paragraph will provide the structure of your essay, and may provide also its opening. At this stage, indeed until the essay is finished, it is provisional and can be edited whenever you fins a need.

Researching the specialised works

At this stage you begin to read the specialised works you prioritised. While you may read short articles from start to finish any longer work should be read following the sort of process outlined here. Note taking will be covered in the next post.. Here it is sufficient to say that you should focus on getting information, arguments, and ideas that will help you fill out the sentences of your summary – so you are looking for material that relates to the special topics of each sentence.

Excursus: advice on Wikipedia and Internet resources

Wikipedia is often a useful place to start, but many scholars depreciate its use. Lack of expert editorial control may allow inaccuracies or ignorant bias in some articles. If you use Wikipedia as your first read do not cite it, but make sure that the information or ideas it gives you can be sourced from works of conventional scholarship. (This is not merely pandering to scholarly prejudice, but simple prudence, remember Wikipedia does not have expert editorial control and so is more likely to contain errors or serious bias without supporting arguments and evidence.) Because of ow Wikipedia is produced its articles are NOT usually useful in providing an outline for your essay (see above).

Other Internet material (not counting scholarly journals and books that you can access via Internet) should be treated with greater suspicion than material found in an academic library. Librarians act as filters removing works that lack scholarly quality (nb. this is more true of academic libraries and less true of public libraries). The Internet has no such selectivity, you can access any and all sorts of rubbish as well as works of real quality. If you use the Internet (including Google Books as it has little such filtering) you must assume responsibility for this selectivity for yourself. Look for works with a scholarly air. Signs to look for include:

  • authors associated with reputable institutions (and who work in the field of study they write about)4 or who have a solid CV
  • referencing – works that are referenced are more likely to be of solid worth
  • arguments and evidence – works that simply state conclusions are of little value, scholarship NEVER rests on assertions of authority, but always on arguments and evidence
  • balanced tone and relative avoiding evaluative language – the more a site expresses clear and strong opinions the less likely it is to be scholarly (there are exceptions but unless other more reputable sources agree do not assume you have found one – however much you agree with the author’s opinions).
  1. Encyclopedia articles are often too long to really serve, though they may have introductions that set the scene or conclusions that will work well. []
  2. By and large the narrower a title you choose the better your essay, as long as sufficient has been written to give you the ideas, information and arguments that you will need. []
  3. Sometimes indeed whole books. []
  4. Many scholars in other disciplines have websites on institutional servers (with .edu or .ac domains) that discuss theological topics – treat these as you would contributions from the general public, a research nuclear physicist is no more likely to be a good theologian than an equaly intelligent bricklayer! []

How odd of God, or the LORD works in mysterious ways

Photo by Jim Legans, Jr

Photo by Jim Legans, Jr

Offering a course, and preparing the material and then having no students enroll is not an outcome any teacher desires.Add in the bonus that the course was being offered is about 19h and 55mins from home, and the situation seems set to categorise as a disaster. However, that would neglect events around the time when we were waiting on tenterhooks to see if students would enroll. During the waiting the prospect of a series for Swarga (a local Christian TV station) began to be seriously aired. The series will use the material I prepared for the NZ Baptist articles each month in 2014. This is material I am really keen to make more accessible and useful in church contexts. By shrinking our holiday a little and with hasty preparation while Barbara (she has a chock full class) I should be able to record six half hour programs before we leave.

In conversation with the principal and the academic dean today another project has been added for after I return to NZ. I will prepare an enlarged version of the articles with more practical examples and fuller explanations which people here will take and adapt to the local context. This localised English version could also be translated into Sinhala and Tamil. The material would then form a basis for introductory courses in practical hermeneutics for some of the programs here. This too is so exciting.

The LORD does indeed work in mysterious ways, and from time to time enlivens our staid lives with rollercoaster rides.

Reading the Bible Faithfully (as seen on TV?)


book-623163Well this has been a roller-coaster of a 24hr day.

First it seemed that 1 Samuel and the delights of biblical story-telling were so unattractive, or I am, that there might be no students for my class (the journey is worth it though, as Barbara has a big class for her teaching about dealing with adolescents – I guess some human issues are really cross-cultural in this globally franchised world). Then there was the possibility of doing a series for Swarga TV using the Reading the Bible Faithfully material.

That is a possibility that really excites me! Encouraging people to read the Scriptures well, faithfully to the ancient meaning, yet attentive to contemporary application is fun and rewarding. To do it via TV and video with a professional crew, lighting, two cameras etc. is a dream (possibly) coming true! That it seems likely that they would be willing to either let me use the video or to make it accessible online, opens possibilities of it being useful in NZ as well.

So when, this morning under the monsoon rain, it became final that there were no students interested in 1 Samuel, the rest of today was spent preparing the first few sessions. This evening an email came to say that the studio is fully booked while I am in Colombo, but that there is a day free when we are meant to be at the beach. (Enjoying a few days rest before heading home, in a plush resort no less!)

Barbara understands how much this project means to me, so she is willing to curtail our restful time on the beach… so, currently the plan is to spend Mon 21st trying to record 12 sessions of 22 mins each. All before heading south in the middle of the afternoon… Please if you are the praying sort (as they say, but really – as they also say – “there are no atheists in foxholes”, in extremity prayer comes naturally to us all) please ask that somehow this may all work for the best!

Cain’s wife and other Bible “problems”


Between teaching an intensive class to students from a dozen ethnicities and nearly as many countries, and exploring the beautiful scenery in the Cordilleras of North Luzon (photos attached to make you envious) I have been too busy to post properly here (even the women of the Bible series has faltered). So instead perhaps you know someone who is still asking the old chestnut about where Mrs Cain came from?

IMG_4414IMG_3843If you do, if you know someone who is troubled by other “Bible difficulties” please point them to my short article written for the NZ Baptist:

Unpacking Difficult Scripture – Genesis 4: Where did Cain’s wife come from?

The aim is to suggest a better way to approach such “problems” than seeing them as puzzles to “solve”, and reducing Scripture to a sort of jigsaw puzzle to reduce to banal flatness.

Wise advice for Christians reading Scripture

View across the hills near Baguio - envy us!

As Peter Enns gets towards the end of the journey in his little book he moves beyond the strict topic to some wonderful advice for Christians reading the Bible, and how we should relate to other Christians who perhaps disagree with our interpretation. It is applicable to the global church, so to my current context about to teach to students from a wealth of different cultures none of them mine, but also to the local churches as NZ Baptists move towards an annual assembly with a contentious issue on the floor. For both I pray:

  • Humility on the part of scholars to be sensitive to how others will hear them and on the part of those
    whose preconceptions are being challenged.
  • Love that assumes the best of brothers and sisters in Christ. not that looks for any difference of
    opinion as an excuse to go on the attack.
  • Patience to know that no person or tradition is beyond correction. and therefore no one should jump
    to conclusions about another’s motives.1
  1. Peter Enns. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005, 164 []

Why leaders fail, and what (not) to do


I could not think of a good title for this post, not least because it has no content except to link to Peter Morton’s excellent post: “When Leaders Fall“. In it, responding to the fall of another “successful” pastor, Peter with wisdom and grace suggests how such disasters can be reduced and how they should be dealt with. Every pastor and leadership team should read it.