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! []

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 []

Historical novel of love and early Christianity

CaptureI have been reading Bob MacDonald’s recently published novel Seen from the Street: A Love Story from the first century. It is a historical novel about love and the origins of Christianity within Judaism in the years around and after the life and death of Jesus. Bob describes the book like this:
I wrote ‘new’ recording – not new faith. In line with several post-Shoa scholars, I have examined the Jewish aspects of first century Christ-believers and I have portrayed the Gentile relationships to them in the areas of love and desire for intimacy. Writers who have seen some of my chapters delight in the gentleness of the dialogue.

The story is told through glimpses into the lives of a number of interrelated groups of characters. Until near the end Jesus does not appear directly “onstage” but through the responses of others to his person and to the gospel proclaimed particularly by Paul. The stories of each set of characters are interesting and lead the reader on. These stories interact, and so together weave a portrayal of Jesus and of early Christian life. I am not a specialist in the NT or in the Graeco-Roman world of the first century but the historical detail rang true for me, and more than just seeming without obvious errors (like those even a non-specialist can spot in many historical novels set in this period) created a series of believable “worlds”.

The writing is really good, though/and1 it sometimes seems to carry overtones that the mind chases beyond the words. The book (though not produced by a well-known publisher) is free from intrusive errors or infelicities, whether because of Bob’s care in composing the text or a skilled editor’s work.

Lest this review seem just a puff piece for a friend’s work I should note my problems and hesitations. I was reading an e-text and the limitations of my Reader were frustrating. Since the story is told through the intersection of a number of different (though related) stories I would have been helped by being able to skip easily between the page I was reading and the list of characters at the start. Since the story is not told chronologically, I would also have been helped by both more dating (this was provided for letters, but not always (I think) for non-epistolatry episodes) and although I have some idea of the sequence of Roman emperors of this period some modern BCE/CE dates would have helped.

The technique of telling about Jesus, rather than telling Jesus, was so effective for me that when he finally appeared “onstage” it was something of an anti-climax. But then I suppose (since Christian dogma and the conventions of the historical novel both suggest he should be portrayed as fully human) perhaps that is inevitable. How would you portray a man whom people come to recognise as God incarnate, rather than the easy task of presenting a docetist God dressed up like a human?

The guiding theme of love, and the mores of the Graeco-Roman world, intersect powerfully in the story. This intersection in the area of sexuality means that the story has its effect on how one responds to contemporary debates in this area. This also leads to perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the book. I am unsure how I feel about Gaius (a/the major character) and though perhaps intended, this uncertainty is difficult – as sexual relationships in the first century (even more than in our time and place) were necessarily implicated in relationships of power.

At just US$3 – 4 this is a book anyone interested in the origins of Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean of the first century, perhaps especially those with a fondness for Johannine styles of thought, will read with pleasure and profit, but which also may/should leave them unsettled.

The Kindle link is here: for epub and other formats:

  1. I am really not sure which is the better conjunction, on the one hand the almost mystical tone is one I do not relate to easily, on the other it fits the content and ideas well, and contributes to the overall “Johannine” feel of the book. []

Do fiction publishers have a death wish? or Frustrated by the fetishists)



Almost all the fiction I read is now e-books, both purchased and from the lending library. They are in epub format. Neither the format nor the hardware are brilliant, but they do allow hypertext features and even web searches at a speed that is just on the happy side of totally frustrating.

Even with these technical limitations I love the ebook reader. It is light. I can vary the size of the print for lower light conditions (or where the designer has chosen – from my perspective – badly). I can carry as many spare books as I like with no extra space or weight. I can borrow a new book anytime from anywhere. However, the main reason I prefer the ebook is that marvelous ability to search for definitions (in the built-in dictionaries, a dozen or so in various languages as well as both American and English) or the web to check ideas and information of provide context. Reading fiction becomes like reading the dictionary or an encyclopedia was to my childish self.

Yet I am so often frustrated in my reading. Not by the technology (this is no “twitchy little screen” like the ones Annie Proulx feared in her famous and fatuous quote) but by the publishers. They sell me (and others, or the library) these “e-books”. They sell them often after the paper edition has already run its dash and is on the verge of being remaindered at cents to the dollar. They sell them at what looks to be a decent price (any thing over 1/3 of the paperback price seems to me reasonable in view of the savings in material production, stock storage and shipping etc.). Yet their conversion from paper codex to e-book never adds functionality. Why shouldn’t the publisher  spend a little building in links to the glossary, which historical novels often have, or other internal material that would enrich the reader’s experience?

Not only do they staunchly resist the danger of making the e-book better than its paper counterpart, but they refuse to even make them as good. Diagrams and maps are scanned at resolutions that ensure that given a normal page display will not fit neatly nor zoom easily. In this way publishers, I can only conclude, hope to persuade as many people as possible to prefer paper books for as long as possible.

Given the attitudes of the two most avid readers in the next generation of our family, both of whom love their e-readers, and given the flow of the tide of media consumption towards video and away from print, I can only assume the publishers are owned by the Hollywood studios and are set on ending their industry as early as possible!

Letters of Travel by Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936)

Rudyard Kipling by E.O. Hoppé (1912) from Wikimedia

I have just finished corrections to the last chapters of the three books of Letters of Travel by Rudyard Kipling. Here’s How I’m suggesting the books be described:

“Three books of travel writing (between them covering the USA, Canada, Japan and Egypt) by the Nobel Prize winning author of the Just So Stories and the Jungle Book. Rudyard Kipling (an Englishman born and raised in India) offers an interesting outsider’s view of the places he visits, candid and sharp witted, yet with a deep humanity.

Letters of Travel comprises three books: From Tideway to Tideway 1892-95 contains pieces first published in the Times covering voyages across north America (USA and Canada) and in Japan; his Letters to the Family first appeared in the Morning Post, while Nash’s Magazine was the first publisher of the articles (on Egypt and Sudan) in Egypt of the Magicians.

Kipling’s observations are cast in a wry style that permits, as his work often does, different readings. The unsympathetic reader can hear a banal repetition of the patriarchal, racist and imperialist ideas of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century trotted out. (Or even in his characterisation of the Jewish power behind the pedlar in “The Face of the Desert” a suggestion of something worse.) A more nuanced reading will perceive an amused or wry smile in Kipling’s remembering and the human sympathy that infuses all his writing. (US listeners should be warned that in Kipling’s day “the N word” was in common use, and he therefore uses it naturally to describe people of Sub-Saharan African ancestry.)

A paragraph in the “letter” written on Kipling’s arrival in Japan might serve as example. It closes: “The father-fisher has it by the pink hind leg, and this time it is tucked away, all but the top-knot, out of sight among umber nets and sepia cordage. Being an Oriental it makes no protest, and the boat scuds out to join the little fleet in the offing.” With its flippant tone (“all but the top-knot”), impersonal reference (“it” rather than he or she) and use of racial terms (“Oriental”) and stereotypes (“makes no protest”) this can be presented as an example of the worst of Victorian Imperialist prejudice.

And yet… as the fisher family are introduced, not only was “the perfect order and propriety of the housekeeping” noted but mention was made of “a largish Japanese doll, price two shillings and threepence in Bayswater”, which turns out to be a baby. At first glance this is merely another example of Western bigotry. Note however the words Kipling uses to show us that this is not in fact a doll: “The doll wakes, turns into a Japanese baby something more valuable than money could buy”. The “Japanese doll” is a priceless human child and not a commodity to be bought in Bayswater.

Perhaps the prejudice is not so much on the surface of Kipling’s writing as under the surface of the reader’s presuppositions? Time and again wry observation turns the familiar world into something fresh, and reminds the reader of shared humanity with the strange and foreign people being observed. Kipling as a tourist is no mere gawker whether in strange yet familiar Yokohama or in foreign Vermont.”

For my next project I’ll be reading a work still in copyright in the USA, though out of copyright almost everywhere else (the author died almost a century ago in the First World War) so for the European Legamus.

Online book launch

Do please participate in helping me to make my latest experiment in online publication work better. I want to explore how authors and readers can engage more and at greater depth through using online communications. My book Not Only a Father is not only available as a paperback on Amazon, but also the full text is online at using a WordPress plugin that allows commenting and discussion at paragraph rather than post level.

However, my publisher (the NZ Baptist Research Society) has no funds for promotion, and as yet few people have responded to my efforts on Facebook or here so the discussion is still sparse. I would like to do an Online Book Launch to (roughly) coincide with the physical one. So I am asking a number of bloggers to agree to mention the book (especially the free online version) in a post in the first two weeks of October (the physical launch is 10th October). I am also trying to find people willing to read a few paragraphs and post a comment (naturally if you want to read more I’d be delighted ;)

I wonder if you’d be willing to share in this in some way? I’ll mention everyone who does in posts (and leaves a URL) here, which since I am hosting the September BS Carnival tomorrow so this should give you extra Google mojo as a bonus ;)

Those who have already begun include:1


  1. If your name/URL is missing please let me know, I’ll try to keep this up to date, but am fallible :( []

Cool neat and really useful

Bookshare is such a neat, simple and useful service. Perfect for blind or reading impaired (dyslexic) students. For a small annual fee (unless you are an American registered student) you get textbooks as audio files. If you know a “qualified” (which means certified visual impairment or reading impairment) starting undergraduate studies now, look into this :)

Bible and technology guest post: Reading experience

  • Digital Bible media should be similar to the traditional reading experience. I think the success of devices like the Nook, Kindle, iPad, or Android tablets is due in part to the fact that they kind of feel as if one is reading a book. Both the form factor and the page metaphor are roughly similar. The biggest problem has been citation when the concept of page numbering gets lost. The Bible comes with a handy book, chapter, verse system, but it’s a system that has been criticized for imposing a structure on the text that isn’t necessarily there. Considering that the digital device you hold in your hand is not just a Bible but capable of holding a host of Bible versions, and there is a clear advantage for digital.
  • Digital Bible media should emulate the engaged reading experience. I have a few Bibles sitting on my shelves from my younger days that are rather extensively marked up with margin notes and highlights. I was so familiar with those Bibles, that I knew on what part of the page to look for a specific text. If digital Bibles are going to succeed, they will need to have a similar capability.
    Most Bible software and apps have been working toward this end by providing bookmarking, highlighting, and notetaking. The advantage for digital here is that I won’t lose all my annotations once I move to a new Bible or version.
  • Digital Bible media should transform and revolutionize the overall reading experience. You, Tim, had the foresight long ago to start thinking about what this might mean with the hypertext Amos project. The Glo Bible is another recent, more popular-oriented attempt. Beyond just linking to dictionaries and graphics and sound files, I am imagining that someday we will be able to make Bible reading a dynamic and nearly immersive experience. This is happening already with other interactive books (here are some examples), and eventually the Bible will receive simliar innovative treatment. This approach should hopefully go a long way to making Bible reading appealing, even compelling.

Two ways to read: suspension of disbelief

Until more complex theories of aerodynamics were developed accepting the possibility of "the flight of the bumblebee" required a suspension of disbelief - Photo by by stuant63

Yesterday I was asked: If Noah lived before the law was revealed to Moses, how did he know how to distinguish “clean” and “unclean” animals?

It is still holiday time (it’s the summer in NZ, though with all the rain and cold in recent weeks you wouldn’t believe it) so my answer was less full than it ought to have been:

Hmm… on Noah, Moses and the animals, there are two likely lines for an answer (a) the story of Noah is being told after the delivery of the law and so the telling reflects those categories; (b) there was perhaps a cultural practice of distinguishing clean and unclean animals even before the law was revealed to Moses (as there was already such a practice of not eating pork).

Of course the short simple answer is “we really don’t know” but people don’t like that one ;)

But it’s not as simple as that1 behind any attempt to answer such a question lie two fundamentally different ways to read.

One way looks at the text from the outside, and reads as a “critic”. For a couple of centuries, in academic biblical studies, the most frequent way to thus “objectify”2 the text has been to examine it historically to see where it came from and how it got to us. Such an approach noticing that there seems to be a “continuity error” here suggests that the text was written at some time later than the events described, and uses this and other signs to work out when and by whom. We could objectify the text in other ways, by examining it as an example of a particular genre or class of texts, against its sociological background…

The other way enters the “world” of the text, and reads it from the inside. This is to behave like a “reader” for this is how we read novels and other stories, indeed it is how we read physics textbooks too ;) In the case of Noah’s distinction my second answer (though it depends on a historical hypothesis and so perhaps looks like the same kind of answer as the first) tends in this direction. It is asking how we might explain this, not as a continuity error (the critic’s approach), but within Noah’s world (a readerly approach).

The great medieval Jewish commentator Rashi took a different readerly approach he explained it thus:

Of all the clean animals: that are destined to be clean for Israel. We learn [from here] that Noah studied the Torah. (From

Each basic direction of reading offers several different options or styles. But the basic question facing a reader of any text whether to read as critic or as reader. “Readers” must offer the text a willing suspension of disbelief3 Indeed the idea of a need to suspend disbelief can be helpful in thinking about the reading (as opposed to the criticism) of all narrative. For in a laboratory report also there are elements of the narration of the experiment that are omitted, or poorly described, where the reader must suspend disbelief. Despite the variety of both critical and readerly approaches, and despite the fact that they can even share approaches (as above either can examine the text historically), on the suspension of disbelief they differ fundamentally.

[Incidentally,4 Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair has a really interesting meditation for Purim on “The Willing Suspension of Disbelief“.]

  1. Except the last answer, because we really do not know ;) []
  2. Make into the object of study and examination. []
  3. The phrase is Coleridge’s from the Biographia Literaria of 1817, to explain how readers might approach the fantastic or supernatural elements in his work, but has been widely used in thinking about how readers can read many sorts of fiction. (( JRR Tolkein has also nuanced it speaking about “secondary belief” based on an inner consistency to the reality described in the narrative. But that’s getting too complicated for a short blog post ;) []
  4. Though not at all a HT ;) []

Global Perspectives on reading the Bible – Call for contributors

Photo from Soil-net

I have read the Bible professionally, and encouraged and taught others to read it, in three continents. The situations differed, including an African and a Western University, a Baptist theological college and a Bible School in a refugee camp. I have also supervised some exciting theses that develop interesting perspectives on understanding the Bible. So I am delighted to be participating in a project Global Perspectives on the Old Testament and Global Perspectives on the New Testament, I’ll be writing on Gender-bending as a male reader of Esther and on Jeremiah, possibly taking account of my current context (fencing a piggery and building a pig house ;)

Mark is looking for more contributors, so please read the Call for Contributions below, and think about writing something, or at least repost it on your blog and so share in an interesting project :)

Mark Roncace is seeking contributors for two volumes, Global Perspectives on the Old Testament and Global Perspectives on the New Testament. Pearson Prentice Hall is publishing Global Perspectives on the Bible this year. Next, separate OT and NT volumes, also to be published by Prentice Hall, will be produced. Both books will feature much of the same material as the original Bible volume, but with added essays.

The books—designed as entry level college textbooks—gather four different essays around one biblical text. The essays are brief (about 1,000 words and need not be “scholarly”) and articulate insights from a particular geographical, social, cultural, economic, religious, or ideological context/location. Here is the list of texts/books for which he need essays.

  • Genesis 6-9
  • Numbers 22-24
  • Leviticus
  • Judges
  • 1-2 Kings
  • Jeremiah
  • Ezekiel 1-25
  • Esther
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Daniel
  • Crucifixion narratives
  • Acts (other than chapter 2)
  • Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • 1-2 Thessalonians
  • James
  • Pastorals (1-2 Timothy, Titus)
  • 1-3 John
  • 1-2 Peter

Please let Mark know if you are interested ( in writing an essay on one (or two) of these texts and he will forward specific guidelines and a sample. In addition to scholars, Mark is particularly interested in gathering perspectives from non-professional readers. He is trying to run on a tight schedule: final OT essays are due April 1 and final NT essays are due June 1 (but remember they are only about 1,000 words).