Category Archives: Tips for Grad Students

Critical Thinking Part 2: The Inevitability of Subjectivity

It’s best if we admit to ourselves up front that we are bound by what Joseph Conrad calls “the ball and chain of our personality.” We are bound to see things through our own unique lenses, forming our own limited perspectives. Any illusion that we can somehow be completely objective is a dangerous delusion. We must accept our subjectivity—as we accept the grammatical “I” (that subject position from which we syntactically arrange the world)—and realize that our analyses, our critical thinking itself, is bound to be flawed.

If we accept and acknowledge our human fallibility and subjectivity, we’ll become better critical thinkers. By being honest with our audience and ourselves, we’re more on the lookout for flaws in our analysis. AND, we’re triumphing—at least momentarily—over hubris, that deadly sin of pride which clouds our eyes and obscures our vision from any apprehension of “Truth,” with a capital T.

Before we can fully engage our critical thinking skills, it’s important to ground ourselves in self-awareness and a thorough grasp of objectivity and subjectivity. In essence, we attempt to be objective by recognizing and regulating our subjectivity. We must strike a balance between them: being as objective as possible regarding our subjective positions. It is perfectly natural, in other words, for us to be subjective. That’s human nature, as my quoting of Conrad alludes. But scholars learn to discriminate between their subjective opinions and the subjective opinions that others hold. All people, in other words, have their own perspectives.

To be continued…

Critical Thinking Part 1: The Myth of Objectivity

Having been a college professor since 1980, I’ve come to know a few things about the writing and thinking abilities of over 10,000 people. It’s been my experience that the vast majority of those people had not been exposed to much in the way of critical thinking skills before they met me. Incredible! One of the most important survival skills you can have is the ability to cut through the b.s., smokescreens, lies, deceptions, and nonsense in life. To function successfully as a human being, you simply have to develop and employ sound critical thinking skills. And thinking critically involves understanding and appreciating the difference between a) objectivity and subjectivity, b) absolute and relative truth, and c) facts and opinions.

So let’s talk critical thinking and analysis. Analysis is the breaking down of a system into its component parts and the evaluation of how well those parts function, both separately and together.  An efficacious analysis of anything—whether it’s a contract, a relationship, a corporation, or a short story—employs and necessitates the critical thinking skills of defining terms (or component parts), gathering and evaluating the evidence, and moving step by step from the suppositions you draw from that evidence, to a tentative thesis and, eventually, to a final thesis and conclusion. The best analysts are the most skilled critical thinkers, and vice versa.

It all begins with objectivity. Easier said than done. That means you’re detached, dispassionate, and unbiased in your perceptions and ideas. Can you or anyone be completely objective? The answer is no. We are all invariably and inevitably shaped and affected by our paradigms: our point-of view, our heredity, environment, socio-economic perspective, life experiences, strengths, weaknesses, and vested interest.

The best we can do is attempt to put our biases aside and look dispassionately at the issue, system, or text that we are analyzing. That’s called Formal Criticism—when we attempt an evaluation of written or spoken words without any of our own feelings or the world’s information to alter what we heard or read and understand. And that’s impossible, isn’t it? Formal Criticism, though it’s perhaps a noble undertaking, is, nonetheless a utopian ideal rarely achieved. Subjective bias is inevitable.

To be continued…

Keeping It Simple: Billy Graham’s Life & Sermons Inspire Purity and Simplicity in Religious Writings

I grew up on a farm in North Carolina, and my mom always reminded me of the simple beginnings that North Carolina native Billy Graham came from. His life and message can inspire and inform your writing. Graham’s simple message gives a helpful model for writing, thinking theologically, connecting to the biblical text, and living out the truths you hold dear. Check out the following.

1. Heart and integrity matter. Billy Graham is evidence that God can use those of humble state to do great things. This theme is found throughout the Bible, describing the type of person God uses. Look at David; his own father did not summon him to meet Samuel when asked to gather them to anoint one as the next king. Jesse may not have considered David to be kingly material, but God did. God saw through the ruddy exterior to David’s heart. David focused on his relationship with God, again and again, through mistakes and great moments alike. Your heart and integrity matter in your writing. It will enable you to write with authenticity and passion.

2. Keep it simple. Billy Graham focused on a simple gospel message in his evangelistic sermons and crusades. Every sermon had a clear presentation of the Christian gospel, founded upon the message of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He sent His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him would not perish but have eternal life.” That message was the heart and soul of every evangelistic crusade, everywhere he went. There was no need to reinvent himself every so often. Sometimes the best writing avoids contrivances, complex language, and complicated research. Certainly not all writing can be simplified for a popular audience but don’t think that complex subjects always require complex presentation.

3. Don’t overlook the biblical text. Listen to any sermon that Billy Graham ever preached and count the number of times he said, “The Bible says … .” He didn’t begin many sentences with “I think” or “I feel” or “I believe.” In that regard, Billy Graham, like the Reformers before him, believed Sola Scriptura. He spoke it, lived it, and preached it. Jews and Christians have longed been called “people of the book” because of the importance placed upon the scriptures held dear. Theological thinking should always deal first with an examination of biblical text. Not to do so ignores a huge portion of the Christian community.

4. Don’t get sidetracked by tradition and popular opinion. Billy Graham was a student of the Bible and was not swayed by opinion polls or church traditions that didn’t match biblical content. I have seen this error too many times in my own Understanding the Bible classes. Undergraduates know what they have been taught about the Bible, what others think about it, especially how others have used it in outrageous and terrible ways to justify actions that were anything but godly, yet so rarely know what the Bible actually says. Many times we look specifically at famous stories from the Bible, such as Genesis 1-3 or Jesus’ birth accounts in Matthew and Luke. Students are looking for Eve to bite an apple or wise men to show up at the manger and are often surprised as much by what the Bible does not say. Popular portrayals and church traditions do not always match what a fresh read of the Bible will reveal. Set aside your preconceived notions and hermeneutic of the moment. Anchor your writing to the biblical text first before moving to tradition, then evaluate tradition in light of the biblical text.

5. It’s about God. Graham was not just armed with biblical authority (The Bible says …) but a clear systematic theology grounded in the God of the Bible. To Graham, the Bible is indeed a message of God’s love, God’s invitation, God’s searching for lost coins and lost sheep, waiting with open arms like the father of the prodigal. You did not find God, but God found you and offered an invitation to join Him and become an adopted son or daughter in His kingdom.  Those invitations at the end of his crusades were not marked by extreme use of emotion, drama, or sales pitches. Graham thought that a clear understanding of God, His love, and His sacrifice would move people to respond. His invitations reflected this thinking. He most often used the hymn Just As I Am for the time people were given to respond to the message, which reflects the invitation to respond to God just as you are. Writing that responds to others in their current life situations will similarly be on target every time.

6. Emphasize freedom. In that regard, Graham taught that the message of God brings freedom based on your identity in God and the salvation work of Jesus. Graham preached and lived and breathed this message. Seek knowledge and truth in the same way. God is pleased with those who do so, recognizing the search is pleasing, not just an end goal. Graham’s argument clearly taught that a relationship with God frees one from bondage. If your writing liberates, empowers, and transforms, that is the highest goal you can attain—to connect with readers in a way that changes their lives.

7. Personal purity strengthens a simple message. Bringing this discussion full circle, Graham’s life reflected what he thought, believed, and preached, bringing power to his message through living it out every day. I remember hearing about how Graham had rules about not riding elevators or having a meal with a woman alone other than his wife. His purpose was to avoid any appearance or possibility of anything inappropriate. He kept a close circle of friends who kept each other accountable. Likewise, his children and spouse testify of his godliness and life and its consistency with his message. Living out your passions brings life to your writing and will inspire others to share in your journey.

How Freud Helps Writers: Keeping Objections in Mind

How do you really learn the ins and outs of your subject matter? Nothing makes you know material better than teaching it. That’s why Freud’s Introductory Lectures makes such an interesting read. They are his lectures presented on psycho-analysis (Freud’s original spelling), which would have been fascinating anyway. But Freud keeps in his writing a key aspect of this lecture, literally interrupting the flow of his explanation with key questions that others may be thinking (and may have actually asked him in objection or skepticism). Discover how this book is more than a transcript but captures an introduction of the subject matter in a way that is helpful for your writing.

1. Intrigue your audience. Freud found an interesting way to delve into the subject of psycho-analysis. He started with some the most common and perhaps most interesting mysteries of human behavior and experience: parapraxes and dreams. Parapraxes literally are “faulty acts,” including the infamous Freudian slip or slip of the tongue. Freud presented these common mistakes and dreams, offering a fascinating theory for why they happen. Freud used these common mistakes as a doorway into the subject matter and built on this theory to construct a methodology for the treatment of neurotic disorders. So from the most simple, everyday experiences that are intriguing to people, he grabbed attention of listeners and readers alike and did not let go.

Likewise writers can grab their audience with this level of interest. Writers are often told to hook the writer with an interesting story, put them at ease with a joke, or involve them conversationally to win them over. Freud intrigues the reader with examples of slips of the tongue, which is a mystery that can leave even the person uttering the comment scratching his head as to why he said those very words. I wanted to know Freud’s answer as I read. Leave your readers wanting more and turning the page for the next nugget!

Along the way, listeners had to apply Freud’s theories to their human experience. Everyone has slips of the tongue. Everyone has dreams. Readers cannot help but start thinking, do Freud’s theories fit my reality? Why did I have that slip of the tongue? What does that dream mean? Freud’s theory became the subject matter of conversation about the topic, whether people agreed with him or not.

2. Identify possible objections. Freud had already experienced criticism for psycho-analysis as his treatment model. Perhaps this criticism put him on guard. Perhaps he had carefully debated all of these objections previously. In any case, with each point of his discourse Freud dealt with objections that people might be thinking among his audience. With humor at times, Freud took on possible critiques and made a stronger argument as a result.

In years of answering critical letters of the publishing products I work with, I have learned that sometimes people just want to be heard, understood, and validated as having a noteworthy argument, even if the discussion ends with both sides agreeing to disagree. Freud truly had a talent for noting objections in a way that validated questions and arguments just before he dismantled the argument.

For all of these reasons, I would argue Freud thought through his theories and their implications to a greater degree than most writers spend thinking about their topic. Every writer can learn from this type of clear thinking, noting grey areas or possible objections, and addressing them head on. Perhaps the possibility of being asked a question or being faced with an objection is the reason why every teacher learns his subject matter better. Anticipating objections and questions may actually cause you as a writer to think more clearly and succinctly in how you present your material and make your argument.

3. Provide examples to illustrate truths. Freud was the master of the case study. Freud’s case studies illustrated both his methods and the successful use of those methods in curing neurotic behavior. Freud’s case studies made his theory and treatment come alive. On a smaller level, Freud gave memorable examples of parapraxes and dreams that beautifully illustrated the heart of each type of slip and its connection to his model of interpretation.

There is a reason why most cultures told stories to pass down their history and beliefs from generation to generation. They are powerful tools in teaching and bringing alive truths that would otherwise be missed. Even in the most theoretical paper, your argument will be strengthened with examples. Illustrations give a concrete example of the theoretical.

4. Examine your deepest thoughts and dreams. Most people do not realize that Freud’s first patient was himself! He psycho-analyzed himself to discover the reasons for his behavior and actions. There is some validation in theories that powerfully help you understand your strengths and weaknesses, especially those areas of life that trouble you, where you can’t explain your own behavior. Freud specialized in those areas of life. Literally, he delved into the world of dreams to help free people from the obstacles that held them enslaved.

Some of the best writers explore their own issues, thoughts, hopes, dreams, difficulties, and successes to infuse their writing with emotion and reality. Don’t be afraid to go places in your writing that others consider taboo. Sometimes taking on one’s greatest fears and areas of frustration turn out to be the most freeing experiences.

5. Be willing to apply concepts to other areas of life and learning. Freud did not stop at the development of psycho-analysis and the examination of the human psyche. He used his methodology to explore group psychology, cultural anthropology, the development of art and religion, and the birth of the consciousness of the human species. Freud was a master at using his theory to other studies and areas of life.

Likewise never limit your thoughts and writing to one field of study. In today’s race to specialize in a specific field, we sometimes overlook areas that overlap and connections that naturally occur outside of our area of study. Similarly, don’t limit your writing and expertise. Life is a journey much like writing is a journey. Enjoy each step along the way!

Myers-Briggs for Writers: Why Knowing Personality Types Is Crucial for Your Writing

Personality inventories likes the Myers-Briggs are tools. They are not exhaustive, don’t typecast, and don’t limit your growth. In fact, many people identify their weaknesses and learn to compensate for them as a result of the inventory. They offer a glimpse into why you approach the world the way you do and can benefit you greatly in determining how you work with others. Check out this quick guide to the 8 personality types from the Myers-Briggs and some writing tips that are important for each one.

Favorite World: What gives you energy? Would you rather live more in the world of others, experiencing a burst of energy from other people? Or would you prefer to reside with your own thoughts, gaining energy through time alone to think and reflect?

Introverts get their energy from time spent in thought alone. I was surprised when I first inventoried as an introvert. I took it more like a bad diagnosis or personal offense. I considered myself an outgoing person and good speaker. Surely it had to be a mistake. After all, I took the inventory after a day full of student teaching in a local high school during my senior year of college. But the more times I took the inventory and continued to score as an introvert, I realized that introversion is not about friendliness or being outgoing but about where you receive your energy. Are you energized by time alone with your thoughts? Do people drain you? Then you are probably an introvert! The introverts in your audience will take time to read over each page, and maybe word, of your writing. They will take the time to respond, ask questions, and even argue with you (via e-mail of course). The more you write, the more you want introverts on your side!

Extroverts gain energy through time spent with others. They love to be around people, talk on the phone, and are the life of the party. They almost absorb energy from those around them. Extroverts love to read too but may not read as long. But you want to reach your extroverts. They are the ones who will be talking about your writing tomorrow at the water cooler! Give them something to talk about.

Information: People are either Sensing or Intuitive in the way they process information. They either take in information in a hands on way through their five senses, or they prefer to look for patterns and meanings that are greater than the here and now.

Sensing people experience the world through their primary senses and experience and live through those practical observations. They will notice if you change your magazine from glossy to matte because it “just doesn’t feel right!” They want concrete examples of things they can see, touch, smell, hear, and taste. Use descriptive words they place the reader inside your story. That’s the way to pull in those Sensing people in your audience. Give them a way to participate that is hands on. Inspire them to take action.

Intuitives see patterns and connections between the lines. They will think about ideas and meanings and find relationships in different areas of life. You want Intuitives reading your work to pick up on inconsistencies, gray areas, faulty thinking, or illogical conclusions. Let an Intuitive read your work before you turn it in to your editor. If you are writing a mystery, give them so many twists and turns that they try to see patterns and figure out where you are headed. They will love to figure it out!

Decisions: People are either Thinking or Sensing in how they make decisions and choices in life. Do you make decisions based on principles, values, and guidelines or do you think about the people and relationships that will be impacted by your decisions?

Feelers make decisions based on the people around them, taking into consideration their points of view and how decisions will impact them. Feeling is not indicative of emotion but making decisions based on personal relationships is. You will want feelers to read your work for inconsistencies based on motives and decisions that different characters make. Feelers may not like the ending of your book based on what happens to key people and relationships. But make a personal connection with your reader, and you will keep him forever.

Thinkers are able to look upon decisions with logic and consistency. They make great rule followers, thrive upon following principles in daily living, and make logical decisions. Thinkers also see cause and effect relationships and plan accordingly. Set your writing with clear principles of right and wrong. Challenge those principles in ways that are engaging to the reader.

Structure: People tend to be either Judging or Perceiving personalities, which describes someone’s basic approach to organizing and experiencing the world around them. Are you more structured and like to check things off your list or are you more flexible and spontaneous?

Perceivers are spur-of-the-moment, fun, and live-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-type people. They prefer to take in information and gather it to make decisions and often let the world come to them rather than to organize it and control it. Perceivers will tell you if your book is fun, exciting, and engaging. If you hook a Perceiver, then you have written a fascinating work. He may just go out and buy 10 copies to share with all of his friends!

Judging personalities are orderly, enjoying control of their world and responding to it in an orderly fashion. A reader who is Judging probably wants your book to be organized. He may read your book at the same time everyday. He will make a top ten list of the reasons why he likes your writing.

Use a variety of writing styles to draw in personalities. Don’t stereotype or pigeon hole your readers. Don’t write always from your personality type. The wider range of personalities you appeal to will only enhance your writing as well as your reader base. Have fun writing with personality!

“Eminem Never Graduated From College” and 9 Other Things Never to Say to a Professor

Every professor will tell you that there are two types of students he remembers: the students who are sharp, attentive, or thoughtful but also the ones who are unpredictable, rude, and apathetic. So that you will be remembered for the right reasons, the following are the top 10 things never to say to a professor.

10. Eminem never graduated from college and he did OK.

(Professor Hears: I don’t need to know anything from your class in real life.)

Eminem also stands out because there are so few people with that type of success story. Don’t imply that a class is not important or that you have been made to take the course.

9. Is this going to be on the exam?

(Professor Hears: I only care about making a good grade in your class.)

Professors want you to be engaged beyond the calculation of your GPA.

8. This isn’t English class. Why do you take off points for grammar?

(Professor Hears: I’m lazy and don’t apply what I learn outside the classroom.)

If you speak English, you should be able to write English. But that is a more difficult task for some students than others. Don’t be hesitant to use a good editing service for your work.

7. I know the essay is due tomorrow, but I want to change my topic.

(Professor Hears: I am the biggest procrastinator in the history of the world!)

I did this once … once. I ended up going with what I worked on anyway, so the only thing I accomplished was letting the professor know how much I procrastinated.

6. Oh, that’s in the syllabus?

(Professor Hears: I have not looked at the syllabus since the first day of class.)

Before you ask about an assignment, please check what the syllabus says about it!

5. That’s not true!

(Professor Hears: I am going to attack so you better defend yourself.)

There is a good way to challenge something you think the professor said incorrectly and a wrong way. Try the Jeopardy approach: state your concern in the form of a question.

4. May I turn this in late?

(Professor Hears: I deserve special treatment.)

Instead send a note to the professor telling why you are going to be late and apologize for doing so. Most professors have late policies clearly defined in their syllabus anyway.

3. Wah wah wah, wah wah wah, wah wah (think Charlie Brown “adult speak” but said to a friend during your lecture).

(Professor Hears: I am showing disrespect to you.)

There’s always time after class to chat. Your professor deserves your attention.

2. Sorry, I need to take this phone call.

(Professor Hears: I planned someone to call me so I could take a break from your class.)

Really? It is better to sit near the door and leave discreetly as possible than say anything during class. Texting during class? Read number 3!

1. Zzzzz! (Think sleep sounds!)

(Professor Hears: You are boring me out of my mind.)

This is a huge no-no. You may have a really good reason to be tired but opt for a Mountain Dew rather than a bad impression.

Science & Religion: How Methodological Models Inspire New Ways of Thinking and Writing

In discussing science and religion, several typologies arise explaining how science and religion relate. These typologies often include conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. This discussion has benefits for the fields of science and religion and gives insight into subsequent writing in those and related fields of study.

Conflict: Many people think of science and religion as being in a state of conflict. In fact, both scientists and people of faith have argued this to be true. Think of the sharp division in sides that emerged during the Scopes Trials for example. The prevailing thought of the conflict point of view is that science and religion contradict one another and are incompatible. Thus, one is right and the other is wrong.

I find that many incoming freshmen in my Introduction to the Bible courses tend to think in black and white terms regarding science and religion. Sometimes a student will speak with great passion, identifying himself as a man of science or a man of faith, implying that science and religion can’t exist together.

No matter which introductory course I teach, we invariably deal with this faith and science discussion near the beginning of the course as we jump into Genesis. I invariably ask the hard questions: Is the creation story incompatible with evolution? Is the only possible interpretation of Genesis 1 that of a 7-day creation? Are there limits to science? Does it take faith to believe in science? Sometimes the sparks fly in this discussion, showing a true unwillingness to budge from preconceived beliefs.

I oftentimes try to get students to examine and hopefully understand the other point of view, even if they are unwilling to change their own point of view. Thankfully, popular culture also provides many entry points into this discussion. Through the past several years, we have used television shows, such as Lost and Fringe, to talk about the nature of faith and belief as well as science and reason.

Benefits: There is nothing like discussion and conflict to help a person refine his beliefs, present his point of view in a thoughtful manner, and to take ownership of what he believes rather than mimicking what others have taught him. Conflict sharpens one’s understanding in many ways. A key is the level of respect and understanding that you show a person of an opposing viewpoint. Questions arise: can you understand and represent accurately a point of view that you do not hold and even oppose? Can you see another’s viewpoint? Can you agree to disagree?

In performing dissertation editing, I sometimes can see clearly the writer’s point of view in the midst of evaluating different viewpoints. Sometimes derogatory language gives that away. As a researcher and writer truly seek to understand an opposing viewpoint, even if you are unwilling to consider it as part of your personal belief system. It will help you grow in your research and writing skills and give you a better understanding of those who believe differently than you do.

Independence: Theories that fall into the independence category generally hold that religion and science are separate realms of enquiry and do not involve one another. Usually this line of thinking explains that science deals with observable facts gathered through the scientific method, developing theories that explain empirical data. Religion, on the other hand, deals with questions of ultimate meanings and moral and value questions that arise in life. These two realms of inquiry are not in opposition; they simply do not overlap and remain separate.

I often point to statements of personal belief that people use in conversation, citing evidence for their belief and how it differs in religious and scientific language.

On a basic level, scientists lean toward statements of “I observed the following” while people of faith make statements that begin with “I believe.” Thus, the fields of study sometimes mimic portions of the human experience and the language people commonly use. I once talked with a doctor who worked in the field of genetic engineering. He basically expressed an independence point of view by explaining that his job was to develop the technology, but that my job was to decide the moral use for that technology and where the limits are.

Benefits: Those who tend to think of religion and science as valuable fields of study, but addressing different areas of knowledge and experience, may be described as compartmentalizing each field of study. Sometimes this is portrayed negatively, especially in our age of quick media polls for or against topics.

The media tends to oversimplify complex issues into sound bytes and may spur on the general public to take sides. However, there is something to be said about letting each field flourish on its own and carry on investigations where the other field of study cannot. This approach to each field of study is much like the experience of a child becoming his own self in a family of other distinct personalities. Each child is unique and special.

As a writer, your voice is unique. You must develop and nurture it no matter your detractors or how much you differ from or are similar to key figures in your area of study. Dissertation writing is unique in many ways in that your writing must review the literature on a specific topic, tipping your dues to the giants whose shoulders your dissertation stands upon, but then to make your own unique contributions to the field through your work. We all tend to label others as to where we think their writing falls into an area or field of study. Resist the labels others try to affix upon you. Be your own unique voice in your field of study.

Dialogue: This typology acknowledges an overlap in interests and fields of study and allows their work be influenced through this dialogue. Thus, there is true conversation occurring between fields. A model of dialogue might say that both science and religion speak to the ultimate truths of human existence, having theories about the problems and answers to human existence and giving insight into that reality.

When I think of models of dialogue, David Tracy’s modified method of correlation always comes to mind. He took Paul Tillich’s method of correlation, where biblical truths speak to the philosophical questions of human existence, and makes the flow of questions and answers a true dialogue. Dialogue is not just one side asking a question, and the other answering it. As information is communicated, it literally changes the conversation, both the answers and questions. That is the true test of models of dialogue. Do fields of study truly allow questions from other fields and allow modification of theories and approaches based on those questions? Is there room for growth? This is the heart of dialogue.

Benefits: Having true dialogue of different beliefs and viewpoints is one of my goals every semester in my Introduction to the Bible courses. Each person, even if he is not of the Jewish or Christian faiths, offers different viewpoints based on his beliefs and experiences. These small class discussions are about topics like creation and evolution, the possibility of supernatural intervention in our natural world, and the central questions of human existence (such as Who am I? What is my purpose? What happens when I die?). This conversation mimics dialogue that occurs between other fields of study. As a writer, you have the opportunity to build bridges and tear down silos and break down barriers between fields of study and explanatory theories. Don’t back down from branching out into uncharted territory.

Integration: The integration typology describes those theories that attempt to unify both fields of study. These theories concentrate on similarities between the fields, focusing on how both fields speak about the world we live in and questions of ultimate concern.

Whether these theories start with the foundations of science or speak of all truth being God’s truth, this person has a predisposition that the two fields of study are interrelated on multiple complex levels. A theory of integration might say that science and religion are really getting at the same truths through different languages. Some say this approach has at its heart Anselm’s concept of faith seeking understanding. They begin with a belief that informs their worldview and shapes how they understand the data and interpret the world around them.

Benefits: When I think of people who are able to see connections that others don’t between fields of study, I think of one of my Ph.D. professors. He always clearly identified differing points of view and how many times people talk past one another by not understanding the other’s unique perspective.

There is a true talent in ignoring differences and focusing on areas of common ground. This professor often pointed out how humans are creatures of personal stories that explain the world around them, assigning meaning and purpose to events. It is natural to have a personal narrative that explains one’s history and background. Similarly people like to explain the history and background of how things came to be, why bad things happen to good people, and what their purpose is in life.

This tendency toward personal story allows people to work on unifying theories that bring together the fields of science and religion. Readers respond to stories in the same way. Don’t be afraid to share your personal story and let your passions influence the direction your research goes. How you put together the field of science and religion is important to your research and can inspire others to keep working through these important issues.

Theological Writing: 6 Ways Tillich’s Method of Correlation Can Approach the Deep Questions

1) Begin with existential questions that flow out of human experience. Some people have different names for these questions, but they are the basic questions of human existence: Who am I? What is my purpose? What happens to me after death? Tillich’s method starts with the questions of ultimate concern that reach to the heart of one’s being.

If your writing can identify first the questions that people are asking and keep your writing in line with those questions, then you will have a greater opportunity to touch the hearts and minds of individuals everywhere. Theological writing in particular has to make sense to an individual’s daily life and provide answers that are practically applicable to the life of the reader. Otherwise your writing may be insightful but not transformational.

So don’t be afraid to ask your deepest questions. Too many times Christian traditions even hinder and discourage people from asking questions, as if they are somehow signs of a weak faith. In reality, the questions always coexist with faith and make faith stronger, durable, real, and life changing.

2) Answer questions of human existence with the revelation of God. Traditionally revelation has been described in two different ways: general and special revelation. General revelation includes one’s conscience, the mark of God’s creative handiwork in the world, and the image of God that all humans carry. Special revelation includes God’s revelation through the Bible and through Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection. Tillich’s method of correlation urges readers to let revelation speak to the deep questions of human experience. Revelation provides answers, comfort, healing, salvation, and encouragement.

In your theological writing, start with and integrate biblical passages throughout your work. If your writing can address questions of human existence in the same way biblical revelation does—bringing healing, releasing from bondage, empowering, encouraging, comforting, and answering—then your work will resonate with a large audience in powerful ways.

3) Human experience is the filter through which God’s truth is understood. This basic concept gives explanation to the great variety of interpretation between people of faith and allows each person to experience God’s revelation in a way that is life changing and practical for his specific life circumstances.

Some writers are so prescriptive or limiting in their writing that it automatically limits or even alienates key audience segments. Writing that is best applies in different ways to different individuals. What are some practical ways to accomplish this? Present illustrations from your experience with which others can identify. This will bring practical application to your writing as well. Also, pull out practical applications from your theoretical discussion. Takeaways like this are valuable for readers and make writing come alive.

4) The form is important in answering the questions with God’s revelation. We all know examples of people who carry biblical answers but do so with vindictiveness or other approaches that cause others distance rather than reconciliation. The form is important in answering questions of ultimate concern. To Tillich, the content of God’s revelation is given but the form changes. Many churches deal with these questions on a weekly basis: How do we continue to appeal to the younger generation? Do we adopt newer, contemporary forms of worship? Do we change traditions completely or update them? Do we modify old forms of ministry and outreach in favor of new ones?

Form is important in your writing as well. Sometimes theological truth comes in unlikely places. Think of the impact that the book The Shack had on the general American public as well as the church. There is no doubt that the author addressed theological issues throughout, but in the context of a novel that held readers’ attention. Look at the impact of popular Christian books such as Randy Alcorn’s Heaven or Dan Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven had on those longing to know what lies on the other side of death or what happened to loved ones when they die. They appealed to readers in a way that caused them to think theologically and deal with questions of ultimate concern but not in a traditional theological treatise.

The most important aspect of this teaching is that answers must address the real questions people ask. Standard, pet answers do not work nor do they satisfy the true longing for knowledge and truth that people have. Seek to deal with the real questions with real answers.

 

5) Revelation changes one’s state of being. In the words of Isaiah 55:11: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Likewise, Hebrews 4:12 describes God’s Word as “living and active.” God’s Word changes, shapes, molds, and brings to God the hearts and souls of people. It accomplishes God’s salvation work. Therefore, this model is not a reaction or accommodation to the fact that life changes. Revelation is an agent of change in and of itself.

Writing that changes lives, not just one’s actions, but who a person is. Now that’s valuable writing! Aim for theological writing that changes the lives of people. In our current culture, academia and the church are sometimes seen at odds, as if their conversations are not about the same topics or ideas. That should never be the case. All people think and speak theologically when addressing questions of ultimate concern. Writing at a theoretical level but does not touch church practice or daily life is missing the mark.

 

6) Questions change as life changes. There is a reason why some people observe that change appears to be the only constant in life. Change happens. People grow. That’s why a model of questions and answers is consistently needed. Since revelation changes people, their questions naturally change as well.

Writing that lasts is writing that changes people, causing emotional reactions, invoking life change, and challenging presuppositions. Writing that grows as people grown and change will last and continue to be applicable for years to come. Scripture has a way of speaking in different ways to different situations and people.

Want to really dive into Paul Tillich’s Method of Correlation? Pick up Systematic Theology Volume 1 for a fascinating read!

Calling All Doctoral Candidates: Some Great Dissertation Writing Advice

Writing your dissertation? Been there, done that.

Feeling like you’re jumping through hoops of fire? Swimming in a shark tank? Or flying with eagles?

It can be great one day and horrible the next. Sometimes it’s gratifying and exhilarating. At other times, it’s humbling, frustrating, and discouraging.

That’s where we come in. We have a wealth of information, advice, and experience to share with you.

At edit911.com, we edit 50-75 doctoral dissertations every month. Our Blog & Advice pages are full of helpful articles about writing dissertations, as well as all other topics germane to the graduate student experience.

We’re continuously writing and publishing new articles. Very soon, we’ll be publishing a few white papers and books as well.

I’m also constantly surfing the net for good resources for our clients.

Today, I found a great site at UNC that’s devoted to dissertation advice, as well as many other subjects important to doctoral candidates: http://bit.ly/oxoHle.  Check it out. I hope it helps you.

 

Marc D. Baldwin, PhD
Founder & CEO, Edit911, Inc.
&
Tenured Professor of English
Hillsborough Community College
Tampa, Florida
www.edit911.com
www.drmarcdbaldwin.com
www.anuprisingofangels.com