Recently my teaching duties have pushed me to reflect more formally on the process of analyzing and evaluating theological texts. These thoughts are in no way profound, but I do think that they might help people who are in the early stages of developing these skills. So, I present them here for whomever wants to glance at them, and also so that I will be able to simply send future students a link instead of taking up valuable classroom time talking about these things.
My advice for beginning students, or students struggling with analysis and evaluation, is to focus on answering four questions about a text: What? Why? and How? These questions are mutually implicating, and need not be addressed sequentially. Sometimes one or the other will be far more clear, and you will be able to work from there towards the others. But bearing them all in mind when you read will help you to make better sense of the text or argument in question.
- Who? Who is writing? Is there anything significant about the author? Does the author have characteristic trains of thought, or distinctive approaches? Does the author work from within a particular tradition of thought that might influence the topic under consideration? Basically, is there anything about this author and this author's context that might illumine the work being analyzed?
- What? What is the claim being made, or what is the point? What is it that the author is trying to convince you of? What is the position that the author wants you to affirm? What is the author trying to do?
- Why? Why is the author making this claim or pressing this point? Why is the author trying to convince you of this? Why does the author want you to affirm this position? Why does the author want to do what this text aims to do?
- How? How is the author making this claim or pressing this point? How is the author trying to convince you? What conceptual, textual, rhetorical or other resources is the author deploying? How do the pieces of the text or argument fit together?
Again, this represents the rock-bottom level of the analytic process but, as such, it is a fundamentally important level. One can bring any number of more sophisticated analytic tools to a text or argument, but only if one has already gotten some basic clarity on these sorts of questions.
Furthermore, remember that you can deploy this basic level of analysis at various levels of specificity. To take a textual example, consider Calvin’s Institutes (Calvin is pictured, hard at work analyzing a text). This work can be addressed at the level of the whole, at the level of “Book” (of which there are 4), at the level of chapter within book, at the level of sub-section within chapter, at the level of structural paragraph (¶, §), or at the level of textual paragraph (“paragraph” in the non-technical sense). You can see how the task of analysis quickly becomes complicated when tracking how these various levels fit together and relate. Reading notes become essential, and the three questions above may prove helpful in structuring them.
These three questions will also help you when you turn to evaluation of a text, for each carries with it avenues for evaluation.
- What? What resources do I posses, external to the text or argument in question, on the basis of which I can make a judgment about the claim beings made? Is the author’s position true?
- Why? Given an answer to the question of why the author makes a particular claim, is that motivation justified? Is it a proper motivation? How? Do the conceptual, textual, rhetorical or other resources deployed in support of the author’s claim work as the author intends? Is his argument successful on its own terms?
As with the analytic discussion above, this evaluative process functions at any level of the text – paragraph, sub-section, and on up – and conclusions can be built into a complicated whole.
I hope this will be helpful to some folks. If you have any further suggestions to help beginning students improve their reading of theological texts, feel free to leave comments about it – the more tools in our pedagogical toolboxes, the better!