Monday, August 27, 2007

Things I look for...

I have been thinking about what qualities make a theological book or article "worthwhile" in my opinion. Since I read a lot of different articles and books focused on the same topics, what I look for focuses around whether I can get something out of the work I am reading that was not contained in the other works. Thus, a book or article can be brilliant, but if I don't learn something from it, it is not going to be worthwhile reading in my view. This could of course mean that the single overall best book on the topic for a person to read if they were only going to read one book on that topic, might not be "worthwhile" according to my criteria. I think there are four primary qualities I look for, at least one of which needs to be present:

1. Original scholarship
The author proposes new ideas, novel approaches, a radical thesis... something that makes me stop and think "wow, hadn't thought of that" or "hmm, that's an interesting idea".

2. Breadth of citations
Some writers interact a lot with the rest of scholarly literature. If a book makes reference to the ideas of a hundred other different authors then there's bound to be something to be learned from it.

3. Insightful analyzes
When dealing with a controversial issue, sometimes writers can beautifully lay out the various viewpoints that different people hold on the topic, and explain wonderfully the pros and cons of the different viewpoints. This is often a great help to clear thinking, even though no conclusion may be reached and no original research is done.

4. Strong arguments
This is where the writer provides an abnormally high level of good-logic and evidence-analysis in their arguments. Rather than survey the various views and then sit on the fence, the writer provides the strongest possible argument for their views.

I was thinking about these things because I am currently reading Ben Witherington's Paul's Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary and trying to work out why I think it is so bad. I think I've convinced myself that the reason I hate it is because it fails abysmally on all four of the above criteria.

11 Comments:

Blogger metalepsis said...

I have felt the same way...

27/8/07  
Blogger Bryan L said...

This helps make sense of why you sometimes seem to bash great books. You are often actually judging the value of you reading a book based on what you will gain from it (whether it's worthwhile), instead of how “brilliant” it is. I too judge whether a book is worthwhile for me to read based on those categories, and usually when it fails at one of those then I find it a bore to read.

It seems though like your first criteria has less to do with originality and more to do with whether the idea in the book is new to you. The book or article in question may be original, in fact it may be seminal, but if you’ve read more recent scholarship that has made use of it’s ideas then it won’t appear new to you. I think this is shown in your recent post on the Krister Stendahl article.

BTW what other Socio-Rhetorical commentaries on Romans have you read that you can compare Witherington to?

Have you read Wright’s commentary on Romans in the NIB series? When I read it, it seemed very original. Actually it still does when I read it alongside other Romans commentaries.

Blessings,
Bryan L

28/8/07  
Blogger Andrew said...

It seems though like your first criteria has less to do with originality and more to do with whether the idea in the book is new to you. The book or article in question may be original, in fact it may be seminal, but if you’ve read more recent scholarship that has made use of it’s ideas then it won’t appear new to you. I think this is shown in your recent post on the Krister Stendahl article.

Okay, I plead guilty to that one. That said, part of the reason I don't like Stendahl's work is that he doesn't offer any good arguments as to why people ought to agree with him. New ideas are good, but it's always important that they be presented with some decent evidence in support of them.

BTW what other Socio-Rhetorical commentaries on Romans have you read that you can compare Witherington to?

I don't think Witherington's commentary justifies its claimed name "Socio-Rhetorical". There's little of either in it and nothing worthwhile on either subject. I'm also reading Pilch and Malina's one which is better.

I haven't read Wright's commentary though I've read enough of Wright's other works (WSPRS, NTPG, JVG, Climax of the Covenant, and a variety of his online articles and lectures) to be able to guess what he says. I think I'm over Wright... I'm increasingly finding his ideas just wacky and totally unevidenced.

28/8/07  
Blogger Bryan L said...

"the reason I don't like Stendahl's work is that he doesn't offer any good arguments as to why people ought to agree with him."

"I don't think Witherington's commentary justifies its claimed name "Socio-Rhetorical". There's little of either in it and nothing worthwhile on either subject."

"I think I'm over Wright... I'm increasingly finding his ideas just wacky and totally unevidenced."

Ideas like what???

I hate to press you on this but you make a lot of negative claims about various scholars' works without actually offering any evidence to justify those statements. I'm not saying you have none, I'm just saying if you do then share it with us. Maybe you can help others see what appears so obvious to you. What arguments does Stendahl make that you find bad? What is it particularly about Witherington's commentary that you don't like. What is it about Wright's ideas that you find wacky or without evidence?

Help us out. Maybe you can do an extended critique of a book or something. Those are always fun! :)

Blessings,
Bryan L

28/8/07  
Blogger Andrew said...

True. I am often quite critical. And it is much easier to simply express an opinion than go to the effort of explaining it, justifying it, and citing specific examples. But hey, it's a blog post, not a journal article.

What arguments does Stendahl make that you find bad?
Well he doesn't really make any and that's my issue.

What is it particularly about Witherington's commentary that you don't like.
The four things mentioned in my post are lacking.

What is it about Wright's ideas that you find wacky or without evidence?
Most of them. Return from exile, the righteousness of God, justification as an ecclesiological not soteriological doctrine, Israel as Adam, Jesus' self-identity with Isa 53, epistemological theory, Jesus being God but not knowing it, Jesus as primarily a counter-revolutionary, the world's sin being focused on Israel and then on Jesus, covenantal ideas etc. Wright just seems to enjoy coming up with really bizarre ideas that no one else has thought of and are just plain weird and very unlikely sounding, and then unsurprisingly not being able to prove them (largely due, I suspect, to the fact that they are not actually true).

Initially I found his ideas interesting when I was just learning about the New Perspective and what Wright had to say. I still like the NPP well enough (especially Sanders and Dunn), but now whenever I see Wright's latest new ideas I have got to the point of dismissing them out of hand as crackpot. I was intrigued listening to a lecture on the NPP last week to hear the speaker say that in scholarship Sanders and Dunn are the main leaders, and that while Wright is often also listed as being the third figure in the NPP that he has a strong following at the popular level due to his many books but is virtually not at all influencial at an academic level mainly because no one is convinced the evidence supports his unusual views.

28/8/07  
Blogger Bryan L said...

What lecture was that? I would be interested in hearing it.

"Wright just seems to enjoy coming up with really bizarre ideas that no one else has thought of and are just plain weird and very unlikely sounding, and then unsurprisingly not being able to prove them (largely due, I suspect, to the fact that they are not actually true)."

How do you really "prove" anything in NT scholarship?

Either way, I thought you liked "new ideas, novel approaches, a radical thesis... something that makes me stop and think "wow, hadn't thought of that" or "hmm, that's an interesting idea"."

: )

Blessings,
Bryan L

29/8/07  
Blogger Bryan L said...

Andrew,
Are you going to let me know where I can get that lecture? I'd really be interested in hearing it if I can.

Blessings,
Bryan L

31/8/07  
Blogger Andrew said...

Bryan, I have a lot of audio lectures on the subject and I couldn't remember which one it was, so I had difficulty finding the one I'd mentioned. After a bit of searching I've found it. The one I'd mentioned was from here and is called the "New Perspective on Paul Symposium" Parts 1-4.

31/8/07  
Blogger Bryan L said...

Thanks,
I appreciate it Andrew.

Have a good one.

Blessings,
Bryan L

31/8/07  
Blogger InHim said...

I like your points except I believe there can be a danger with #1. There is nothing new under the sun and if someone is posting a new idea or novel approach it could be something beyond "mere Christianity" and delve into "Christianity and..." or an author trying to be different for the sake of being different.

An example would be The Divine Conspiracy where he comes up with some wacky ideas in an otherwise good book. Although that may not be the type of theological book you're referring to.

And I may be missing your intention with #1.

3/9/07  
Blogger Andrew said...

What I was thinking with #1 was high-quality original research, which introduces new evidence in such a way as to challenge the majority view and present a sensible and novel thesis.

3/9/07  

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