Theology— Writing Dispassionately for Passionate People

Years ago I was told (by someone, somewhere) that theological writing should be dispassionate, because it is supposed to be objective, not subjective. One is not supposed to put in exclamation points (!!!) or ALL CAPS or use strongly emotional language to express arguments or ideas. The reason I was given was that research is supposed to be a rationalistic enterprise and any use of language, style, or symbology that appears to seek to be persuasive by any other means than pure rationality was problematic. The problem is that research is changing, especially with the recognition of the value of qualitative research and greater respect for research that is more subjective, phenomenological, immersed in its context, has led to major reevaluation of dispassionate writing.

I see two problems. First, the idea of objective rationality is neither achievable, nor desirable. Whether one funds post-modernism appealing (objectively or not) it has a point. One cannot escape one’s own subjectivity. We are subjective emotional beings, and so trying to deny this through writing style is disingenuous. Second, there is a better reason to write (rather) dispassionately in theology.

Recently, I was asked to review a paper for an online service for papers. Some people want to be peer reviewed without going through the fickleness of seminars and journals. (Only twice in my life have I submitted a paper for review to a seminar or journal. The first was submitted to a seminar and it was turned down because my topic was more than slightly off topic to the main thrust of the event <worth a try>. The second was submitted to a journal and was accepted. However, the journal got delayed so many times that I pulled my article back and put it online myself. Just lost interest in that whole thing.)

Sorry, got off topic. I was asked to peer review a paper. It was written by a missiologist I have a fair bit of respect for. I was expecting to find the paper valuable. It was a paper on problems with using anthropology in missions. While I think pretty positively of cultural/social/mission anthropology, I am certainly open to hear valuable insight and critique.

Unfortunately, I began to glance at the article before reading it and saw “GOBBLEDYGOOK” put in all capital letters more than once. Looking at the context around it I found that the writer viewed anthropology as deserving the aforementioned label. Disparaging terms are not very endearing, but I began to read the article. Almost immediately I was thrown by a sentence. The writer was complaining that missionaries were using anthropology, which is secular. The writer suggested that this was a problem. The metric system, the alphabet, and my Moto G cellphone are also secular but these seem to be perfectly fine to use for missions. The claim that something is secular is not an argument against it (in the slightest), and frankly few fields of study have been more influenced by Christian missionaries than cultural anthropology. Clearly, to me at least, using the argument that anthropology is “secular” is an attempt to disparage a field by using a term that is emotionally disruptive to many Christians. It is akin to someone who says, “_______________ is (Good/Bad) because it is (Liberal/Conservative/Communist/Fascist/Etc.)

Now I need to step back a minute. I seem to be giving the impression that I think the article was a bad article. Actually, I have no idea. I ended up not reading it. I took a bit of offense to the language and emotional argument. I did not wish to review it. Mostly, if I read it, I may be tempted to review it. If I review it I might be tempted to disparage it. Or course, I might find the article valuable. I am simply not giving it a chance.

I think that is the point. Academic articles are not written dispassionately because dispassionate is better, or that the readers are dispassionate. Rather, readers are highly emotional people, invested in their own prejudices. This is, frankly, by divine design. God is passionate and invested as well. The writer, if he or she wants to influence the reader but keep them reading without shutting down, must find a way in the writing to do this. Ideally the researcher would write in such a way as to show deep respect for the reader. That is hard to do through a media as cold as black text on white background. Thus, the best they can do generally is write neutrally, dispassionately.

In my dissertation, I offended one of my readers greatly in the way I wrote. The reader said that someone involved in the researcher must be horribly offended at something I wrote. I was pretty sure that wasn’t the case since that particular individual was intimately involved in (and agreed with) the exact section of the paper the reviewer was referring to. Nevertheless, as the years went by, I do realize that when I wrote my dissertation, I was a bit hot-headed. I was trying to be a bit of a trailblazer pushing qualitative analysis at a school that was almost entirely focused on quantitative analysis. That hot-headedness showed itself a bit subtly mostly— being overly defensive, polemic and argumentative, in such things as not using hypotheses, or recognizing the researcher as the main instrument rather than the list of questions for the semi-structured interviews.

Being dispassionate in research writing is not about embracing a relic of the Enlightenment, but understanding that we are emotional beings. We fake being dispassionate in writing so that others can fake being dispassionate, and read it without being triggered into too much pushback.

One of my professors had the joking statement that “Professors have many degrees but little temperature.”

It is funny, but I don’t believe it.

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