Tips for the Th.M. – Part 17 (Analyzing Theological Texts)
Just starting your program, you’re about to take your first first class. Like a good student, you decide to take the initiative. So, you download the syllabus and take a look at the reading list. Then you look at it again. That can’t be right. How in the world are you supposed to read all of that in one semester? It can’t be done. Your professor must be insane.
Now, that last statement is quite possible. I’ve known a lot of professors over the years, and I’m not convinced that all of them were entirely sane. But, unless you want to try and prove the mental instability of your professors, you might want to consider the possibility that they knew exactly what they were doing when they assigned that much reading. Maybe the problem isn’t the amount of reading, but your ability to engage the reading successfully. Approaching the right reading in the wrong way can be disastrous.
That’s the issue that Travis McMaken addresses in his post on “Analyzing Theological Texts.” Travis offers a simple rubric for engaging theological texts based on three key questions.
My advice for beginning students, or students struggling with analysis and evaluation, is to focus on answering three 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.
Make sure you read the rest of the post to see what Travis has to say. He goes on to explain that these three questions can be used both for analysis and evaluation. It sounds too good to be true, but approaching your readings with several simple questions in mind can focus your attention, increase your recall, and greatly facilitate your interaction with theological texts.
And, if you’d like more tips for academic study, check out the rest of the Tips for the Th.M.