I’m deep in the throes of dissertation writing. This means that a volume like Lucretia Yaghjian’s Writing Theology Well: A Rhetoric for Theological and Biblical Writers is of great interest. I want to have a done dissertation most, but I want to have a good dissertation at the same time. Therefore, a book on theological writing that made it to a second edition seemed an excellent one to review.
The book consists of four parts. Yaghjian begins by discussing theological rhetoric. This includes considering the context of the writing, focusing on inquiry, reflection, and persuasion, and using tools of identification, correlation, suspicion and construction. Part Two deals with the task of research, documenting that research well, and some chapters on exegesis and hermeneutics. The third part emphasizes writing style, with a focus on discovering one’s voice and the use of analogy, metaphor, etc. This section also deals with some basics of sentence and paragraph construction and delves into the vital art of revision. The fourth section focuses on writing in “new contexts,” which goes from the writing of international students, to various forms of online writing.
Writing Theology Well is a volume that contains many of the basic elements of a writing guide. There are helpful guidelines and checklists for the revision process, some ideas about structuring arguments, and a healthy emphasis on writing techniques that aid clear communication. As a guide to writing, this volume has the necessary framework to be helpful.
The promise in a book like this is that it tailored specifically for a particular type of writing, namely, theological writing. As I transitioned from my undergrad in English to writing for a technical audience in nuclear power to taking seminary courses, there were often points of frustration where a tool that I had used in a previous life was no longer acceptable. For this reason Writing Theology Well held out the promise of a helpful tool that I could benefit from and that I’d recommend to others.
Analysis and Conclusion
My praise for Writing Theology Well will be somewhat limited. This volume will be most helpful in particular theological contexts. It would not have been very helpful at the conservative seminary that I attended for several reasons.
First, the book begins with an emphasis on writing a theological reflection paper well. That is certainly a noble pursuit, but in my decade of seminary (to date) I may have written three reflection papers. These were also not simply essays on my perspective on a doctrine or theological topic, but usually reflections on a book. For good or ill, assuming some continuity among conservative seminaries, there is little call for the sort of introspective reflection paper outlined here.
Second, the emphasis on embracing one’s context and not attempting to rise above it would not be helpful in a conservative seminary. The goal in most conservative seminaries is to get the students to experience theology outside of their own context, which is why there is a high value on research papers over reflection essays. This sometimes results in the prohibition of first person pronouns, which is at times a tedious requirement. However, forcing the student to write from outside of themselves is often helpful in breaking them out of the rut of their own experiences. None of my professors actually expected the students to attain objectivity, but we were all supposed to try. The focus on embracing context has positives, and perhaps a place later in theological education, but the emphasis on writing subjectively would not transfer well in conservative academia.
Third, most of the examples of writing for consideration were from feminist or other post-modern sources. This means that the reader has to try to get past the content of the theology (largely segregated from its supporting arguments), and the logical presuppositions of the excerpts, to try to get to the point of evaluating the style. Of course, I’m sure if the shoe were on the other foot, someone with another bias might have as much difficulty evaluating conservative sources. The trouble is that many of the passages that were supposed to show off the beauty of the prose were so skeptical toward traditional forms of Christianity that it would never matter how wonderful the writing was from. In that sense, this book misses the mark by failing to emphasize that the content is more important than the style, though style is certainly significant. At the same time, I thought some of the author’s comments on being faithful to the text in her discussion of hermeneutics was beneficial.
In the end, this is probably a very fine book for a particular context. Yaghjian puts the fundamentals of writing on display in a way that is consistent with the best “how-to” manuals. Her emphasis on planning, revising, and structure are right on the mark. This is a volume that many will probably find helpful for writing, but most likely not in more conservative contexts.
Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume directly from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.