Books Aren't Dead Yet

Sometimes it seems we are being constantly bombarded by news of the death of the book.

In some cases, the concern is the rise of the internet, which has cultivated a reliance upon shorter and shorter articles. Some folks seem to expect 140 characters to sufficiently capture the complexities of an argument.

In other cases, people (like myself) lament the rise of the e-book, which tends to reinforce the addiction to screens, undermine the reliance upon actual physical books. There is good evidence that e-books are both not as likely to replace real books as some fear and that they actually have the negative effects that traditional reading advocates ascribe to them.

Despite the worries of real book fans, a recent Gallup study indicates that the future of reading in general and real books in particular continues to look positive. This is encouraging and matches the findings of a study published by Pew Research in the Fall of 2016.

On one hand, the number of people who claim to not have read a book in the past year has doubled since 1978, from 8% to 16%, but it hasn’t changed much since 1990, which is well before the internet was widely available.

The study actually shows a fairly steady percentage of readers, with some slippage in some of the higher consumption categories. Still, the overall number of people actively engaged in reading books is quite high and far from the dire warnings that some technophobes issue. At the same time, it is worth noting the question for “reading” of a book includes listening to audiobooks. This inclusion may mask a phenomenon that still reflects a lower consumption of printed words for the same ideas being read on a commute, a run, or family vacation.

Screen grab from  http://ow.ly/BHDz308l8Bg

Screen grab from http://ow.ly/BHDz308l8Bg

At the same time, the study also showed that 73% of people pick up a printed book more often than other formats. Only 6% of people rely on audio books as their primary means of engaging books. The news is not all that bad for those that value reading. Books appear to be holding their own against the flood of other entertainment options.

One caution, though, in this study—as in all of the studies I’ve seen on this topic—the nature of the books is never considered. In other words, people may be reading as much, but if they are reading prairie fiction instead of literature, that makes a difference. If book sales skew toward popular punditry and away from well considered arguments about policy, then reading is of much less value. It would be interesting to see a study that reflected on both the quality and the frequency of reading.

In the meanwhile, rest assured the reports of the death of the book have been greatly exaggerated. That should be cause for a cautious celebration.

From Topic to Thesis - A Review

There are some books that are so simple and helpful that one wonders why someone has not written them decades before. They are destined to be, if not classic, steadily useful, widely read, and often recommended.

That is the nature of Michael Kibbe’s recent book, From Topic to Thesis.

There is absolutely nothing earth shattering in what Kibbe wrote. Really, there is nothing novel at all, but that is exactly what makes this book so very important. You see, Kibbe takes the time to lay out the simple and necessary steps to doing research well in theological and biblical disciplines.

As someone who learned how to do theological research the hard way—by erring and trying again repeatedly—I would have benefitted from Kibbe’s book when I started my Master of Divinity a decade ago. As someone who has graded theology papers at the graduate and undergraduate level, I know that there are many other students who face the same struggles that I did and some of them never seem to get the knack of research.

The Methodology

Kibbe’s prescribes five steps in the research process.

 

topic to thesis.jpg
  1.  Finding Direction – At the beginning of the research process, Kibbe warns his readers not to start with a definite thesis, but he argues that establishing a general topic is the first step. During this phase of the research process, only tertiary and primary sources should be used. In other words, if the topic is Calvin, then only read John Calvin or survey/textbook/reference level works about him. The primary sources will tell you if there is something to argue there. The tertiary sources will tell you where you’ll need to look for more information. This step takes time, but it is important to become familiar enough with the topic to know whether there is an argument to be had.
  2. Gathering Sources – The next step is to get together the stack of sources that will be used to support any argument. This is a simple, but time consuming process of finding the books and articles that relate closely to the broad topic and then skimming them to figure out which ones should be checked out, copied, or purchased.
  3. Understanding Issues – Having skimmed and accumulated a stack of sources, this is the phase of research where the student figures out what is going on in scholarly discourse related to the general topic. With note taking tools in hand (though one must only write in sources that one owns), the scholar descends and reads the primary and secondary sources that relate particularly to the topic. In other words, this step requires a lot of reading, but it should be focused reading on the specific topic. During this phase, the researcher will likely return to the “Gathering Sources” step as a pattern of citations form within secondary literature; if everyone is citing something, there is probably a reason why.
  4. Entering Discussion – It is at this point, after some fairly robust, systematic research the researcher formulates a thesis. The thesis should be something (reasonably) new to add to the conversation, fits within the existing conversation, and the researcher can explain why the first two are true. This may sound a bit difficult for a beginning student, but by the time a student has completed steps 1-3, he or she should be able to say that someone’s contested position is right or wrong or that a previous scholar missed something in the debate. This isn’t a search for novelty, but for scholarly contribution. In other words, this step is what helps differentiate a summary of the topic from an argument for a position.
  5. Establishing Position – The last step involves actually writing the paper. Now all of the research is carefully woven into a coherent argument that evaluates differing opinions, stays on thesis, and supports the researcher’s thesis.

These five steps form the meat of Kibbe’s book. They are also the gold standard for how a theological student should do research. If time is available—and if it is appropriately used—then Kibbe’s research methodology will lead students to a high quality research paper.

Further Discussion

In addition to the value of the stepwise research methodology, this book is helpful because it offers definitions for types of sources, gives appropriate instructions for using web-based sources, and offers some no-nonsense advice to students from the perspective of a professor. Appendix A is a list of ten things that students should avoid; I have observed students doing most of them before!

I will note that the instructions Kibbe gives in this book are from the perspective from a Bible scholar and not a theologian. As such, some of his recommendations for “theological sources” in the back will likely never be the main point of concern for someone in a Systematic Theology course. They are excellent for those doing focused exegesis, but the list would look significantly different if this book were written by a theologian.

Likely, also, a theologian would have placed the stage of defining a thesis a bit earlier in the process. Of course, it may that by the end the thesis must be reversed or altered, but it is not always necessary to wait until quite that much research has been done before deciding where to go next.

It is one of my pet theories, based on my own ongoing PhD studies, that there are generally distinct personality types that migrate toward theology, history, and philosophy instead of language and biblical studies. This sort of research is excellent, and it will fit best with the meticulous nature of many that are already biased toward biblical studies. The other group tends to be more comfortable slinging guns in research and may find Kibbe’s methodology constraining, however excellent it is.

Conclusion

Whether you are a student in theological or biblical studies, this is a must-read book. Especially if you are early on in your studies. Even if you will never quite be able to implement such a rigorous approach to research, this is a good read because it tells you how it ought to be. If you are thinking about heading toward seminary, then this is a book you should read before you get there.

If you are a professor at a seminary or Christian college teaching anything like Christian Studies, Religion, Bible, or Theology, then this is a book that should be on your syllabus recommended for every student in every class. Kibbe says what you were thinking and he does it clearly and in print. This would also be an invaluable text in an early course in an MDiv curriculum or a writing course.

 

Note: I received a gratis copy of this book from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Dress Colors, Social Media, and Questionable Research

Last week on Thursday, there were two hot topics on Social Media that kept many people amused (and somewhat less than maximally productive) for quite some time. The first was a debate on the color of a dress. 

Someone posted a picture on tumblr in mid-February and asked for help determining what color it is. (Here is the link, note there is some questionable language in the post.) 

Given a few weeks and a snow storm in the Southeast of the US, which gave a number of people downtime to try to discover the end of the internet, and presto!, we have a viral debate raging on social media about absolutely nothing. It's sort of like an episode of Seinfeld, only it lasted more than 22 minutes and really isn't nearly as funny.

For nerds (and I include myself in this descriptor), the science behind the confusion is pretty interesting. In fact, I found the post at Wired that explained the nature of the confusion to be enthralling. There is a scientific explanation for the perception of different colors depending on the setting.

The Social Phenomenon

More significant to my mind, though, is the way that such a benign and pointless social phenomenon has been reported in the media. Not only did it inspire Wired to write a post to cash in on the web traffic, but all of the major news network jumped on the story.

To put this in plain English, with everything going on in the world, a story about a social media debate got picked up by the news.

This reveals some of the significance of social media. It isn't just a fad that will be gone like slap-wrap bracelets (which are still around, just not as popular as when I was a kid). Social media is driving the way society thinks.

Is this the way it should be? I don't think so, but that's not the point. This particular cultural event reinforces the reality that we cannot simply ignore the phenomenon of social media or demonize it. We have to figure out how to meaningfully engage this tool without allowing it to cheapen our own way of thinking. To that end, Karen Swallow Prior has written a helpful blog at Christianity Today that details some of the potential lessons to be learned from #TheDress.

I have written previously on some of the dangers of social media, based on their potential to damage personal relationships. I have also written about reasons why Christians should (and should not) blog, which is pertinent because social media is the platform that conveys the bloggers message to a broad audience.

The answers are not immediately obvious, but a debate over dress colors and coverage of escaping llamas drew national attention and broad social media engagement. The church needs to figure out how to use this tool and how it fits into a Christian worldview.

The Research Phenomenon

A second significant issue is the way that informal reporting and researching techniques are being used to promulgate internet news. One example of this is, ironically, this post, which relies on internet searches and cultural artifacts to present a case. Recognizing this irony, and not claiming to be an actual news source, I press on with my opinion.

In a 1995 book, Telling the Truth, Lynne Cheney notes,

From 1968 to 1988, the average sound bite for a presidential candidate on the network evening news had plummeted from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds. In the 1992 campaign the length of time would become shorter still: 8.4 seconds. Meanwhile, the portion of the news taken up by correspondents’ comments rose to 71 percent, with candidates sharing the remainder of the time with voters and political experts. A study of the New York Times showed a similar trend. From 1960 to 1992, the average continuous quote or phrase from a candidate in a front page story fell from fourteen lines to six lines. In both television and print, reporters increasingly had power to turn the candidates’ words and deeds into illustrative material for the stories they wanted to tell.

Twenty years after Cheney wrote this, the problem has not gone away. Indeed, if anything, social media platforms like Twitter have caused people, politicians included, to self-limit to 140 characters and thus strip their own comments of context. We have made it easier for someone to reframe our comments according to their own liking.

But a second significant theme is the prevalence of telling stories. In many cases the point is no longer to reveal truth, but to tell a compelling stories. This allows bloggers and media personnel to look for rapid sources of some credibility that will carry their message in a way that will get clicks and support their narrative.

Often this results in a tight circle self-reference with dubious credibility. This Tweet, captured on the day after the dress color debate went viral illustrates the research phenomenon:

Does this mean that the analysis is not correct? No. It may be correct. In fact, it may be so inconsequential that it doesn't matter if it is correct. After all, do we really care what color the dress is?

However, this is merely an illustration of what I believe to be a broader phenomenon that includes more significant topics. Experts are citing experts citing experts. Who knows that the chain of proof doesn't lead back to my blog, or another similar platform that also lacks credibility on a particular subject? 

We must seek truth. This means that we need to be skeptical of some of what gets conveyed as news. Just because we read it on the internet, even from a widely published source, does not mean it is credible or true. This also means we need to avoid crucifying people because of the way someone presents someone else's opinion on a blog or social media. Learning to do these things well is a critical task for Christians in the 21st century.