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WRI 1100: Coles: Evaluate Sources

Subject Guide

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Steve Perisho
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Author/editor/translator(s), etc., whether individual or corporate

  • Credentials:  expertise, degrees (from which (theological) institutions), experience, position (at which (theological) institutions), etc.
  • Publication history:  what other publications with which publishers or in which journals, with what impact/influence, etc.?
  • Accountability:  does the author (if a contemporary) stand behind her work?  Is (s)he contactable?
  • Importance according to, or reputation among, those whose judgment counts, incl.
    • Seminality:  importance to the history of Christian doctrine; classic status; amount written about over time; gravitas
    • Auctoritas (not necessarily an academic category):  a wise person, saint, or “doctor of the church”, however uneducated, may possess insight or an authority not, or not so characteristic of an accomplished scholar with a Ph.D. in the relevant discipline.

"Publisher" (manuscript tradition, publisher, journal, website (incl. blog), etc.)

Publisher

  • “Institutional” cache.  Professional association (e.g. Society for New Testament Studies, Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality, Society of Christian Ethics)?  Respected foundation (e.g. Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Pontifical Institute for Medieval Studies)?  Reputable university press (e.g. Chicago, Harvard, Oxford, Yale)?  Some other with a long-standing reputation for quality in the theological disciplines (e.g. Abingdon, Augsburg Fortress, Blackwell, Eerdmans, Westminster John Knox)?
  • Reputation among those whose judgment counts.  How much published in this theological discipline or area?  Does this publisher specialize in the area in question?  Does it retain editors with the relevant expertise?

Journal

  • Publisher (as above)
  • Reputation among those whose judgment counts
  • Editors, editorial board, and other contributors:  often advanced academic credentials (e.g. Ph.D.) and institutional affiliations (e.g. Princeton University, Institute for Advanced Study, Center of Theological Inquiry)
  • Peer-review?  Double-blind?
  • Title:  the titles of quality periodicals
    • often contain words like Bulletin, Journal, Monthly, Quarterly, Review, etc. (e.g. Biblical Theology Bulletin, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Church History, Harvard Theological Review, International Journal of Systematic Theology, Journal of Biblical Literature, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Journal of Religion, Journal of Religious Ethics, Journal of Theological Interpretation, Scottish Journal of theology, Tyndale Bulletin),
    • but don't always (Biblica, Church History, Faith and Philosophy, Horizons in Biblical Theology, Methodist History, Modern Theology, New Testament Studies, Novum Testamentum, Religious Studies, Theology Today, Vetus Testamentum, Vigiliae Christianae, Worship)
  • Appearance of issue:  is often more that of a (paperback) book than that of a magazine
  • Advertising:  is either non-existent or plain (e.g. black-and-white) and relatively marginal.  Usually, too, it is for items of academic interest (books, conferences, etc.)
  • Pagination:  usually continuous from issue to issue within any given volume or year.  But magazines of quality aren’t always bound by this convention.

Work/text (book, article, webpage or blogposting, etc.)

  • Intended audience (“general public, consumers, practitioners, students, teachers/[credentialed fellow] professionals”, etc.)
  • Aim/purpose, incl. (for articles) appearance, document type, domain (.edu, .gov, .org, .net, .com, etc.).  Does it set out to describe?  Interpret?  Weigh?  Persuade?  Sell?  Entertain?  Smear?  Tar and feather?
  • Authenticity:  is the text what it is supposed to be, and not, for example, a fake or forgery of some kind?
  • Level of specialization:  does it appear to be conversant with the best thinking or current scholarship?
  • Accuracy
  • Length:  Appropriate to the task?
  • Edition.  What is the text’s relation to the original?  To the history of transmission?  Is it the original?  Is it a reliable, even critical, edition?
  • Translation.  What is the text’s relation to itself in the original language?
  • Reputation among those whose judgment counts, including professors, reviewers, subsequent scholarship citing or linking to it, etc.
    • Seminality, importance
    • Consensual base.  “Is it just the author’s opinion, or does it refer to a broader base of knowledge (citing other sources)”?  What do other credentialed (theological) authorities think of this work?  Have they thought it worthy of discussion?
  • Argument itself, incl. assumptions, evidence, reasoning, coverage, tone, balance, etc.:  Is there any?  Does reason come into play, and how?  Are you dealing with a thinker?  Is a mind engaged, or just emotion?  Is it rigorous, involved, demanding, creative, perhaps even technical (though what all this means will vary between the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, as well as from discipline to discipline)?  But especially
    • [Disciplinary] method:  Like all “scientific” writing, theological writing depends on the rules of argument and evidence.  So is the author doing, in addition to first-rate theology, first-rate anthropology, art criticism, cultural criticism, history (including the history of ideas), literary criticism, musicology, philosophy, psychology, science, sociology, or whatever?  Is she both open to and reasonably conversant with the many ways in which truth comes to be known, as well as with what the relevant disciplines are, in fact, in a position to assert, or have, in fact, the right to insist that they be trusted on?
    • Theological method:  Unlike other “scientific” writing, theological writing is grounded in the testimony of Christian scripture and ruled by the historic creeds.  So is the author doing theology?  Is she thinking (and loving and acting) well in the light of revelation; the dogmatic, doctrinal, and theological tradition; and reason, religious experience, and the demands of the relevant context (hers and others’s) theologically?  Is her ontology and epistemology sufficiently robust?  Does she negotiate responsibly the relation between faith and reason?  Does she write (critically, of course, but also) on the basis of Christian theological sources as one who actually believes in (what the Church confesses about the triune) God?  Or does she reduce what can be said about God to what the other sciences supposedly permit one to say?  Is her work orthodox, evangelical, and in some ecumenical sense Wesleyan?  Has what she confesses been broadly formative?  Does her life, too, speak (of “a long obedience in the same direction”)?
  • Currency, if important.  “Begin [secondary-source] research with works published in the last 20 years” (Dr. Steele), but beware of chronological snobbery.  Use the most recent scholarship to test the reliability of older authorities in areas where knowledge can truly be said to advance, but also classics as a check against what may be merely a contemporary fad.
  • Relevant?  Spot-on-topic?
  • Notes, bibliography:  Are its sources patent?  Does it direct you to the material upon which it relies?
  • Care (e.g. spelling, punctuation, grammar, writing style, citation style)