In the latest issue of the Bulletin for Biblical Research (19.2; 2009) Edward Meadors contributes an article entitled “‘It Never Entered My Mind’: The Problematic Theodicy of Theistic Determinism” (185-214) in which he critiques compatibilist perspectives of theodicy. Meadors is a New Testament scholar and I appreciate the fact that he attempts to bring wide ranging and interdisciplinary reflection to this important topic. These sorts of studies are extremely valuable in an ever narrowing scope of contemporary scholarship. Furthermore, it takes a great deal of courage to step outside of one’s specialty since it increases the potential for criticism. For these reasons I commend Meadors and I hope other scholars follow his interdisciplinary approach to addressing pressing topics.
However, as much as interdisciplinary studies are needed, scholars must also realize their limitations and I think Meadors exceeded his in at least the Old Testament portions of his essay. I hope that we can take this opportunity examine some ways in which we can lessen the pitfalls when we write outside of our specialities. Here are some tips and illustrations taken from this essay:
- One easy way to remedy potential pitfalls is to send a draft of your paper to someone who is a specialist or extensively works in an area that you do not. This would have been of great help to this essay (Meadors does not acknowledge anyone fulfilling this function in his dedication footnote). This is particularly helpful if you are critiquing an opposing theory–sending it to a person who disagrees with you helps prevent distortions in your depictions of other positions.
- If you talk about philological issues, such as definitions of words in original languages, do your own work. In a crucial segment of Meadors’ argument he outlines the definition of the Hebrew word, ra’ah, or conventionally glossed as “to do evil, calamity.” The data that he presents to prove that this word “has a notoriously broad range of meanings” is a citation of several English translations of Proverbs 16:4 and footnotes from NIDOTTE and HALOT. While this is marginally satisfactory to demonstrate a very general point, the meaning of this word is absolutely central to Meadors’ argument and in my mind he comes very short of adequately discussing it–I do not get the impression that he did his own lexicographical work on this word; if he did his paper should reflect this.
- Know when you need to document controversial issues. You can’t discuss every single controversial issue that you encounter when writing an essay. However, topics that are traditionally seen as ambiguous or debatable should be cited with a source that outlines support for the position you take. For instance, Meadors refers to “Satan” in Job and then assumes that this individual is the tradition enemy of God. He does not even discuss the fact that the identity of this figure is far from clear–particularly since this is central to his argument that God is not the one who brought evil into the life of Job.
- Anticipate the objections of your detractors and make sure that you understand your own weak points. Since Meadors is trying to show that God does not actively bring evil into the lives of biblical figures, he admits that the Book of Job is “arguably the strongest biblical evidence that God collaborates in evil” (194). However, he overlooks the most glaring feature of the book that supports this fact: that Yahweh actually instigates “the accuser” to test Job (1:8). Meadors discusses the “figurative” and “poetic” aspects of the book but surely these features do not nullify the account of God presenting Job to the accuser–if it does then Meadors surely should make this clear.
- Know the important secondary literature and put it in the footnotes. When we venture outside our discipline it is expected that our documentation of secondary literature will not be as deep as it is within our primary areas. However, if you say something in print you should know at least who the important scholars are and the handful of seminal works in the field. In his Old Testament section Meadors discusses passages from Genesis, Job, Proverbs, Isaiah, Psalms, Deuteronomy, Samuel, Judges, Kings and more. His bibliography consists of: Tremper Longman’s Proverbs commentary, Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, Jonathan Edwards, John Piper, Meadors’ book, World Magazine Online, and Luther’s Bondage of the Will–and yes, that was exhaustive for his 13 pages of discussion (excluding the references to the two Hebrew lexica in the discussion of ra’ah).
What are your tips for avoiding pitfalls in interdisciplinary writing?