Common Mistakes in Theological Research #2: Blind to the Forest

In the last CMTR post, I mentioned the common mistake of trying to cover too much in a piece of research (like a thesis).  It is a discipline to reign in your argument and narrow your focus so as to keep the discussion tight.  This also makes the piece easier to evaluate as an examiner, book reviewer, or general reader.  Here I would like to highlight the opposite problem – narrowing your topic so much that you lose the forest for the trees.

Richard Hays (in a group discussion) brought this problem up and said that overly-narrow thesis topics tend to miss the ‘so-what?’ factor – what Hays in print has referred to as the principle of ‘satisfaction’ (see Echoes).  You may have found something interesting about one word in the book of Acts and you explore the meaning of that one word in the Greco-Roman world.  OK, so what?  How does your findings benefit research on Acts, the NT, or biblical studies?  It has to be more than just, ‘isn’t it interesting that…’
So, how do you know if your topic is lost in the trees and blind to the forest?  This is difficult, but one thing to think through is – would my thesis be interesting and/or intelligible to someone who researches in another area of the NT (so if you do Gospel of John, think of a Paul person; if you do 1 Peter, think of a Revelation person).  You can make up for the need to zoom in by having a good introduction and conclusion to your thesis that is able to tie your work to research going on in other areas.  The fact of the matter is, most NT researchers have to do very focused and narrow research for their doctorates because that is where the ‘new’ or ‘original’ research can be found.  But, with some circumspection, you can prevent your work from being only interesting to a few people.

I am fortunate that both my supervisors (Stephen Barton and John Barclay) are interdisciplinarily (is this a word?) skilled and are constantly prodding me to make my work accessible to all kinds of interested parties.

The key is to take what excited you about the questions and problems you are engaged in, and translate that into what can be interesting and relevant to other fields.  Developing these skills earlier rather than later will also help you publish your thesis (so I’ve heard!).

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3 thoughts on “Common Mistakes in Theological Research #2: Blind to the Forest

  1. Nijay, I would be interested to know what your supervisors say about how one can make the thesis of broader interest, without exposing one’s self to a great deal of responsibility for secondary literature, etc.? Any hints here?

  2. J.B.,
    I can’t speak for my supervisors, but I would say this can (and should) happen in your introduction and your conclusion. Especially in your conclusion you need a ‘wider implications’ section and perhaps also (or instead) a ‘areas for further research’ which can adumbrate (without specificity) how your discoveries may stimulate research in other areas of study.

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