writing things down…

The Questions of ETS

I’m browsing through the program for the upcoming meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society and I am struck by the number of papers with questions as their titles.  I don’t recall seeing quite so many questions in programs for the Society of Biblical Literature or the American Academy of Religion.  In 22 pages of the listings for session papers, over 75 presentations have questions for or as part of their titles.  I know, I am a little weird for counting them, but I couldn’t help it.   I wonder why questions are so popular.

Personally, I am not a fan of question-titles, but the ones that particularly bug me are the Yes/No or Either/Or questions (e.g., “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?”; “Was Samuel Rutherford a Scottish Mystic?”; “Two or Three Tragedies in Job?” “Harmonization: Help or Hindrance?” “Are Disciples Born or Made?” [real titles from this year’s program!]).

I am frequently reminding my students that Yes/No and Either/Or research questions are stifling.  In theory, they could be answered with one word and thus halt discussion.  If the answer to Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? is No and the rest of the paper is an explanation about why the answer is No, why not just begin with “Why Yahweh is not a Moral Monster.”  That’s really what the paper is about, isn’t it?

Am I being too persnickety?  Questions in titles: helpful or stifling?



  Pat McCullough wrote @

Yes/No and Either/Or questions at ETS? Go figure. Well, I couldn’t join them anyway… the whole inerrancy thing and all.

I agree with you about question titles. I think it is possible to use a series of yes/no questions as a rhetorical device to explore the range of options for meaning at a particular point in your argument. But if you are framing your entire paper around a question which you imply has a black/white answer, I am suspicious.

  Barry wrote @

I also do not like questions framed in a dualistic way, but I see it all the time–not just in papers. I think this way of framing is often a device to make the discussion/analysis appear more interesting than it really is. My guess is that some of these title-questions will not be answered in a yes/no manner. Instead the writer will choose a third, middle path. I can imagine the moral monster paper going something like this: “some have argued Yahweh is a moral monster. Others have argued that Yahweh is not. I propose to you that the answer to this question is a bit more complicated.” Framing issues in a dualistic manner can create a seemingly interesting discussion when your argument is really not all that interesting. Perhaps the moral monster paper should be entitled “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster: A Complicated Answer to a Seemingly Simple Question.” But who would go listen to that presentation?

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