I’ve been ramping up for next year’s SS focus on the New Testament by reading John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew series. [Note: I am not a SS instructor, I'm reading it for myself.] The series contains so much info there’s no way I’m going to remember everything he covers, but I believe it will be easier to remember the general thrust of his argument (the over-riding themes, methods he uses to evaluate the information according to the goal he explicitly set at the outset, etc.).
In an offhanded footnote Meier reminds readers that “examining our presuppositions makes us more modest in our claims.”1 As a reader I can certainly identify with his statement. Watching the author discuss his own presuppositions and examine those of other writers on the topics he is addressing really brings home how contested any single historical “fact” can be. Meier’s extensive footnotes highlight the messiness of history. As a Mormon I can certainly identify with this statement. Understanding some of the tendencies we have to Mormonize the scriptures helps keep me a little more modest in my claims.
Above all, thinking about Meier’s approach has helped me self-clarify how my “gut instinct” reaction to arguments (in books, online, in person, etc.) operates below the surface. I’m more likely to feel comfortable about assertions if they have some of these characteristics. Otherwise, I might start reaching for the BS flag:
1) Goal. An explicitly stated goal– what is the point being addressed? The question itself is often an indication of the presuppositions and it helps to know what is being addressed specifically.
2) Outlined Criteria/Method. To achieve the goal it helps to have an outlined criteria, or “road map” as Meier might say. This can be implicit or explicit, but there should be an agreed upon way to measure the data, or what constitutes data, etc. This indicates to me that the person is serious about holding themselves accountable. “Muddling through” as he notes, usually results in mud, and it often just leads to the supporting of your initial theory or idea anyway.
3) Nuance. I don’t really mean vague hedging, although hedging can be a good sign that at least the person is trying to be forthright and careful. Nuance can be seen when an arguer gives several different approaches or answers to the question(s). Arguments which consist of the opposite of nuance, that is broad generalizations, are usually more likely to make me question their accuracy.
3) Awareness. Related to 3 is the arguer’s relation to the wider discussion. Meier’s footnotes are full of contrary opinions, and while he is often citing them either for support or to disagree (rather than a vague ‘check this out too!), it demonstrates his familiarity with contrary opinions and the broader discussion. This is especially persuasive depending on the types of sources, their background, etc., and his ability to present them fairly as opposed to snarkily writing them off (although there is a little bit of that too in Meier). Awareness of one’s presuppositions, the hidden warrant in arguments, is also a good sign that the arguer is not entirely off her rocker.
What leads you to trust a source? What red flags make you second-guess?
1. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume 4: Law and Love (Yale University Press, 2009), 66. [For you Catholics out there, Imprimateur--Hartford, CT, December 16, 2008--The Most Rev. Henry J. Mansell, D.D.]