Writing Theology Well (2nd Edition)

A Rhetoric for Theological and Biblical Writers

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Lucretia B. Yaghjian
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury T&T Clark
    , September
     2015.
     472 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780567499172.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Many students arrive at North American seminaries, schools of theology, and divinity schools unprepared to write for graduate-level theology courses. The great distance between incoming students’ writing skills and their professors’ expectations forms a gap that is resistant to closure because students aspire to succeed academically but do not know how, and faculty aim to improve student writing quality but do not know how. Despite the fact that writing is the most common pedagogical tool for educating and evaluating students, few teachers or students have a plan for addressing this theological writing problem. Enter Lucretia B. Yaghjian’s excellent book, Writing Theology Well: A Rhetoric for Theological and Biblical Writers (Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2015), which bridges the writing gap by providing a comprehensive method to address these difficulties. Yaghjian invites students and interested professors to think, in practical terms, about theological writing as a rhetorical act unfolding within a complex social and historical context. She aims to make student theological writing less mysterious and more attainable. In doing so, she presents a template not only for learning how to write theology well in an academic context, but also for learning how to teach student writers. Thus, Writing Theology Well benefits students and faculty members alike.

An expansion of her first edition of the book, this new edition updates the sources included in the 2006 publication, provides easier access to bibliographic information with chapter endnotes, and adds two vital chapters. These fresh chapters, one focused on the writing needs of international, non-native-English-speaking students, and the other focused on student writing in the digital environment, demonstrate two of Yaghjian’s greatest priorities as a writer and instructor of writing: the robust consideration of both audience and context. In chapter 13, “Writing Theology Well in a New Language: Rhetorics for International Student Writers and Their Tutors,” she provides a foundation for student writers from outside of the North American, English-speaking context by articulating the differences between the writing culture of North America and other writing cultures. She also outlines a process of enculturation through language that non-native English speakers and their professors will find enlightening. The central message of the chapter is that, for every student, non-native and native English speaker alike, graduate theological study entails learning a new language; this key insight will benefit all theological writing students, whatever their backgrounds, as well as their teachers. 

Chapter 14, entitled “Writing Theology Well in a Digital Environment: Rhetorics for Online Writers and Researchers,” is the other new chapter. In it, Yaghjian discusses the expansion of theological writing’s contexts into the digital world. While she notes that complications arise with new writing technologies due to their departure from traditional modes of writing, she points out that “writing was also the original distance learning technology” (382). Thus, some aspects of student writing, such as close attention to one’s audience, do not shift with a move into the digital environment. What is different about online writing, Yaghjian notes, are the shifts in the purposes and genres represented: professional emails requiring certain kinds of etiquette; online or hybrid course discussion boards allowing greater flexibility in class assignments and responses; and blogs providing unchecked space for creativity as writers consider the audience(s) they hope to reach and the purpose(s) of the writing itself. Rather than providing the technical “how to” approach that is sometimes presented by book writers who veer into discussions about digital writing that are quickly outdated, this chapter invites student and faculty readers to consider the complex rhetorical questions embedded in digital writing for theological education.

One of the strongest features of this edition of the book, as with the previous edition, is that each chapter functions as a rhetorical handbook for the student learning to write and for the professor teaching students graduate-level writing skills in different genres of theological writing. For example, in chapter 3, “Writing Theological Argument Well: Rhetorics of Inquiry, Reading, Reflection, and Persuasion,” Yaghjian provides a background understanding of how argument itself works, shows student writers how argument manifests in theological writing, offers a process for reading theological argument for the development of critical reading skills, and then walks students through a process of writing their own theological argument. Along the way, she assists students in developing foundational skills for successful academic writing by offering what she calls “Theological Memos” that break the writing process into smaller components, such as defining terms and writing a thesis statement. Yaghjian’s attention to the larger rhetorical concerns of writing in a particular genre, such as theological reflection or exegesis, which are covered in other chapters, are well matched by her ability to analyze the writing process and the components of each genre in ways conducive to improving student writing on multiple levels.

Although Writing Theology Well is a fine book, it is, at times, burdened by a cumbersome apparatus that feels almost too thorough due to the numerous exercises, sources, and explanations provided. Additionally, some key theological genres, such as religious history and practical theology, are embedded in chapters on research and argumentation without having specific chapters dedicated to them, a feature which would have been helpful for many students. However, Yaghjian offers well-considered, practical writing instruction that arises from her many years as a skilled theological writing teacher and as an experienced theological writer. She has followed her own advice by reassessing her audience and context in the intervening ten years between the two editions, and the book demonstrates this effort to refine and update her thinking. Yaghjian wisely encourages students not to make the writing process more difficult than they have to, but she also urges them not to forget that they are in higher education and have chosen to engage in an educational process that makes demands of them. Implicitly, she also advocates that those of us who teach in theological education think about how we approach writing in our classrooms. By reading this book with our students as they write for our courses, we would build that much-needed bridge and close the writing gap between students’ current writing skills and our high expectations for them as writers, ministers, and theologians.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mary O'Shan Overton is the Director of the Center for Writing and Learning Support and Adjunct Professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
November 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lucretia B. Yaghjian is Director of the The WRITE Program at Episcopal Divinity School and is on Adjunct Faculty of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. BA Eng. Lit. Wheaton College (1964); MA Eng. Lit. Columbia Univ. (1967); PhD Eng. Lit. Univ. of Colorado (1976); MDiv WJST (1989).

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