Writing a Religious Studies Paper
Reading and Analyzing
You will compose a wide range of papers in your college career. Topics that are assigned generally will ask you to respond, discuss, analyze, explore, and/or explain a specific passage or topic from a specific text and relate it in some way to another passage, text, or context (refer to numbers 1-4 and 7 below). Topics generated by the student will usually follow the same format (refer to numbers 5-8 below). The following guidelines might be useful in either case.
- If the topic is assigned, read the assignment carefully. What is it asking you to do specifically? What sources might be useful? Are there clues in the assignment topic that might help you to structure your essay?
- If the topic is assigned, make a preliminary outline. Many essays suffer from lack of organization and the absence of a clear, coherent argument. A preliminary outline will provide a beginning framework.
- Read the sources with patience and care. In many cases, you will be working with material you have read already for lecture or class discussion. Do not rest on your familiarity with the material. If it is material you then choose to use for a paper it needs to be read again with specific attention given to observing the details related to the topic. Jot these down as you read. Consider how they might be used in your argument.
- Return to your preliminary outline and make changes accordingly before creating a first draft.
- If a topic has not been assigned, and a choice of possible texts with which to work has been made, read these in order to allow them to challenge you; respond to them by reading closely and by noting those points that intrigue you, question you, force you to think.
- Gather these points and consider them thoughtfully. What is being said? How are certain points being made and why? Answers to these questions will likely lead you back to the text several times and may result in the formulation of answers that need to be considered again in the context of the text.
- Here is an example of how one might approach a close reading of a section from N.K. Sanders, The Epic of Gilgamesh, pp. 90-91, in order to work with a given topic or to begin to formulate a topic.
When he had cursed the Trapper to his heart′s content he turned on the harlot. He was roused to curse her also. ′As for you, woman, with a great curse I curse you! I will promise you a destiny to all eternity. My curse shall come on you soon and sudden. You shall be without a roof for your commerce, for you shall not keep house with other girls in the tavern, but do your business in places fouled by the vomit of the drunkard. Your hire will be potter′s earth, your thievings will be flung into the hovel, you will sit at the cross-roads in the dust of the potter′s quarter, you will make your bed on the dunghill at night, and by day take your stand in the wall′s shadow. Brambles and thorns will tear your feet, the drunk and the dry will strike your cheek and your mouth will ache. Let you be stripped of your purple dyes, for I too once in the wilderness with my wife had all the treasure I wished.′
When Shamash heard the words of Enkidu he called to him from heaven: ′Enkidu, why are you cursing the woman, the mistress who taught you to eat bread fit for gods and drink wine of kings? She who put upon you a magnificent garment, did she not give you glorious Gilgamesh for your companion, and has not Gilgamesh, your own brother, made you rest on a royal bed and recline on a couch at his left hand? He has made the princes of the earth kiss your feet, and now all the people of Uruk lament and wail over you. When you are dead he will let his hair grow long for your sake, he will wear a lion′s pelt and wander through the desert.′
When Enkidu heard glorious Shamash his angry heart grew quiet, he called back the curse and said, ′Woman, I promise you another destiny. The mouth which cursed you shall bless you! Kings, princes and nobles shall adore you. On your account a man though twelve miles off will clap his hand to his thigh and his hair will twitch. For you he will undo his belt and open his treasure and you shall have your desire; lapis lazuli, gold and carnelian from the heap in the treasury. A ring for your hand and a robe shall be yours. The priest will lead you in to the presence of the gods. On your account a wife, a mother of seven, was forsaken.′
The curse of the harlot needs to be situated in the larger context of the text: What is the purpose or function of the harlot in the story? Why does Enkidu curse the harlot? To what end? Specifically, what is the content of the curse? A preliminary answer to these questions is that the curse is intended to overturn relations between Enkidu and the harlot. The harlot served as the vehicle through which Enkidu became civilized; the desire in the curse is that she will become uncivilized and that she will be cognizant of what she has lost.
Consider the italicized portion of this paragraph. The god, Shamash, has asked Enkidu to reconsider his reason for cursing the harlot. In his appeal for a retraction of the curse, Shamash reminds Enkidu that the harlot is responsible for civilizing Enkidu (a benefit in and of itself as the description suggests) and, even more significantly, for giving Gilgamesh to Enkidu. This relationship is the cornerstone of the text. In this passage, Shamash draws attention to Enkidu′s failure to acknowledge that Gilgamesh (who remains uncursed by Enkidu) was, in fact, the one responsible for the affair between the harlot and Enkidu.
What is the destiny for the harlot? Is she really any better off than she was under Enkidu′s initial curse? What is her fate? Return to the text for evidence to support an answer. Likewise, what is being said about the social function of harlotry? Enkidu′s promise is of a reversed destiny than that indicated by the initial curse: the initial curse ensured that harlotry be a fate for the dregs of society; in the ′blaessing′ this is overturned so that harlotry will become a encrusted in the upper levels of society. These questions can lead to more general inquiries: How does the description of the harlot compare with that of other women in the text? What distinguishes the harlot from these other women?
Another series of questions regards Enkidu′s decision. Why does Enkidu retract the curse? What does the interaction between Shamash and Enkidu suggest about how the Babylonians might have depicted relations between divine and human beings. This passage is evidence for the belief that blessings and curses-from the mouths of humans-are capable of being given, altered, and revoked. This could be the basis for formulating a topic.
The process of close reading either a passage from a text, or an entire text, is dialectical: one reads, questions, returns to the text for answers and evidence which, in turn, leads to further questions.
The idea behind academic writing is to order things in such a way that others can receive them and respond in turn. Any good essay should show the reader a mind developing a thesis, supporting that thesis with evidence, anticipating objections or counter-arguments, and maintaining the momentum of discovery. The essay′s thesis is the main point you are trying to make, using the best evidence you can marshal. Your objective is to make a case so that any reasonable person would be convinced of the reasonableness of your thesis.
Whether you are writing a short essay (less than 10 pages), a long essay (10+ pages), or a critical response, you should follow the same basic format:
- Explain the topic of your paper in a thesis statement.
- Support your thesis in the body of the text.
- Show how you have proven your thesis.
Everything in an introduction should be a summary, simply stated, of arguments to be made later. The first paragraph of a short paper, and the introductory section of a longer paper, should always include a thesis statement that sums up the argument of your paper in one sentence.
Developing A Thesis
An effective thesis tries to convince the reader of something. A thesis is not a topic, a fact, an opinion, a question, or a list. "The importance of Augustine′s theory of predestination" is a topic. "Augustine developed a theory of predestination" is a fact. "Augustine′s theory of predestination is great" is an opinion. None of these is a thesis, since none of them present an argument. Neither does a question ("Why has Augustine′s theory of predestination been influential?") nor a list ("For religious, social and cultural reasons, Augustine′s theory of predestination has been important").
An effective thesis has a definable, arguable claim. "By deeply influencing John Calvin and the movement he founded, Augustine′s theory of predestination has had a profound impact on modern Christian theology" is an effective thesis sentence. It tells the reader that the author will argue for the importance Augustine′s theory of predestination on the basis of its use by John Calvin.
The Body of Your Paper
Using evidence from your sources, clearly present a case that supports your thesis. Each paragraph in the body of the text should present a piece of evidence and your analysis of how that evidence supports your thesis. You should also anticipate the counter-arguments that might be made against your thesis.
During the writing process, you should stop periodically and reformulate your thesis as succinctly as possible so someone unfamiliar with your topic could understand its meaning as well as its importance.
Ending the Essay: Conclusions
The end of an essay should convey a sense of completeness and closure as well as a sense of the topic′s larger meaning and implications. The final paragraph should close the discussion without closing it off.
To establish a sense of closure, you might conclude by linking the last paragraph to the first, perhaps by reiterating a word or phrase you used at the beginning. To close the discussion without closing it off, you might conclude in one or more of the following ways:
- Quote from or reference to a primary or secondary source that amplifies your main point or puts it in a different perspective.
- Set your discussion into a different, perhaps larger, context.
- Redefine one of the key terms of your argument.
- Consider the implications of your argument.
Editing the Essay
- Proofread! Spell- and grammar-checkers cannot find all the errors in writing, but your readers almost certainly will.
- Read your essay aloud. When you read aloud, your ear will pick up some of the problems your eye might miss.
- Make sure all of your words are doing important work in making your argument. Do not say in three sentences what you can say in one, or use 14 words where five will do.
- Always try to find the perfect words, the most precise and specific language, to say what you mean.
- Beware of inappropriately elevated language--words and phrases that are stilted, pompous, or jargony. If your ideas are good, you do not need to strain for impressive language; if they are not good, that language will not help anyway.
How to Write a Comparative Analysis
When you are asked to write a paper comparing and contrasting two things (such as two texts, theories, historical figures, etc), you will follow the same basic structure as for any other formal academic essay, but there are few extra things to consider. What sort of comparison are you going to make? Why is it useful to compare these two things?
Types of Comparisons
You may choose to write a classic comparison or a lens comparison
- In the classic comparison, you spend about the same amount of time describing each of the things to be compared. You might choose this model if the two things are similar but have crucial differences or if two things that seem quite different turn out to have surprising things in common.
- In a lens comparison, you use one of your items to be compares as a lens through which to view the other. Lens comparisons are useful for illuminating, critiquing, or challenging the stability of a thing that, before the analysis, seemed perfectly understood. Often, lens comparisons take time into account: earlier texts, events, or historical figures may illuminate later ones, and vice versa.
Making Your Case
To write a good compare-and-contrast paper, you must take your raw data, the similarities and differences you have observed, and create a meaningful argument about that date. Here are some elements to consider:
- Frame of Reference. This is the context within which you place the two things you plan to compare and contrast. The frame of reference may consist of an idea, theme, question, problem, or theory; a group of similar things from which you extract two for special attention; or biographical or historical information.
- Grounds for Comparison. The rationale behind your choice lets your reader know why your choice is deliberate and meaningful. Why is it useful to compare these two things?
Thesis. As in any argumentative paper, your thesis statement will convey the gist of your argument. But in a compare-and-contrast, the thesis depends on how the two things you have chosen to compare actually relate to one another. Do they extend, corroborate, complicate, contradict, correct, or debate one another? Whether your paper focuses primarily on difference or similarity, you need to make the relationship between A and B clear in your thesis.
How to Write a Book Review
A book review is both a descriptive and critical or evaluative account of a book. Unlike a book report, which focuses on presenting a plot outline, a book review focuses on the book′s thesis, contents and the methods it employs to support its thesis.
A book review may be favorable, unfavorable, or mixed. A mixed review is usually a favorable review that expresses reservations.
Reading the Text
As you read the text, write down your impressions and make note of important passages from which you will want to quote. Keep these questions in mind:
- What is the general field or genre, and how does the book fit into it?
- From what point of view is the work written?
- What is the author′s style? Is it formal or informal? Does it suit the intended audience?
- Are concepts clearly defined? How well are the author′s ideas developed? What areas are covered/not covered? Why?
- How accurate is the information in the book? Check outside sources if necessary.
- If relevant, make note of the book′s format - layout, binding, typography, etc. Are there maps, illustrations? Do they aid understanding?
- Finally, what has the book accomplished? Is further work needed? Compare the book to others by this author or by others.
Writing the Draft
Present the complete bibliographic citation for the work. Include the title in full, author, editor or translator if applicable, place, publisher, date of publication. Example:
Review of Soren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).
- Structure your review into a series of paragraphs. Each paragraph should deal with a single aspect of your criticism.
- Open your review by summarizing the subject matter of the book. Note the author′s scope in treating the subject matter.
- In your next paragraph, present the main point, or thesis, that the author is making in the book. What is the author saying about the subject and why did the author write this book?
- Follow this with several paragraphs that expand on the arguments the author advances to support the thesis. Here you will want to give detailed evidence by quoting pertinent examples. Are the author′s facts correct? Let the reader know.
- Place the book within a context. Have others written about this subject? To what extent does the author of the book you are reviewing accept or reject what others have said about the topic? Has the author offered new evidence, or a new interpretation of the same evidence used by others? Are the author′s judgments about the evidence sound? Does the author′s work fill a gap in the existing literature about the subject?
- Conclude your review by balancing the book′s strengths and weaknesses, achievements and failures.
Referencing covers citation of primary and secondary material and the bibliography.
Citation. Citation must occur whenever material is taken directly from another source. Consider the following example:
Hagar in the Wilderness, a sculpture by the nineteenth-century African American artist, Mary Edmonia Lewis, continues to evoke interest among art historians and religious historians. Rinna Evelyn Wolfe, author of the only biography on Lewis, suggests that the sculpture is largely autobiographical.
Edmonia identified personally with Hagar. She had left relatives behind to go to Oberlin, then on to Boston, and finally to Rome. Over the years she had become an outcast in Oberlin, a stranger in Boston, and the ′Negress′ among Rome′s artists. The sculpture Hagar reveals Edmonia′s sensitivity to the homeless and the difficulties Hagar endured. (Wolfe, Wildfire in Marble: Edmonia Lewis, 71)
Support for Wolfe′s contention is found in the words of Lewis herself: "I have strong sympathy for all women who have struggled and suffered." (Lewis 1868)
Wolfe′s work is a secondary source on Lewis. A secondary source contains an analysis of a text. Because a section has been taken directly from Wolfe′s work, it needs to be cited. Parenthetical citation is commonly used; your professor will instruct you if another form is in use. When, as in this case, more than four lines of text are taken directly from another source, they are cited in block form with no quotation marks. The form: indent ten spaces from the left margin, double-space above and below the cited material, single-space the cited material. The citation form: (Author′s last name, Title, Page number). When the secondary source is a journal or magazine article use this form: (Author′s last name, "Title of article," Title of journal or magazine, Page number). When the secondary source is the internet, use this form: (Author′s last name, "Title of article," Web address).
In contrast, Lewis′s own words are a primary source because they were taken directly from one of her letters that is housed in a library archive. The form of the citation: (Author year) If the letter had been printed in a book, or had been from a translation, it would have been cited differently: (Name of Editor, ed., Title, Page number). Primary sources have not yet been analyzed by someone else; primary sources in Religious Studies include works of literature (poems, autobiographies, novels, plays), court documents, letters, and diaries. In the passage above, the length of the quoted material dictates that it be given quotation marks and placed within the body of the text.
Citation of Biblical material follows a similar form. This sentence does not necessitate citation: The stories of Jael, Deborah, and Judith depict the consequences for Israelite women in times of war. The following passage offers two instances of material that does necessitate citation.
The Israelites used several tactics to overtake the Promised Land. There is evidence for the complete annihilation of a foreign people.
At that time Joshua came and wiped out the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, and from all the hill country of Israel; Joshua utterly destroyed them with their towns. (Joshua 11:23, NOAB)
Some tribal leaders chose the alternative of enslavement. Under Manasseh, "when Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not in fact drive them out." (Judges 1:27, NOAB) )
Because important ancient texts often appear in multiple translations and editions, your reader may not be using the same translation or edition that you are. Obviously, pagination will vary between translations and editions but book and chapter designations will not. Thus, convention for citing such texts uses the latter. That would be, for example, Augustine, City of God, Bk. XXII, ch. 4 or Augustine, City of God 22.4. Either is fine. The same principle (making sure the reader knows what translation of the text you′re using) applies to bibliographic entries. Be sure you include the translator′s name along with the other publication information.
Definition. When you use another person′s ideas or phrasing without giving that person credit, you plagiarize his or her work. Plagiarism usually falls into one of two categories: 1) failing to reference quotations or borrowed ideas, or 2) failing to put borrowed language in quotation marks.
Using someone else′s words in an entire paper or section of a paper is a blatant act of plagiarism, but it is also easy to plagiarize someone′s work through simple carelessness. Remember that you need to cite your source if you use as little as a sentence or an original phrase from your source. You should also cite sources for lab results, statistics, art work, and any other work that you may use. Sources should be cited whether you obtain the material from a published source, a Web source, or a spoken presentation.
Quoting and Paraphrasing. It is good to quote an author′s words directly when they provide the clearest and most succinct expression of the ideas you want to convey, but you should not overload a paper with quotations. If you need to reference an author′s point at length, you should quote only the most significant portions and paraphrase the rest. Remember that you must cite a source when you paraphrase, just as you would if you quoted from the text.
When you are paraphrasing, you must significantly alter the author′s original wording in order to avoid plagiarism. Simply rearranging a bit or omitting a few words is not enough. When you paraphrase properly, you capture the essence of the author′s intention but in wording that is your own.
Works Cited and Bibliography
All essays (unless your professor instructs otherwise) should contain a bibliography. This is the final page of the paper. The professor may require that the page be headed, Works Cited, in which case it will contain only those works from which material was taken directly. In contrast, the professor may require that the page be headed, Bibliography, in which case it will contain a list of all works consulted to create the paper even if material was not taken directly from them. In both cases, the form is the same. The heading, Works Cited, or Bibliography should appear in the middle of the page. A listing of works follows. These should not be numbered and the first line of each entry should be flush with the margin; all subsequent lines in the entry are indented five spaces. Here is a sample:
Lewis, Mary Edmonia, to Amelia Stanton, 15 September 1868. Special Collections,Oberlin College Library, Oberlin, Ohio.
Richardson, Marilyn. "Edmonia Lewis." Harvard Magazine (April 1986), 15. _____. "Edmonia Lewis′ The Death of Cleopatra: Myth and Identity." International Review of African American Art, vol. 12, no. 2 (April-June 1995), 36-52.
Uzelac, Coni Porter. "Mary Edmonia Lewis." http://www.artnoir.com/index.lewis.e.html.
Wolfe, Rinna Evelyn. Wildfire in Marble: Edmonia Lewis. Parsippany, New Jersey: Dillon Press, 1998.
Citing Sacred Texts
When citing the Bible or other sacred text, you should make clear within the text or in the first footnote referencing the text which edition or version you are using. After that, you should use parenthetical documentation of quoted language from the scriptures that includes the book, chapter, and verse.
" Examples for "Works Cited" Metzger, Bruce M. and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. The Holy Bible. Revised Standard Version. New York: New American Library, 1962. Holy Qur′an. Trans. M. H. Shakir. Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile Qur′an, n.d.
" Examples for In-Text Citation The prophet says that good and bad measures will be dealt by God with a just hand: "For thus says the Lord: Just as I have brought all this great evil upon this people, so I will bring upon them all the good that I promise them" (Jer. 32:42).
"It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards the East and the West, but righteousness is this that one should believe in Allah and the last day and the angels and the Book and the prophets, and give away wealth out of love for Him to the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and the beggars" (al-Baqarah 2:177.4).
The following abbreviations for books of the Bible should be used in the parenthetical citation of books of the Bible.
Hebrew Bible (HB)
|Exodus||Exod.||Song of Solomon||Song Sol|
|1 Samuel||1 Sam.||
|2 Samuel||2 Sam.||Amos||Amos|
|1 Kings||1 Kings||Obadiah||Obad.|
|2 Kings||2 Kings||Jonah||Jon.|
|1 Chronicles||1 Chron.||Micah||Mic.|
|2 Chronicles||2 Chron.||Nahum||Nah.|
New Testament (NT)
|Matthew||Matt||1 Timothy||1 Tim.|
|Mark||Mark||2 Timothy||2 Tim.|
|1 Corinthians||1 Cor.||1 Peter||1 Pet.|
|2 Corinthians||2 Cor.||2 Peter||2 Pet.|
|Galatians||Gal.||1 John||1 John|
|Ephesians||Eph.||2 John||2 John|
|Philippians||Phil.||3 John||3 John|
|1 Thessalonians||1 Thess.||Revelation||Rev.|
|2 Thessalonians||2 Thess.|
- Try to avoid repetitive sentence structure. Vary the rhythm in your sentences, avoid starting all your sentences the same way, and write sentences of differing lengths.
- Watch out for cliches. Phrases that we hear all the time have lost their impact and vividness. When you use a cliche, do it intentionally, and do not do it too often.
- Be sparing in your use of rhetorical or stylistic flourishes--cutesy touches like alliteration, double entendres, or extended metaphors.
- Beware of mixed metaphors. While metaphors can help make abstract ideas more vivid and concrete for your readers, piling them one on top of the other can be confusing.
- "But" or "however" --only use these words if you really mean it; that is, if you are introducing a counter-argument or contradiction.
- Try not to overuse forms of the verb "to be." Replace "are" and "were" with words that add more energy to your sentences.
- Make sure you are not over-quoting. Try to quote only the most essential, illustrative, or vividly-phrased material. Too much quoting obscures your own thinking. If your readers only wanted to hear your sources′ positions, they would read your sources instead.
- Avoid non-inclusive language. In accordance with the policy of the Department of Religious Studies (see below), use language that does not stereotype or exclude women or men.
Instead of writing "Tillich demands that the reader question his image of God," you can
- use the plural: "Tillich demands that readers question their images of God."
- Revise the sentence so that the problem does not arise: "Tillich calls into question the reader′s image of God."
- use a pair of pronouns: "Tillich demands that the reader question his or her image of God."
- use individual pronouns, switching from "he" to "she" a few times throughout your essay. This is fine, but do not do this within one specific example, or your reader will become confused.
- use gender-neutral terms:
|Instead of:||You can use:|
|mankind||people, human beings, humanity, humankind|
|the common man||the average person|
Do not let your attempts to avoid sexist language lead you into ungrammatical phrasing: "Tillich demands that the reader question their image of God."
Religious Studies Inclusive Language Policy
In accordance with the editorial policy and practice of the majority of publications of our field, and consistent with the policy of official Rhodes publications, the department of Religious Studies will require students in their written work to avoid the use of the term "man" (including also "men," "mankind," "family of man," "brotherhood," and the compounds of "chairman," "clergyman," etc.) as a generic term, and to use inclusive terms (e.g., "human being," "human," "humanity," "humankind," "people," "minister," etc.) to designate both individuals and groups. [This applies to humans only and not to the deity.]
Consistent with this policy, the pronoun "he" is not regarded as generic. Sound policy is to use appropriate pronouns when the antecedent is known, and to duplicate pronouns (e.g., "he or she," "him or her," etc.) or to employ the plural when the antecedent of the pronoun is not known. Recommended as a guide to good inclusive style for both editor and author is the MLA Handbook, 4th ed., section 1.10.
Quotations are of course to represent the original exactly. Translations are to reflect as precisely as possible the translator′s understanding of the original text with regard to gender.
Tips on Grammar, Punctuation and Style
- Always identify abbreviations before you use them, unless you feel reasonably confident that the average intelligent reader would be able to identify the acronym. Keep in mind the audience for the particular essay you are writing, though; readers who are specialists in a particular discipline may not need to have terms spelled out for them.
- Try to avoid split infinitives. This is no longer a hard and fast rule, and occasionally keeping an infinitive together in a sentence can introduce more awkwardness than the split, but usually the split is ungraceful. (Imagine: To be or to not be.)
- Make sure all your referents are clear. When you say "This theory," "that point," or simply "it," is it clear to which theory or point you are referring? When you use "he" or "she" or "these critics," will your reader have to pause to figure out who all these people are?
- Use "who" or "whom" rather than "that" when you are referring to a person. Who is doing what to whom? The one that does the action (the subject) is who. The one that gets something done to it (the object) is whom.
- Avoid the passive voice. It tends to sap energy and power from your prose. It is usually better to say "Einstein′s theory" than "the theory that was formulated by Einstein."
- With italics and underlines, use one or the other but not both, since they mean the same thing.
- Avoid contractions and slang. Unless they are an integral part of your subject matter, these are not appropriate in a formal academic paper.