Review of Literature: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I recently made my way through ‘The History of the Renaissance World’ by Susan Wise Bauer. Initially, I was rather annoyed. I was reading this book to refresh my memory of the Renaissance era that I knew and loved. Yet, as I continued to read, the book was not what I expected. After a chapter on the rediscovery of Greek and Roman literature, the next chapter took me to 11th century China, and then to Japan, and then to Southeast Asia, India, Mongolia and then back to Europe before finding myself in Ethiopia and the Kingdom of Axum. Now, I was expecting something different. I was expecting Petrarch to Michelangelo in eight easy steps! The book, however, was reminding me that there was a world that extended far beyond the Italian peninsula or the environs of Paris. There was a world, and cultures, and peoples that I did not know very well, and they also made up “the Renaissance World”. Moreover, my lack of knowledge of this other history in no way diminished its importance or, indeed, its influence on the modern world in which I live and try to understand.
This, of course, should not be surprising. In the course of my career I have both written and supervised dissertations at the post-graduate and doctoral levels. In such dissertations, especially in the arts and humanities, one begins with what is called a “review of literature”. In this review of literature you explore and evaluate what has already been written on the topic you have chosen to address in your research. Generally speaking, you begin with a broad examination to establish context, and become increasingly more focused upon writers and research that touch directly upon your chosen topic. It is only then that you begin to offer opinions or a “thesis” based upon your own examination of primary and secondary sources. While such a review of literature may seem to be the preserve of the academy, I would like to suggest that even in a less rigorous form, it also has value in evaluating claims and assertions… especially those made on social media.
For instance, the political and economic ideas of libertarianism have been proposed to me by friends and colleagues for decades. In responding to them, I am ashamed to say, I generally depended upon what I picked up here and there in this or that article. Finally I decided that if I was going to discuss this with my friends, I needed my own “review of literature” on the subject, so I asked them what to read. After Rand, Hayek and other suggestions, I found that there was much that I agreed with, some that I disagreed with, and a good bit that I needed to think about at length. That is normal and, I believe, healthy. The purpose of the reading is learning and understanding, not conversion. I take a similar approach to history. Much has been said, good and bad, about the 1619 Project. I wonder, however, how many of those commenting upon this exploration of slavery and race exploitation in America have bothered to read the materials or explore the books included in bibliographies? I started reading some suggested books a few years back and, I must say, my eyes were opened to aspects of American history of which I had scant knowledge and/or understanding. Now, this is not to say that I agree with all aspects or conclusions of the 1619 Project, but my own understanding of the issues has changed and developed as a result.
This concept of a review of literature is especially important, I believe, when one is exploring theology. Few theological constructs stand in isolation. As much as some might like to say, “The Bible Alone”, even that statement engenders questions. We think of translations and the original languages. We consider the formation of the canon of scripture. We discuss the dates of writing. How has the passage been interpreted through the centuries? Are there other passages that bear upon its interpretation? This, of course, is not even to consider the corollary aspects of systematic theology, church history, creedal formulations, etc. Now, this is not to say that one cannot simply find comfort in reading a passage from the Bible. You can… I do it morning and evening. It is, however, to say that there is also a universe of meaning in a passage that one might discover by reading well and broadly.
To put it simply, education is not static, nor is it really solitary. Even if you are alone in your office or study, you can be in conversation with the past, the present and, yes, with the future as well. If your interest takes you in a particular direction, a simple review of that which has already been written is most likely still the best place to start.