This is a mobile:

Felt fish.

Most of us are familiar with them in the context of children's nurseries. But the inspiration came from Alexander Calder, a kinetic artist:

Steel Fish

I'd like to argue that Biblical Hermeneutics is like a mobile:

  1. We have a fixed point in space, the text of the Bible and the philosophy of interpretation, from which our structure hangs.
  2. Our questions represents the horizontal rods or hoops that define the space our structure occupies.
  3. Each answer is like one of the objects hanging from the rods.

I suppose you could fill in the analogy on your own: comments are decorative elements, votes determine size, etc. But my point is that each question and answer page is like a sculpture that should be viewed as a whole and not a series of posts to be taken individually. I mean you can look at each post individually, but since ~75% of our traffic comes from search engines, we must be aware that most people see us as a single page about some aspect of Biblical Hermeneutics. Our site evaluations are intended to help us think in those terms.

Now I think we have a solid understanding about which fixed points we can hang questions from and we know how to design questions to give us pleasing results, but we are not producing well-designed sculptures in every case. The evidence suggests that many are at least satisfactory and some are truly excellent, but we'd like to at least have a plan for how we might make every one of our pages outstanding resources.

One proposal is to do the same thing with answers that we did with questions: require each answer to be a broadly applicable as possible. Instead of talking about the "Old Testament" or the "Tanahk", we would all agree to "Hebrew Scriptures". If something is said that can't be supported, we edit answers to remove controversial statements. Answers work directly from the text or peer-reviewed scholarship. Taken to it's logical conclusion, we emulate Wikipedia's core content policies.

Another proposal is to encourage as much diversity in answers as we can manage and allow voting to sort things out. Now it should be obvious that the first proposal will produce a balanced view of the question because every answer is balanced. Allowing answers that are seriously biased toward unusual viewpoints seems a recipe for disaster. Calder's sculptures require considerable planning and engineering to come out right. Adding a new element will destroy the entire work.

And yet, I think our site could support the second model, but only if some of us operate on the first. To see what I mean, consider one of our earliest questions: What's wrong with cooking a kid in its mother's milk? Each one the the answers comes from a unique viewpoint and because the most general answers are voted up, the page seems very balanced. Reading from top to bottom by score, I come away with a sense of greater understanding of the broad answer to the question and the richness of interpretation traditions. The inclusion of the more specific answers don't hurt the broader answers at all. Instead they highlight, to a neutral reader, the strengths of the answers supported by scholarship.

(The one exception are answers that are ugly. Very poorly constructed answers and answers that offend do ruin an otherwise enjoyable page. These need to be edited or removed at some point.)

Conclusion

Our site will produce the most pleasing results if questions have at least one well supported or logically argued answer that adheres to the back-it-up principle and any number of answers that are interesting even if they are not themselves balanced. However, I'm not sure how to accomplish this—some questions may never get balanced answers.

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2 Answers

A mobile is a good analogy. For the mobile to work all the pieces have to work; if one of your dangling bits is too heavy it'll drag things out of balance, and if one is too large it will get entangled on the others and make a mess of things. Either way, you no longer have a functional mobile but instead a mess.

In an ideal world the accepted answer to a question would explain all applicable points of view, neutrally and with a clear audit trail. Such comprehensive answers are rare; they can be the things of masters' theses. They are also impractical because we can't even agree on which approaches are welcome or even valid. So even if we could identify a set of perspectives that should be brought in a comprehensive answer, most of us aren't going to write those due to lack of time, lack of expertise, or lack of inclination.

But let us not make the best the enemy of the good; we can assemble a collection of answers that, together, fit that goal -- so long as sparse or inappropriately-voted individual answers don't throw the whole mobile out of whack.

In order to reach our goal it is essential that each individual sculpture (answer) fulfill Wikipedia's well-established, well-tested core principles as much as possible. We do not call for completeness (that is a difference between this site and Wikipedia, which does), but we still expect verifiability (sources or clear reasoning, like on other SE sites) and a neutral, fact-based approach.1 "Neutrality" doesn't mean "argue all positions" (that would be "comprehensiveness"); it means we should strive to disassociate our answers from our personal positions. Personal opinions can make fine ornaments (comments), but are bad fits for sculptures (answers).

A Jew can explain an interpretation brought by Rashi without commenting on his own beliefs; a Christian can explain Augustine's interpretation of a passage without asserting Truth. In principle, either of them could explain the Shia Muslim position on a text even though he doesn't believe that. Wouldn't that be great, if we could reach beyond our own beliefs to answer a question based on a foreign perspective? Don't they do that in academia? If they can do it in an environment that is often cut-throat, can't we do it here where we're all trying to be friends?

We should strive for a style of answering that is "clinical" and dispassionate, which is a natural consequence of well-supported answers.

Not everyone is going to follow this guideline. Some will make big, clunky mobile pieces that don't fit with the aesthetic of the whole, or they'll build ones with pokey-outy-bits that snag on the strings of other pieces, or they'll make pieces that are so fragile that trying to hang a couple of ornaments (comments) on them makes them crumple and fall off. So it is important that we help people avoid those pitfalls.

Most questions are not like the example brought in the question. It is harder to make this approach work when a question only has one or two answers, when an answer with 0 or 1 or 2 votes tops the page looking credible. The only hope of making this diversity be positive rather than negative on our typical questions is to expect, as a community norm, neutral writing and "showing your work". That way even if a question has only one answer and it's based on a not-widely-accepted perspective, it can contribute to the site. If, on the other hand, we allow such an answer to simply assert Truth without down-voting it into the basement, we make the internet a worse place by appearing to endorse it.

Conclusion

Most answers will focus on a single perspective/approach/hermeneutic. That's fine and to be expected. If all answers are written neutrally 1 and show their work, they contribute valuable information and are worthy of up-voting regardless of the author's and voter's personal beliefs. Answers that do not follow those guidelines throw the mobile out of whack or tangle it up hopelessly. Contributions of opinion and assertions are not necessarily unwelcome, but they should be relegated to ornaments hanging off of the rods or sculptures.

A rod that already has one or two good, solid structures following these guidelines can more-easily accommodate further ones that do not follow them. We should still try to keep them small and help their creators to improve them, but the questions with no solid answers are our bigger risks and should be tackled first.


1 Wikipedia's guidelines on neutrality:

  • Avoid stating opinions as facts.
  • Avoid stating seriously contested assertions as facts.
  • Avoid presenting uncontested factual assertions as mere opinion.
  • Prefer nonjudgmental language.

And one that, per comments above, I don't think is incumbent upon individual answers, though it is meritorious:

  • Indicate the relative prominence of opposing views.

See the linked Wikipedia page for explanations of these principles.

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I've read this a few times now and while I generally agree, I disagree with: 'The only hope of making this diversity be positive rather than negative on our typical questions is to enforce neutral writing and "show your work".' I think that if we are patient and if we trust our users, we will collect more balanced pages than unbalanced ones. I agree we have a problem with questions that have only one, unsupported answer. But I think the solution is to highlight those questions and get users who care to provide better answers. –  Jon Ericson Feb 19 '13 at 20:05
    
@JonEricson, would changing "enforce" to "demand" or "expect" make a difference? If we are willing to "enforce" a community norm via comments and down-voting we don't need a rule -- but we need to do something to say "this is not welcome here as-is" to things that are unsupported and non-neutral. –  Gone Quiet Feb 19 '13 at 20:36
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I think there are enough people who want to read interesting answers even when unsupported, that we can't really have any requirement like that as a community. That's not to say you and I can't downvote or comment on unsupported answers. Rather, we need to find another solution if we want to involve the rest of our community. My current suggestion may be found in my alternate answer. –  Jon Ericson Feb 19 '13 at 21:02
    
SE has a standard annotation for unsupported answers... –  Gone Quiet Feb 19 '13 at 21:18
    
"In principle, either of them could explain the Shia Muslim position on a text even though he doesn't believe that." That sort of thing is not actually particularly difficult. I manage to answer questions on JW doctrine on Christianity SE. –  TRiG Apr 6 '13 at 4:13
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Ok. I have read the post from Jon and from Monica several times. Last night I made a post to respond to them and deleted it. Then wrote another and deleted it, because I just could not find the words to make my own opinion known without being offensive. As I ride on a fast train from work I finally decided I am just going to say it and trust everybody is big enough to allow my personality which can sometimes offend.

Ok here it is. I think this site is too small to start worrying about perfection. The core nucleus of regulars are a rag tag bunch of intellectual mist fits that I strangely like. It would not surprise me if half of us post here just because nobody else in our family can take our long winded arguments about the bible any more.

I see Jon and Monica as two of the best examples of how we should pose questions and answers, yet I have a couple peeves about their current attempts at perfecting the site. Jon, irks me when he posts examples of bad questions and answers without finding one of his own to include in the mix. It does not sit well with me when someone does that because it assumes a leadership role that might extend beyond the role granted by one's own peers. Monica is getting to fussy about 'words' and wants to move to a more neutral tone. Personally I really dislike attempts at sounding objective on things where nobody can possibly be impassionate about or objective and clinical in their own hearts. I prefer posts with a personality that does not hide the bias of the post.

On the up side I have never been constructively criticized as considerately as I have from Monica so I still admire her own attempts at a 'clinical' attitude when it is so obvious that she is a warm and friendly person. Let her personality be and I like it, but do not expect us all to be that way. Jon, I really do not get much personality from except that I think he seems rather detail oriented and critical. At the same time he just might be the best mod for a site like this. He is an excellent moderator with good intentions.

So what am I actually saying. I am saying let's not make quality our first goal and do not worry to much at how to improve things. Let's keep it fun and let the site grow. I think the main reason why regulars at this site post and answer is simply because they enjoy it. Sometime a question is poorly framed but when it is realized its too late to fix. After one sees all the misunderstanding in the answers, it can't be fixed that well because all the answers will not match the real question. Oh well, bad question - let it float around like a turd in a pool. Big deal.

Sometimes an answer does not measure up. I know a lot of my answers are not at the quality I would like them to be, but in many cases I actually can't really improve them, due to lack of skill and knowledge and even money to buy better resources. I do think a reference should be posted almost always, when they are readily available.

I like a personality in a post. Just say what you mean and do not hide your bias. I like interacting with people I find strange. I sometimes laugh to myself when I get frustrated with someone now and again. I find this site very fun.

I really enjoy those people who do what I can't do. Dig into the Hebrew and Greek. I sometimes try and sometimes it seems I know what I am talking about, but actually I am just doing it for the fun of it. Also, sometimes the best way to learn a subject is by trying to answer someone else's question. The answer might not be great but the learning and the enjoyment in the attempt was a pleasure and a benefit.

Will fun ruin quality? Yes, it could. I do think references should be almost mandatory as it is pretty unenjoyable to read somebody just blather along with a multitude of thoughts without any discipline in producing quotes that indicate the same. But aside from this, let's relax and enjoy and the site will grow, not because it is like wiki, but because it is like BH.SE - the future place for bible students.

I hope I have not offended but this is my personality.

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+1 because I really appreciate you contributing here, thank you. I also agree with most of what you say, except that we can't ignore bad quality or we'll grow in the wrong way: if we keep the questions tight and let voting sort out the answers I think that's all we need to do though, so apart from that we can relax and enjoy the site ;) –  Jack Douglas Feb 23 '13 at 18:33
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Thank you for this thoughtful post (and the kind words). –  Gone Quiet Feb 24 '13 at 18:06
    
The first thing I did when I read this was to find a self-answered question of mine. The next thing I did was delete the "answer" here. My lack of "personality" stems in part from my desire to present balanced answers. That breaks down when I answer my own questions! I hope you don't feel like I was picking on you or your answers; they are often excellent additions to the site. My complaint with some of them is that they don't always make a good main course, but are like tasty side-dishes. A site with nothing but my answers would be too dry and (as you imply) would lack character. –  Jon Ericson Feb 25 '13 at 21:48
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