The top-voted answer on "what do you hate about this site?" currently is:

We attract a lot of first-time answers that significantly miss the mark.

Answers from new users are often pure opinions, or tangential discussions that don't answer the question (forum mentality), or overly doctrinal/sermonizing. I gather that on many SE sites the problems from new users are bad questions, but for us it's bad answers. People leave helpful comments and try to improve via editing when that's possible, but it would be a lot better for all involved if we could find and fix whatever is leading these users to think those kinds of answers are appropriate in the first place.

We've asked how to reduce forum-style answers, but the answer (with lukewarm response) there is, pretty much, react to it when it happens. (And while we say that we'll delete these kinds of non-answers when they happen, the reality is that we aren't very good at that -- we have very few people who even have delete votes, most of them are reluctant to use them, and moderators don't want to use the binding mod vote. Meanwhile, it's the same handful of people leaving all the comments trying to guide these users, and it's wearing people down.)

So maybe that was the wrong question to ask or maybe there is no answer. This question is meant to be broader: how can we teach would-be answerers what we're looking for before they post? Do we need different language in the "about" page? Do we need a customization of the text that new users see when they click the "answer" link? Do we need to queue new-user answers for review before they go live (like for edits)? (I hope not this last one, and it still comes later than we'd like, but I'm just trying to be thorough.)

share
add comment

2 Answers

New users currently get mixed messages and have to hunt around to learn about our site distinctives and guidelines. I think a big help would be putting it all in one place. Granted, many users probably don't bother reading help files and certainly don't even realize the notion nor existence of meta, but this could be a place to link new users as a 'one-stop shop.' Perhaps this content could be used in help pages in the future. This also gives an opportunity for community feedback on whether this is the direction in which we wish to head.

This post was inspired by a similar post on C.SE, and also uses some of that content.

1) We are a Q&A site—not a forum!

As our site tour states,

This site is all about getting answers. It's not a discussion forum. There's no chit-chat.... Not all questions work well in our format. Avoid questions that are primarily opinion-based, or that are likely to generate discussion rather than answers.

We are looking for quality questions and answers. While some character in posts is good, excessive tangents (e.g. sermons, rants) or mere responses that don't fully answer the question should be avoided.

2) We don't do 'Bible study'—we study the Bible

Biblical Studies is a scholarly endeavor that involves various, and in some cases independent, disciplines clustering around a collection of texts known as the Bible whose precise limits (those of the Bible) are still a matter of disagreement among various scholars and religious leaders. These disciplines range from archaeology, Egyptology, and Assyriology through textual criticism, linguistics, history, and sociology, to literary theory, philology, and theology, to name only some.

'Bible study' is a religious endeavor that seeks to understand, interpret, and apply the Biblical texts. We stop short of application when answering questions about the Bible (which means we don't fully exegete the text in the religious sense of the practice). It is agreed that for this site:

Questions are on topic if they are focused on the text, rather than things to which the text may apply.... Questions that seem to be seeking to apply the Bible are off-topic.

Questions about the application of the Biblical texts are best asked on sites devoted to specific religious traditions such as Christianity.SE or Judaism.SE. We try to avoid eisegesis as much as possible.

Sometimes new users don't realize they're asking for the application of a text due to presuppositions they bring to the text. Here are some of those assumptions that should generally be avoided here:

  • Claims that the text is addressing a later issue or idea in history (i.e. anachronisms, with the obvious exception of prophetic literature and hermeneutics that require this—but within reason).
  • Assertions of modern-day-revealed truth concerning the texts (i.e. answers claiming modern divine/spiritual revelation. E.g. "The Holy Spirit revealed to me that the angel in this passage is Jesus").
  • Application of a text to a contemporary group (or to oneself).

3) We expect you to 'show your work'

This is a significant distinctive for us. Different users bring multiple perspectives concerning the Biblical texts. This is to be expected, but we try to minimize unstated presuppositions in questions and answers. For this reason, we expect good questions and answers to lay out a logical argument beginning from the Biblical text. This is like mathematics homework: you shouldn't give an answer without showing how you derived it. Other users have pointed out:

Writing descriptively—"such-and-such source says X", as opposed to "X is true"—dovetails nicely with "show your work". If you do this you're most of the way to showing your work.... Answers should show sensitivity to other users of the site. This may include an extra explanation when later texts are applied to earlier texts (e.g. ones that read Jesus into the Hebrew Bible). Claims that could reasonably be seen as controversial or offensive must be relevant and supported from the text. "Supported" means an explicit link or citation of text, or clear logical reasoning starting from a cited text. Sometimes the text will be offensive, which we have to accept. The aim should be [to] add no further offence to the the offence of the text.

We thus care more about description than prescription.

4) This is a university, not a church/synagogue

We are interested in questions about Biblical texts and the process of translating and interpreting them, not absolute truth(s). We want to know how things are and have been—what they should be is your concern.

In the university, the Bible (viewed as an academic text of literature rather than as 'scripture') is taken up as an object of philological, moral, aesthetic, and antiquarian interest.1 The university’s goals are "to avoid controversial ideologies, outmoded systems of thought, dogmatism, and extreme positions on either end of the theological spectrum."2

Imagine being observed by a bunch of professors who know the Bible, but don't necessarily believe it (at least not in the same way that you do). That is your audience—even if many of us are adherents of a religion. In a university setting (such as a rigorously academic seminary), truth is often less important than how you arrive at it. A quote from the movie Indiana Jones comes to mind:

Archaeology is the search for fact... not truth. If it's truth you're looking for, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall.

That is not to say that truth isn't important (indeed, those of us who adhere to religious beliefs and practices are very concerned about truth in our lives)—it's just secondary to scholarship in this context. We make the Internet a better place by bringing rigorous scholarship to bear on the real questions people have about the Biblical texts and the process of understanding them (stopping short of the application of these texts).

5) We are concerned with hermeneutics, but that doesn't mean we always care 'what you think'

Questions aren't asking what 'you think' (or feel) about a given topic or text. They are looking for answers that 'show their work.' We want to know what and how experts think—not what you found interesting. If you know the difference between eisegesis and exegesis, you will understand why we don't particularly care about novel hermeneutics. We're more interested in facts than opinions.

This doesn't mean that your opinions aren't welcome here. Please understand that:

It's OK to a degree for an answer to include personal anecdotes and other tangents, where this adds flavour and character, so long as the main line of an answer is supported, connecting the dots starting from the text. It's also ok to include opinions so long as they are relevant and labelled as your opinion or belief. Opinions and tangents should be garnishes, not the entire meal. If a post is essentially an opinion-based argument or testimony, it doesn't fit and will need to be removed or edited.

6) We prefer lectures over sermons

If you are here to convince someone of your point of view, you are probably in the wrong place. If you're here to answer questions while contributing your perspective in a diverse, pluralistic setting, welcome aboard!

Stack Exchange sites are based on a question-and-answer model. We like questions to be just that—honest questions that seek to enhance your knowledge. Answers are intended to be dispassionate, logical, and illustrative of what Biblical experts think. If your goal in writing an answer or a question is to "make a point," then sadly, you've missed the point of this site!

7) We're glad you're here!

We are different, and sometimes it takes a little bit of a paradigm shift to adapt. Every student who enters an academically rigorous seminary feels that way at some point. Having your assumptions challenged, your motives questioned, and your contributions edited is not always pleasant. However, if you endure the initial 'poking and prodding,' you'll quickly realize that you have found a community that cherishes the Biblical texts and desires to understand them in a unique way not found anywhere else on the Internet—and you'll learn a lot and make some new friends along the way.


1 Michael C. Legaspi. The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, Oxford University Press, USA: 2011, 31–32.

2 Ibid., 41.

share
2  
+1 with a major caveat that the first bullet under #2 overly restricts participation from hermeneutics that do not agree with your categorization of literature types. I'm down with wanting to see work but not with requiring folks to agree with your (or anybody else's) judgment call of the most appropriate hermeneutic for a given text in order to participate. Put another way: if wrong answers aren't given a chance to make their case here alongside right ones I think we've lost track of what we came here for. –  Caleb Dec 10 '13 at 15:30
1  
@Caleb good point. I added a caveat to my post. My goal here is something that we can all get behind. –  Daи Dec 10 '13 at 15:51
    
Hi Dan, thanks for this. My post here is quite 'frameworky', ie drawing on a 'whole Bible' narrative/assumption/context. Does it fall foul of these guidelines do you think? –  Jack Douglas Dec 10 '13 at 16:46
    
@JackDouglas I think that post is fine by these standards. I even upvoted it. Note that this post does not represent the neutrality/pseudo-neutrality views I've presented in the past. This post was an intentional attempt at a utilitarian way forward. –  Daи Dec 10 '13 at 18:23
    
This post also makes no distinction between questions and answers. I'm only in favor of more restrictive guidelines than these above for questions, not answers. Others disagree. But this is not the place for that - I just wanted something we could all agree on for now. –  Daи Dec 10 '13 at 18:26
2  
Thanks Dan, that's what I initially thought and upvoted, then had doubts, but now my +1 has returned :) –  Jack Douglas Dec 10 '13 at 19:00
    
I feel honored for the homage. This is really well done, and I love the Indiana Jones quote. I may have to steal that one :) –  Affable Geek Jan 21 at 17:43
    
@AffableGeek I stole enough from you, by all means steal from me! :P –  Daи Jan 21 at 17:44
add comment

My own brief period of active participation on BH.SE prompts me to attempt a development of points 2) "... we study the Bible", and 4) "This is a university...". (I'm open to revising or deleting this answer depending on the reception it gets!)

We desire consistency and clarity in our "mode of discourse"

Every interpretative approach, or means of analysis, or hermeneutical method, etc., brings with it its own set of criteria for (a) what it calls upon as evidence; (b) how that evidence is evaluated; and (c) how arguments/discussions about that evidence and its evaluation are framed and conducted. Each of (a), (b), and (c) needs to be consistent and commensurate.

Imagine you were shopping for a new vehicle, and you were interested in the performance characteristics of the thing. If you got replies about the colours it comes in, interior appointments (leather upholstery!), etc., you would get fed up pretty quickly. Likewise, if it was the aesthetic side of things you were curious about, but got engineering responses (dual overhead cams, fuel injected, 4WD, etc.) you would likewise get fed up! In this (banal) example, "aesthetic" and "engineering" modes of discourse have been confused.

BH.SE works best when there is self-conscious awareness and consistency in the language used in its Q&As:

  • historical questions require historical responses
  • linguistic questions require linguistic responses
  • literary questions require literary responses

(The links come from academic sites, and are simply intended to convey the sense that these disciplines each have their own language, set of assumptions, criteria for validity, etc.) These are, probably, the three main types of Q&A that work best at BH.SE. On the other hand:

  • religious
  • theological/doctrinal
  • ethical
  • liturgical

aspects need to be handled as facets of the biblical texts studied by participants of BH.SE in historical, linguistic, and literary terms, and not as aspects of personal conviction, or the belief and praxis of historic and contemporary faith communities (for which see the Mi Yodeya and Christianity Stack Exchange sites).

share
1  
Well-said! And definitely don't delete this. –  Gone Quiet Jan 25 at 21:37
    
Very well put, and I think this cuts to the heart if some of our persistent issues here. I think it summarizes a bit of where this site postures itself. On the other hand I would strongly argue that Christianity.SE should not be seen as a living faith community. It has a role to play too, but is more similar to this site on many ways than it is to a church. It just happens to be for analysis of doctrine and tradition rather than text. –  Caleb Jan 26 at 7:11
1  
@Caleb - grateful for that. I have tweaked the last sentence in what I hope is a helpful direction. It wasn't my intention to suggest that the other two SE sites are living faith communities, but rather that they provide the context to discuss and grow in understanding them. I hope the new wording conveys that more clearly without being too cumbersome! –  Davïd Jan 26 at 8:37
    
That wording is definitely better! I fear the subtlety may be lost on just those users that are the topic of this meta discussion, but I like this wording. I can't speak for Mi Yodeya's posture but obviously I have some vested interest in the Christianity site and am doing what I can from letting it devolve into just another discussion board where well meaning but poorly informed 'Christians' preach at each other following whatever rabbit trails occur to them as subjects fly by. –  Caleb Jan 26 at 8:57
1  
We've succeeded in cultivating some expectation that answers will stick to the topic raised, answer only on behalf of requested viewpoints and do so using references or in an otherwise verifiable manner. Application, 'devotional' content and personal counseling are all frowned on, at least by some core base of users. Obviously we have an uphill battle as the site gains popularity and uninitiated masses inundate us with blather ... I'll stop ranting now, this is hardly the right venue! –  Caleb Jan 26 at 8:57
    
I couldn't agree more. We still have a long way to go (and community moderation is key here, this site is moderated by the community), but we've also come a long way as well. –  Daи Jan 26 at 14:54
    
I've already cited this meta post, see the 'stay on target' section ;) –  Daи Jan 27 at 3:20
add comment

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .