May The Source Be With You

In January 2011, I met my arch nemesis. And she had already been dead for 287 years.

Okay, so I might be exaggerating just a tad. Or quite a lot. She wasn’t exactly my arch nemesis (even though she had been dead for almost three centuries), but my history thesis about her would become the bane of my senior year existence.

Johanna Eleonora Petersen wasn’t a terrible person. In fact, based on everything I read about her, she seemed like a pretty nice gal. It’s not her fault that she caused me mental anguish and maximum stress, so I really shouldn’t blame her. No, I’m the source of the problem because I’m the one who decided to do my senior history thesis about her. I should have known when I chose an obscure 17th-century female German Pietist that I was digging my own grave. No pun intended.

Back in January, Petersen (or “JEP”, as I called her. Yes, we were on a nickname basis) seemed like a super choice for a variety of reasons: She was a woman; she was a devout Pietist (Pietism was basically a resurgence of Luther’s Reformation of the church and call to personal faith in Christ); she lived a really long time ago, and she spoke German. Of course, everything that made Petersen the best choice also made her the worst. Ironic? Welcome to my life.

You see, I had unwittingly set myself up for a challenge. A really big challenge. First of all, I had to find sources about Petersen. That was easy enough. A few skillful online searches and a dozen interlibrary loans later, I had my secondary sources. But then—ooooohhhh, but then—my quest for primary sources began.  Therein lay the rub.

Although Petersen was a prolific writer with dozens of published works (a HUGE accomplishment for a woman at that time), the majority had either ceased to exist or were locked away in “special collections” at research libraries in Germany. In historian-speak, “special collections” means “no-touchy” or better yet  “sorry boutcha.” Barring an order from the UN or an act of God Himself, I wasn’t going to see these books. But fortunately, modern—or, er, semi-modern—technology saved the day. And that’s how I found myself in the Oklahoma State library’s microfiche-reading room.

In case you were born after 1985, let me explain to you microfiche or microfilm. Basically, it’s a long roll of film that contains itty-bitty photos of pages from books. Newspapers use microfiche to archive their copy. And apparently libraries do the same with German Pietist writings. In order to conduct my study of Petersen, I had to use the microfiche to print pages from her book. And then once I had the text, I had to figure out how to read 17th-century font … in German…. and figure out what it said. Suffice it to say, I had my work cut out for me. Luckily, however, even though I had bit off more than I could chew, I somehow managed to swallow it without choking. In the end, I had a 27-page original research paper I could be “stolz auf” or proud of.

Now, I know what you’re wondering: First, why in the wide world would I willingly subject myself to such torture? And secondly, why in the even wider world am I telling you this? Unfortunately, the first question will require deeper psychoanalysis than I can currently afford. But the second question? Well, I’m so glad you asked! 🙂

History, you see, is more than just a blow-off class from your freshman year of college. History is like a buried treasure waiting to be discovered. But in order to find it, in order to truly understand history, you have to get back to the original source. With Petersen, I could have simply read commentaries about what she had written. I could have extensively studied biographies written about her (all two of them). I might have even found expert opinions from top scholars about what she believed and why she acted as she did. I could have worked really hard to find out from other people about Petersen, and I could have written a phenomenal paper based on their work. But no matter how Pulitzer-prize worthy it might have been, I would have wound up with a big, fat F. Why? Because I didn’t use primary sources. And every historian knows that primary sources are the primary source of history (Pun very much intended.)

Historians know that the only legitimate way to learn about a historical figure or past event is to study sources from the time. Photographs, journal entries, letters, eyewitness accounts—all of these are windows to the past. Yes, secondary sources written by experts can be helpful; yes, they can provide insight and direction, but they are no substitute for primary sources. This is the most basic concept of historical study, the historian’s version of 1 + 1 = 2. No legitimate student of history would ignore this rule.

Now I know what you’re thinking, “Steffi, I don’t need a lecture on proper historical research techniques. Thanks for the info, but this really doesn’t matter to me.”

Or so you think.

Although you will likely never have to write an academic paper using original historical research, this lesson on primary sources applies directly to you. Because if you’re a Christian, you spend at least some fraction of time reading the most important primary source ever written: The Bible.

So often, though, we turn to books and commentaries about the Bible rather than the text itself. Yes, these other sources can be helpful to understand and apply Scripture, but they are no substitute for the Bible itself. Just like I had to read JEP’s work to grasp her beliefs, so we must read what God says if we want to know Him and, moreover, live like Him. God is the most important Being in the entire universe, so we should devote as much time, effort, and care as humanly possible to studying Him. And that begins with digging inductively into His Word. To do otherwise would be beyond foolish, and our faith—which is far more consequential than a grade—depends on it.

But how are we supposed to study the Bible? It can be so confusing that we don’t know where to start, or we are too intimidated to try. And that’s where Inductive Bible Study saves the day!

First, you must Observe the text. Read it through several times and look for the basics, asking Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? For instance, who is writing to whom? What are they saying? What words are repeated? Jot down notes as you go. Once you have a general idea of what is happening, you can move to the next stage: Interpretation. What is the author saying and what does that mean? Use the notes from step one as clues. And then finally, once you have determined the meaning, you are ready to Apply it. How does this passage affect or change the way I live? And how can I act on it? And the bonus step: Give yourself a pat on the back. Congratulations! You have successfully studied God’s Word! Now you’re ready to move on to the next passage… and the next one after that… and after that… etc, etc.

And who knows? If you keep applying the Bible to your life, if you keep seeking after and living for Him, someone may write about you in 287 years. 😉


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