Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sarah's Top Ten Reads in 2011

One of my favorite ways to mark the passing of the old year is to look back over the list of books I've read. Here are ten (give or take) that I particularly enjoyed in 2011.

10. The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs
A classic 17th-century Puritan work on the discipline of learning contentment in Christ.

9. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography by Peter Brown
The classic biography of the most important Father of the Western church; besides being a top scholar, Brown is an entertaining writer.

8. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
If I were going to choose a novel to curl up with on a rainy weekend, it might well be this one.

7. The Discipline of Grace: God's Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges
Bridges teaches that pursuing holiness is neither a matter of passivity nor of gritting one's teeth and trying harder, but of daily preaching the gospel to oneself and, from the gracious knowledge of acceptance and of sin's broken dominion, pressing on in the joyful duty of discipleship. I found this book to be convicting in the best way -- that is, energizing rather than guilt-inducing. It includes practical suggestions for pursuing holiness in daily living. I need to read it again.

6. Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide Eyed Wonder in God's Spoken World by N. D. Wilson
Elsewhere I described this strange little book as being "gritty and whimsical, and it makes you feel small in the best way." If you are familiar with G. K. Chesterton's works, especially Orthodoxy, you might have a sense of what I mean; but even if you aren't, I think you will still enjoy Wilson's meditations on the natural world and its Creator.

5. Homeward Bound: Preparing Your Family for Eternity by Edward Hartman
Reflecting on his first wife's death and his dissertation work on the Puritans, Hartman considers ways that Christians, particularly families, can live toward the reality of death joyfully, in ways that portray God's grace and glory to the watching world. Included in the Appendix is William Perkins' 1616 treatise, The Right Manner of Dying Well, which is very remarkable in its own right, with especially wonderful content on the Christian's bodily and spiritual union with Christ.

4. The Mystery of the Lord's Supper by Robert Bruce, Fourteen Communion Sermons by Samuel Rutherford, and The Lord's Supper by Thomas Watson
This is a slight cheat; I lumped together the sermons and devotional texts I read this year on the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. For Protestants interested in digging into this material, I'd suggest starting with Watson (it's a short treatise) and familiarizing yourself a bit with the historical context before jumping into Bruce or Rutherford. (I know of a scholarly essay that may help. ;))

3. Middlemarch by George Eliot
I'm a little amazed at myself for committing to all 900+ pages! It wasn't that hard once I got into the characters, though, and it was well worth the effort. I do love my nineteenth-century lit, especially when church life gets involved, and Eliot's good for that.

2. Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism by Leigh Eric Schmidt
This is a scholarly book, but it was personally significant. Schmidt explores the Scottish Presbyterian heritage of early frontier revivalism, especially the centrality of the Lord's Supper. I was amazed to learn how central Communion and sacramental piety have been to Reformed Christians from the earliest generations. I highly recommend this book to fellow Presbyterians. It is not a very difficult read, and it will introduce you to tons of great primary sources (see #4 above).

1. Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset
1922 Nobel Prize-winning epic historical novel following the life of a woman in fourteenth-century Norway. It may sound obscure, but the book has been undergoing a resurgence of popularity lately; I know of at least two (unconnected) friends who've enjoyed it in the past year. What's funny is that, when I read the first book, I wasn't crazy about it at all. But I found I couldn't abandon the trilogy, and as I got deeper into the work and better understood what Undset was doing (and even now, it's so rich that I don't fully grasp it, especially the Scandinavian epic overtones), I appreciated her achievement more and more. A big factor was finding the right translation -- if you decide to read it, go for Tiina Nunnally's Penguin translation. I don't think you'll regret it.
Elsewhere I described it as "Exceptionally well researched -- a beautiful and unsentimental portrayal of late medieval Scandinavian life, and of one woman's powerful sin and love...I loved this book's beautiful descriptions of Norway, the un-romanticized medieval setting, the honest and believable highs and lows of married life and Christian faith."

Hope you enjoyed the list, and maybe even found something to read in the new year! And don't hesitate to send recommendations my way, either -- especially novels. I would love to find more enjoyable fiction this year; I'm just never sure where to start. (And it doesn't have to be "classic" or historical.)

Saturday, December 10, 2011


While I'm not always big on traditions -- it depends very much on what sort we're talking about -- one that has nothing but happy associations for me is the Christmas tree.

In my 28 years, I've never celebrated a Christmas without a tree. And though it might seem extravagant, given that we've never spent the holiday itself in our own home, I'm happy that we've gotten our own little tree each year we've been married. Even though it lives with us for less than three weeks, it does so much to gladden what is traditionally a less than buoyant time in the student's calendar.

There's something about bringing a living thing into your home, a beautifully-scented, even sticky and sharp-needled thing, as a tangible reminder of the respite and celebration that awaits. How much more beautiful, more strange, more hopeful is the Incarnation!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sink or swim.

The end of Thanksgiving break means that I'm living in the last days. Of the semester, that is. Nothing now stands between me and the looming judgment of final deadlines. Unfortunately, I seem to be battling a severe case of burnout.

Once I hit the right level of urgency, adrenaline will kick in, and I will start being productive. In the meantime, after weeks of thinking about it, I haven't mustered the will to start writing anything, feeling dead frightened at the prospect. I haven't convinced myself that I have anything worth saying on any of the topics, or that I've done enough or the right kind of research. All I know is that I don't want to face it all.

Man, I've learned a lot, but this semester has been such a struggle. I can't wait for it to be over.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

stuff I can't do

Lately, I've been especially wishing I had the ability to sew, or knit, or do something crafty with my hands. This is for a couple of reasons, besides the obvious awesomeness of being able to make clothes, gifts, and other cute and useful items by myself.

One reason is that it would let me get out of my head a little bit. I spend around 10 hours a day inundated with text, and virtually all my interests and abilities are somehow cerebral. It would be so nice to use a different part of my brain for once!

Another is more mundane: if I carried knitting projects with me everywhere, it would help smooth over many an awkward social encounter. Imagine being able to focus on knitting something, instead of worrying about where to focus my eyes or what to do with my hands during a casual conversation! It sounds liberating.

However, I am  not too hopeful about a sudden gift for needlework manifesting itself. I'm not sure if it's the fine motor skills or my poor spatial reasoning ability, but every attempt to learn sewing has proven a tangled failure. If you hand me a needle and thread, I immediately become clumsy and bewildered. No matter how carefully I watch what's demonstrated, I can't seem to replicate the steps myself. Until eleventh grade physics, my worst grades in school were in classes requiring me to make stuff out of fabric or wood. If I were a frontier woman or Amish, how would I survive?

So, I am definitely NOT making an appeal to family and friends who possess this enviable talent to attempt to teach me. I'd much rather save us both the agony.

In the meantime, maybe I'll discover some pleasantly non-intellectual hobby soon. As much as I'd love to think I could excel at something besides words, it doesn't have to be something I'm remarkably good at. Just something I could enjoy. If you have any ideas, let me know. I will probably be reading.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Women in Theological Studies: Some Honest Questions

I'm a little nervous about writing this...but, darn it, it's been bugging me. I've been sitting on this post for several days, thinking how best to articulate it.

It isn't something I've encountered face-to-face, but in the corners of the internet I frequent, I've occasionally run into an attitude that's something like this: A woman doesn't need to pursue an advanced degree in Theology in order to teach children and other women.

I can't tell if this is somewhat misogynistic, simply an ill-considered remark, or if it may have a grain of truth.

It seems there are two issues here.

First, if my primary calling is going to be in the home, with children, why go through all this higher education? It's an awful lot of time and energy spent that could well turn out to have been wasted. But, it seems to me that, if you go down this route, it isn't too long before you hit the question, "Why should a woman bother to be educated at all?" Even if you concede that a basic liberal arts education helps make her a well-rounded human being (and I am very much a proponent of reading/learning for its own sake, degrees or no), it takes for granted that she will never be called to exercise gifts outside of the domestic setting. (Or that, far more practically, circumstances may force her to help support her family financially, whether that is her preference or not.) Presumably, even if she puts her career on hold while her children are small (something I would be nothing but grateful to have the opportunity to do), she will not need to devote most of her waking hours to them for the rest of her life. There may be other vocations alongside of or joined to her work in the home.

Second, the issue of theological education.

Lately, I've felt like I go to bat for my tradition every day in my graduate department, and sometimes feel a bit kicked around for belonging to that tradition. And I talk all the time about wanting my scholarship to be devoted to the service of the church and in submission to it. So, I've assumed that when push comes to shove, when I'm on the job market, my denomination/etc. will have my back. But occasionally I wonder if there is really a place for me, as someone who will never be ordained, to have a call to teach theological subjects. I wonder if, even if no one is ever hostile to my training, even nothing but admiring, they'll admit that there is no natural place for a woman with my resume within the tradition. And maybe there isn't. And maybe that's right.

Maybe theological teaching, even on the undergraduate level, is best left to the ordained officers of the church. I can see how there may be a case for this. If I sought jobs in institutions closer to my own confession, my guess is (I don't know for sure) that this is what I would run into. If I'm open to working at a more broadly evangelical institution, like my husband's alma mater (and I see that as a good, live option...except, would I be subject to the discipline and accountability of the church in any concrete way in that scenario? another question...), then it might be less of an issue. As far as what I can do on the local church and denominational level throughout my career, though, will it have to be mostly circumscribed to women's ministry? (And please know that I am not knocking women's ministry. It's just not a world that is familiar to me -- though that's changing -- much less something I am trained for. I'm not even all that interested in studying "women's issues" in my graduate research!)

In short, the question I am asking is: Is there really a place for conservative/traditional/confessional women in theological academia? I am a product of environments where this was not an issue, and I chose to sink years of training into this path without imagining that a scenario would come up where that would be called into question. Now that I am in a position where I can foresee it being an issue, even if only in isolated circumstances, I am struggling with how to think about it.

Maybe it's entitlement and pride talking. I am quite aware of entitlement as one of my pitfalls; the attitude that, just because I've worked hard for something, means I "deserve" the kind of position and sphere of influence I've envisioned for myself. I don't think that's a correct attitude with which to approach any service to the church. So if what I end up doing looks quite different from being on faculty at a Christian college, I want to be gladly open to that. (I mean, heck, these particular issues aside, there is no guarantee that I will end up doing the kind of work I envision. Zero. There are few jobs and MANY gifted young scholars who are more accomplished than me.) Besides, as I have said before, what I am most excited about doing is writing...and that's not contingent upon my being hired anywhere.

I really do believe in God's sovereign plan, that when he put me on this path (long before I imagined I'd end up Reformed!), there was a specific reason. (And I don't think I've made flagrant errors in discernment by doing what I'm doing.) And I believe that what we do for Him isn't wasted. Even if we never have results that look successful by worldly standards, it won't have been wasted. Ultimately, it's all for His glory, not mine.

I don't think that venting about such things on the internet is necessarily the most fruitful way to seek answers. So I'm open to carrying on this discussion "off-blog," in fact hopeful that will be the case. In the meantime, I hope it's clear that these thoughts are offered in humility. I write this not as a challenge, but a sincere (if slightly anxious) inquiry. I honestly can't imagine a part of the church I could more joyfully, unreservedly be a part of.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


When I was a little girl, I wanted to be Amish. I think it had a lot to do with the clothes--I loved the dresses and headcoverings (I still think the traditional caps are pretty). It also had to do with Little House on the Prairie and my ardent conviction that I had been born about 120 years past my time.

When I got older, high school and maybe a bit into college, I developed an interest in actual Anabaptist theology and wondered if the answer to my denominational confusion perhaps lay in the Mennonite church. I never pursued that, however, and eventually realized that this was just another form of the same romantic view of the Amish and "plain" lifestyle I'd had as a kid.

Even though I'm now happy not to be Amish, I was intrigued to stumble across this blog in the past week. What's as interesting as the author's Amish background is the narrative arc, rather unusual for a blog. You can't jump straight to the story of how she and her husband eventually left the Amish community,  no matter how impatient you are to find out why. (I suppose one could, but the post titles don't always make it obvious what she's going to talk about; and each time I've tried to skip to "the meaty stuff," I've felt mildly rebuked...!) Most entries recount some memory of her upbringing, roughly chronological but not rigidly so. While she occasionally does posts responding to direct questions about the Amish, I think that to truly appreciate the blog, it's best to start at the beginning and gradually work your way forward. Which is what I've been doing, a little bit at a time, over the past few evenings.

Anyway, I share the link because I figured some of my friends might be interested. Needless to say, it's a departure from the somewhat haphazard, distractible way I usually read the internet! It helps that she's a good writer. Though she clearly had reasons for leaving her childhood faith, she writes so warmly of her upbringing, without idealizing it.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Theology Thursday: Dwelling in Christ's Wounds

I had the notion that, once a week or so, I might share a quotation from something I've been reading-- something that's especially touched my heart as well as my mind. I'm sure I won't be at all consistent about this, and that, on the weeks I do manage to post something, half the time it will not actually be Thursday! At any rate, I'll keep you guessing. :-)


This week, I've been reading some of the sermons of Samuel Rutherford (1600ish-1661), a Scottish Presbyterian minister. If you are not familiar with Rutherford's writings, you should be! But I'll leave you to Google if you are so inclined. For now, an excerpt from his 1630 sermon, "Christ and the Dove's Heavenly Salutations," preached at the little parish of Anwoth, in the southwest of Scotland.

Rutherford is preaching on Song of Solomon 2:14: "O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the crannies of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely."
Allegorically, he interprets the dove as the church (us), and the clefts of the rock as the wounds of Christ, in which we dwell by faith:

God has made holes and windows in Christ that his Doves may flee into, and make their nest in his Heart. O Dear and Precious Dwelling; The Lodging cost us nothing, yet we are desired to dwell in it. Now what is Christ's Petition? Cause Me to hear thy Voice. It's ordinary for man to beg from God, for we be but his beggars; but it is a miracle to see God beg at man; yet here is the Potter begging from the clay; the Saviour seeking from sinners. [What does he ask?] It must be some Great Thing; it is even a sight of his Bride; He is even saying to her, "My dear Spouse, be kind to Me, let me see thy Face; be not [bashful] and wavering; be plain with me, your Husband; tell me all your mind in Prayer, I delight to hear your lisping and hisping and speaking to me in Prayer." Ye may see all the wooing comes on Christ's side of it; she cannot hold up her face, or let one love-blink on Christ, but as He commands her, and wakens her up...

Have you ever thought of yourself as dwelling in Jesus' heart? Or that he passionately delights to look on you and hear your prayers? Rutherford portrays Christ as being the one who "woos" us, who longs for us and pursues us, before we have the ability to cling to Him, or even lift our eyes to Him.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

academic growing pains

It's been awhile since I've written anything on here, I know. It's not because things haven't been happening, but because I can't think of too many different ways to say, "This semester is really difficult and I want it to be over." Especially ways that don't sound like bitterness and whining.

While I couldn't have imagined saying it even last year, I am tired of coursework. Syllabi no longer excite me as they did for so many semesters of my academic life. Rather than possibility, they've come to represent long lists of obligations, imposed by someone else, that will require me to expend energy in multiple directions instead of settling down to one or two big tasks. This semester I'm learning that not every professor understands what realistic demands look like. Others are more merciful, actually suspending class for a month so that you can devote the additional hours to producing a publishable paper. For the latter type, I'm quite grateful. Either way, I am looking forward to being out from under such direct guidance.

I also look forward to not having to show up for seminars each week. Nothing else drains me quite like struggling to articulate things to contribute to discussion, fighting for opportunities to actually say them, and then the letdown when I haven't been well understood. Sometimes the atmosphere is truly collegial, and I have gotten better at navigating these things, but often it's a pain, with more anxiety poured into it than turns out to have been remotely worth it. I also find myself disagreeing with one or two of my professors more than usual, which isn't a bad thing in itself, but produces its own form of angst that I haven't enjoyed putting up with on a weekly basis.

I'm not as unhappy as this probably makes it sound. (Though I do have at least one meltdown each week. Especially Sundays; Sundays are bad.) I'm just coming to the realization that I have to write approximately 60 pages in a little more than a month, which would feel impossible enough if two of my classes weren't asking for additional work in the meantime. And it's not the writing I dread; it's figuring out what any of these papers are actually about that's the hard part. Not to mention reading 20+ books by April, well enough that I can pass an examination on them, so that I can be officially liberated from the coursework phase of my program. But I probably won't have the luxury of panicking about that until Christmas break...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

the class Calvinist: a historian's (?) dilemma.

In my (too many) years in higher education, I haven't yet been in an environment where I felt completely at home in the school's mainstream. I've already talked about that on this blog, with reference to Yale. I think it's somewhat true at my current school, too. But what I'm particularly thinking of is my Reformation class. I think part of the weirdness is that it is a history class, in the history department, so people are not necessarily asking theological questions all the time. I'm not sure how to negotiate that difference.

But, today, when we were discussing parts of Richard Baxter's A Christian Directory of Practical Divinity (a great text, by the way), I found the drift of the conversation really odd. Baxter was an English Puritan pastor, and in this work, he's advising pastors on how to care for church members who suffer from a "melancholic" personality. It's quite interesting reading. But the argument that got raised in class was, "Well, no wonder Protestants got depressed. Catholics can do something about their salvation, but when you're Protestant, it's all about your faith." There seemed to be a consensus that Protestantism (at least in the early generations of Reformers) is sort of gloomily introspective and subjective whereas Catholicism is concrete and active and good for the less theologically inclined common people.

I'm not sure if this has anything to do with the fact that I go to a Catholic university. Especially in the history department, one's personal affiliation doesn't get brought into discussion so much. But I still felt the pressure of being (as far as I know) the class's only Presbyterian, or at least known to my classmates as someone who's working on Reformed topics in my research. Obviously, I disagree with that sweeping assessment of Protestantism. One of the chief joys of my faith is that it is not purely subjective. It's not about my ability to believe in Christ, but about Him, and the means of grace given through Word and sacrament. And yes, there is a subjective aspect to my reception of those things. How could there not be? And why must that be bad? Ultimately, I know that it's not about me (or at least, that's the thing I am struggling to learn!).

I'm not making this post a Catholic versus Protestant thing, understand. I'm just thinking about the weirdness of my position -- like, to what degree is it appropriate for me to try to "defend" my faith in this particular context? Do I need to? The discussion was not, at least on the surface, about the theological validity of one position over the other. To be honest, my instinct is to try to let these things roll off my back because it isn't a context where apologetics feel appropriate (and I am bad at apologetics anyway. I can tell you about my faith, but if you expect tidy, well-thought-out argumentation, you'll be pretty disappointed; it isn't my gift). I don't think I have to feel offended or defensive.

Sometimes, it does get to me, I admit. More in a tiring way than an angering one. I dislike being forever on the defensive, and I don't think it's a very healthy posture. Sometimes, though, I wish I felt less like an odd,  half-mythical critter being studied as a historical curiosity, and more like a person who actually believes the stuff.

Don't get the impression that it's a hostile environment, because it isn't. And I bet I'd be surprised to learn who else feels that way, if from a slightly different standpoint. (And let's be honest, there's likely no learning environment that is fully "safe" in this way...)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

My Husband!

I just wanted to express a few words of appreciation for my wonderful husband this evening, as well as to give a promised update on some of his recent doings.
  • As of about a month ago, he is working part-time as an IT coordinator at our church. He seems to enjoy the position a great deal, as it's giving him a chance to develop his computer skills, work in an enjoyable environment, and balance out his schedule with something besides academia. I'm really proud of him -- and also very thankful this opportunity opened up at a point when we were hardly expecting it.
  • He is also taking the initial steps towards ordained ministry. There's still a lot that's up in the air about this, since he's not taking the traditional route that most ministers-in-training take. But I've seen him (and us, as a household) kind of growing in this direction over the past few years, so I'm excited for whatever the Lord may have for us in this area. I can really see him being a wonderful pastor as well as a professor!
  • He just turned 29. We had a quiet birthday celebration at home, per his request, though my main gift for him was very exciting... as it was a book titled Paradigms in Polity: Classic Readings in Reformed and Presbyterian Church Government, that should tell you something about our life!
He's really an amazing support for me. He knows how to help me talk through and prioritize when I'm feeling overwhelmed by school obligations, and he makes me feel loved no matter what. It's difficult to imagine how I would get through this without him. But whatever ends up happening career-wise for either of us, I'm happy we'll be navigating it together.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Mary, marriage, and being Protestant...beginnings of thoughts.

I don't have any great insights here, but I've lately had a couple different occasions to think about Protestant women in history and what it means to be a Protestant woman today. And I'm using "Protestant" advisedly versus, say, "evangelical" or just "Christian."

For one, my husband recently participated in a men's retreat that focused on the masculinity of Jesus and in what ways it's applicable to Christian men today. I am not very familiar with the world of women's ministry, I admit. But much of what I've come across under the category of "biblical womanhood" takes Paul as the starting-point, and while that's good, I wonder if there are books out there, or if there've been retreats/conferences, that focus on women in the New Testament and how they are models for us (or not)? Specifically Mary. It seems one does hear a lot about Mary and Martha of Bethany, but I'm having a harder time calling to mind materials that focus on our Lord's mother. And actually, I think it would be very interesting to look at the figure of Mary from a particularly Protestant perspective, and how she might speak to our lives of faith. I don't doubt there is much that could be said (and perhaps has been). Like I said, I'm not familiar enough to know.

Of course, it's a little different because, well, no woman in Scripture lived her life without sin. But whether we're women or men, we have Christ to look to for that...

I won't say I don't have more questions about it all. This gender stuff does get complicated.


Speaking of, in seminar today, we were discussing Luther's writings on marriage and early modern views of gender more broadly construed. This is not my major period of study, but the recent "scholarly consensus" seems to be that the Protestant Reformation was a raw deal for the ladies. That is, the Reformers took away devotion to Mary and other female saints, and they got rid of convents, where women could exercise certain degrees of autonomy and leadership and had the choice not to marry and bear children. By contrast, the domestic household and Protestant churches offered relatively few options and leadership roles for women. Needless to say, I have some...quibbles with this thesis. Most of them, I suspect, wouldn't tend to be taken very seriously. And, as I said, this is not the era I primarily study, and I don't have the energy to do a big project on women in the early generations of Reformers. But it almost makes me wish I did.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Why, hello, Calvin.

Recently, I was assigned to read some selections from Calvin's Institutes for my Reformation class. The section was in Book IV, "The External Means or Aims by Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein." In other words, it was discussing the Church.

Here are a few snippets I found to be especially meaningful:

 "Although the melancholy desolation which confronts us on every side may cry that no remnant of the church is left, let us know that Christ's death is fruitful, and that God miraculously keeps his church as in hiding places."

"First, [the church] stands by God's election, and cannot waver or fail any more than his eternal providence can. Secondly, it has in a way been joined to the steadfastness of Christ, who will no more allow his believers to be estranged from him than that his members be rent and torn asunder."

On the church as our "mother": "Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives."

He goes on to write that, if we try to find a flawless church on the earth, we will either conclude that there is no true church in existence, or we will overlook error on lesser matters for the sake of upholding what is central. Calvin argues that we shouldn't allow even the slightest errors to be fostered, but we also must not "forsake the church because of any petty dissensions."

Here is the heart of what I think Calvin was saying (and others more knowledgeable, please, feel free to correct me): It may appear to us, as it did to some sixteenth- and seventeenth-century believers, as if the church has been vanquished, but we know that cannot be true, because God has elected that it will not fail. One of the reasons for its perseverance is that it has been joined to Christ's own steadfastness, and we can rest in knowing that He will never allow His own to be torn away from Him.
We need the church because it is the treasure-house of the gospel and the means of grace; no matter how strong we become as Christians, we can never consider ourselves beyond the need of what God has graciously ordained for our good. And we shouldn't be so arrogant as to think we can find some "pristine" body on earth, or that, in our rightful zeal for the church's purity, we should forsake the visible church over relatively minor points of dissension.

There's plenty of room for debate over these points, I'm sure. But that's not why I felt the desire to post them. You see, I had scarcely read a word of Calvin until last week. In other words, studying the Institutes is obviously not what made me a Presbyterian.  What amazed me about reading just these passages is that, not only was it a great solace to me as a member of the Body, but it echoed my experience so far of being a part of it.

I don't think anyone sat me down with excerpts from Calvin and said, "Here is what you should believe about election, and the importance of the visible Church, and submitting yourself to it in humility." But I can think of many ways that has been modeled for me in love, by pastors and other brothers and sisters in the faith. And now that I've had the opportunity to read the theological language behind it, it's such a blessing and encouragement to be able to think, Yes. I didn't know that Calvin had argued this in so many words, but I already knew it, because I've seen it and am beginning to live it, by God's grace.

I hope that makes some sense. I'm not saying that I would agree with Calvin on every single point; I can confidently say that I wouldn't, in fact, because he's John Calvin, not God, and his writings are not the infallible Word of God. Neither am I saying that I think it's sufficient to get all one's theological lessons in an implicit, "it's just in the water" kind of way. (Indeed, I really need to get to work on learning the Catechism; and I am all about meaty theological education for ordinary church members.)

But there's something good, I think, about meeting somebody through what they wrote 500 years ago and realizing, "Hey, I recognize you." It testifies to that very unity sustained by Christ, which He promised us would never be overcome. Not due to our ability to argue correctly or live purely, but because of His perfect faithfulness.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Now that four weeks of the semester are mostly behind me, I've noticed a predictable pattern.

The best and worst thing about my schedule this fall is that my week is front-loaded with classes and, thus, with assignment due dates.

In theory, this means that I get all of my classes out of the way by Wednesday evening and have Thursday through Sunday to prepare for the following week.

In practice, it means that I spend Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday mornings frantically cramming, Sunday through Tuesday nights fretting and getting insufficient sleep, and Thursday through Sunday paying for it. I'm so tired that I spend most of those days napping, thinking about napping, or at best, staring blearily at a book or article and wondering why my mind isn't absorbing things.

It goes something like this:

Monday: A little tired; preparing for seminar in somewhat hurried fashion
Tuesday: Very tired; frantically preparing for seminar
Wednesday: Having given up hope of decent sleep and mostly running on adrenaline, get up before 6am to spend all day cramming for last class of the week (which also happens to be the one with the most demanding professor).
Wednesday night: Adrenaline gone. Exhausted. Inarticulate. CRASH.
Thursday: Still exhausted, but cheerful, and hopeful about the days of productivity ahead of me.
Friday: Still pretty hopeful! Trying to read...hmm, how come I keep getting sleepy?
Saturday: Sleep late. It's awesome. Then it's afternoon, and I'm hit with the realization that I have three classes to prep for and I've barely started. Suddenly, the weekend seems less awesome.
Sunday: Feeling overwhelmed and inadequate because so much is unfinished, I must be the least diligent student in my department, etc.

Aaaaand  it repeats!

So, yes, I see that this cycle is not sustainable. It's not good for my health on any level. I need to figure out some ways to balance it more effectively.

But the thing I've realized is that, when I'm in the thick of the pressure, I pretty much enjoy myself. I'm noticeably more content and confident as a student than I was last year. I know what I'm capable of and what my limits are; I know that whatever corners I might have to cut, it's not likely to be catastrophic. Coursework isn't the end of the world.

In many ways, weekends are the hardest for me because I'm anticipating the stress; having things hanging over my head has always been an inordinate mental burden for me. But when I'm actually doing the stuff, I start to thrive. And that's what makes me think that, after all, I love what I'm doing, and I'm in the right spot.

Something else I've realized is that, for all the sometimes agonizing stress and my failures to manage it well, I will someday look back on these days in my life and our marriage and miss them -- at least a little bit. I'm learning (trying) not to wish any part of it away too quickly.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

learning to struggle well

Earlier this week, I was lamenting the fact that I seem to be doing grad school "wrong" because, no matter how many long days I put in or even how much sleep I sacrifice, I don't seem to get things done. Unlike many of my colleagues, I don't have little kids and I don't have to work part-time for a faculty member, yet I feel like I'm constantly behind, never able to get on top of the reading and research load.

Putting aside the question of whether my peers really are accomplishing that much more than me (maybe I just have really poor "faking it" skills?), I think the real problem is my perfectionist streak rearing its ugly head again; but even more than that, I wonder if it's my old problem of expecting grad school to be like a medieval monastery.

Yes, that sounds weird. What I mean is, I tend to assume that theology is something that is really only learned if it is chewed on and mulled over, rather like monks ruminating for days on short texts of Scripture. Internalizing truth like that takes patience and discipline -- which I can have -- but it also requires the luxury of time, which a grad student rarely does. As I've reflected before, if I haven't read slowly and deeply, I usually feel I haven't learned.

The thing is, though, I am not a monk. (Or, well, a nun.) And just because I'm studying theology doesn't change the fact that I am a grad student and that grad school will never be a monastery. I need to learn to let grad school be what it is, and learn to excel at that. Maybe even find joy and beauty in it.

Crazily enough, that shift of attitude this week seems to have helped -- a little. I've been pulling crazy hours of intense work, and while it's always messier, more rushed, and less meditative than I would like, I think I'm thriving. And maybe that is less because the situation is "ideal" and more because I'm just doing what has been given me to do.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Fall is here!

It probably isn't the best time for me to write this post, since I have a truly unnerving pile of reading to do (yes...Saturdays, sadly, can't be exempt). But, if I don't do it now, who knows how much longer it will get postponed? And perhaps writing will energize me...

So, you get to hear about the classes I am taking this fall!

My first seminar is, unsurprisingly, on the Early Church. Its topic is "The Mystical Body of Christ." You might recall that in Ephesians, Paul talks about Christians being the body of Christ; and this theme gets taken up by a number of Christian writers after him...including Ignatius of Antioch, Cyprian of Carthage, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Cyril of Alexandria, to name just a few. So, we will be tracing that theme through the entire patristic period and discussing how various theologians conceived of the "mystical body" and how it ties into church unity.

I am excited about this class. I think it will pose some special challenges to me as a Protestant, because my doctrine of the Church is necessarily different from my professor's (a Jesuit Catholic priest), and when I talk about union with Christ, I mean something rather different from what Catholics and Orthodox mean by the doctrine of deification. But challenges like these are nothing new to me, and I'm glad they will force me to articulate what I really believe on some important theological matters.

Though I'm majoring in Early Church, my "minor field" is Modern, which basically encompasses everything from the Reformation to now. So my remaining two classes actually fall within the latter period. First, there's my Reformation seminar. It is actually being taught within the History department, so I don't know all the people as well, but the professor seems nice. I have already chosen a topic for my research paper, which is practices surrounding the celebration of the Lord's Supper in 17th century Scotland. That might sound like a really narrow subject, but you'd be surprised how much literature survives on the topic -- I don't know how I'm going to read it all in two months! I hope the project might give me an excuse to peruse the holdings of Covenant Seminary's Puritan Rare Book Room. Anyway, I'll probably post more about this in the future, since I think the material is fascinating and very relevant, especially to Presbyterians.

Finally, I'm taking a seminar called "The History and Method of Historical Theology." Essentially, we're looking at how the field of historical theology has evolved in the past couple of centuries, and different ways it's been practiced. To do that, we're reading a bunch of historical theology textbooks (dating back to the 19th century) side-by-side and comparing the ways the writers handled the topic. I'll also be doing a research project on Jonathan Edwards, surveying the ways historians have appraised his ideas and legacy over the past 200 years. So, I won't be doing an analysis of his thought per se, but analyzing the changing ways he's been received by past scholars, if that makes sense. I hope this class will help me to become more reflective about what I do as a historian of theology.

In effect, I actually have a 4th class, because my fellow second-year students and I are meeting every week or so to discuss the books we will be examined on next May. We decided to do this to help hold each other accountable in our reading; we drew up a syllabus and everything...which I fear I'm already falling behind on. I'm also meeting weekly with a small group to practice our Greek (reading one of Basil of Caesarea's sermons on Genesis), and Kevin and I are attempting to review Latin together. Does it surprise you that my weekdays feel like barely controlled chaos?

And sometimes, the weekends are not a whole lot better, so I must close this and get back to my job! Do keep me in your thoughts and prayers...namely that I will figure out how to get adequate sleep. :)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Summer in Retrospect

As you might have guessed from the scarcity of blog posts, the new academic year has begun.

Belying my mournful attitude last week, I have pretty much snapped back into work mode and haven't spent much time pining for the summer. Still, I wanted to say a few words about the summer as a whole...

So, remember my "realistically ambitious" summer plan from back in June? That whole thing pretty much makes me laugh now! But, I definitely can't call the summer a waste...

  • I did learn to read French and passed my department's language exam.
  • I revised a seminar paper for possible inclusion in a publication. (More on this later, if there is good news to report.)
  • I did keep up with studying Syriac pretty well, though in recent weeks I've had to put it on the back burner for my sanity's sake.
  • I only finished one book for my second-year reading list, but it was a long and important book, so that's still not bad, and I am on pace with my fellow second-years.
All told, it's not as impressive or as neat and tidy as my original list. But for a grad school summer, I think it's a respectable set of accomplishments. And I've learned by now that very little about grad student life is neat and tidy. :-)

Aside from school things, it was a fairly quiet summer, without many adventures. Part of that was because financially, things were pretty tight. While I don't relish the thought of being that broke again, I really hope I don't forget what it feels like to be a struggling grad student. Maybe someday, I can be in a position to help out another young academic household. I think that'd be a grand blessing!

Above all, I've learned that God always, always provides, even when circumstances are not looking that promising, or when I'd prefer that the "providence" look a bit different from what He intends. This is a truth I am slow to learn and, I expect, will have to learn in various ways again and again.

I'll do my best to update again soon to tell y'all about my new classes, and about some other stuff that's going on (good stuff!), most particularly with my husband. :-)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

More on Historical Theology: Why I Love It

A quote from Robert Louis Wilken, who is among the giants of my academic field:

The path to theological maturity leads necessarily through the study of the Christian past, and this requires a kind of spiritual and intellectual apprenticeship. Before we become masters we must become disciples. From the great thinkers of Christian history, we learn how to use the language of faith, to understand the inner logic of theological ideas, to discern the relation between seemingly disparate concepts, to discover what is central and what peripheral, and to love God above all things. Before we learn to speak on our own we must allow others to form our words and guide our thoughts. Historical theology is an exercise in humility, for we discover that theology is as much a matter of receiving as it is of constructing, that it has to do with the heart as well as with the intellect, with character as well as with doctrines, with love as well as with understanding.

This is excerpted from a longer article by Wilken which was assigned to me in my first history class at Yale. Upon reading that article, I promptly copied this quotation and have referred to it often to remind me why I do what I do.

There is so much I could say about it, but for now, two thoughts.

Humility. "Before we learn to speak on our own we must allow others to form our words and guide our thoughts." Could there be many more counter-cultural ideas than this one? Thinking and speaking for oneself are -- at least nominally -- among our most cherished cultural values. And I think they are good. But it is difficult to acknowledge, even to oneself, when we don't know how to think, when we lack the words to speak. No matter what era or culture you're from, I doubt being teachable comes very easily. Especially when you'd prefer to think that you've progressed way beyond what those from an essentially foreign culture or context could possibly tell you.

That's one reason I think the study of historical theology is so crucial to the health of the church. It can be an important guard against spiritual and intellectual arrogance. But I hasten to add that I don't think any period of the church was infallible. Every age has its blind spots. There are things I believe the early church got more right than we do, or at least saw more clearly. But I don't think it was a pristine golden age. Yet it has much to say to us, if we can be quiet enough to hear.

Love. Speaking of the prejudices of a given era, I think ours tends to drive a wedge between faith and practice, doctrine and behavior. People will start looking at you funny if you assert that a right understanding of the Trinity or of the doctrine of justification are vital to the pursuit of godliness. (i.e., Who needs theology if it's all about just loving Jesus? Or, why get worked up over outmoded doctrine when what's really important is Social Issue X?) I could spend a lot of time unpacking why this is the case and why I believe it's wrong; but, suffice it to say, I think it's devastating to theological learning in churches across the spectrum, and hence to people's souls.

The big reason I love studying the Church Fathers and the Puritans, in particular, is because, by and large, they more readily understood the links between heart and intellect, character and doctrine, love and understanding. We can look at, for instance, the Arian controversy in the fourth century and wonder how those guys could get into such fervent debates over a few syllables. We could take the attitude that we're much more enlightened now. And I'm not denying that there are things we know that fourth century folks didn't. But I think we should also be prompted to ask, "What did they understand about all this -- the importance of all this -- that we're not getting?"

Monday, August 22, 2011

Adventures in...Cooking?!

I tend to lack confidence in "practical" areas, I've noticed...things such as sewing (HOPELESS), driving (terrifying, though I am working on it), and cooking. Even if I'm technically capable of grasping what's going on, I tend to assume that I don't or won't get it, so I become self-conscious and anxious. Plus there's that whole lack of coordination problem.

When it comes to cooking, though, I've definitely made strides in recent years (even though Kevin does most of our cooking right now), and there has been ample evidence that I can be pretty good at it! In this case, the lack of confidence comes more from the fact that I just haven't spent enough time getting comfortable in the kitchen. (And part of that is because kitchens get messy, and I'm lazy. But I digress.)

I do get brave and try new recipes occasionally, and last night was one of those times. I decided to try this recipe (first found on Pinterest, for those who know what that is). It did indeed prove to be "pretty easy," though actually, I think that the steps could be simplified even further. The hardest part, in fact, was probably tracking down the ingredients. Who knew that dried coconut is so difficult to find? For some reason, I assumed this was a baking staple, but I didn't find any until the fourth store I tried. Not our neighborhood grocery store, not Trader Joe's (you mean TJ's doesn't have EVERYTHING?!?), not the "global market" that happened to be next door...not till Whole Foods did I find the stuff. What the heck? At least it was cheap.

The recipe also calls for shallot. I knew that was some kind of onion; what I didn't know was that it's (at least locally) a pricy type of onion. Substituted regular white onion (it calls for a tiny amount anyway), and it was more than fine.

This picture isn't very good, but it gives you an idea of the result:

The verdict: pretty tasty! Also nice and filling. The color comes from turmeric (which we actually already had among our spices because another recipe I/we make regularly is chicken tikka masala), but this is not a spicy dish; it isn't like a curry. It has a nice, mild flavor overall.

So, I expect to cook this again, though I might tweak a few steps of the preparation; and there's got to be an easier way to find dried coconut.

Slowly but surely, I'm building up my confidence and my repertoire! :-)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

ambition and discipleship

I am pretty much finished writing posts about the past ten years of my life -- and I know you've heard more introspection from me than you really need. But I came across these reflections I wrote two and a half years ago (so, about six months after I got married and had graduated from Yale) which still sum up my thoughts on my vocation as well as anything can. So I thought I'd excerpt them here:

January 24, 2009

I've been thinking that the last couple of years have been a long process of humbling for me, and while I'm trying not to be endlessly introspective about that, I have a lot to reassess. . .

In high school, for all my lack of confidence at times, I did swallow the message that I was "all that" in my field; some of it makes me laugh now--I remember a couple of the sweet nerdy guys in my graduating class asking me for my autograph, and my senior year English teacher half-jokingly told me that he expected to be buying the boxed set of my novels by the time I was 25! (Oops.) Then I got to Hollins, and it's not that I hated writing; it's just that I didn't do it anymore. The more self-conscious I became about writing as a craft, the less it felt like the passion it had once been. I found other things I loved, but I think I kept operating under the assumption that I would need to distinguish myself in order to have "succeeded" at those things. And I still carry that with me, kind of.

But honestly, after Yale, I'm not sure I have the drive or desire to be Ms. Fancy Famous Academic Theologian, either. There are a lot of brilliant thinkers out there, and I've lost--for the most part--the feeling of "needing" to be among the Names people know and discuss in intelligent circles. It would be nice I suppose, but then, I don't think the point of becoming a theologian, ESPECIALLY a historian of Christian thought, is to be "innovative." It will be fun to author a work of original scholarship if I survive to write a dissertation, but overall, I don't feel motivated by the push to produce something new and different. I don't think such a motivation is necessarily wrong. It's just not something that entices me.

I DO want to write. I trust that I have gifts that can be fruitful for the church. I guess for me, at this point, a Ph.D. feels like the next logical step and the path I've more or less locked myself into, but I think of it more as a means to an end than I used to. I want to learn to read texts deeply in order to teach others to treasure those texts and be equipped by them to abide in the Truth. That's all. I think it is terribly important work, that the church thirsts for tested, ancient wisdom, but I certainly think others can teach it just as ably, and far more so, than I could. It will be no disaster if I fail.

Truthfully, having kids is a bigger "ambition" for me right now, and I think about it at least as much as I think about going back to school. My current heroes are just as likely to be mommy-bloggers as academic theologians. I think I can end up being both, God willing. I think the twin "callings" can be complementary. Nothing in my short- or long-term "plans," such as they are, has really shifted. But if I look at my life in terms of discipleship and not mere ambition (again, not that the latter's bad), there are things that might well be more significant, eternally speaking, than where I get my Ph.D. Another way of looking at it is, how am I really going to learn to love well?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why Academia, Part III: Why Historical Theology?

Thanks to everyone who commented on and/or shared my last post; it has been very encouraging. :-)

I am so tired today that I'm having trouble completing a thought, am valiantly resisting a nap, and unsure whether coffee would help alleviate or only worsen the situation. But I'd like to follow up on my Yale posts by getting back to some of what inspired the "Why Academia?" series in the first place: why historical theology?

I think the previous posts (four? five? I've lost track) have done a decent job of explaining how I came to love theology, as well as the steps I've taken toward building an academic career on that love. The third part of this series was going to focus on why I picked historical theology in particular. Actually, I think I've fairly well touched on that in the course of describing my various studies. But I'll offer a few additional thoughts here, for the heck of it:

  • Whether accurately or not, I've tended to think of myself as a historian of theology more than as a theologian per se. In other words, I'm more likely to write a book titled What Various Dead Guys Taught About the Trinity than one called The Doctrine of the Trinity Explained and Defended. Obviously, I think what the dead guys taught was entirely relevant to us today, and it shapes how we reason theologically about today's issues. So, there is overlap between the two. Still, the vocation of "theologian" strikes me as something a little different, perhaps loftier, than what I am really after.
  • What excites me is teaching college students -- and laypeople of all ages, really -- to dig into the ideas and writings of past thinkers. Maybe it sounds paradoxical, but I think that the Christian faith comes to life in a unique way when you realize you are a part of a much bigger, older story than you ever suspected. (My husband has written about this, too -- see this blog post.)
  • Early on, I had a special focus on wanting to help evangelicals to recover the riches of the Early Church. I still want this, since I do think Protestants often have minimal exposure to church history before Luther. But as I've become an increasingly committed Protestant myself, I hope my approach has become less arrogant -- I think I was guilty of some grandiose assumptions before, such as that I could single-handedly swoop in and rescue my peers from their historical ignorance. Yuck...not the way to go.
  • For one thing, although my primary focus remains the Early Church, my perspective has shifted in the past few years to a renewed appreciation for the historical depth of my own Protestant tradition. I have read numerous accounts of evangelicals converting to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, in part because they thought they had no choice if they wanted to be part of a historically rooted tradition. But Protestantism not only has its own historical heroes, it is deeply rooted in the Nicene faith of the early church, and the Reformers absolutely understood it as such. I don't think arguing this fact will stop people from leaving, necessarily. It's trickier than that. But I do think it can give Protestants a deeper love and broader perspective for where they already are.
  • For another thing, if there is reluctance among Protestants to examine parts of church history, then I understand it. History, like all of us broken, sinful human beings, is messy. It isn't easy to explain, for example, how Protestants should think about aspects of the early and medieval churches' teachings on salvation. (Ligon Duncan took a respectable stab at this recently, in a talk titled Did the Fathers Know the Gospel? That title would make my classmates' hair stand on end, but if you're a traditional-ish evangelical or confessional Protestant, it kind of needs to be asked.) Anyway, in short, this stuff's complicated, and digging deep can be painful, toilsome work. But God is sovereign over all history, including that of his Church. And all the more reason to train people -- not just seminary professors and pastors, but laypeople like myself -- to pass along the necessary digging tools.
  • Finally, I think there's a matter of basic charity at stake. I know that at various times in my life, I heard names and labels like "Saint Augustine" and "the Middle Ages" and "the Puritans" and interpreted them as shorthand for things like "legalism" and "backwardness." But learning about past figures on their own terms has made it harder to dismiss them -- or to say that they are not part of my (messy) heritage.
One of my favorite Yale profs put it like this: "It's better to dislike [the early church fathers] for what they are than to love them for what they're not." To put it differently, it's better to reject a theological figure on the basis of what he actually taught than to revile him on the basis of a caricature. Ultimately, I hope that the discipline of history helps Christians go about that task with more charity than not.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Double Whammy: Introversion and Shyness

This post has been brewing for a few weeks now, as I've been thinking about "introversion" versus "shyness" and how they differ. It's my opinion that they are different things, but they can be difficult to distinguish -- especially when, as in my case, a person is both introverted and shy.

I don't have any scientific support for what I'm about to suggest, but here are just a few initial thoughts, drawn from my experience.

1. Neither an introvert nor a shy person is likely going to love parties or other large gatherings. A shy person will likely dread parties because the thought of having to interact with people fills her with anxiety, even fear.

For an introvert, anxiety is probably not the big issue. An introvert can probably enjoy herself by spending time with a select handful of friends within the larger group, but will become exhausted and irritable if she has to socialize for a very long stretch of time -- at the very least, she will need to retreat and "recharge."

In my case
, I have become notably less shy within the past 10 years. I have less anxiety about being among groups. However, the introverted part, while I can develop strategies to better cope with it, is unlikely to change. I am pretty sure that the "too much stimulation -- must retreat!" impulse is hardwired.

2. An introvert can be a confident public speaker or occupy other leadership roles. He may or may not enjoy such roles, but being an introvert does not, in and of itself, bar a person from seeking out and excelling at them.

A shy person is likely to be terrified of such scenarios. He might want to be able to speak publicly, but it will be a significant struggle and maybe even an impossibility. A shy person faces obstacles in such settings that will not necessarily pose a problem for someone who is "only" an introvert.

To this day
, there are settings that are fear-inducing for me -- even speaking up in a larger-than-average seminar. And I don't think I have ever, for instance, raised my hand to ask a question at a conference or lecture. At the same time, I have not avoided situations, such as presenting my work at conferences, that have required me to speak publicly. While never easy, something about my confidence in my prepared comments enabled me to feel tolerably in control of the situation and to handle the inevitable nerves. Heck, I have even preached a few times. (Yes, this was before before I became a committed PCA member!)

3. Neither an introvert nor a shy person is likely to have lots of friends. This is because, in both cases, the person feels most comfortable interacting one-on-one and forming a few, deep relationships.

I sometimes feel envious of people who have lots of friends, I'll admit. And the process of making friends has sometimes been a painful one for me. Befriending a shy introvert requires a lot of patience (with the shyness) and a lot of commitment (to the introverted all-or-nothing approach to relationship-building). In short, I can be a demanding friend, and it has taken me a long time to realize that, in my fumbling attempts to befriend people, I have sometimes had unfair expectations.

4. Both introverts and shy people are best treated just like anybody else. Speaking particularly as a shy girl, I can say that talking to me as if I am fragile (or, worse, as if I'm a little kid) is only going to make me feel more self-conscious. On the other hand, being spoken to respectfully only makes me want to rise to the occasion and try harder to relate confidently to the other person.

5. Both introverts and shy people can afford to get over themselves a little bit. It's great to understand different personality types and what makes people tick. I'm a fan of those "how to care for your introvert" lists and articles I occasionally see floating around the internet. But I've come to realize that, whether it's the introverted part of me or the shy part or both, I need to make an effort, too. I cannot expect anyone to read my mind, and it's unfair to expect to be coddled. Just as I find extroverts overwhelming at times, I have to expect that my behavior is inscrutable and challenging for others sometimes, too.

I hope this has been interesting and perhaps helpful! If you have questions, disagreements, or other quibbles, feel free to comment. I know I can't presume to speak for everyone who falls into either category.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Dirty Secret, or Ideal vs. Reality

Perhaps it's not so much of a "dirty secret" as it is simply the thing I find to be the greatest letdown in academia.

It's the fact that academia is not the paradise for book-lovers that I had long imagined it to be. Well, in one way, it kind of is. I certainly get to collect and use lots of books. But I am hesitant to say that I read them, and here is why.

The career of a doctoral student is not one that encourages deep and sustained reading. Rather, one has to develop the skill of reading strategically -- of reading for the main ideas or arguments in a book, instead of reading word for word. What this comes out to, in practice, is...skimming. Lots of skimming, reading the initial and concluding sentences or paragraphs of chapters, but skipping large chunks of text more often than not. You are on a quest to discover the author's main argument and to be able to explain how he or she structures and supports that argument, nothing more nor less.

If you cringe at the thought, then you know how I feel. My idea of skimming a book is to skip the Introduction. If I can't honestly claim to have read a book cover to cover, then I don't feel I can say with integrity that I have "read" it. But there isn't room for that kind of pride in the life of a doctoral student. Because, realistically, you don't have time to read books that way. Not when each of your three professors has assigned a 300-page book to be read by next week. Then, your goal becomes, not to read the entire book, but to read enough, and well enough, that you can say something intelligent about it in the ensuing seminar discussion. Chances are, you are not going to curl up with your books and savor them in leisurely fashion.

This has been a very hard lesson for me to learn, one that I haven't yet mastered. I still take the approach to my studies that I can curl up with a patristic monograph in much the same way that I could a good classic novel. Now, occasionally, I can do something approximating that. One of my Early Church professors, for instance, tends to assign a handful of documents for us to analyze closely rather than assigning a book per week. Then, I actually stand a chance of doing some close, careful ruminating.

But, to be realistic, that is a luxury I'll rarely have until I have blown through my remaining seminars and skidded into the dissertation phase of things. And even then, when I excitedly lug dozens of volumes (of my choosing!) home from the library, I know that only a few of those will likely be read word for word, cover to cover.

So the next time you picture me, your nerdy academic relative or friend, dreamily making her way through stacks of dusty old books, remember that the reality is probably messier and more haphazard than that. And if you see upwards of 30 books teetering around my desk, bed, or cubicle, do not be intimidated and assume I have actually read them all. I can assure you: I haven't.

I'm sure you feel just horribly disillusioned. :-) I'm kidding...though, honestly, I am still emerging from a degree of disillusionment myself. It's one more reminder that this is a job, a set of skills to be mastered, and not simply a haven for a book-lover who'd much prefer to read books slowly, at her own pace and to her heart's content.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Third and Final (?) Yale Post

In May, 2006, shortly after finishing my first year of seminary, I wrote the following in a journal:

Yale is very much a “you’ve got to figure it out on your own” kind of place. That’s not a bad thing. It does make the whole package rather frustrating at times [...] You’ll get all sorts of ideas and agendas thrown at you, and it’s your job to sort through them, figure out what to keep and how to put it to work. While it’s certainly a good exercise and I’ll probably be a better person for it, it does seem a rather dodgy and haphazard way to supply the church with leaders [...] At YDS we all look at Scripture and the great tradition of the Church so differently that we mean widely different things when we talk about them, and that’s enriching to a point but quite often frustratingly evasive…to me anyway. [...] I know that I ridiculously envisioned myself sitting in a turret with cookies and tea and stacks of patristic volumes, because that’s the only way I could even begin to scratch the surface of what I want to learn…but it’s a far cry from the reality of divinity school, no matter where you go.

That seems as good a summary as any of my experience at Yale -- at least the frustrating parts. One of the differences between an ecumenical divinity school and a smaller, denominational seminary is that, by its nature, the former has no (explicit) statement of belief, and thus no common understanding of what ministry in God's church is for. That means there is little shared sense of how, or for what end, students are to "formed," or shaped, for service. And, for an evangelical, confessional, or otherwise conservative Christian, the glaring problem is that there is no shared understanding of the gospel.

I wasn't wholly unaware of these things when I started at Yale, but at that stage, I could brush them off more easily than I could later. Two major examples of what I'm talking about were biblical studies and chapel.

I had been exposed to "liberal" biblical studies before I arrived at Yale, so it came as no surprise to me that this was the predominant approach in my required Bible courses. Still, the big difference from previous Bible classes was, for me, the lifelessness of the approach. Often, we went about the study of the biblical text as if we thought it was something we could master, rather than something that was authoritative over us. There is a difference, I would like to think, between making use of modern research tools and acting as if we are cleverer and more advanced than the apostle Paul. Whether I imagined it or not, I sensed the latter attitude at times, and that's what really got to me. Besides being wrong-headed, I think it makes the study of Scripture a heck of a lot more boring than it has any right to be.

To argue with my professors or classmates that they didn't uphold the authority of Scripture, however, would have been a non-starter. When any such conversation came up, they would likely affirm that they believed in biblical authority. It's just that our understandings of that "authority" were so far apart that any starting-point for real dialogue was extraordinarily difficult to find (on other issues, too). And forget bringing in terms such as "inerrancy." That would simply be beyond the pale.

Another alienating thing at Yale was worship. Chapel was held every day, and I had hoped that it would encourage all of us to weave our spiritual and academic lives more closely together. However, it proved to be a difficult place for anyone who held to traditional views. Chapel was, first of all, meant to provide a "safe space" for anyone who would walk through the doors (to that end, for example, the table at Friday's Communion services was open to all, whether Christian or not). Though traditional language for God and the Trinity weren't completely eliminated from worship, it was used very sparingly in the effort to make the hymns and prayers "inclusive."

For another thing, the form of the services tended to be experimental. Part of the learning experience of chapel, as many saw it, was that you didn't know what to expect from day to day, that everyone was stretched out of their accustomed niches. This can be a great thing, as when you learn to sing worship songs from other cultures, for instance. But things can get stretched so far that the theology underlying worship starts to look something other than distinctly Christian. It is difficult to worship when you are scrutinizing the text of the service to figure out if, say, an "inclusive" Trinitarian formula is recognizably orthodox, or if the hymn you're about to sing is making some dubious claims about the person of Christ, or if it's okay for you to participate in the Eucharist as it's being celebrated here.

It's not that it was flagrantly heretical all of the time, or even most of the time, so I don't want you to get that impression. But, even if I agreed with the approaches taken, I don't think that Christian worship is primarily about affirming us, or about learning new stuff. Those things risk fixing our eyes on ourselves instead of where they rightly belong, on Jesus. And, in my case, the problematic elements of chapel fed a defensiveness in me that wasn't healthy. Though I attended chapel semi-regularly for a while, in the interest of being a part of the community, I gradually stopped, leaning instead on my church and the Evangelical Fellowship.

These two examples illustrate the degree to which I found myself a theological minority at Yale, more so than I had even expected. I tried not to let myself develop a bunker mentality in response to this. But it did make me more cynical about the possibility of real dialogue between traditional and progressive Christians. It is very difficult to find common ground when your founding presuppositions are so far apart.

In short, YDS contributed to my theological vocation by forcing me to figure out where I stood in my theology and my evangelical identity. I remain grateful for that, as well as for the many positive academic experiences I had there. Ultimately, as I've said, it's a great place to learn history and to establish a foundation for a PhD. As a place to prepare for vocational ministry in the church, however, I could not confidently recommend it.

Friday, August 5, 2011

everyday life stuff

+I am glad to say that I took my French translation final exam today and have already learned that I passed. That means I have just one more language exam to pass (Greek, most likely), and I'll be done with the formal language requirements for my program! In theory, there is no reason that I shouldn't have this done by Christmas...

+I had a lovely tea with a friend this week, and among other things, we talked about writing. It has been so many years since I really focused on writing any fiction; since I was a college freshman, really. I suppose there are a few reasons why I stopped, but one of them is that I felt I simply lost my creative touch. It's hard to write stories when you can no longer spin plots with the ease of an eight-year-old. I've done other types of writing (obviously...I'm a grad student, plus I've done journaling/blogging-type writing for years!), but I have never stopped imagining that someday, I'd rediscover my knack and write a novel or three. After this week's conversation, though, I just might feel inspired to tackle something less ambitious in the short term. What will it hurt to write a couple of silly short stories if it makes me happy, and gets me thinking in those ways again?

+We also talked about the need for more theologically solid devotional writing for women, by women. This is something I've been thinking about for awhile. Just because some traditional "women's ministry" types of things don't appeal to me very much doesn't give me any right to turn up my nose at such work. I know there is good stuff out there I haven't encountered yet...and I'd love to put my theological studies and writing ability to good use, for the sake of other Christian women and for the whole Church, if I possibly could.

+Speaking of Christian women I admire, my good friend Becki has also started a blog recently, which I am enjoying a lot. In time, I will certainly consider trying some of the ideas she shares...such as signing up with a local crop share to get fresh veggies. What I'd love best would be if my family could start a garden of our own. Someday!

+It is actually 79ยบ right now! I can hardly remember the last time it was this "cool," even at night. We've had temperatures in the upper 90s and even low 100s for weeks now, without rain. Today, finally, we had a most excellent downpour. I would have appreciated it even more if I hadn't been hauling two bags' worth of library books and a laptop across campus at the time.