Saturday, July 30, 2011

Why Academia, Part 2(c) -- YDS

By far the best thing about my three years at Yale was the opportunity for historical study. As you might recall, I entered the M.Div. program wanting to "leave the doors open" as far as ultimate career tracks were concerned. However, it didn't take me very long to fall in love with my historical theology classes -- especially those related to the Early Church.

I had some excellent teachers at YDS who began opening up to me the path I would eventually follow. I remember with particular gratitude the courses I took on the early development of Trinitarian doctrine, the history of worship and liturgy, the writings of Origen (a third century biblical scholar), and preaching in the early and medieval church. Well before the end of my first semester, I had joined the North American Patristics Society (my field's professional organization) and begun investigating doctoral programs in church history/historical theology. I can't forget a noteworthy class I took outside of my primary field, though -- The Life & Thought of Jonathan Edwards. Because Yale is home to the Jonathan Edwards Center and some of the premier Edwards scholars, it's a great place to study him. And since the university's Rare Book & Manuscript Library holds most of his papers, I had the chance to see and touch the original copies of some of his famous works, as well as his extensively marked homemade study Bible. WHERE ELSE but Yale could I have gotten to do something so marvelous?

I was also part of some wonderful communities at YDS. If I had not felt so alienated at YDS (of which more later), I might not have sought out and identified so strongly with these unique groups. One was the Overseas Ministries Study Center, a residential campus where missionaries from around the world spend a year resting and studying in community. I was blessed to be the OMSC's student intern during my third year of seminary (I got away with this as my "supervised ministry" placement), which meant that I basically got to spend a year hanging out with and writing the stories of individuals, couples, and families from all parts of the globe, who, despite their various ecclesiastical backgrounds, shared a common passion for evangelism. It was a passion YDS mostly lacked -- and it was a refreshing exposure to "ecumenism" of a different form than that which Yale was ostensibly all about. I'm grateful I had the chance to learn a little bit about the global church and to be introduced to the lively study and practice of missiology. And the people, both staff and residents, were lovely and welcoming.

Another much-loved community was the nearby Episcopal parish I attended for three years. My relationship with Anglicanism/the Episcopal church could be a separate post in itself. However, this unique congregation of mostly evangelicals was the place where I began to learn what worship and fellowship are about. It was my saving grace at times when I wasn't sure what else was keeping me at Yale.

A similar safe haven, on the YDS campus itself, was the Evangelical Fellowship, a somewhat motley group of students who shared many of my ambivalent attitudes toward the div school experience. We were not just a disaffected group defining itself against the majority, however; for me, at least, it provided a context for piecing together a positive evangelical identity as well. I made my closest friends there, and our regular worship nights were a great comfort.

I am getting a bit off track. But I wanted to show that there were experiences -- academic, social, and spiritual -- that made Yale a wonderful place more often than not. Thanks to these classes, libraries, and people, I began to come into my own in a lot of ways. I became more confident socially, developed a better idea of what I wanted to study, and began to find my place in the Church. And of course I met my husband!

I'm not trying to drag out the suspense (haha), but I think I'll put the rest in another post. We're about to eat a late dinner, and besides, this is getting plenty long. This time, I'll try to follow up with the next post in a day or two, instead of making everyone wait a week. :-)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

How we got here, in brief (really).

My husband and I have just celebrated an anniversary. Our third, to be exact. It's hard to believe, sometimes, that even that little space of time has elapsed.

You've probably heard some variation on the story before, but here's a rough outline of how we happened:

2005-2006: Sarah and Kevin meet as YDS newbies. We discover things in common, such as a shared interest in patristics and a similar church background, and attend meetings of the Evangelical Fellowship together. But Sarah is bemused by Kevin's (very opposite) personality and avoids conversation as often as not.
Fall, 2006: Sarah and Kevin talk more, and Sarah slowly grows more comfortable and begins to consider Kevin a good friend. To the point that she feels surprisingly sad when she gathers that he isn't interested in dating her (and she thought she was being so subtle about things!).
Spring, 2007: Some things shift, and after some casual dates/hanging out and a slightly ambiguous period, we become a couple "officially" on May 2.
Summer, 2007: Kevin is working in upstate New York, Sarah's at Yale. We exchange old-fashioned letters and read Anglican Evening Prayer most nights over the phone. By summer's end, we're pretty resolved on marriage.
October 24: Engaged! (Kevin, now graduated, flies in from California for the proposal.)
July 26, 2008: Married!

Then we lived in California for about two years. Now we're going into our second year in Missouri.

Here's a picture of the famous corner near Yale where we held hands for the first time and where Kevin proposed less than six months later:

I like that corner. It's a good spot. :-)

Our first anniversary was spent along the southern Oregon coast and our second at a B&B overlooking the Mississippi. This year we opted to stay in town and have tea. I think it might have been my favorite anniversary date yet. And so very us.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

“There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there.” –G.K. Chesterton

I admit, I've been feeling a little envious lately of friends who've had the opportunity to live and travel abroad in recent years. It's been seven years since my sojourn in Scotland. I am a bit restless.

That's when it's good for me to remember how blessed I've been to spend more than a few weeks overseas at all. And that the past ten years have afforded me opportunities to live and travel all over the United States -- much of that in just the last three years, beside my husband.

The map above traces our shared travels since 2007 (so, yes, there's a little bit from dating days). As you can see (at least somewhat -- the purple markings don't show up so well), we've traveled up and down pretty much the entire coast of California (and most of Oregon). Last year's move took us across the Southwest and Texas, up through respectable swathes of the Midwest, connecting us back to Pennsylvania and bits of the upper South.

We definitely have our work cut out for us. In particular, I am longing to spend some time in the Mountain West. I also wouldn't mind seeing more of the upper Midwest, and the deeper South -- certainly more of Appalachia. Perhaps someday we'll be able to add a colorfully marked world map to the California and United States ones currently decorating our apartment. Or at least a map of North America. I hear Canada's pretty big as well. :)

However, looking at this map brings me happiness and perspective. We've gotten to see and share so much during our few years together. And we've been led to St. Louis, where we are able to set down some roots, for now. I am happy to remain anchored here and learn contentment in our little spot in the Midwest -- though, you can be sure, my daydreams will venture further afield.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Why Academia, Part 2(b) -- Yale and All That

In my previous post in this "Why Academia" series, I talked about my undergraduate experience and the turning points that propelled me toward the academic study of theology.

Logically, the next installment should talk about my Master's program at Yale. I'm a little intimidated by the prospect, though. YDS was a time of intense, sometimes painful change. It's just a lot to try to sum up in a blog post. But it's worth a try.

Maybe I should start by explaining a bit about what divinity school is. A divinity school is a lot like a seminary. Both are primarily places for the theological training of future clergy (and, to a lesser degree, training for various kinds of non-ordained ministry and/or church-oriented academic work). This is a bit simplistic, but the big difference is that a seminary, such as Covenant Theological Seminary here in St. Louis (yay, Covenant!), is specifically geared toward training candidates for ministry in the Presbyterian Church in America and closely related denominations. Yale Divinity School, on the other hand, has no formal denominational tie, has students from a range of denominations, and is attached to a major research university -- obviously, Yale. (Schools like Harvard, Vanderbilt, and Duke divinity schools run on a similar model.)

As a college senior, I wanted to go the divinity school route for a couple reasons. For one thing, I didn't feel I had a very strong denominational affinity at the time. For another, the academic resources of a place like Yale were very appealing for an ambitious young geek! Perhaps most importantly, I didn't have a precise outlook for what I ultimately wanted to do. I suspected it would probably be something in academia, but I didn't know, just yet, what area of theology I wanted to focus on the most: I just knew I loved them all! Most small seminaries would rightly frown on such an applicant, but Yale's Masters of Divinity program was broad and flexible enough to accommodate my eager, if ill-defined, passions.

There's another reason that YDS appealed to me: its billing as an "ecumenical" school.
In college, I was exposed to a fairly wide theological spectrum. I knew I came out on the traditional side of things, but, for various reasons, at 22, I wasn't ready to own up to being a straight-up theological conservative. (Indeed, I didn't know it for a few years myself.) I found good in some of the liberal materials I had studied. In other words, I had dabbled in just enough things, and just shallowly enough, to be dangerous.

I thought that Yale's ecumenical environment would be the perfect place for a young evangelical Protestant like myself to interact with Christians from a bunch of different backgrounds, for all of us to discuss openly and learn from one another. Maybe then, some of the painful chasms within and between denominations could start to be bridged.

I know you're probably shaking your head at me right now. Yes, all this was as naive as it was well-intentioned. It took some rather abrupt culture shock and disillusionment for me to begin figuring that out, however.

I'll write more about Yale, the good and the bad, in upcoming posts. But first, please understand that there was much good. Yale was the right place for me to be, and not just because I met my husband there!

Neither the good nor the bad was easy, however. On the cusp of my divinity school years, I clearly had a lot to learn.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Thanks, Calvin!

Yesterday I read this post which helped me get into a better frame of mind for the coming week. Especially this excerpt from Calvin's commentary on Luke:

It is an error to think that those who flee worldly affairs and engage in contemplation are leading an angelic life. . . We know that men were created to busy themselves with labor and that no sacrifice is more pleasing to God than when each one attends to his calling and studies well to live for the common good.

What's really fascinating here is that I'm pretty sure Calvin is responding to the popular medieval interpretation that upheld Mary as the model of the "contemplative life," what Jesus refers to as the "good portion," and Martha as the model of the "active life." I am terribly curious to look at the Calvin quote in context and to see if he is building an argument about the godliness of the ordinary "worldly" vocation over against the traditional Catholic elevation of the consecrated religious life. Fodder for a future blog post, maybe???

Anyway, back to how the quotation helped me: in light of my despondency last week, it's a great comfort to reflect that my labor (even mine!) is a work for which God created me. And that even (or especially) when it's a sacrifice, the discipline with which I attend to my calling pleases God. Calvin also says that God is pleased when His laborer "studies well to live for the common good." Isn't that a neat expression?

It's led me to think about the self-indulgent ways I sometimes envision my work. I don't even mean consciously self-indulgent, all the time. But I hear myself speaking of my studies as "tedious" or "wearisome" often, and while that's just a fact of life, I wonder if it is also because I take for granted that my work is primarily about what happens inside my own head. Maybe you're thinking, "Well, duh. She's an academic!" Obviously, it has a lot to do with the activity inside my head!

On the other hand, though -- how often do I reflect on how my work involves "[studying] well to live for the common good"? That the way I pursue my calling, in order to please God, must redound to the good, not just of my family, my department, or my field, but to the good of the church, of the Kingdom? Beyond sentimentalizing or merely paying lip service, how could that really change the way I approach what I do in my little basement carrel on a daily basis?

Created to be busy, to labor, to sacrifice, and so to please God. Wow!

I think there is a lot more that could be said here. I think it can well apply to all Christians, but maybe I should think more about how the life of the academic (specifically the student of theology?) has both "Mary" and "Martha" aspects... Another blog post in the pipeline?! :)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Boring Post

It's been awhile since my last post, I realize, though it's been difficult for me to muster much creativity or focus for writing. For various reasons, I haven't been in the most cheerful of moods recently. I also can't help but feel that this past week was kind of a "lost week" in terms of getting things done...

French is going fine. It has never been a burdensome class; amazingly, there are just two weeks remaining, plus whenever my final exam will be scheduled (probably the first week of August). I am actually mildly excited for the exam as a test of my newfound abilities. (I know. That's twisted.) I haven't been doing a ton of work on my other languages, though.

Reading for second-year exams is also going slowly, I have to admit. I am enjoying my current book quite a bit -- it's Peter Brown's biography of Augustine of Hippo, a classic in the field. I specifically chose it because I thought reading a biography would be a nice way of easing into the reading load, as opposed to, say, diving straight into Aloys Grillmeier's 624-page Christ in Christian Tradition. (That was my initial stroke of brilliance. It took me about two weeks to come to my senses.) What makes the book fun is that it reads almost like a novel at points. Nevertheless, no matter how relatively fun it is, let's be honest: when I come home from school in the evening, am I going to be more inclined to read a scholarly book about Augustine, or am I going to watch episodes of House Hunters or Frasier?

Yep. It's going slowly.

Setting realistic expectations for myself has never particularly been a strength of mine. Add to that the usual ebbs and flows of any grad student's life, and you have a rather discouraged Sarah. I have to keep reminding myself that these slumps don't last.

I am still very much appreciating my summer and determined to make the most of the second half, however. Hopefully, that means you'll have something more interesting to read soon!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Why Academia, Part 2(a): Theology -- The Hollins Years

The more I think about this blog series, the more I think of to write, and the longer it potentially becomes.

I left off attempting to explain why I am doing a PhD, broadly speaking. I told you guys that, next, I'd talk about how I ended up choosing to study theology. To do that effectively, I need to rewind to college. So, Part II might itself end up splitting into multiple sub-sections. But I'll try not to get ridiculous about this...!

Many of you reading this will know that I attended Hollins University during my undergraduate years. Founded in 1842, it is a women's liberal arts college tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia, near Roanoke. Among other Pulitzer Prizewinners, Annie Dillard attended Hollins, and the school's most significant claims to fame are its programs in Creative Writing and Children's Literature. I went there because I was going to be a writer; I was always going to be a writer. And since I was maybe 14 or so, Hollins was the place where I was going to make that happen.

This post is not going to be about why that didn't happen, or really about Hollins itself. I could analyze my changing identity as a writer another time. Suffice it to say, Hollins is a beautiful place where I was absolutely privileged to study for four years, but it couldn't live up to the idyllic, almost mythical status it attained in my imagination throughout middle and high school. Especially, the English department couldn't and didn't.

Something else happened during my first semester, however. I took a religion class -- Buddhist Traditions. And I started getting to know the university chaplain, the other religion faculty, and the other majors in our tiny department. By November of my freshman year, I had decided to be a Religious Studies major.

I should note, this didn't come out of nowhere. I had had an interest in things religious and theological for many years now. In particular, my interest in theology was sparked by an adolescent preoccupation with Protestant-Catholic polemics -- something that caused no shortage of angst at the time.

As Hollins wasn't a denominationally aligned campus, however, courses in world religions were primarily on offer. I took classes in both Western and Eastern major traditions, with a particular emphasis on history (ancient, medieval, and American) where I could get it. I took courses in Old and New Testament and on feminist theology and ethics.

The real turning point came, though, when I had the opportunity to study for a semester at Scotland's University of Edinburgh in the spring of 2004. Life in Scotland was the fulfillment of pretty much a lifelong dream, and it was a game-changer in that it instilled a love for the academic study of Christian theology.

While I had gotten hints and nudges of this at Hollins, when I opened a Greek New Testament for the first time and wrote my first exegesis paper on Matthew 12, I knew it when Dr. Johnny McDowell read bits of Irenaeus aloud to my class on Edinburgh's Castle Mound. I was 21, I had gotten my first heady whiff of ancient theology, and just like that I knew it mattered, as assuredly for us today as it did when Athanasius was hunkered in desert exile. I couldn't be satisfied doing graduate work on comparative religions, though that has its place in the academic world. I needed to do my work as a Christian, for Christians; I needed to go to divinity school.

Part 2(b) coming soon. :)

Monday, July 4, 2011

"Our conjunction with Christ" even unto death.

I have been reading a book called Homeward Bound: Preparing Your Family for Eternity which was recommended by one of our pastors when he did a preaching series on death this past winter.

Now I know how that probably sounds. But believe me that this is not a depressing book. Well, the first chapter certainly made me cry: Edward Hartman writes of his young wife's death from a brain tumor and the heartache he and his four children endured over those months and in the aftermath.

But the book as a whole talks about what the Hartmans learned about living daily life with an eternal perspective. He says that "few things more attractively display and persuasively commend the glory of God in the life of a Christian than a Christ-centered marriage and a Christ-centered that would cause the watching world to sit up and take notice." The book is filled with practical suggestions on how families (even couples) can become centered on Christ in this way, drawing on Hartman's dissertation research on the Puritans' teachings on family. (I know some of you reading this won't already hold a high opinion of the Puritans and might wonder why I love them so, but trust me, there is more to them than the nineteenth-century stereotypes that have become standard.)

Anyway, one of the guys Hartman was studying was named William Perkins, an English minister who studied at Cambridge and began his career by preaching to prisoners. In 1616, Perkins wrote a little book titled The Right Manner of Dying Well. Hartman includes the text of this work at the end of his own book, and I was reading it last night. When I got to this section on the Christian's union with Christ in death, it completely blew my mind, and I'm still sifting through all the implications.

I want to share that excerpt here. Now, if you choose to read the whole thing, it probably sounds pretty morbid. I think that's because people in the 17th century were a lot more closely acquainted with death than we generally tend to be; they probably didn't share our sense of squeamishness about it. But his language about death serves a purpose. I hope you'll be able to hear the triumph in Perkins' words:

In this respect death is clearly seen as being more excellent than life. It may be here that the unsatisfied mind of man will yet further reply and say that even though in death the souls of men enter into heaven, their bodies, though kept tenderly for food, drink, and apparel and having slept many a night in beds of down while living, must now lie in dark and loathsome graves, and there be wasted and consumed by worms. All this is true indeed, but all is nothing, if we will consider rightly our graves, as we should. We must not judge graves, as they appear to the bodily eyes, but we must look upon them by the eye of faith. We must consider graves as they are altered and changed by the death and burial of Christ, who having vanquished death upon the cross, pursued [death] afterward to his own den, and foiled him there and deprived him of his power. By this means Christ in his own death has buried our death, and by the virtue of his burial, it is as if sweet incense has sweetened and perfumed our graves and made the often decaying and loathsome cabins to become princely palaces and beds of moss, sweet and happy -- far more excellent than beds of down. Though the body rot in the grave and be eaten of worms, or of fishes in the sea, or burnt to ashes, that will not be unto us a matter of discomfort, if we consider well the ground of all graces, namely, our conjunction with Christ. While it is spiritual, it is a most real conjunction. We must not imagine that our souls alone are joined to the body or soul of Christ, but the whole person of man, in body and soul, is joined and united to the whole Christ. When we are once joined to Christ in this mortal life by the bond of the Spirit, we shall remain and continue eternally joined with him, and this union once truly made shall never be dissolved. Thus it follows, that although the body be severed from the soul in death, neither body or soul are severed from Christ. The very body rotting in the grave, drowned in the sea, burned to ashes, abides still united to him and is as truly a member of Christ then, as before.

Isn't that astounding?? I think so.

Hartman's book was encouraging for me, as well, because I think it's a great example of how academic research can translate into something that benefits everyday families. Anyway, I heartily commend Homeward Bound to you, as well as The Right Manner of Dying Well.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Why Academia, Part I: Why a PhD?

I fell a bit behind with this blog. The past week was a bit "off," as I fought a slight cold and we coped with some other household things. But this is as good a time as any to tackle my subject: Why I'm Getting a PhD! I plan for this to be the first of a short series.

I don't want to assume that people know what I'm talking about when I discuss academia, because let's face it, it's a quirky path, and there are good reasons that few people choose it! Again, I don't expect this to make for the most fascinating reading. But I know that some of my family and friends might nevertheless enjoy having a clearer idea of what I'm doing and why.

First, to address some of the frequently asked questions...
  • My doctoral program is in Historical Theology. (More on this in subsequent posts.)
  • The program lasts a minimum of four years. (There' real maximum. There are some alarming stats for how long it takes people to complete their degree. My goal is five, and that would be a highly respectable length.)
  • I'm currently going into the 2nd year of the program.
  • During these first two years, I do coursework, much as I did in undergrad and in my Master's program. My seminars generally have between four and eight students in them.
  • My third year will be devoted to proposing and researching my dissertation topic.
  • The fourth and any subsequent years will be All Dissertation, All The Time.
  • Unless I am teaching undergraduate survey courses. Right now, I am fortunate to be on a Fellowship that doesn't require me to be apprenticed to a faculty member as a Research Assistant. (Which is great, because it means that studying really gets to be my full-time job!) If I am offered the opportunity to teach, though (as most of the PhD students are), it will happen no earlier than Year 4.
Of course that doesn't get to the really big question -- that is, what's the GOAL of all this?

Believe it or not, it's not because I love studying SO much that I desire to be a professional student. Mainly, I want to write. And teach. My dream situation, as of now, would be to teach theology/church history to undergraduates at a small Christian liberal arts college, perhaps in the type of "Great Books" Honors track Kevin graduated from.

Honestly, the idea of working with undergrads excites me more than working at a large research university or teaching Masters- or seminary-level students. I like the idea of punching holes in kids' presuppositions and getting them excited about perspectives they would never have considered, or authorities they would never have taken a second glance at. (Believe me, teaching theology, even to Christian youth, affords MANY such opportunities.)

I'll talk more later about why I want to teach theology specifically. Essentially, for me, the undergraduate setting is where the action is. I love the idea of having a hand in forming hearts and intellects during those years.

Note, though, that I referred to this as the "dream" scenario. Frankly, lots of PhD students want those small-liberal-arts-school posts right now. And there aren't that many of them to go around. The market stinks right now; that is just the reality. I need to be realistic about the fact that my ideal situation might not be realized right away, or ever -- especially since I'm married to someone who is working in an extremely similar field, and who will be seeking similar kinds of work (though he is looking to teach at a seminary, which is a little different)!

That's where, along with the realism, a little creativity comes in handy. Especially if I am able to launch something of a writing career (which, after all, is something I have always wanted, and which is a major part of academia anyway), then I think I can find various ways to put my degree to good use...even if it means taking on lower-paying adjunct jobs for awhile, or writing/consulting on curricula for churches, or who knows what else. I got enough enjoyment out of my brief stint teaching community college-level online courses to know that the work can be rewarding at any level. And that, if it's all I can get, I'm willing to work with it!

At any rate, I really don't know what my 30s will bring, especially since I want to have kids, also! The upshot is, I think it's silly to get too rigid about what I want my career to look like, at this early stage.

As you might have gathered, a PhD is a lot of work without the guarantee of a huge payoff. I'll admit, that's something I wish I had taken more seriously when I was 22 or even 25. I don't think it would have ultimately changed my plans -- but it's much easier, at 22, to think, "I don't care if I accumulate some debt, or that it'll take me longer to get my career started than my peers," than it is to live with the reality when you're a little older and married. I see people I went to high school with becoming homeowners, and we're living in a little apartment and driving a 20-year-old car. It isn't glamorous.

On the other hand, I get to devote my time to studying subjects that I love and find meaningful. I try to remind myself every day what a luxury that is. While I can't take a romanticized view of it, I know it's not a bad place to be.

Finally, I'd add that when I was little, I had this idea that PhDs were "the smartest people." Surely, if you had the brains, you had no choice but to advance to the highest possible degree. I know better now...some of the most intelligent people I have known had no degrees to their name, and I can confidently tell you that holding a doctoral degree does NOT mean you're a genius!

In reality, getting a PhD is a strange thing to do. I think the only difference between me and a well-read non-academic is that I read obscure books for a living and am required to argue about them with some degree of precision and originality. While one has to have intelligence to reach this level, I sometimes think the job, the academic lifestyle, is more about having a liking for, and the disposition to thrive in, a rather eccentric subculture, than it is about being "smart."

I'm not sure how good a job I've done answering the why question. Maybe this will help: in the next installment of this series, I'm planning to write about why I chose to study theology. To do that well, I may need to "rewind" a bit, to my storied Hollins and Yale days. :)