Friday, May 31, 2013

Disappointment, bits of encouragement, and the prospect of a long summer

I know my posting on this blog has been pretty sparse this year. With the exception of book reviews, that is. As much as I enjoy doing the book reviews, it has never been my intention that this be primarily a book review blog. I anticipate doing at least one of them this summer, but aside from that, I'm hoping to get back to more of the blog's original purpose -- to keep my family and friends up-to-date on what I'm doing, and to provide an informal platform for other thoughts.

So what have I been up to in recent weeks? I can tell you something that hasn't happened; I didn't succeed in getting my dissertation proposal approved before the end of the semester. That's something I had hoped would happen back in the fall semester, if you remember, and I'd hoped that I'd be well on my way to completing a couple of chapters by now. So that's a major disappointment. In fact, it's probably the hardest academic struggle I've ever faced, and it's been enough to bring on some doubts about my chosen career path. I have always assumed that because I'm introverted, bookish, and good at school, that tasks like independent research and writing would come very naturally to me. So it's rather disorienting to find those tasks so difficult and unappealing at this stage. I just really don't know what to do with that data. How seriously do I take the fact that this year has been such a (largely) unhappy sludge? Does it necessarily mean I'm not cut out for this kind of work?

On the other hand, I presented a paper at a conference last week. It was the primary conference in my field; relatively small, but attended by most of the top scholars in the study of Early Christianity. In case you're not familiar with academic conferences, the main idea is to provide an opportunity for discussion and networking within your field. Each conference presenter has about 20 minutes to present an excerpt from his or her current research and then to receive questions and feedback. As you can imagine, that's an intimidating prospect even for someone who isn't particularly shy. I have presented at conferences before, but this was my first time presenting my work at such a major one. My presentation on Gregory of Nazianzus was well received, though, and I got some nice feedback -- including, notably, some very warm words from an elderly, retired clergyman who appreciated the richness of my material and asked me to share a copy of what I had written with him. It was so kind of him to encourage me like that! And it reassured me that, whatever happens on the academic end of things, there still may be an audience for the kind of writing I'm good at.

So there you go. It seems I do have things to say that may be helpful for people, whether or not that audience falls primarily inside of academia or outside of it; the question remains whether I can sustain the energy and motivation to finish this degree and seek out a niche where I can do that kind of work. At the moment I just can't envision what that's going to look like.

And as for this summer? I'll keep trying to revise my proposal in the hope of getting it defended and approved first thing in the fall semester. Hopefully I'll emerge from that, too, with some solid material that can be readily developed into chapters; that way I won't be so terribly far behind.

Honestly, summers in St. Louis have not tended to be the most fun, and in light of everything I have to do, I'm hoping I can manage to keep my spirits up. I will really need some encouragement in the coming weeks and months.

Thanks for reading, and I will try to keep you all posted more regularly, even though I don't imagine it's going to be the most fascinating thing to read!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Book Review: Contentment, Prosperity, and God's Glory by Jeremiah Burroughs

Contentment, Prosperity, and God's Glory (Puritan Treasures for Today), by Jeremiah Burroughs; edited by Phillip L. Simpson
Reformation Heritage Books (2013); 119 pp.
Cross Focused Reviews Blog Tour

If you know me personally and/or academically, you can probably guess how excited I was to have the chance to review an edition of a work by Jeremiah Burroughs (1600–1646), a Puritan Congregationalist minister and Westminster divine. I have scarcely waded into the vast body of Puritan literature so far, but I have enjoyed everything I have had the opportunity to read from this era. About two years ago I read Burrough's lovely (and better-known) work, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, so when I saw that the contents of Contentment, Prosperity, and God's Glory had been intended as an appendix to the former book, I was eager for more.

This book is part of Reformation Heritage Books' "Puritan Treasures for Today" series, which is meant to remove barriers to modern readers by smoothing out difficult seventeenth-century language and presenting works in a less intimidating (shorter!) format. After reading this book, I think the editors are onto something great. First, I didn't feel that the "updating" of the language was at all clunky or distracting; it was readable and still felt true to the style of other (decidedly not updated!) Puritan works I've read. Second, though this isn't the type of thing I would usually dwell on, the book is quite pretty! The paperback is attractively designed and the perfect size to stick in my bag to read at spare moments.

I don't want to belabor the details of this book, because I think the best way to entice you to read it is to offer a sampling of rich quotations. But I'll preface that by noting that Burroughs' theme is a simple one: based on Paul's statement in Philippians 4:12, he wants his readers to "learn how to be full." While he wants Christians to know how to suffer affliction faithfully, Burroughs' concern here is the difficult, in some ways more subtle, calling of stewarding abundance with a contented heart. It's also important to note that, while he refers to those who administer vast estates and own prosperous businesses, he classifies as "full" anyone whose daily needs are amply supplied.

  • "A man knows how to be full when he can keep under his command everything he enjoys, and he can retain command over his own spirit in what he enjoys. Therefore, he is not a slave to what he has, but he makes what he has a slave to himself." (21)
  • "You do not know how to abound when you cannot take into account the good of mercy when you consider an affliction. Even when God afflicts you in something, He still gives you an abundance of occasions to bless Him and praise Him. But when you can bless God for all mercies and be humbled for all afflictions at the same time, then you are a man who knows how to abound." (32)
  • "Fullness will . . . feed self-love to the extreme. When a man perceives himself to be self-sufficient, he sees no need for God or Christ or mercy or the Word and its promises. [. . .] This is the reason the Word rarely ever does any good to those who are full." (43)
  • "A godly man learns how to be full by regularly surrendering up his estate, his comforts, and his possessions to God . . . This is a way that a natural man understands little of--to know how to enjoy his comforts by surrendering them up--yet that is the way of a gracious heart. [. . .] A man who can just as easily resign everything up to God as he can receive anything from God . . . is the only man who is blessed in what he enjoys in this world." (77)
  • "God has set this time of your life as the time to provide for eternity . . . This would make you cautious of spending so much time in the use and enjoyment of the things of this world if they hinder you in the least in fulfilling the great work for which you live: the advancement of the gospel and your own spiritual good. Learning this lesson would move you to use all that you own, to the utmost of your ability, for these great purposes. In doing this, you will learn how to truly abound." (100–101)

If you have never read Puritan writings before, don't be intimidated by the thought of a book that's going on 400 years old. I think you'll find this book to be as timely, inviting, yet challenging as I did.