Wednesday, November 27, 2013

An unlikely hymn of thanksgiving

Last summer I described this as the hymn of my heart, and that's still decidedly true. Over the past several months, though, a different old hymn-text, likewise authored by John Newton, has been uppermost in my thoughts. Here is the lightly edited adaptation by Laura Taylor of Indelible Grace (I could offer some funny commentary on the archaic language in the original, but that's for another day):

I Asked the Lord

1. I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and every grace,
Might more of His salvation know
And seek more earnestly His face.

2. 'Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair.

3. I hoped that in some favored hour
At once He'd answer my request
And by His love's constraining power
Subdue my sins and give me rest.

4. Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart
And let the angry powers of Hell
Assault my soul in every part.

5. Yea, more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Cast out my feelings, laid me low.

6. "Lord, why is this," I trembling cried,
"Wilt Thou pursue thy worm to death?"
"'Tis in this way," The Lord replied,
"I answer prayer for grace and faith."

7. "These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou mayest seek thy all in me,
That thou mayest seek thy all in me."

I knew this hymn before, but it made my stomach hurt. I couldn't quite imagine singing it in church with anything like a grateful heart. I didn't want to believe that the Lord might go about answering my prayers in such a way. Certainly I prayed to know His presence better, and seeking Him might entail some rough seasons—indeed, it already had—but He would meet me with something gentler than despair and crossing of schemes. Right?

More than a year later, I think I can understand something more of what Newton was getting at in this hymn. The Lord has been working out a lot of things in a deeper way in my heart, and very little of it has been easy. In fact, much of it has involved His removing those things I stubbornly look to for comfort and purpose instead of Him, blurring my images of the future so that the only thing I can discern with clarity is Himself. He is the only thing I can rest on, because He doesn't change or disappoint. Not like my abilities as a writer or scholar, or my plans for how things would unfold for us as a family, among other things. Most of those dreams aren't bad, and the fact that my direction and purpose in those areas has withered doesn't mean they'll never be restored, if not in the way or timing I'd expected.

The point, though, is that He is greater than those, by an incommensurable measure; they cannot even be compared. And there isn't going to be some definitive moment when I believe this once and for all; even if it isn't always this intense, His work of subduing my sins and setting me free from myself is going to be, mercifully, ongoing. Until the time of earthly joys is ended.

I can't pretend I understand the depth of woe Newton is describing here; I've been preserved from so many things. And I still don't know if I could sing this hymn in church without grumbling or tears. Certainly not every week. But when I read or listen to this hymn now, I recognize His work, and the sweetness of it, much more clearly than I could have a year ago. I wouldn't trade it, and that realization alone is something to be thankful for.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Book Review: Awakening Faith: Daily Devotions from the Early Church

Awakening Faith: Daily Devotions from the Early Church edited by James Stuart Bell. Zondervan (2013), 384 pp.
Cross Focused Reviews Blog Tour

I was excited to review Awakening Faith for obvious reasons. I'm well acquainted with the resurgence of interest in the church fathers among evangelical Protestants, and it's one of the things that compelled me to pursue doctoral work in patristics. Though I'm aware of a few books responding to that interest from an academic perspective, I was not familiar with any devotional books geared to that demographic.

The first thing I noticed about this book is that the daily entries included no citations indicating the larger works from which the excerpts had been drawn. I don't think this only bothered me because I'm a grad student; I felt that it got in the way of my ability to fully understand and appreciate what I was reading.

Here is an example of what I mean. I was really struck by #107, "Death's Power is Broken," by Braulio, a figure I had not heard of before (the helpful biographical sketch in the back explained that he was a seventh-century Spanish bishop). However, I had to do a fair bit of Googling before I was able to identify the letter this excerpt came from, and then, though I was not able to confirm this in a scholarly edition, I was a bit surprised to notice that the translation in Awakening Faith seems to have omitted a line. The book's translation reads, "The hope of resurrection encourages us because we will see again whomever we lost on earth. [Christ] is so powerful that it is easier for him to raise someone from the dead than it is for us to wake someone who is sleeping!" But when I tracked down a rendering of the work elsewhere, I saw that the line, "Of course, we must continue to believe firmly in Christ; we must continue to obey his commandments," seems to have appeared between those two sentences originally, though the book includes no ellipsis to indicate an omission.

I'm not suggesting that this is an illegitimate choice on the part of the editor, but that it made me wonder what other editorial choices were made in this compilation. Without knowing more about his principles for selection, it is hard to guess; and the lack of citations makes it difficult not only to read more of a work that piques one's interest, but also to get closer to the original language and intent of the various authors. I was surprised not to find a bibliography at the very least.

I hope this illustrates that I'm not setting out to be pedantic, but that some gesture toward the larger context of these writings is important -- not only for appreciating the writings in themselves, but for one's ability to apply them personally, much less use them devotionally. If Bell's goal is to encourage more reading of the fathers, then I thought he might have done more to make the fathers' writings accessible to an unfamiliar audience.

This leads me to a hesitation about the reading of the fathers within an evangelical or confessional Protestant setting (as my friend Coralie discusses in her own review). It would be easy to pick up Awakening Faith expecting consistency of thought among the figures represented, and continuity of theological ideas between their period and ours; but neither is reflected in this selection of readings, especially when it comes to areas like the sacraments, soteriology, and sanctification.

While looking at areas of difference can be illuminating, prompting us to ask different sorts of questions than those we are accustomed to asking, it can also be very confusing. I am still running into this challenge, as I am beginning a dissertation on fourth-century preachers and finding that some of John Chrysostom's sermons are not recognizable to me as the proclamation of the gospel. It's disorienting, and I think it would be even more so for readers who don't encounter it every day.

I liked aspects of the book. There were many beautiful excerpts I enjoyed reading and that were worth lingering over (especially, I noticed, on the person of Christ, and on suffering and death), and it presents an impressive variety -- far from being limited to a few famous names, it covers a wide swath of the Latin-, Greek-, and Syriac-speaking church, even pushing into the more northern frontiers, and it extends from the second century through the eighth.

Though it contains plenty of good material, and I expect to refer to it again for my own purposes, I hesitate to recommend this book for general use. Even as someone who has studied the church fathers for the better part of a decade, I felt a bit like I had been tossed into the deep end without the means to orient myself properly. I think a volume like this is needed, but that to be as edifying as possible, it should provide more guidance in how to read the fathers well.

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book, and I was under no obligation to give a favorable review

Saturday, November 2, 2013


"Strong scholars and successful professors experience bumpy roads in graduate school and after. Learn how to fall on your face and pick yourself up. Learn how to turn the train around. Learn how to glean good lessons from bad teachers in an effort to be a good teacher to those undergraduates under your care. Learn to look up, act on faith that the Big Principle has purpose: failing an exam does not mean that you don’t belong here. The only people who don’t belong in the classroom, library, laboratory, or lecturing from the podium are those who fear confrontation of incommensurable truth-claims, and who seek safety over the production and excavation of ideas—even scary ideas. [. . .] If you remember the Big Questions and claim them in your heart as your Big Questions, you will find that there are more ways to succeed than to fail and you will be connected to something that matters. Don’t fret because your path to those Big Questions doesn’t look like somebody else’s journey. Don’t fret when the path is lonely or treacherous. Look up." --Rosaria Butterfield, in The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert

As I mentioned last time, I didn't pass my prospectus defense at the end of September. I was fully expecting to have to endure a second defense sometime this winter (and, if that wasn't successful, of possibly being asked to leave the program); but, after submitting revisions to my advisor early last week, I was thrilled to learn that he and my committee members not only approved of them, but thought they were excellent, and had given me clearance to begin writing my dissertation. I could hardly believe it, in fact. I am so thankful to have ABD status and to be moving forward at last!

This past year has been a truly awful experience in many respects. I never quite reached the point of wanting to walk away, but my confidence in my academic vocation was nearly shattered on more than one occasion. I'm not sure I could give a clear and consistent explanation for why the past 15 months were such a mess for me. I think there are multiple factors, and I'm not too inclined to delineate them here. While I still have questions about my long-term suitedness for academia (and, unfortunately, I don't entirely have the luxury of putting those on the shelf while I work on the dissertation--there's the matter of the job market, for one), I am more confident that I have a place here for the time being. It is such a relief to be on the other side of this long year of waiting and ambiguity!

Some of my classmates have suggested that the prospectus is the toughest obstacle in the Ph.D. program, and that it will become easier from here. I don't know whether that will prove true for me, but I am betting that, as difficult as it's sure to be, researching and writing the actual dissertation will turn out to be a much more pleasant (or at least tolerable) experience than writing 6 or 7 drafts of a 30-page proposal. Either way, as other friends have pointed out, I've been confirmed in the hunch that getting through a dissertation is as much about persistence and stubbornness as it is about particular intellectual gifts.

I have a tentative goal of finishing in the spring of 2015, but I am still discerning how feasible that really is, especially if I am teaching next year, etc. For now, I'm thankful for the privilege of getting to focus exclusively on writing until next May. And of getting to spend a little longer in school, with the time and resources to pursue questions that are of interest to me, and that I hope are important to the church.

Thanks for loving me and being patient with me through this process (you all know who you are)--for not letting me lose sight of my Big Questions, or lose perspective on where my lasting joy and identity lie. More than anything, the past year has given me greater trust in God's faithfulness in bringing me through difficult circumstances, even when the significance of what I'm enduring feels like a mystery at best and useless at worst. I'm going to need a lot more gumption to get me through the rest, so please keep me in your prayers.