Thursday, October 30, 2014

Early Fall Update (Part 1 of 2)

I don’t know who all has been praying for me, but thank you. The transition to the new semester has gone better than I had really dared to hope. Several months ago, I could not have imagined that I would be able to get through an eight-hour work day, much less have energy to make dinner afterward, or turn around and work on my dissertation the next morning. My energy levels have improved pretty dramatically (helped somewhat by the discovery that coffee is powerful). The loosely structured, lengthy summer was exactly what I needed (and no doubt a big part of what’s helped me feel better and more ready to tackle things), and the more regimented schedule is exactly what I need now.

It is worth saying that, unless I were truly under the gun to finish a chapter, I still don’t think I could get through a full day of working solely on my dissertation (at least not without plenty of existential angst and pitiful whimpering). The partitioning of energies seems to be the only thing that makes this work. And that is useful information to have as I think about what might come after I graduate.

I’m in awe of people who can work demanding jobs while carrying a full course load. I don’t think I could have handled that. But for whatever reason, my current 20-hour-a-week job seems—so far—to lend itself pretty well to the way I approach the dissertation stage. I like having a totally distinct set of responsibilities that I don’t have to carry with me into the other set, and vice versa. And I like getting up early in the morning (!) and being able to do several different kinds of things over the course of the day. Again, these are things I would never have learned about myself if not for the struggles of the past two years!

For the time being, the dissertation progresses somewhat slowly, since I haven’t yet managed to balance writing and work as equitably as I will probably need to. Between full days at work, then making and cleaning up from dinner, and getting some time with my husband, there really isn’t space for writing during the first half of the week. But the good thing is that it’s progressing, even though it feels like it’s inching along more days than not. I am going on 70 pages at this point, and once adrenaline kicks in, I shouldn’t have trouble hitting my goal of 100 pages by Christmas. As long as I set goals focused on tangible output rather than time spent, and don’t worry too much about comparing my process to anyone else’s, I seem to do pretty well. As soon as I start comparing myself to other students, or trying to adhere to a certain pattern for what dissertation work should look like, I start to falter.

I had hoped and expected to teach in my fifth year, but since that didn’t work out, I was offered the opportunity to work as a graduate research assistant in my library’s Special Collections department. I hope to explain this in more detail in a later post.

I have to say, I was a little bit crushed when teaching didn’t work out. Not even so much because of the teaching itself, but because it threw my career expectations into yet more of a muddle. I’m not sure what this will mean for my future career in academics.

However, it must also be said that I’m happier than I’ve been for a long time. There are plenty of struggles, certainly; but I no longer feel trapped in a routine that wasn’t serving me well at all, no matter how hard I tried to convince myself it was right. Thank you, again, for praying.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

In God's Image: Notes on Made for More by Hannah Anderson

I can’t remember a time in my life when I felt totally comfortable with what was expected of me as a girl or woman in a given setting. Whether as a little girl, as an undergraduate at a women’s liberal arts college, or a thirty-something in a socially conservative denomination, I’ve always felt like a bit of a square peg. Over the past year especially, I’ve been longing for a book that would help me discern God’s calling underneath those disparate experiences.

 Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God's Image by Hannah Anderson

This is a book targeted to Christian women which actually “[calls] women to recover an understanding of ourselves that is more basic than our gender” (11) by recovering the basic doctrine of being created imago dei, in the image of God. This is important because most of us spend a lifetime searching for our identity in various roles, relationships, and attainments—all things which have a way of changing when we least expect them to. Even when these things are good, “we realize that they didn’t fulfill us the way we had expected; despite having invested so much of ourselves in what we thought would provide a lasting sense of meaning, we hardly know ourselves in the midst of it…And the things that we once looked to for stability and identity begin to feel like burdens and obligations instead of blessings” (19, emphasis mine). Oh boy can I identify!

Our true identity is found not simply in who we are as individuals (the point where our culture stops short), but in who our God is. Because we are made in His image, we exist to reflect and represent him on earth. This involves three things: living in dependent communion on God, living in relationship with other human beings, and stewarding God’s creation. Because of the fall, however, “our capacity to live in this reality has been fundamentally corrupted” (48). When we start to build our identity around things other than God, we begin to resemble caricatures, failing to reflect the depth and richness of God’s nature. And when those things are threatened, we feel like our very personhood is under attack (51). So how do we rid ourselves of these false identities and have the reflection of God’s glory restored to us? By losing ourselves in Christ and being indwelt by His Spirit.

Finding our authentic selves in Christ has endless implications for our daily lives. As God reorders our affections, teaching us to love the right things in the right way, we can begin to reflect His love to those around us. [Great quote: “In [Christ], we discover that loving like God does not mean finding a balance between two extremes but in discovering the depth of what love truly is. His love is not a muted, muddied love, a milky attempt to negate holiness with kindness, but an infinitely complex, nuanced expression of what it means to love like God.” (82)] Our souls enlarge to image our God’s generosity (94). We start to view education and theology as crucial to becoming image bearers, not limiting them according to career aspirations, or gendered concerns. We view our work as sacred, not because of the tasks we perform, but because it images our Maker; indeed, even the most mundane work is dignified because Jesus “stooped from glory” to serve us (120).

Some of my favorite parts of the book are when Anderson discusses God’s providence in shaping us through the circumstances of our lives. God has formed our personalities and ordered the details of our lives to reflect Himself uniquely. And if we don’t understand “why” things are this way—well, that’s to be expected: “The truth about imago dei identity is that we really cannot measure the scope of our lives; we cannot fully understand ourselves by this present moment alone. Discovering who God has made us to be requires both this life and the life to come. This ‘timelessness’ of identity is the direct result of being made in His image…Because God is eternal, we are destined for eternal life as well.” God uses the individual moments of our lives “to bring us into union with His own eternality” (164–165). I had never thought about my identity in this way before, but it made me realize how near-sighted my perception has tended to be. How freeing to recognize our limited perspective! This knowledge, Anderson concludes, frees us to face each new cycle of life—even death, that greatest threat to our identity—with the promise that God uses each of them to display more of Himself in us, until the glorious day when we will be truly like Him.

What I loved about this book is that it is biblically sound, and rather than focusing on a handful of passages, it looks at identity in the context of the full story of redemption. Furthermore, on that solid Scriptural basis, Hannah Anderson has a gift for expressing doctrinal truths in a clear and digestible way. Concepts like idolatry, union with Christ, sanctification, and ultimately the gospel are explained with little recourse to “theological” terms—this not only impressed me, but helped me personally. For example, I have sometimes chafed at the language of “identity in Christ.” I knew it expressed a biblical truth, but it wasn’t clear to me why, if what ultimately matters about me is my identity in Christ, anything else about my personality or circumstances should matter. Though not intended this way, the phrase had begun to sound, to my ears, like a platitude dismissing anything in my life that caused me dissatisfaction or grief. After reading Made for More, I’m beginning to see that it isn’t about papering over the distinctive things about me (things God created!), but about understanding them all in light of God’s providential, glorifying work in me.

This book didn’t answer all my questions, especially those about the relationship between gender and the soul, and the ways these teachings play out with respect to things like vocation and family. But exploring those questions isn’t really the point of this book (so if you’re interested in exegetical arguments over certain passages, look elsewhere). Indeed, it’s not that those aren’t important, but that to have a hope of addressing them well, we need to start from a higher level, more foundational truth about who we are. Made for More is a gentle, wise resource to help us do exactly that.