Today the seminary held a “Blessing of the Grads” chapel service. Each grad was honoured to have a blessing read out from a loved one. What follows below is Charles’ letter to me. I am so thankful for a husband who has supported and actively encouraged this educational journey.
Amanda, as I have watched you tackle the challenges of graduate study while dealing with the challenges of work and home, I have been continually reminded what an privilage it is to be your husband. You have been and continue to be a blessing to me and to our children. My prayer is that God will open doors for you to develop the immense potential that we see in you. My prayer is that our children will learn to understand what an amazing mother they have, and will look to you as an example of what a powerful woman of God can be.
Lord, make Amanda an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let her sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that she may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
I’m halfway through a two-week intensive thesis writing spree. Here are some of the things that I have observed about the thesis-writing process:
The EBSCO e-book reader sucks. I’ll say it again: The EBSCO e-book reader sucks. Sure it’s okay if you only need to pull a plum quote or two, but if you want to read an entire chapter, or, heaven forbid, the entire book, the EBSCO reader is clunky, ugly and very user unfriendly. Yes, it does have a function where you can export sections to a PDF for convenient reading, but this usually only covers 15-25 pages. So you’re stuck reading the book on your laptop and the interface is so ugly that you usually get a headache from reading the book on the computer screen. And when you’re in the e-book reading and the system decides that you’re taking too long to read, if another person decides to read the e-book, you get booted from the system. It would be like if you had taken a book from the shelf and started to read it, and someone comes along and takes it right from your hands. What makes it worse, most libraries will not allow a patron to fill out an inter-library loan request to get a physical copy of the book if it is available as an EBSCO e-book. After a day of complete frustration, I finally caved and ordered a copy of the book I was needing on Amazon. It should arrive in a week or so.
I’ve come up with the next episode of Castle: death by library stacks. The BR-BT section of the McMaster library (basically the Bible-Biblical Studies-Theology section) is on these moveable library shelves that all squish together when not in use. So what you do is you find the row that you need, press a button, and the shelves move so that you can walk down the row to find your book. Each time I walked down the row, I kept thinking that at any minute the system was going to reset itself, and I’d get squished between Christology and Hermeneutics. Death by stacks. Yup, definitely a good opening for an episode of Castle.
“Just one more source” becomes a great way to procrastinate from writing. Oh, I should look up just one more source before I start writing. Okay, now I should look up just one more source. Six hours and twelve “just one more sources” later means that not a single sentence was written. Are those “just one more sources” helpful? Sometimes. But those six hours could have been spent writing a page or two with the material already collected.
The writing chopping block looms over my shoulder constantly. My greatest fear is that when I submit this chapter to my supervisor he’ll say that I’ll have to reduce all that beautiful hard work, that took hours and hours, to one single footnote and then start again.
The more highlighters you have the better. I think I now own every single colour of highlighter ever created. They can turn the most boring source into a beautiful rainbow of whimsy. Trust me, this is important, because, oh my, some (most?) of these academic tomes are so dull they make normal dull look sharp and sparkly.
For all the hard work and stress that it is, I’m actually really enjoying the thesis writing process. Oh no! I’m doomed!
Jessica DeCou is working on a book on Karl Barth’s trip to the United States in 1962. She has launched a Kickstarter project to help fund her travel expenses to several library archives.
“A Fantastic Affair”: Karl Barth in America, 1962 (a.k.a. “KBUSA” – under advance contract with Fortress Press, ISBN: 978-1-4514-6553-2) provides the first detailed chronicle of Barth’s sole visit to the U.S. in 1962. Barth arrived at a tumultuous moment in American history and found himself embroiled in some of the nation’s fiercest conflicts: touring prisons and inner city neighborhoods and meeting with communist groups, State and Defense Department staff, civil rights activists, business leaders, and White House officials – just to name a few. The book, therefore, will not only shed light on Barth’s later life and work, but also provide a snapshot of American culture in the early ‘60s – from the highest levels of government to the tourist cultures built along with and alongside the developing Interstate Highway System; from Seminary campuses to high security prisons; from Napa Valley to East Harlem.
Of course, completing this project requires extensive travel to various institutions around the country where relevant archives are housed. Research funding in the humanities can be difficult to come by these days, but I will not let that stop me!! I’m turning to Kickstarter in the hope that, with your help, my research can continue unabated in order to meet my publication deadline (Summer 2014).
There are gifts for those who contribute to the project (yay for gifts!). You can pledge your support for this project here.
Your thesis proposal has been approved. You are now officially writing a thesis. You sit at your desk and the worries and doubts begin to overwhelm. All of the emotions and frustrations that you laughed at when reading PhD comics are suddenly no longer funny. How are you going to survive the next year of thesis writing?
1. Find some accountability. Maybe it’s about setting specific due dates and deadlines for yourself. But more useful is finding someone to sit down with once every couple of weeks, who will ask you straight out “what you have done this week?” This person will most likely not be your supervisor. It could be another student who is also in thesis mode, or someone who has previously written a thesis.
2. Just write something. The most paralyzing thing is a blank computer screen. The idea does not have to be fully developed before you put it on the screen. Even if it’s a half-formed thought, putting it on the screen (or on paper) will help get you started. Remember there is plenty of time to edit, re-write and rearrange (especially when your supervisor takes a red pen to your submitted chapter and slashes it to smithereens).
3. Stop researching. Sometimes research stops being useful and instead becomes a procrastination tool. Do you really need to track down one more book? Probably. But not right now. Get out of the stacks and start working with what you’ve already researched. You can, and will, get back to that “one more source” and you’ll have no problem incorporating it into what you’ve already written.
4. Print off and read what you’ve written. This is especially helpful if, like many people, you only have a few days a week devoted to thesis writing. By printing off what you wrote the session before, it is easier to pick up your train of thought and start jotting down notes of where you want to take your argument. It also can serve as an encouragement, “hey, what I wrote last week isn’t half bad.” And, there is something about reading your work on the printed page rather than off the computer screen that changes how you understand and respond to your writing.
5. Go for a walk. Sitting down with your thesis for eight hours at a time isn’t as productive as it sounds. Your body will need a break from sitting at the desk, and your brain will need a distraction. Break up your day by going for a mid-morning walk or by spending an hour at the gym. The exercise will clear your head allowing your afternoon writing session to be more productive.
6. Keep a notebook. It will be inevitable that on the days that you’re not working on your thesis, your brain will spin out the most brilliant argument that you just have to include in your chapter, usually at the most inopportune time like in the middle of family dinner, in the middle of a good night’s sleep, or while you’re at work. By keeping a notebook handy, you can jot down the idea so your brain doesn’t have to try to desperately remember the idea until your next writing day. Trust me, the brilliant thought you had on Monday will most definitely be forgotten by the time you sit down to write on Wednesday unless you write it down.
7. Turn off the Internet. A quick “I’ll just take two minutes to check my email, Twitter, news feed” inevitably becomes an hour…or two…or three.
No matter how my calling eventually gets worked out, whether I end up continuing in my academic studies and going on to be a teacher of theology (either in a college or in the church), or whether I end up pursuing my theological passions through creative writing (either fiction or non-fiction), I know that my vocation is oriented towards a life of scholarship and research. I value, affirm and encourage Christians to pursue a “life of the mind”, wherein we are called to think and meditate deeply on the Gospel of Christ and its power to transform not only individuals, but also communities, nations and cultures.
Christianity is smart, and it is mysterious, and serious theological reflection and scholarship allows a Christian, to paraphrase from Gregory of Nyssa, to participate in the never-ending ascent to God. And so, I want to suggest that scholarship, especially theological scholarship, is inherently cross-shaped; it has both vertical components, those aspects that orient towards God, and horizontal components, those aspects that orient towards other people, both scholars and non-scholars alike. The three vertical components are scholarship as a response to God’s action, scholarship as a gift of grace, and scholarship as an act of worship. The horizontal component is scholarship as service to and within the community of faith.
In Evangelical Theology, Karl Barth writes that theology, and by extension, the theologian and Christian, respond to the work and event of the Divine Word. This response is not the same as the Word itself, for the human response of theology is always in light of the event of the self-revelation of God. As such, theology is totally dependent on God’s living Word. The theologian, scholar, or teacher, cannot reveal or uncover God through the human striving of academic inquiry. It is because God has chosen to reveal Himself first that the theologian is able to even pursue contemplating the nature and existence of God. All theology, no matter which discipline (Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, etc), responds to the object of theology, which is God. This relationship between God and the theologian is inherently Chalcedonian. Both God and the theologian are bound together, united-but-distinct, each with their own task, wherein, God “commits, frees and summons the theologian to notice, consider, and speak of Him.” This relationship is irreversible; the theologian cannot do what God does, and vice versa.
Second, the work and call of the theologian is a gift of grace. Barth writes, “To become and be a theologian is not a natural process but an incomparably concrete fact of grace.” And while some may say that this idea lends itself to a sort of arrogance, as if the theologian has been endowed, Barth is quick to point out that this gift of grace is a mystery, for “if anyone supposed he could understand himself as such a receiver of grace, he would do better to bid theology farewell.” The response to this gift of grace is a response of gratitude. With this comes the need for humility. All of our theological presuppositions are grounded, not in the logical consistency of the theologian’s argument, but in the “reality of God’s self-communication to us in Jesus Christ.” As such, theological statements “are true only in so far as they direct us away from themselves to the one Truth in God” and that Truth is Jesus.
Third, theological scholarship can be, and is for many scholars, an act of worship. Research becomes not only a way to learn more about God, but also a way to delight in and praise the work of God. A life of scholarship is not a tedious choice, nor is it merely “busy work.” Instead, it is a way to marvel at the person and work of Christ, as well as to get “lost” in the amazing depths of Christian thought throughout the centuries. The act of research and scholarship not only shapes the mind of the theologian, but also orients and shapes the character, spirit and whole person to a position of humble worship in the presence of the Almighty. It is for this reason that the liturgy, that is, the rhythms and routines associated with scholarship and study, from the initial research, to painstaking formulation of a thesis, to publication, is important. Of course, if the adage is true that “we worship what we love”, there is a danger for Christian scholars to begin to worship the act of scholarship itself, rather than the object of said scholarship. Scholarship is the liturgical tool that assists in worshipping God and not the god that is to be worshipped.
On the horizontal axis, scholarship must be done in and for the church. As T.F. Torrance notes, “The church constitutes the social coefficient of our knowledge of God” and as such theology “cannot but be a church-conditioned and church-oriented theology.” It is impossible to do Christian theology apart from the community. The theologian must participate in the messiness and beauty of the church. As Barth notes, the theologian, as a member of the community of faith writing from within and for the church, “participates in its schisms and in its longing for unity, in its obedience as well as in its indifference.”
It is this emphasis on the role of the community of faith on the life and work of the theologian that I am currently wrestling with as I contemplate future academic studies. There are few confessional schools within Canada that offer doctoral programs in theology. So the question becomes, can theological scholarship be done in a secular university? And even if I can study theology under the guise of “Western Religious Thought” at a secular school, there is still the realization that theology cannot be abstracted from the life and service of the church. Torrance emphasizes this reality when he writes: “the matrix of Eucharistic worship and meditation upon the Holy Scriptures and evangelical experience in the fellowship and mission of the church” are where the “empirical and theoretical components in our knowledge of God are fused together.”
Ultimately, the question becomes, what is a Christian scholar, or what does Christian scholarship look like? Christian scholarship is a life and a body of work that is grounded in, finds its identity in, responds to, and submits itself to the self-Revelation of God through the event and person of Jesus Christ.
 See for example, Richard Hughes, The Vocation of a Christian Scholar: How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005).
 Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978).
 Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, trans. Grover Foley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1963), 49.
 Ibid., 90.
 Ibid. This fits with Barth’s overall Chalcedonian pattern, for in the Church Dogmatics Barth emphasizes that the relationship between the Divine and human is one that cannot be reversed. That is, we can, and rightly do say “The Word became Flesh”, but we cannot say “The flesh became the Word.” See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. Translated by Geoffrey Bromiley. Vol. I/2 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 136.
 Ibid., 73.
 Thomas F. Torrance, Reality and Evangelical Theology: The Realism of Christian Revelation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1982), 23.
 Ibid., 123.
 See, for example, James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), chap. 2.
 Torrance, 46.
 Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, 80.
 Space is limited, but with this question comes the question of the inherent difference and conflict between Christian virtues and the virtues prized by the secular academic culture. See, for example, George Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 107.
 Torrance, 49.
I have arrived home, and have mostly recovered from the travel lag (slept 16 hours on Sunday). Thankfully the trek home wasn’t nearly as stressful as the trip down to Milwaukee, with only a 90 minute delay for my flight departing from Denver to Regina. As a way to wrap-up my series on my experience at ETS, I wanted to offer some final, not necessarily connected, reflections.
First, I am very glad I went. It had been eight years since my last ETS conference, and it really is an amazing experience. Downtown Milwaukee was delightful, and I found some great (cheap) restaurants to eat at (which when you go to conference isn’t always the easiest thing to find).
Second, being as introverted as I am, I didn’t meet as many people as I probably could have, but those few that I worked up the courage to introduce myself to, were amazingly gracious. I was happy to meet Leslie Keeney, Jennifer Ellison and Marc Cortez from the blogosphere. And while I didn’t actively meet too many people, I did enjoy playing a fantastic game of “spot the scholar”.
Third, over the last couple of years there has been discussion about the lack of women in attendance at ETS. Indeed, Leslie and I both blogged about encouraging women to attend this year’s ETS. From what I observed, there were more women in attendance at the paper presentations then I have seen in the past. There were only a few papers that I attended in which I was the only female, but more often than not there was at least a handful of us, and given that some of the presentations I went to often had no more than a dozen in attendance, that’s saying something.
Fourth, and most importantly, the decision to have paper presentations Friday afternoon was a very bad idea. Many (if not most) people had left by noon Friday to get down to Chicago for SBL/AAR. I felt sorry for those who were presenting. In fact one paper presentation I went to Friday afternoon had only 2 people in attendance. As well, two papers I had planned to go to were canceled because the presenters had to catch a train down to Chicago. Hopefully this is only an issue this year, as ETS and SBL were held in two different cities. Next year both conferences will be in Baltimore, so those presenting on the last day won’t be as abandoned as they were this year. (Does anyone know why ETS was in Milwaukee and not in Chicago?)
Given that I’m on a student budget I probably won’t be able to attend next year’s conference, but I’m planning to attend again in 2014 (in San Diego). And while several people have suggested that I flip to SBL, I really do like ETS. Maybe I’ll be able to take in both at 2014, but I wouldn’t trade ETS for SBL, at least not any time soon.
Yesterday afternoon I spent three hours listening to papers on Introducing Karl Barth to Evangelicals. This session was built off of Michael Allen’s new Barth reader (which looks like a much needed replacement of the reader by Gollowitzer), and each of the four presenters spent some time talking about benefits and hindrances of interacting with Barth from an evangelical perspective.
First up was Michael Allen himself. He spent some time talking about the current state of evangelical culture and how Barth can be helpful in addressing some of the theological issues that evangelicals are wrestling with. He started by saying that it’s important for evangelicals to be aware of how our presuppositions are so much different from the presuppositions of much of modern theology. Biblical scholars do a good job of checking their presuppositions, understanding the disconnect between 21st century readers and the original biblical authors, but for some reason theologians don’t apply that same caution and realization when they interact with more modern theology. In relation to Barth, what this means is that evangelicals often fail to grasp Barth’s theological setting which means we will fail to understand what he is about and what exactly he is doing. Indeed, “Most of us [evangelicals] read Barth as if he’s playing in the ETS world, and he’s not.” The other money quote from Michael Allen’s presentation: “Barth’s work serves as a bomb on the playground of theologians.”
Next up was Marc Cortez. His paper was titled, “An Evangelical and a Universalist Walk into a Bar” and looked at the question of whether or not Barth was a universalist, and how the supposed ambiguity about Barth’s universalism makes evangelicals uncomfortable. The short answer to the question of whether Barth was a universalist is, in the words of Barth himself, “I am not a universalist.” But, that said, there are still questions with his presentation of election and salvation. Dr. Cortez’s presentation was humourous and conversational. His section headings had titles like:
Four reasons to allow Barth to hang out with you in public and Three reasons to make Barth pick up the tab.
After a short intermission, we then had the last two papers by Matt Jenson on Barth and Ecclesiology, and Keith Johnson on Nature and Grace. These two papers were theologically dense, and I had to focus on listening and was unable to take notes during their presentations. I’m hoping to get copies of these two papers at some point so that I can spend time in deeper engagement and refection.
The big news from this panel session was that starting next year, there will be a specific session devoted to the theology of Karl Barth. This is an exciting development and I look forward to seeing the session grow.
Wednesday afternoon was a bit of a mixed bag. First up was a great presentation by doctoral student James Gordon on Barth and speculative theology. There were some great post-paper questions raised by the audience. Next up was a very weak paper which was disappointing because the topic was fascinating. The day concluded with a great paper on Irenaeus and his emphasis on teaching catechumens how to read and interpret Scripture.
For supper, I wandered a bit and found a great pub about a block from the hotel that had great (and cheap) burgers. And then I spent the evening unwinding. (Once again, I am reminded why I’m glad I don’t have cable. Commercials are annoying.)
This morning started with an unexpected surprise. William Webb’s presentation was canceled, so on a whim, I decided to pop into Richard Bauckham’s paper on naming practices in Jewish Palestine from 330BC to 200AD. I ended up sitting beside a Briercrest professor who I didn’t even know was going to be at the conference! Yay Briercrest! Next up was a paper on Cyril of Alexandria and John Chrysostom on Baptism by Talbot professor Ashish Naidu, and then on to the presentation by Francis Beckwith on ethics. My final session of the morning was cancelled, but that’s okay because it meant BOOKS!!!
I promised some friends I would post a list of the books I’ve purchased. So here goes:
I bought a three volume set of books on the Church Fathers by Christopher Hall: Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Worshipping with the Church Fathers, and Learning Theology with the Church Fathers.
I bought Zondervan’s Four Views on Christian Spirituality.
I bought Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom’s Clouds of Witness: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia.
I bought Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry. (The school library has this book and it’s one of those ones where I keep signing it out and never actually finishing it. But since I was able to pick it up for $10 now I should have a bit more flexibility to finally finish it).
And the best book purchase ever has to be Kim Paffenroth and John Morehead’s edited book The Undead and Theology. Chapters include (but are not limited to):
Vampires are People, Too: Personalism in the Buffyverse (Jarrod Longbons)
The Living Christ and The Walking Dead: Karl Barth and the Theological Zombie (Jessica DeCou)
Zombie Walks, Zombie Jesus, and the Eschatology of Postmodern Flesh (John Morehead)
“Eat of My Body and Drink of My Blood”: Johannine Metaphor, Gothic Subculture, and the Undead (Beth Stovell)
I can’t wait to read this book!
The plan for the rest of today is to find some lunch, and then spend the afternoon in the session on Introducing Karl Barth to Evangelicals.