Reading Isaiah as Christian Scripture

N.T. Wright’s challenging words for the next generation of Christian leaders

Posted in Life of Fatih, N.T.Wright, The Vocation of a Theologian by Bacho on March 13, 2011

Terence Fretheim: 19 Thoughts on Lecturing

Posted in Terence Fretheim, The Vocation of a Theologian by Bacho on February 20, 2011

Terence E. Fretheim is ELVA B. LOVELL PROFESSOR OF OLD TESTAMENT at Luther Seminary.  He is a seasoned scholar and author of numerous books, most notably  The Pentateuch (Abingdon, 1996); The Bible as Word of God in a Postmodern Era (Fortress, 1998; with K. Froehlich); First and Second Kings (Westminister, 1999); Jeremiah: A Commentary (Smyth & Helwys, 2002) and The Suffering of God, an Old Testament Perspective (Fortress Press, 1994).

Here are Fretheim’s thoughts on lecturing that I came across on Luther Seminary site.  Most us who aspire to teaching within the body of Christ will benefit greatly from letting his thoughts sink in…

“These items are not prioritized, and they are not followed as well as I would like in my own presentations. I no doubt have missed some items. Lecturing remains a fundamental vehicle of good teaching, but these “how to” matters can have a considerable impact on its effectiveness.

1. Care deeply about the students you are teaching. This can be demonstrated in several ways, not least through your ways of interacting with them both inside and outside of class time. Do care enough to learn their names, call on them by name, and do so early in the term (give yourself about two weeks). Be alert to the contexts of student life, including families, illnesses, school ambience, and national/world events that impinge upon their lives.  Seek to develop a relationship with your students so that they can say/believe:  I trust this person.

2. Care deeply about the subject matter, and show this to be the case by your enthusiasm, energy, and passion for the subject and for conveying it to others. Show in public ways that these matters are not simply an intellectual issue for you, but a personal one, showing thereby that you believe that it is important personally for others as well.  How you say something has a high level of importance. Speak to student hearts and not just their minds. More generally, your public affect is important in shaping the way people respond to you and to the subject matter.

3. Punctuate your presentations with questions, most commonly rhetorical questions (don’t you think that’s a good thing to do?). Use the questioning tone in your voice. Even state your claims in question form on occasion, or raise questions/reservations about your own convictions. If questions come from you about your own material, a greater student readiness to ask questions will be there and their questions will be more imaginative and penetrating. Your own questions are crucial in maintaining your own integrity, as well as student interest; if you are dead certain about most or all of what you have to say, you are mostly dead.  Another angle on this point:  encourage imagination in your students as much as possible, whether in writing assignments or your own use of language, e.g., work on developing interesting and open-ended metaphors/stories about your key points. But be careful of making yourself the center of too many stories; that may be helped by including stories of how you have at times fallen short of your own ideals.

4. Demonstrate an openness to receive questions from students regarding any class-related matter. Don’t be so tied to your schedule that you give the impression that your real task is being interrupted by student input; always be ready to adjust your agenda, though well short of anarchy.  Seek to be as non-defensive as possible regarding challenges to your own point of view (when you may appear to be defensive, admit it; when you find yourself “cornered,” admit it; use humor in such contexts).  In responding to student questions, be careful about the length and tone of your response. Being purposely incomplete in a response can be productive of even more questions.

5. Make it evident that you do not know everything about the subject and learn to say “I don’t know.” Modesty is a vital virtue in a teacher.  Even more, publicly acknowledge that teaching is a two-way street and that you expect to learn from your students.

6. Work hard at prioritizing your material. You cannot cover everything about any subject, so carefully discern the issues/themes that you believe to be the most important and work on them.

7. Be clear. Few (if any) things count more than clarity. This will mean at least the following:  shorter sentences; don’t hurry; well-organized, but not to a fault! (do be open to spontaneous reflections); spell names of scholars (etc.); repeat matters you consider especially important; give definitions of difficult terms; learn to pause for questions (or just a moment or two of silence!); periodically ask how things are going; make sure you learn how well your voice comes across and whether you might have to compensate in some way (e.g., volume; dropping your voice at the end of sentences). Be very careful in your use of the English language, not least grammar.

8. Be prepared.  There is no excuse for shoddy preparation.  If you find yourself cutting corners regularly, losing interest in the subject matter, commonly falling behind in your reading in the discipline – change careers or retire.

9. Commit yourself to research and writing. Writing projects—whether for publication or not—will enable more reading and research and your presentations will be fresher and have greater depth and breadth.  Try to find some niche in the world of publishing (including online) whereby you can express your perspectives to a larger audience

10. Learn how to watch and read faces. Know your material well enough to develop a style of lecturing that is not reading and, when reading, learn how to do so without it being so apparent. Watching students’ faces will often be revelatory of whether they understand or are confused, bored or interested. Generally, face-to-face contact helps personalize your material.

11. Learn to pitch the level of the material to the audience being addressed. At the same time, the closer you can get to speaking at the same level to all audiences (except at the extremes), the clearer you will be to each of them

12. Students need to hear your point of view on matters, though not just that. Make students aware of the range of interpretive options, but usually consider only major ones, and don’t just list possibilities. Do not seek to be as objective as possible; that is impossible in any case and it is important for students that you are revealing of self relative to the matters under discussion. One might speak of varying levels of objectivity depending on the discipline. But, in any case, weave dimensions of yourself into your presentation of the subject matter. Yet, go light on the use of personal experience; let your affect and your glosses/asides on the material carry much of this.

13. Be careful of data-oriented presentations. Obviously this will depend on the subject matter, but generally don’t make presentations (or course objectives) so filled with detail that students are always scrambling to get the facts or focusing on details and data.  Helping students learn how to get the data themselves, to explore interpretive possibilities, and to engage in (theological) reflection are more important matters to leave with students.

14. Use handouts (or other visual aids). This is an especially valuable vehicle for conveying important details and data, including quotations of others’ work, art, etc.  Outlines of your lectures can often be very helpful, but do not so fill it in that students do not need to focus on what you have to say. Be careful of over-reliance on non-personal vehicles of communication.

15. Be alert to communal/ethical dimensions of your material, not just its appeal to individual minds.  Will this material contribute to the life, health, and well-being of communities, churchly or otherwise? This includes being as honest as possible about the effects of your discipline and its content upon the ongoing life of communities (e.g., certain biblical texts and interpretations of texts by academic or churchly authorities have long been deeply harmful to women).

16. Be careful how you treat your colleagues or other persons in your presentations of their points of view. Be open and welcoming toward those with whom you disagree.  Be especially careful of verbal trump cards and labeling–dismissing a school of thought or point of view by a quick comment (e.g., “that’s Barthian,” or “that’s liberation theology”). Do not intimidate or bully your students with your own point of view, expecting conformity of thought for good grades, references or other forms of commendation (it is possible for students to bully teachers as well). Students should never have to worry about staying on the good side of the professor. Most of us have learned a great deal from people with points of view different from our own; that should be encouraged in students, not least so that they don’t become our disciples.

17. Read outside your own discipline and let that be evident in your presentations, without passing yourself off as an expert on everything.

18. Watch for barriers between lecturer and audience. For example, try to keep lectern, tech equipment, etc, from coming between you and your students. Disembodied words commonly have less of an impact. Body language counts in conveying the material well, not just your voice and facial expressions.  Also, coming a little early to a lecture and staying for a time afterward can show forth this dimension of openness to the students.

19. Work on being relaxed, and showing that you are comfortable with who you and what you are doing.’

If your need a little pep-talk to keep going on your research

Posted in Life, PhD Research, The Vocation of a Theologian by Bacho on February 7, 2011

For all those who are stuck in their PhD research and need a little bit of inspiration…

49 year old former graphic designer and fitness fanatic, Stefaan Engels completed 365 marathons in 365 days.  Engels has covered 9,569 miles on foot since setting off from his hometown of Ghent on Feb. 5, 2010.  This mind-boggling journey came to conclusion in Barcelona, Spain, on Saturday, after zigzagging Europe and the U.S.  In his interview with CNN Engels stated, “I don’t regard my marathon year as torture. It is more like a regular job.  I am running just as Joe Average goes to work on Monday morning, whether or not he feels like it.”

O.K. if this dude can get up, put on his running shoes and run a marathon every day, what is your research problem?  Get up, put on a pot of coffee, pull out your notes and start writing.  One page at a time.  Just like Joe Average goes to work.  Just like Stefaan Engels runs marathons.  Its just that easy…


Eulalia Garcia Maturey: pursuit of a PhD in Biblical Studies might take a while…

Posted in Life, PhD Research, The Vocation of a Theologian by Bacho on October 12, 2010

According to CNN, “Eulalia Garcia Maturey has outlived two husbands, her two children and decades of bygone immigration laws. At 101, Maturey will become a U.S. citizen on the 101st anniversary of her crossing into the United States from Mexico.  The naturalization ceremony will take place Tuesday afternoon in a federal courtroom in Brownsville, Texas, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Services.”

On October 12, 1909, Maturey was just a baby in her mother’s arms crossing the Rio Grande on a ferry boat from Matamoros, Mexico.  She and her mother settled in Brownsville, Texas.  In those days, anyone could cross the border with no papers, no permission slips, and no trouble because nobody was actually trying to stop immigrants from Mexico.  Now, after 101 years of living in the United States, Ms. Maturey is becoming an American citizen, officially, with the help of a 69-year-old “Lawful Entry” card that she kept in perfect condition.

Congratulations Mrs. Maturey.  That is awesome.  Your life is a parable for those who are pursuing a PhD in Biblical studies.  Sometimes important things in life take a while.  I think CNN should do a report on how long it takes to get a PhD in Biblical Studies, especially in the US.  Pictures of a mature scholar with her dissertation in her hands will be enough to scare those of us who are embarking on this journey for wrong reasons…Not a sexy job prospect, but a clear calling.

Martin Luther, vocation of a Biblical scholar, and reading the Scripture in the Church

Here are famous words of Martin Luther to his examiner at the Diet of Worms uttered on April 18, 1521:

“Since Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth.  Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason- I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”  [Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, 180]

These words are instructive for those of us who come to PhD research in Biblical studies from a faith-anchored paradigm.  Conscience held captive to the Word of God grounds our research and helps keep in clear focus the reason why we embark on this journey: to have a lifetime of study dedicated to equipping the Church to know and live her Script.

Henri Nouwen on Theological Formation

Posted in Life of Fatih, The Vocation of a Theologian by Bacho on September 30, 2010

“Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.”  [Henri Nouwen, Seeds of Hope]

Henri Nouwen on wise mentors

Posted in Life of Fatih, PhD Research, The Vocation of a Theologian by Bacho on September 30, 2010

“We need [someone] who helps us to distinguish between the voice of God and all the other voices coming from our own confusion or from dark powers far beyond our control.  We need someone who encourages us when we are tempted to give it all up, to forget it all, and to just walk away in despair.  we need someone who cautions us when we move too rashly in unclear directions or hurry proudly toward a nebulous goal.  We need someone who can suggest to us when to read and when to be silent, which words to reflect upon, and what to do when silence creates much fear and little peace.”  [Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, 137]

These words accurately describe a wise mentor.  Obviously Neuwen’s context for writing these words is in the spiritual guidance and discipleship in the Christian church, but I find these words to be very fitting in the academic context as well.  Best teachers are also wise guides that shape human souls.

Top PhD Programs in Biblical Studies for Those From Small Schools: Myth or Not?

Posted in PhD Research, The Vocation of a Theologian by Bacho on September 6, 2010

James K.A. Smith has an interesting post.  He writes:  I”f you’re at a Bible college right now, or a little Christian college, or probably even just a local state university, I hate to break it to you, but that route’s pretty much blocked for you. I know: it might not be fair. You might be brilliant. You might be smarter than some of those grad students who are going to get into Princeton and Stanford. It might be that you were the first person in your entire family to ever go to college. It might be that you just couldn’t imagine these possibilities because of the little rural high school you attended–such a trajectory just wasn’t in your imagination. Indeed, where you went to kindergarten was probably already loading the deck against you. Whatever the reasons, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but–contrary to the myth of the so-called “American dream”–you can’t get to the Ivy League from there.”

While this is a very well written post with much wisdom that any aspiring PhD should heed, I would like to offer two thoughts:

1.As someone who thinks that Jesus is not a fiction of some deranged imagination, I embrace the notion of a call. When God calls, He provides resources and opens doors to get you there whether you come from Yale undergrad or Pensacola Bible College.  Granted humanly speaking one has better chances of getting in than the other, but the picture is not as grim as Smith makes it sound.  Mine is the living case of that.  Small seminary.  Wide open doors.  God gets all the credit.

2.Smart planning is the key.  PhD programs ask two questions.  First, can this candidate write?  Two, does he or she have what it takes to finish?  Everything during one’s seminary years have to focus on these two questions.  What does it take to get there?  Here is my check list:

a.Get involved with regional and national SBL.  Listen, meet people, volunteer.

b.Submit papers for regional SBL meetings.  While national and international SBL meetings are harder to get your foot into, the regional ones are more open for student papers.  Some regions even have special student sections.

c.Get to know your professors.  Their recommendation will carry a lot of weight in the application process.  Don’t brown-nose.  Learn from them, observe their academic skills, ask questions.

d.Writing sample: this is your business card.  Your statement that you can do academic research.  Not an opportunity to show how brilliant you are or how innovative your ideas are.  Rather a solid paper that displays your grasp on the current state of research and your ability to formulate good questions.  Little hint: try to set up an independent study with your favorite professor in the field you want to pursue and ask if a writing sample can the end goal of that class.  You kill two birds with one stone: building a relationship with your mentor and producing a paper that you will submit with your application.

e.Write few reviews for your seminary journal.  If your seminary does not have a journal, ask your mentors to recommend a journal that they know someone on the editorial board.

f.Have a high GPA.  4.0 from Yale carries more weight that 4.0 from Pensacola Bible College, but it still is a way to keep you in the game.

g.GRE: take a class.  study, study, study.  take the exam over and over again till you have the score you need.

How do you stand out among other PhDs in Biblical studies?

Posted in Humor, PhD Research, The Vocation of a Theologian by Bacho on August 21, 2010

Getting your PhD in Biblical Studies is an honorable accomplishment.  But the terminal degree is just a start.  Getting a job in today’s market is a real challenge.   Most of the schools receive upwards of hundreds of application per opening.  Tenure tracks are becoming a myth.  “Adjunct” is the new norm, rather than a temporary deal.  So thinking outside the box is a must for any brand new philosophiae doctor.

Here is something to consider…According to this article: a bizarre cult in Russia that worships Gadget Hackwrench from Disney’s long-canceled series “Rescue Rangers” is looking for a scholar in residence.  So anyone with a focus on Theological Exegesis or Systematic theology should have a good shot.  One will need to switch to a new set of sacred texts to work with.

The article reports a peculiar liturgy of the cult, “A typical day for this cult involves serenading an image of their beloved with music, partaking in meals together and then hitting the town to vandalize public property with obnoxiously large stickers featuring Gadget’s godly visage.”  This might take some adjustment, but is it better to have on your CV that for last 5 years you have been flipping burgers at McGuire’s Irish Pub in Pensacola, FL while adjuncting at an unaccredited seminary in a near-by town of Ferry Pass?

OK.  I am off to polish up my CV…

Stupid Comment by Brilliant Karl Barth

Posted in The Vocation of a Theologian by Bacho on August 20, 2010

In The Preface to the Second Edition of THE EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS Barth makes the following comment, “I must beg my anthological readers to be indulgent when they are confronted with citations in a foreign language, which defy translation without loss of meaning; or when I have from time to time made use of philosophical or theological abracadabra.  If I be not mistaken- and here I must contradict Arthur Bonus- we theologians serve the laymen best when we refuse to have him especially in mind, and when we simply live of our own, as every honest laborer must do.”  [5]

Barth is correct in asserting that, “Man knows God in that he stands before God” [CD II/9].  In congruence with that thought, theology is at its best when it is done from that location.  The “layman” who stands before God is the sole reason for Barth’s vocation as a theologian.  Ordinary person in the pew and his/her relationship with God is the matrix of theologian’s vocation.  It seems that in a moment, at least here, Barth walks away from that place to take a break and engages in a discourse at the theological water-cooler.

What might one think, if a life-guard at a local pool insisted that little children should excuse him for “refusing to have them especially in mind”?  What if he went beyond that and stated that this was actually for the kids’ good?  Life-guarding manuals have their place, but the children come to the pool to swim, not to look over the life-guard’s shoulder as he indulges in his reading.

Eugene Peterson is worth listening to when he writes about a theologian’s desk being positioned in the midst of a parish.  ”There have been times in history when theologians were supposed to inhabit ivory towers and devote themselves to writing impenetrable and ponderous books.  But the important theologians have done their thinking and writing about God in the middle of the world, in the thick of action: Paul urgently dictating letters from his prison cell; Athanasius contra mundum,five times hounded by into exile by three different emperors; Augustine, pastor to people experiencing the chaotic breakup of Roman order and civitas; Thomas, using his mind to battle errors and heresies that, unchallenged, would have turned Europe into a spiritual and mental jungle; Calvin, tireless in developing a community of God’s people out of Geneva’s revolutionary rabble; Barth arbitrating labor disputes and preaching to prisoners; Bonhoeffer leading a fugitive existence in Nazi Germany, and St. John, exiled on the hard rock of Patmos prison while his friends in Christ were besieged by the terrible engines of a pagan assault.”