Advice for Academic Job-Seekers

Next week religious studies scholars from around the world will gather in San Diego for the yearly meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion. Many people will be involved in job interviews, both interviewing candidates and being interviewed for jobs.

This can be an exhausting and bewildering experience for job-seekers. Our Ph.D. programs don’t do much to help us face these situations, but here are a few of the things I’ve learned over the last decade of being on hiring committees and going through interviews myself.

First, focus on enjoying the conversation and not on passing the test. A job interview is not a doctoral comprehensive exam. Don’t stress about making sure you know the answer to every question that might come up. Preparing as if it were an exam will make you anxious, perhaps defensive, and will prevent you from enjoying the conversation. Getting to the interview stage of a search process indicates that the committee has seen your application materials and wants to interview you (probably along with 10-12 other people) out of the 100-150 other applicants. They know you know your stuff and they assume that there are probably areas outside of your expertise where you’re not as sharp as you’d like to be.

While you may be worried about having your ignorance exposed, committee members are interested in finding out if you’d be a good colleague and whether they can feel confident that you’ll act like a normal human if they put you in front of students in a classroom. So, relax and enjoy the conversation.

Second, reveal how you think along with what you think. I was once involved in an interview process where a candidate answered a question by introducing the complexities of the larger issue, how he weighed them, and then how he would go about answering the specific questions. His response led to quite a vigorous discussion among the rest of us and we almost forgot we were in an interview situation. But after several other straightforward and rather boring interviews, we so enjoyed getting past preliminary niceties and engaging in discussion over a complicated and pressing issue. We sort of forgot ourselves and later reflected on how the candidate participated as if he were already one of our colleagues. A few may have disagreed with his ultimate conclusion, but we all gained respect for how he thought about it.

Third, ask informed questions about the institution. As this article indicates, asking about matters that are found on the institution’s website indicates laziness and lack of interest. Do your homework on the institution and then ask about the ethos of the department. Do they feel supported by the administration? How is the relationship of the department to other academic units at the institution? What about relationships with the institution’s constituency? Are faculty expected to help promote the school and in what ways? In what ways does the school encourage faculty research? What do faculty enjoy about the institution? These are questions that may generate good discussion and create opportunities for follow-up questions, allowing you not only to learn about the institution but also demonstrate your curiosity.

Fourth, ask personal questions of the interviewers. It’s likely that those interviewing at academic conferences are scholars and not administrators. Or, they’re scholars who have been drawn into administration over the years and yearn to get back to their research agenda. Inquire about their interests and ask good follow-up questions. Be interested in them as people and enjoy that conversation. This is the human element that makes a lasting impression when interviewers return home to put together notes from the interview process.

In an interview process about a decade ago, a colleague made a remark that I’ve never forgotten. His basic rule at the interview stage is to determine whether or not this person is the one he wants to run into at 8:00 a.m. each day for the next fifteen years. Something to keep in mind for those anticipating job interviews.


The Multinational People of God

In anticipation of a class discussion on Revelation, I was going back through Reading Revelation Responsibly by Michael Gorman and revisited this wonderful passage on the church’s identity and mission:

The beautiful vision of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (Rev 7:9) is – or should be – at the heart of the church’s self-understanding. This is what God is up to in the world

Heavenly People of God Worshiping

The vision of a heavenly, and ultimately eschatological, reality is foundational to the church’s mission of global evangelization, its work for peace and justice among the nations, and its rejection of all forms of nationalism. Unfortunately, Christians have often been attracted to one or another of these essential marks of the church rather than all of them together. Contemporary Christian faith, if inspired by the vision in Revelation 7, would no longer be split between those who want to convert the lost and those who work for peace. Participating in the missio Dei did not, and does not, accord well with cafeteria-style Christianity.

If Christians around the globe truly understood themselves as part of this international community, and fully embraced that membership as their primary source of identity, mission, and allegiance, it is doubtful that so many Christians could maintain their deep-seated national allegiances, or their suspicions of foreigners. This would require a radical transformation within much of the Christian church, a recapturing of the wisdom of the earliest church. The second-century writing called the Epistle to Diognetus captures the spirit of Revelation 7 (and probably the entire New Testament), offering what is arguably the most appropriate attitude for Christians to have toward the country in which they happen to live:

[Christians] live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.” (5:5-6)

Reading Revelation Responsibly, pp. 133-34.


On Self-Deception

I’ve had a couple conversations lately about self-deception. In exegesis class we discussed 1 John 1:8 in which John describes certain people whose lives betray their profession. “They deceive themselves and the truth is not in them.”

In an altogether different context, I’ve spoken with friends recently about sports figures who do not – cannot? – assess themselves rightly. The most recent obvious example is Kobe Bryant. His knowledge of the game and his competitive drive, along with his ego, are undeniable. But his body is breaking down and he doesn’t seem to be able to acknowledge that a 36 year old cannot do what 25 year old can.

It isn’t easy to watch aging sports figures who have difficulty evaluating themselves rightly as they age and who don’t know when to hang ‘em up. They have accumulated years of wisdom and their memories are fresh of precise performance at the highest level. They look at younger competitors and are convinced that they can not only keep up, but outperform them. It can be devastating when competitive realities indicate otherwise.

With these things in mind, several lines from U2’s new album have struck me as pointing to a healthy self-awareness, a mature self-knowledge.

250-2

On “Volcano,” perhaps referring to their own history as musicians and “rock stars,” Bono sings:

The world is spinning fast tonight
You can hurt yourself tryin’ to hold on
To what you used to be
I’m so glad the past is all gone?

On “Cedarwood Road,” Bono sings about a childhood friend and about his experiences growing up in turbulent times. He refers to the need to have enemies, but that the worst are ones that are hidden. A friend can help identify them, and indeed it does take a friend, since they’re usually self-generated or otherwise internal, hidden from oneself.

It was a warzone in my teens
I’m still standing on that street
Still need an enemy
The worst ones I can’t see
You can . . . you can

And finally, in “The Troubles,” they note the folly of being self-assured that one knows one’s own ways.

You think it’s easier
To put your finger on the trouble
When the trouble is you
And you think it’s easier
To know your own tricks
Well it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do

Self-knowledge doesn’t come easily, and one doesn’t get it without humility and without genuine friends whose love makes them honest.


The Cultural Value of Baseball

Mark C. Taylor, who teaches religion at Columbia University, has an opinion piece in the NY Times on the timeliness of baseball and its deliberate pace in a world that is increasingly frenetic. Here are a few highlights:

It has perhaps become commonplace to claim that sports have acquired the status of religion in the United States. But the deeper implications of this insight are rarely recognized. Religion is about more than belief and fanatic devotion; there can be no vital religion without rituals. Rituals, religious and otherwise, are designed to change the pace and interrupt the rhythms of our daily lives. This is what makes them special and, when effective, allows participants to return to everyday life renewed.

What critics of baseball often dismiss as a waste of time that slows the pace of the game are actually the rituals (and rituals within rituals) that make baseball so timely: the catcher sending too many signals to the pitcher, the pitcher repeatedly backing off the mound and checking the runner on first base, the batter constantly stepping out of the batter’s box to adjust and spit on his gloves, coaches and managers visiting the mound far too often, the seventh-inning stretch, breaks between innings. I miss the days when pitchers took long, leisurely strolls from the bullpen to the mound, while players stood idly by, sometimes chatting with one another. The relief these pitchers offered was for fans as much as teammates. When players take their time, fans must slow down to stay in the game. All these seemingly pointless rituals do have a purpose: They keep the frenetic pace of the everyday life outside the sacred precincts of the game.

We live in a world that is obsessed with speed. Fast is never fast enough, everything must be done now, instantly. To pause, delay, stop, slow down is to miss an opportunity and to give a competitor the edge. Speed has become the measure of success — faster chips, faster computers, faster food, faster networks, faster connectivity, faster news, faster communications, faster transactions, faster deals, faster product cycles, faster brains, faster games.

—————

Faster is not always better — speed has limits. Acceleration cannot continue forever. But when people are afraid to unplug because they will miss a deal or lose their job, a leisure activity like a three-hour baseball game can seem to be a luxury no one can afford.

The only way to break this cycle is to call a time out. This is precisely the possibility rituals create. To enter the space and time of ritual is to participate in an alternative reality that allows one to see the world differently. As traditionally played, baseball encourages a sense of leisure and cultivates the virtues of caution, delay, deliberation, patience and reflection. These values are important precisely because they stand in critical tension with the revved up pace of everyday life. To increase the speed of the game would make it an extension of, and not an alternative to the high-speed world that never leaves people enough time for themselves and for others. Far from a threat to its viability, the slow pace of the game is what makes baseball increasingly valuable in a world that is moving too fast for us ever to catch up.


Johannine Theology

We had a lively discussion of 1 John in exegesis class today and we were struck by the epistle’s (mostly) straightforward Greek and its brilliance of weaving together relationality with God and with others in the Christian community.

Our all-too brief engagement with 1 John has motivated me to jump into Paul Rainbow’s Johannine Theology, which treats the Gospel, the epistles, and the Apocalypse in an exegetically sensitive biblical theological manner.

9780830840564

I carefully worked through Rainbow’s previous work, The Way of Salvation: The Role of Christian Obedience in Justification and found it a nuanced and creative theological engagement with some difficult texts. It looks like this new work is more of the same, which is certainly a welcome development. It looks like the perfect textbook for a course on New Testament Biblical Theology.


Awkward Endings

The other day in class we discussed endings to biblical narratives. Some of them don’t end with what we might call a “satisfying resolution.” This is certainly the case with Mark’s Gospel, which ends abruptly and on a very awkward note.

Such endings, however, are very effective, depending on the author’s intentions. Mark is destabilizing throughout – jarring, even – and it’s likely that he means to provoke a reaction among hearers with his abrupt and surprising ending.

If a writer wants to agitate readers, provoking them to reflect on what they’ve heard and what it means for them, then a satisfying resolution may hinder his aims.

no_country_for_old_men

I remember the first time I watched “No Country for Old Men” with some friends. Being unfamiliar with the story, I was very upset with its ending. I’ll never forget my friend Bob turning to me and saying, “think about it.”

I did. I couldn’t get it out of my head for about a week.

Then I read the novel and watched the film a few more times, continuing to converse with friends about various characters and turns in the plot.

Awkward endings provoke reflection. U2’s song “The First Time” has an ending like this. It’s a lovely song from their album “Zooropa.”

Zooropa

The first verse is about a lover. The second verse seems to be about Jesus:

I have a brother, when I’m a brother in need
I spend my whole time running
He spends his running after me.
I feel myself goin’ down
I just call and he comes around.
But for the first time I feel love.

As the final verse begins, it’s about a heavenly Father:

My father is a rich man, he wears a rich man’s cloak.
He gave me the keys to his kingdom (coming)
Gave me a cup of gold.

In their book U2 by U2, Bono said that as they wrote the song, they got to the end and just couldn’t bring themselves to end it tidily. It just wouldn’t do to bring about an easy resolution. So they wrote:

He said “I have many mansions
And there are many rooms to see.”
But I left by the back door
And I threw away the key
And I threw away the key.

Why did they do this? That may be the wrong question. Bono has expressed frustration at times when fans assume that U2’s songs are all autobiographical. It’s not that Bono himself is choosing to remain (or become) a prodigal, or throw away a relationship with God. None of that is in view here.

They’re weaving a narrative and they recognize the incongruity of a tidy ending with how untidy life is, how much the life of faith lacks easy or simplistic resolution.

I still wrestle with that song. Why does he throw away the key? What could he possibly prefer to the Father’s goodness? Is he bent on self-destruction and just can’t help himself? Am I like that? Are there times when I prefer the route of folly and self-destruction rather than receiving a good gift and entering into blessing?

An awkward ending. A brilliant song.


Satan & the Secret of the Kingdom

In the Gospel of Mark, Satan is obviously the enemy of God and of Jesus and the people of God. But his opposition isn’t merely generalized. It’s very specific, taking the form of preventing Jesus from being the cross-shaped Messiah who goes the way of weakness and self-giving love.

Mark doesn’t say much about Jesus’ temptation by Satan, and it seems that readers should regard the temptation in 1:12-13 in light of Jesus’ rebuke to Peter in 8:33. Peter is enthusiastic about Jesus as Messiah but doesn’t want to hear any talk of going to Jerusalem to be betrayed and put to death. The temptation in 1:12-13, involves, presumably, Jesus embodying his role through some spectacular display, through grasping after power and prestige, leading a revolutionary movement to get rid of Rome and establish the Kingdom of God.

So, as others have suggested, in Mark’s Gospel, Satan is opposed to the cross, to a cross-shaped Messiah, and to a cruciform people of God.

It seems to me that the specific opposition of Satan should inform the parable of the soils and its interpretation in 4:1-20, especially Satan’s action of taking away the seed sown in v. 15. Like birds that pick up seeds scattered along the path (v. 4), Satan takes away the seed that is sown in some people.

I don’t think this is a generalized action. That is, it doesn’t involve gospel preaching in general, as if Satan snatches away the force or the content of what we might understand to be gospel proclamation so that a person doesn’t repent and believe the gospel.

The action of Satan seems specific here because the “word” also seems very specific. It is the gospel of the kingdom (here, the “secret of the kingdom”) that Jesus has been proclaiming. Now, it appears that all of Galilee is rife with kingdom fever and longing for the arrival of God’s anointed. But Jesus knows that this fervor is corrupted by a desire for a powerful, revolutionary Messiah who will rally a military revolt through spectacular displays of heroism leading to an uprising.

In this context, the preached word is specifically the word of an unexpected kingdom, an unanticipated Messiah, a countercultural people of God. This is why Jesus keeps tamping down expectations, keeps telling people to keep quiet and not spread the word about him. If momentum grows, the expectations will get out of hand, and people won’t understand that Jesus is not bringing in the sort of kingdom they imagine.

All of this is to say that the way Satan “snatches away the word” is not necessarily by removing from a person’s consciousness gospel preaching as we might conceive of it – a generalized announcement. Satan does so by taking away Jesus’ message of a Messiah who goes to the cross, who refuses to grab for power, who gives his life for others, who calls for kingdom participants to take up their crosses.

Satan takes away the word by clouding Jesus’ message of the cross with the mounting revolutionary fervor so that people respond positively to Jesus because they think he’s going to be the sort of Messiah they want him to be.

Perhaps this is why throughout Mark, the crowds that gather around Jesus and press in on him are not regarded positively. They prevent Jesus from carrying out his ministry and from clarifying his role as Messiah.

Ironically, for modern readers of Mark, it can only be a great thing that there is popular and enthusiastic response to Jesus. And certainly in an American culture of celebrity, cravings for prestige and power, the gospel gets corrupted so that ministries are evaluated by their size and the celebrity magnetism of the pastor.

Where we see signs of ministry “success,” Mark might see Satanic opposition to the “secret of the kingdom” – the gospel of the cross.

 

 


Exegetes at Church

Repost: This topic has come up a few times in conversation, so I thought I’d repost this.

A few recent conversations have sparked some thoughts about going to church as a critically-engaged exegete.

Biblical exegesis is all about critical analysis of the details of a text and critical scrutiny of other exegetes’ work.  Several times after intense and involved class discussions, someone has commented that it must be tough to go to church.  If you’re analyzing the nitty-gritty of a text so closely, emphasizing each feature as crucial, how do you put up with sloppy preaching?

Good question.

Here are a few scattered thoughts, in no particular order.

First, there’s a world of difference between a critical mind and a critical spirit.  A critical mind is essential for the classroom and important for life.  A critical spirit, however, is soul-corrupting and community-destroying.  Hopefully, as I mature, I’m cultivating the first while avoiding the second.

Second, I don’t expect a classroom experience in church or an academic paper from a preacher.  Further, my attention span on a Sunday morning is about eight minutes.  The kid sitting in front of us usually reads Berenstain Bears books during the service, so I have to fight the urge to lean forward and find out what’s making Papa Bear freak out.  Rather than a complex treatment of interpretive options, I love hearing someone trace the broad contours of a text to provide a sweet and simple glimpse into the grace of God in Christ.

Third, when I hear something I haven’t heard before, or even something I’ve previously dismissed as unworkable, I don’t pass judgment and shut down.  I take it up and consider it.  I look again at the biblical text and ask if it fits.  Such opportunities force me to re-examine the text more closely and that’s always a good thing.

Fourth, ministry is hard.  It’s lonely.  Pastors hear far more criticisms than encouragements.  Rather than an exegetical critique on the way out, what a pastor needs to hear at the end of a service is, “thank you.  I appreciate that.  I hope you have a good week.”

Finally, I go to the weekly gathering of my church family as a Christian.  That is, my aim must be God’s aim, and his priority for my church is for it to grow in unity and love as a people called and brought together by the Spirit of God in Christ.  That aim must orient my behaviors.  So, when I’m at church, I try to have one or two good conversations, asking someone some good questions about how they’re doing.  I try to have some good laughs.

Criticizing the sermon simply is not on the agenda.

Exegetes, new and experienced, how do you approach the Sunday gathering?

Pastors, what are your experiences with professors in the pew?


Philosophy & Sport

Mark Edmundson asks whether collegiate athletes should be taught Plato, who reflected at length on reason in relation to passion. I wonder whether athletes at Christian colleges should be required to reflect theologically on a range of issues that might transform how they envision spirit, mind, body, and community (bodies in relation).

It’s not only the athletes that need to (re)think these things, but more importantly college and university trustees, administration, and athletic departments whose accumulated pressures result in a perverse formation of athletes as whole persons.


On Hating & Loving the Old Course

The Dunhill Links Championship was played last week over the Old Course at St. Andrews, Kingsbarns, and Carnoustie. I’ve played all three and the Old Course is certainly the least immediately impressive.

So it wasn’t too much of a surprise when Rory McIlroy said that when he first played the Old Course he hated it. Bobby Jones felt the same way when he first played it, but came to love it over time. Not only this, but McIlroy’s home course is Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, one of the top few links courses in the world and certainly one of the most beautiful.

McIlroy

Getty Images / SI.com

His comments sum up the reaction of most golfers who get to know the Old Course, its quirks and its continued challenge to modern golfers:

“Thought it was the worst golf course I’ve ever played,” he said. “I just stood up on every tee and was like, ‘What is the fascination about this place?’ But the more you play it and the more you learn about the golf course and the little nuances, you learn to appreciate it. Now it’s my favorite golf course in the world.”


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 274 other followers