Monthly Archives: November 2014

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.


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.