What A Dissertation Is Teaching Me About Work

A totally accurate depiction of me in my office.

I offer the following lessons with the assumption that: a) sharing our experiences with each other is valuable; b) my lessons are specific and provisional, especially since I haven’t completed the dissertation; and c) what works for me may be counterproductive for you.

I. Don’t mistake time spent for productivity. This is not a 9-5 job. Taking up space in an office somewhere doesn’t get you closer to your goal. I have found that if I’m doing intensive writing, thinking, or outlining, the first two hours are my most productive. Hours 3 and 4 are moderately productive. Most days, hours beyond 4 are not suitable for intensive work.

Though I would often like to work more than I do, for a whole lot of reasons it is extremely rare for me to put in an 8-hour day of dissertation work. A 4-hour day is completely normal for me. And that’s fine! Don’t let arbitrary norms of what constitutes “hard work” guide your practices.

II. Be brutally honest with yourself. What doesn’t work in your first draft? What is the hang-up that has you scared to open up chapter 3 for weeks at a time? Facing these questions and resolving them may take intellectual creativity, but they require at least as much emotional courage. The thing you’ve worked hardest at in all the world is full of errors, problems, and just plain not-very-good writing.

III. Listen to your body. Some days a pen feels heavy in my fingers. Some days it feels like lifting weights to press down the keys on my laptop. Step away. Sleep. Exercise. Don’t drink too much! Take a walk in the sun. The little voice inside saying you don’t have time take a break from the dissertation and go do something healthy is a lie. An hour of work when you’re mentally and emotionally sharp is worth more than 10 hours of foggy work.

IV. If you live by your work you’ll die by your work. Here’s the thing: when you finish your dissertation you won’t be even a little bit more valuable than when you started it. You won’t be more important in any way that finally matters. If your work is your calling you are blessed, but your work is not you. You are loved, and lovable, right now. Everyone needs to know that. This, by the way, is one of the things Christianity does for me.

V. Set Realistic Goals and Let People Help You Meet Them. At a certain point, you do have to, you know, finish this monstrosity. I don’t have any secret sauce here other than trial and error. Too-ambitious goals can leave you feeling discouraged. No goals at all can let you fritter away whole months. So tell your advisor or a writing group that you’re going to give them such and such on day x. And do it, even if you know it’s a crappy draft. And then when the feedback comes and you want to cry, remember points II and IV.

A Review of John Fea’s “Believe Me”

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A clever cover design draws the eyes’ attention to the “lie” in “believe”

A lot of us remember the sense of shock we felt the night of November 8, 2016. For white evangelicals who opposed Trump, the sense of horror and disorientation were compounded by the actions of our fellow white evangelicals. When we woke up Tuesday morning, we already knew that most of them would vote for Trump that day. But we didn’t know that they would do so in possibly record numbers, or that they would actually succeed in electing their new king.

“I should have seen this coming,” writes John Fea in his new book, Believe Me. The toxic mixture of fear, nostalgia, and desire for power so vividly on display in 2016 was not an aberration, Fea tells us. Instead, it’s part of a long white evangelical tradition. The alliance with Trump may have come as a shock to some, but the roots of this strange embrace run deep into the white evangelical past.

These deep roots are best seen in the most effective chapter of the book, a “short history of evangelical fear.” Fea describes Puritan narratives of moral decline and social decay–narratives begun almost before there was time for decline to occur!–as perhaps “the first American evangelical fear.” As for the Puritans, so for contemporary white evangelicals: fear of national decline is not an evidence-based conclusion; it is a constant presence, part of the basic script by which they understand the world around them.

While historians are often reluctant to draw close comparisons between past and present, many readers are likely to be astonished and impressed by the thick resonance between historic events and contemporary white evangelicalism. It is hard to read Fea’s account of evangelical anti-Catholicism and not draw a parallel to fears of Islam today.

In contrast to Michael Gerson’s recent cover story in the Atlantic that described a nineteenth century evangelical golden age, Fea shows that white evangelicals’ commendable zeal to reform society was inseparable from their anxieties about what was happening to their “Christian nation” and their fears of Catholic foreigners. Also in contrast to Gerson, he does not ignore the fact that the predominant form of white evangelicalism in the South was a white supremacist heresy. For many white evangelicals, Trump’s racial demagoguery was not offensive. It spoke to their longstanding fears.

If white evangelicals, even at the height of their power, have often been afraid, what happens when their worst fears are realized? What happens when they seem to have lost their Christian nation? Hope for the future curdles into an easily manipulable nostalgia, and fear metastasizes into a desperate final grasp for power.

I guess that brings us to the Christian Right. Fea is perceptive in his understanding of it. He describes a decades-old “playbook” of trying to restore America to its supposedly Christian roots by electing the right people to political office. Specifically, it means electing conservative Republicans who will appoint judges to overturn Roe and other decisions held responsible for American decline. This playbook is often judged a failure because Roe is still the law of the land and the gay rights movement has transformed American culture. But Fea astutely notes that there is more than one way to measure the success of this playbook. It has been much more successful in granting a measure of power to a small cadre of white evangelical political activists. As far as they are concerned, this is no small thing.

More important, for millions of ordinary white evangelicals the Christian Right’s playbook has set the agenda for what political engagement looks like and is imagined to be. Fea wants readers to realize that there are healthier ways to think about the relationship between church and state and Christian political responsibilities, but the Christian Right has succeeded in crowding out these alternatives. For many white evangelicals, there is no plan B. When a transparently evil candidate came along, departing from the playbook was not an option.

Make America Great Again was not simply a catchy campaign slogan. It spoke directly to white evangelicals’ nostalgia and offered a salve for their fears. As Fea notes, these impulses are basically selfish. Seeking a return to a time when America was great for them, they overlook the struggles of other groups in American history.

This book is an excellent starting point for white evangelicals who have the courage to become students of their own tradition. Neither dismissing white evangelicalism nor sugarcoating it, Fea writes as a critical insider, one who knows of what he speaks through both personal experience and academic study.

Fea has dedicated the book “To the 19 percent” of white evangelicals who did not vote for Trump. It will be a useful resource for people in that camp. It may help them to better understand where they’ve come from and engage in dialogue with the 81%. It is less a criticism of the book than a sad commentary on our times that Fea’s analysis seems unlikely to move many who are part of the 81%.

 

There is Still Hope for Evangelicalism

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My imagined self in my study: the Christian scholar at work.

John Fea has been reporting on his experiences at last week’s “State of the Evangelical Mind” conference. The gathering took as its theme a revisiting of Mark Noll’s classic book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (the scandal is that there is no such thing as an evangelical mind). In a post yesterday titled “Evangelicalism as a Mission Field for Evangelical Scholars,” Fea reports that Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith really brought the heat in the final plenary session:

Very early in his talk Smith announced that “everything going on in this conference has no connection whatsoever to evangelical churches.”  He was right.

Smith began by addressing the “elephant in room.”  Up until this point all of the speakers danced around the links between the the so-called “scandal of the evangelical mind” and Donald J. Trump.  Smith called out the 81% of American evangelicals who voted for the current POTUS and even gave a shout-out to my work on the “court evangelicals.”

Smith was not optimistic about the state of the evangelical mind.  The “evangelical mind,” he lamented, is a “minority report at best.”  If such an evangelical mind does exist, it is found almost entirely in “confessional groups.”  In other words, it is not thriving, or perhaps even existing, in non-denominational churches. These congregations have grown from 194,000 in 1990 to eight million today.  According to Smith, those concerned about the evangelical mind should be devoted to closing the gap between the scholarly world and these churches.  Evangelicalism, he argued, is a “mission field for evangelical scholars.”

Following Smith’s call will require boldness on the part of Christian scholars.  Smith urged us to consider a “scholarship for the masses,” a “scholarship without condescension,” an “outreach scholarship, and a “translation scholarship.”  Our work with the church should be something akin to the work we do in undergraduate classroom teaching.  Smith imagined bringing our general education programs into the churches

Smith calls Christian scholars to critique American evangelicalism while at the same time working for reform.  The Christian Right, he said, is “invested in the anti-intellectualism of evangelical churches.”  They rely on non-thinking Christians in order to advance their political agendas.  The fulfillment of Smith’s vision will require evangelical scholars to stay in their churches and engage in a “come alongside scholarship.”  He reminded us that “you can’t be a prophet on your way out the door.” Such work will require scholars dedicated to the church, Christian colleges and universities willing to provide time to faculty who want to pursue this work, and patrons willing to fund such an effort.

This really resonates with me, but I’m not optimistic in the near term. It often seems that the space has all but closed for evangelical scholars to do work that is both appealing to ordinary evangelicals and committed to intellectual integrity. We want to serve a constituency that doesn’t want to be served. We want to serve God with our minds, and many of our co-religionists find the very idea absurd.

This is also an intellectual problem for my dissertation because part of what I’m exploring is evangelical colleges. At the outset of my work, I just assumed that they mattered, that they have real influence in evangelicalism. But I’ve become increasingly skeptical of claims of broad influence. It seems that most evangelical colleges are either largely impotent in their attempts to reach the evangelical mainstream and they’re actually training students for roles outside evangelicalism, or they are not actually fostering the intellectual and social environment they imagine themselves to be creating. Maybe it’s a little of both.

There is still hope for evangelicalism. The movement that has transformed into an anti-intellectual crusade of hatred and fear is—broadly speaking—the movement that contributed to America’s religious disestablishment in the 18th century and paved the way to abolition in the 19th century. And beyond its often positive social and political effects, evangelicalism has always captured something essential about the Christian life. It has scorned respectable religion and insisted that an encounter with Jesus radiates outward through the whole life, engaging the heart, the mind, and every dimension of our being.

We are witnessing the splintering and shrinking of evangelicalism, but what is being lost is dead weight, worse than useless for the Kingdom of God. And as any good evangelical should know, nothing is reborn until it dies.

On Keeping Faith in God While Studying Human Beings

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Oregon Klan Meeting, 1920s. Oregon Historical Society

A fellow Christian recently asked me what my dissertation is about. After giving a brief account of my research on white evangelicals she responded, “That must be hard on your faith.” This was an unusual and perceptive response. It is hard.

The difficulty is layered. The outer layer is common to many people of faith in a variety of academic disciplines. The habits of mind that we learn in our work—the questioning, the skepticism of easy answers, the careful construction and deconstruction of meaning—are extremely productive. They help advance the boundaries of human knowledge and can even make us more humble. But if not embedded in a broader theology, ethic of service, and system of social support, they can breed cynicism that is corrosive to Christian eschatological hope. It’s hard.

The inner layer of difficulty is more specific to my particular subject and biography. I am a white evangelical studying white evangelicals. Even more pointedly, I’m studying the whiteness of my theological tradition. That means I spend a lot of time learning and thinking about exclusion and dehumanization practiced in the name of Christ, my savior. It’s hard.

Many people have traveled this path and have put up some road signs to help us along. But it’s a bit of a solitary path for each of us. I’m not here to offer proven strategies to a successful destination. I’m simply saying there’s a real spiritual and emotional challenge at the core of this academic project, and working that out will in some ways determine whether the project succeeds on the academic side.

You might think this shouldn’t be such a challenge. It’s not as if I’m studying the Holocaust or something. (I think doing so has left Timothy Snyder a bit overwrought. For that I don’t blame him.) And it’s not as if Christian theology doesn’t have something to say about the evil found in history. But it’s another thing to encounter the specificity of evil in the archives in the form of people claiming to follow Jesus.

I’m left wondering how and why it could be that so many people in so many times and places could claim Christ’s name to such little effect. Or, indeed, to use him to sanction their pathetic fears and hatreds. And then I see myself standing in that same tradition, with the same selfish bent, so that finally “Jesus Saves” reads as an indulgence of hatred instead of a claim of liberation.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all bleak. I enjoy my job. I have a fun love/hate relationship with writing (some of us don’t like to write but like to have written). It’s fascinating to encounter complex human beings in the past and get to know them. I love to teach. But make no mistake: it’s all hard!

The Role of the Christian Scholar In An Era of Darkness

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A Scholar in his Study. Thomas Wyck

In this awful time, as barbarism is accepted at the highest levels of national leadership and heresy becomes routine in the church, what must the Christian scholar do? Scott Culpepper, a professor of history at Dordt College, has a guest post at the Anxious Bench that deserves to be widely read. He writes:

Christian scholars across the spectrum of theological traditions share a common commitment to fostering intellectual and spiritual maturity, rationality, integrity, and humility in our students, the church and in our cultures.  The Trump presidential campaign and transition phase descended to the level of rejecting in both words and very public deeds each of these fundamental ideals.  Careful consideration of facts, disciplined analysis of sources, and respectful treatment of other human beings assumed the position of secondary considerations as people rushed to express their angst over the perceived failures of the amorphous “establishment” by elevating a man to power who cares for none of these things.  Those of us who invest our lives daily in advocating the alternative stand at best as an inconvenience and at worse as an impediment that must be undermined or removed…

Christian scholars are indeed a subversive influence.  Critics are right in labeling us a subversive influence if what they mean is that we subvert the subordination of facts to falsehoods calculated to sway popular opinion, the substitution of shallow shibboleths for deeper reflection, and the sacrifice of principle on the profane altar of political expediency.  And there will be a greater need for us to keep on subverting these things with all the energy we can muster in the age of Trump.

The times call for renewed conviction, creativity and courage on the part of Christian scholars.  The masses may not know they need us, but they need us.  The endorsement of popular influence as a virtue in the framing of our American republic was predicated on the hope that education and character formation would equip people to exercise their rights intelligently.  No one is better prepared than Christian scholars and the institutions they serve to provide this kind of education infused with serious attention to character formation.

Read the whole thing. And let there be no mistake: fulfilling our calling in this time may mean that we will become exiles from our own communities. Our very existence as people who are both Christians and scholars is a threat to the white nationalist church.