Wednesday, April 27, 2016

prostitutes, polygamy, and other gnarly things in the Old Testament

The Old Testament is full of fodder for questions. Gnarly questions about violence and sexual deviancy and deception and war. Every year new books are released that try to wrestle with these questions from a Christian point of view. Here are a few examples from recent years, most of them focused on violence in the Old Testament:

Last year David Lamb added a second book of his own to this collection: Prostitutes and Polygamists: A Look at Love, Old Testament Style (Zondervan, 2015). I was asked to review it for Themelios, the digital journal of The Gospel Coalition. My review went live yesterday.

I hesitated to accept. The book struck me as edgy and irreverently playful on a subject matter that deserves steady and non-sensational reflection. Frankly, I didn't seem to fit the target audience. But the editor had reasons to ask me (my gender, my cross-cultural experience, and my background in Old Testament ethics), so in the end I agreed to write a review. You can read it here. You might find it to be just the thing for the college group at your church, but I hope my review will help guide your group discussions in order to avoid some of the potential pitfalls of Lamb's approach.

While I have your attention, I'll put in a plug for two books I like better. Wright's book, listed first above, is an outstanding yet accessible introduction to tough issues involving suffering and evil, the Canaanites, the cross, and the end of the world. (His more scholarly tome, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, is also well worth reading, if your attention span can last nearly 500 pages.) Paul Copan's book, listed second above, comes highly recommended as well. I haven't read the whole thing yet, but I find his approach much more satisfying than Lamb's.

If you're wrestling with some of these tough questions, please know that there are answers. From our vantage point we may never be fully satisfied with the ways that the Old Testament narrates the story of Israel's faith. It's too foreign and too far in the distant past to make perfect sense to us. But if we apply ourselves diligently to the text of Scripture and broaden our understanding of its ancient context, we can come a long way toward making sense of the Old Testament. It's a journey worth making!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

now what? (and other questions): life after dissertation

It's the inevitable question that follows the celebratory congratulations. Since I've been blessed with a wide-ranging support network, it's a question I'm asked just about every day by people who care.

So, yes, it feels amazing to be (almost) done!
Yes, it's a huge load off our shoulders, and the whole family is relieved.
Yes, I have a bit more freedom and flexibility now.

But no, I will not have a lot more free time. Here's why:

A Ph.D. is not the type of degree people earn for personal enrichment. As a matter of stewardship, the huge investment of time, mentoring, and other resources are designed to prepare the student for a lifetime of scholarship. Career-wise, like most of my colleagues, my hope is to be a college professor. I have already begun teaching at two schools, George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, and Multnomah University in Portland. I love what I do. I'm very grateful for open doors. However, these "jobs" are a bit like being a "temp" worker (minus the agency). They pay very little (last spring my pay worked out to about $5/hour), with no benefits, and no guarantee of employment beyond the current semester. Semester by semester, each school will let me know if they need me to teach for them again. So while I love my work, I do not actually have a job yet.

In order to get a permanent position, I must demonstrate that I will be a contributing member of the campus as well as the scholarly community by staying abreast of current research, participating in campus events, investing in students outside of class, and achieving excellence in teaching (as measured by student evaluations). Diploma aside, without several scholarly publications and stellar teaching evaluations, no school is likely to consider hiring me. In today's educational environment, very few schools are hiring permanent ("tenure-track") faculty. Schools that do post positions are flooded with qualified applicants. To walk away from the library now would spell the end of my career.

Getting a PhD is a bit like becoming an MD. Your medical doctor did not stop studying when she graduated from medical school (thank goodness!). She reads medical journals, attends medical conferences, and even collaborates with other doctors to ensure quality care and accurate diagnoses for patients. Likewise, I cannot stop studying and writing. A professor who ceases to learn, ceases to teach.

And so my days are still full. These days I'm revising my dissertation (almost done!), prepping for class, grading student papers, and preparing for upcoming gigs:

In May I'll be presenting a paper at an academic meeting in Idaho (Northwest Regional Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature) and serving as a respondent for a colleague's paper.
In June I'll be teaching a one-week intensive course on the Old Testament Prophets at Multnomah University.
In July I'll be filming brief lectures for an online course on the Prophets at Multnomah, to be offered beginning in October.
In late August I'll begin teaching 2 new courses on campus at George Fox (Exodus and Psalms) and another section of Prophets at Multnomah.

On top of this are the opportunities to invest in the church—speaking at a women's event in May in Dallas, Oregon, helping with VBS, and speaking at a women's retreat in September in Wisconsin—as well as finding a publisher for my dissertation and beginning work on my next research project.

All of these great opportunities require long, quiet, focused hours of preparation. Studying the Word, crafting a message or a lecture, preparing visual aids, and coordinating logistics. In fact, with 4 classes this fall (3 on two campuses and one online), I'll be teaching the equivalent of a full-time load. I expect to be just as busy as ever. But I'm not complaining.

That was the whole point of all this schooling.

From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded;
and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
(Luke 12:48 NIV)
Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. 
(1 Corinthians 4:2 NIV) 
At the end of the race, may I be found faithful!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

lasting impressions and do-overs

Is it possible to retire from retirement? Last week my grandparents moved from their retirement home in the mountains to a retirement facility just one block away from my childhood home. This time it's for real -- downsizing, purging, relinquishing memories and positioning themselves closer to medical care, meals, and household assistance.

This move to Denver brings my grandparents back into the orbit of those who made such a mark on my childhood. Men and women who filled the pews on Sunday morning, and whose names filled the address book we kept by the phone. Our perpetual problem was that address books never allowed enough pages for the letter "V": VanderVeen, Vermeer, Veenstra, Verstraate, VanderHorst, VanHeukelem, Van Stelle, Vander Ploeg, Van Dusseldorp, and on it went. We managed to surround ourselves almost entirely with other Dutch families -- our Christian Reformed Church, the Christian school started by CRC families where my brother and I attended, the businesses run by CRC families, and even Dutch neighbors who, like us, had settled close to all these things.

We lived just 4 doors down from Third CRC. Stepping out the front door in the morning, we could see the brick corner of the church, with windows to the nursery where we began our childhood (and the mural our mom painted of Noah's Ark), the library where we filled our arms with Christian books, Sunday school rooms, and the consistory room where Dad participate in deacon's meetings and where I sat nervously at the big oval council table, being interviewed by a dozen men in suits before my public profession of faith. Now the men and women who used to shake our hands and pat our heads shuffle down hallways one block to the East, in that brick building that was once new, heading to meals, their frames bent and their skin too loose. Among them is our pastor from so long ago. My grandparents are their newest neighbors.

I remember Reverend Kok as tall and broad, with a booming voice. I knocked on his door once, hands trembling and gasping for breath. I had run to the parsonage with an urgent confession. While playing in the church yard mid-week, as we often did, I had broken a basement window. Looking back, I would like to give Reverend Kok a "do-over." What he ought to have said was, "Don't be afraid, Carmen. It can be fixed. It took a lot of courage to come tell me the truth. Thank you for your honesty. Well done. This mistake doesn't define you, your integrity does." What he really said was, "I hope you have plenty of money in your piggy bank." This terrified me. He didn't intend to be mean, but by the time my 10 year old feet had pounded the pavement all the way to my house almost a block away, I was a mess. The tears burst and I blubbered my confession to Dad, who told me not to worry. He could fix it, and I didn't need to pay for it. After that we didn't skateboard on the wheelchair ramp any more.

Two other memories of Reverend Kok cast him in a different light. The first showed his insecurity, perhaps. I don't remember the context of his sermon, but I remember him suggesting that none of us young people would want to become pastors when we grew up. It was almost a rhetorical question, I think. "None of you wants to be like me when you grow up. (Right?)" He meant that we probably didn't want to go into pastoral ministry. Unbidden, and without any hesitation an unspoken response welled up inside me. "Oh, but I do!" I'm not sure that I thought it was actually possible. After all, I was a little girl, not a little boy, so pastoral ministry was not an option. But I couldn't think of anything more wonderful to do with my life. Reverend Kok represented the pinnacle of vocational excellence to me. I'll never forget his angst the Sunday after televangelist Jimmy Swaggart was caught with a prostitute (mostly I remember it because he said the word "butt" from the pulpit, as in, "today we [Christians] are the butt of every joke." I still feel the shock of hearing that, almost 30 years later.).

But my favorite memory begins one Sunday morning when I was distracted during the sermon, studying the maps in the back of the pew Bibles, because they were the only pictures available. It was a New Testament map that grabbed my attention -- a New Testament map that included the city of Jericho. My little brain couldn't quite wrap itself around that one. Didn't the walls fall down? Wasn't it destroyed? At the end of the service all the grown ups filed out of the sanctuary, shaking Rev Kok's hand. I carried the pew Bible along with me, open to the map, and planted myself right beside him. Craning my little neck (I told you he was tall!), I asked if I could ask him a question. His attention divided, he kept shaking hands and nodding at folks while he listened to my question about Jericho. Then he gave me an answer I didn't expect. "I don't know, but I'll try to find out."

The next Sunday I waited impatiently until the end of the sermon. I filed out with everyone else and planted myself beside him again, intensely curious. When there were no more hands to shake he turned to me. "Well, I looked at a book on Jericho this big [here he held out a bent finger and thumb probably 3 inches apart, thoroughly impressing me], and here's what I learned. After Jericho was destroyed, it wasn't supposed to be rebuilt, but somebody did it anyway. He lost both of his sons for disobeying God, but the city has been there ever since." (See 1 Kings 16:34 for the story)

I went away with a full heart and a dawning appreciation for biblical scholarship. Rev. Kok had taken me seriously. My questions mattered. And they had answers. There were books full of them.

I wonder how instrumental that conversation was in setting me on the trajectory that led me to Wheaton. My insatiable fascination with the Bible has only grown with time. What if Rev. Kok had waved me aside and told me my question was silly? Where would I be?

My Dad spoke with Rev. Kok last week, when my grandparents were signing papers on their new apartment. Rev. Kok wanted to know if I was still a good Calvinist. (I've forgiven Dad for lying in response, as he was answering the more important question that Rev. Kok ought to have asked.) I'd like to give Rev. Kok a do-over when I make it to Denver to see my grandparents in their new home. I'd like to hear him ask, "Do you still love Jesus? Are you walking faithfully with him?" For that, my answer is a resounding "YES!"

Monday, April 4, 2016

learning how to celebrate

Eat, drink, and be merry, says Qohelet.*
And yet—
I have spent a lifetime avoiding excess, choosing moderation, working weekends, and feeling guilty when I'm unproductive.
Qohelet would have words with me.

It's not that our work doesn't matter, but he urges us to slow down, to stop taking ourselves so seriously, to spend time enjoying the fruits of our labor.
Eat, drink, and be merry.
Celebrate together.
Don't store it all up for "Someday." You may die before you can enjoy what you've earned.

This is not what I expected.
I would rather hear him say, "Give it away. Be generous with those in need. Save for the future." (Other parts of the Bible say these things. And we should listen to them, too. I'm most comfortable with these parts.)
But Qohelet says, Loosen your belt buckle and eat another helping of dessert. 
Relish what God has given.
Work—this, too, is a gift.

Do what you love and love what you do. But then stop and play. Work isn't everything.

Recognize that God has things in hand. He's in charge. You are not.
Rest in that.

Life won't always make sense. It will feel like things go round and round without progress, or those who don't deserve it get the lucky break and those who do lose everything. But don't panic.
As meaningless as it seems, God hasn't stopped ruling the world. He'll work it out eventually.
In the meantime, work, love, and . . . party.
No need to be more pious than God. He wants you to accept His gifts.

For this Dutch girl, the whole thing sounds suspicious, like a coupon that will turn out to be expired once I've driven across town and stood in line for 20 minutes ("I knew it was too good to be true"). Or like an advertisement for a beach house that looks much better on screen than in person ("You get what you pay for.").

Is this a trap? or a test of my motives? Is celebration a slippery slope that will land me in a self-indulgent mess?

I decide that frugality, taken to an extreme, is a failure to demonstrate gratitude for what God has provided. I must learn to think differently, enlarging my capacity for celebration.

I start small. We're on a date—the first in months—and I order Duck Curry instead of the usual chicken. The extra $2 tastes delicious.

Then I head to Wheaton for my dissertation defense. The weekend goes so incredibly well that I know it's just the sort of occasion Qohelet is talking about—a time to celebrate. At a dinner with friends I stay up late and "taste my first champagne" (not bad, actually!). But the real surprise, the real opportunity to test drive Qohelet's philosophy comes when I arrive home.

It's midnight, thanks to a delayed flight out of Chicago, and I am exhausted. But as we pull up to the house my jaw drops. Parked in the driveway with an enormous red bow is a car, a new car, just for me!

We'd been talking about "Someday," that time when I have a full-time job with a real salary and we can afford a newer car for my commute. But it appears that my parents have been reading Ecclesiastes, too. They felt that it was time to celebrate—that someday was now. And so they dug deep and orchestrated a surprise I will never forget. Though this extravagance cost me nothing, it will be a daily reminder of God's lavish love for me, a love  not limited by "what's on sale" or "what's practical."

He's teaching this Dutch girl how to celebrate.


*Qohelet is the name some scholars use to refer to the "Teacher" in Ecclesiastes, since it's hard to know exactly what the translation would be. It's simply his Hebrew title rendered in English letters.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

in retrospect—what else is a dissertation defense?

It is an honor.

My dissertation committee (L-R): Richard Averbeck,
Daniel Block, Karen Jobes, Carmen Imes, Sandra Richter,
Marc Cortez (Photo: Michelle Knight)
Brilliant scholars take time out of their already overloaded schedules to read what you've written and to think about what it means and how it matters. They give up an afternoon to sit with you and ask you what you think and give you good advice. They push you (which means they think you can handle it) and they offer their best critique (proving that they stayed awake while reading your work) and they listen and even concede (when you've changed their minds). Dozens of students drop their own work to come and watch. Wow.

It is surreal.

My dissertation defense. (Photo: Daniel Lanz)
As a student observing the defenses of others, I assumed that it would be a nerve-wracking experience. Years worth of effort are channeled into one afternoon. Everything is on the line. But yesterday I felt entirely calm. I knew it was time. I had given my best effort with the time I had. I also knew that even a difficult defense would not mean the end of my career. It would simply mean a longer list of revisions before the diploma arrives by mail. I even expected this. Here's what I did not expect:

It is fun (sometimes).

My doctoral advisor, Daniel Block, and me (Photo: M Knight)
Ten years in seminary and graduate school have prepared me for scholarly discourse. I'm not afraid of disagreements. I'm aware of my own limited perspective and need for others' critique. I also know that I've studied this topic more than just about anyone in the world, and that I have good reasons for laying things out the way I did. I came in hoping to learn from my readers and was delighted to discover that my readers actually liked my work and learned from me. Our time together was collaborative, encouraging, and productive. We laughed together and left as friends.

I found that a dissertation defense on April Fool's Day was strangely appropriate. It reminded me of Paul's words:
"Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God — that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: 'Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.'" (1 Corinthians 1:26–31)
I began this journey as a stay-at-home mom with very few connections in the scholarly world. I had spent my time networking among Muslim street vendors in the Philippines while my books were boxed in storage. I learned Hebrew (for the second time) while breastfeeding and read book reviews in the preschool pick-up line. With a great deal of effort, I finished my 2-year masters degree in 5 years. By the world's standards, I was not the ideal candidate for an advanced degree. But God does not choose us because we already have what it takes. He chooses empty and willing vessels who are ready to be filled. He called me, and I simply said 'yes.'

The dissertation defense was the culmination of this chapter of of my journey, but it is only the beginning of my 'yes' to God.

For Christ and His Kingdom!

Monday, March 28, 2016

what is a dissertation defense?

As my big day approaches (April 1st! No joke!), friends are asking, "What does it mean to defend your dissertation? You're done, right? Aren't you graduating in May?"

Yes and no and maybe.

In short, I'll find out on Friday afternoon if I'm graduating this year. It depends on how my defense goes.

Every school handles this a bit differently. Here's how it works at Wheaton:

First we think up an idea that needs further research. It has to be a project that hasn't been done yet. We write up a 20-page proposal for the project, plus another 10 pages of bibliography for sources we plan to read to get us started. When our day comes, we have a "proposal defense" or "proposal hearing," in which all the PhD faculty and students gather. They will have read our proposals beforehand. After a brief introduction, members of the faculty ask questions and make suggestions for how to improve our research agenda. Usually this involves narrowing the project considerably so that we're not biting off more than we can chew. At Wheaton this happens during the spring of our first year in the program, while we're in the middle of taking classes. If we pass, we're cleared to begin work on it. I passed my proposal defense on April 11, 2012.

We spend YEARS researching and writing a dissertation (in my case, four years). In the end, the body of the project needs to be under 100,000 words long (roughly 300 pages), plus bibliography. (Yes, I know. That's long enough to be a book. It is a book, and most of them get published.) While we're researching and writing, we work closely with our doctoral adviser and our "second reader," another member of Wheaton's faculty who agrees to read and respond to our work. When the project is complete and both readers are satisfied that it's ready to "defend," we turn in a "defense draft." I submitted mine last month.

While that's a major milestone, it is not the end of the process.

Copies of the defense draft are sent to all the committee members: the doctoral advisor, the committee chair, the second reader, and an "external reader" from outside the Wheaton community who agrees to travel to Wheaton for the defense. Another copy of the defense draft is placed in the PhD seminar room for students and faculty to read (in all their spare time). Forty-five days later, all the PhD students and faculty gather on campus for the defense (no visitors allowed, including family). Except for the doctoral advisor, who must remain silent, the student's committee members are seated in the front of the room with the student, facing each other. They are given 90 minutes to ask questions and offer critique of the student's dissertation. The student "defends" his or her work by offering explanation, clarification, push back, etc, or in some cases, agrees that something needs to be changed. After 90 minutes, the students are all dismissed to wait outside while the faculty deliberate and decide if the student's work is rigorous enough to earn a doctoral degree.

Most students who make it this far in the process pass, but many are required to do more revisions before they turn in a final copy. So even if my defense on Friday is successful, it won't be the end of the process. I'll need to take the feedback I receive and incorporate it into my project until the committee members are satisfied. Then I'll need to send it on to a "technical reader" who carefully checks for compliance with the style guide and identifies typos. All that back-and-forth can take months, after which I'll finally receive my diploma.

If I pass on Friday, I can walk in the May graduation even if I have more revisions to do, but I won't get a real diploma until the revisions are completely finished and I've submitted a final copy.

Who are my readers?

Daniel Block - my doctoral advisor (or doktorvater)
Karen Jobes - my (former) second reader, now retired, but still planning to attend the defense
Sandra Richter - my (new) second reader
Richard Averbeck - my external reader
Marc Cortez - my committee chair

Why is it such a long and complicated process?

If a PhD were easy to get, it wouldn't be worth much. Extreme pressure yields more learning, and it helps to ensure that anyone who has those three letters behind their name has truly earned the right to teach adult students. If I could turn back the clock and someone offered me the credentials without having to go through a program like this first I would say "NO WAY." This has been a really important (long) season of growth and learning. I've come to know and love the scholarly community that I am joining, and I'm so grateful for the journey!

So how do I feel about the defense?

Really grateful to be so close to the end. I feel like I'm pregnant and just days away from my due date. I fully expect the next part of the process will be painful (defenses usually are, at some level), but in a matter of days, I'll have my baby and I can be done with this pregnancy and leave the pain behind. Let's do this!

Sunday, March 6, 2016

the gift and cost of social media

Perhaps you've noticed. (More likely not.)
I haven't blogged much lately.

At first, it was because I finally joined Facebook. That took up much of my discretionary time. Finding and "friending" friends from all the places we've lived was quite an undertaking. Looking at their family photos and reading their walls and checking my newsfeed filled more hours. Within a week I had 300 friends. Within a month 500. Now two months have passed and I have over 600 friends, though I haven't been actively looking for more and have yet to scour my contacts for those I've missed. It all happened too fast to properly "catch up" on each one's journey. I told myself it was a "training" period, and that life would get back to normal. That I would find a new and sustainable rhythm. That I would get back to blogging. But weeks passed.

Other factors interfered.

Mere days after I joined Facebook, George Fox asked me to teach a class for them immediately. I scrambled to put together a syllabus, fill out all the paperwork, and get ready for classes to start. With less than 2 weeks' notice to prepare, this left little time for blogging.

Then there was Danny's 10-day trip to Thailand and my looming dissertation deadline (now past), the girls' theatre performance (see Facebook for details :)), my parents' visit from out of town, a series of meetings at church, etc, etc.

Life has been busy enough that my virtual disappearance from this blog is justifiable. But what's been nagging at me is that time itself cannot explain my silence. On many a quiet evening I could have been blogging, but I didn't. Why not?

My swirling thoughts have coalesced around two reasons. The first is personal, but the second may point to issues more universal.

First, I am teaching. I find that having a regular "outlet" -- real people with whom I can speak about deeper issues -- brings enough satisfaction that I feel less compelled to write. I found this to be true last spring as well, while teaching at Multnomah. I am still speaking, thinking, teaching, but the venue has shifted from blog to classroom. ("Carmen, you mean to say that you blog because you need to write, not because we need to read?" "Um, yes. If you benefit, too, that's a bonus.")

The second issue is deeply ironic. A big reason that I joined Facebook was to have a naturally wider network with which to share my blog posts. I had noticed that whenever a friend re-posted one of my blog posts on Facebook I had a LOT more readers. I figured if I was going to take the time to write, all my real-life friends should know about it, not just the few who think to check my blog. However, Facebook has not only swallowed up time that I could be blogging, but it's sapped the reflective impulse as well. These days, if I have a share-able thought I can release it to the world in a matter of moments -- a few sentences and I'm done. This preempts the deeper reflection and harder work of developing a blog post worth reading. This one, for example, has already taken me more than 30 minutes took me over an hour. I could have made the same point on Facebook in a matter of seconds:

"I joined Facebook so that I could share my blog with all of you. But now I have no time to blog, so all you get is a picture of what I ate for dinner."

Facebook can also leave me feeling scattered. Between birthday parties and memes and videos mocking Donald Trump and articles about ADHD and funny pet stories, I lack the singularity of focus that writing a blog post requires.

It's not all bad. I've done a lot more "listening" over the past 2 months. Facebook has become a virtual reunion, as I've reconnected with friends from all the places where I've lived -- Colorado, Oregon, the Philippines, North Carolina, Illinois -- who are themselves scattered the world over. That is such a gift.

What I didn't expect was deeper connections with people right here in my own community. After all, I was mostly joining Facebook for the far away folks that I won't see in church on Sunday. But pretty quickly I found "friends" from church as well, and we're still new enough here that it's helping me keep names and faces straight and enhancing conversations at fellowship time between services. ("Congrats on your new . . . "; "I was sorry to see that . . . "; "How was your big meeting this week?")

Another fun surprise has been the professional networking. Instead of seeing colleagues once a year an academic conference, I am glimpsing the rhythm of their life and work the whole year through, and I'm seeing them more holistically -- as real people with families and birthdays and ministry involvement and vacations. In the long run, I think this is a win-win.

In the meantime, I still need to find a sustainable rhythm for Facebook and Blogger that will help me stay connected without disrupting deeper reflection. If anyone out there has ideas, message me or leave a comment below. I'm going to post this post on Facebook and call it a day...