From the Basement

October 31, 2010

“Do you learn because you love?” – On Francis Chan, Humility, & Graduate School

One of the best sermons I’ve ever heard, hands down, was Francis Chan’s message at the Think conference. I posted the link to the video in the last entry; you should really take a look, it’s fantastic. His talk centered on 1 Corinthians 8:1-3:

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God.

Chan quoted John MacArthur who said “Knowledge is essential, but it’s not sufficient.” The pursuit of knowledge and critical thinking is absolutely crucial to the Christian life, but it must be girded, hedged behind and before, with the love of God, without which our righteous deeds are as filthy rags.

The focus of the sermon was humility, and even though Chan’s illustrations about speaking were obviously meant to apply to, y’know, speakin’ and preachin’, I took them heart even regarding my applications:

“I’ve told my preaching students, if you feel nervous, it’s probably because there’s sin in your life. And you’re thinking about a person, you’re thinking about pleasing someone, you want someone to approve of your message, rather than thinking about God. And the nerves often are not because you love the people, it’s because you want them to love you and you want them to like you.”

Before he preaches, Chan asks himself questions in order to check his heart, such as “Am I worried about what people will think of my message, or am I more concerned about what God thinks?” and “Do I genuinely love these people?” Because this is what he emphasized: when you are giving a message or leading a bible study or speaking even in a conversation, is your motivation to be loved or to love them? Are you asking God for the words that will best enable you to love them or are you worried about being seen as intelligent or articulate or [fill in the blank]?

Chan posed the question: “Do you learn because you love?”

Wow. Do I learn because I love? Is my desire to learn, to go to graduate school, for my colleagues, for those in my cohort, for my advisors – is my ultimate goal to love them to bring glory to my Redeemer, who because of his gracious nature alone saw fit to rescue me from the pit? Is my desire that they too would be rescued? Do I have, as Chan quoted the Apostle Paul, an unceasing anguish for the lost?

Sometimes, I feel like Jonah. I want the easy road; I am scared to minister to the people I think God’s calling me to (confirmation: when your fiance wants to minister to them, that’s probably a sign from God!). Sometimes, I think and pray, “Oh God, why can’t a literary agent just stumble onto my blog and I can write a book and go around speaking at Women of Faith conferences or something and just talk to other broken down Jesus Girls whose parents are divorced and who don’t know what love and marriage look like and who are looking to feminism and women’s studies as the answer and oh God, why can’t you just let me minister to women like me, women who need encouragement and who just want someone to love them?”

Because women like me go to college and grad school. Because women like me look to the life of the mind – to intellectualism – for answers. Women like me think we’ve got life beat. Women like me need Jesus.

My heroes are in academia. Some of the people who have had the greatest impact on my intellect, who I know God allowed to be my professors, who he put in my life in specific ways to nurture and guide my intellectual development – many of them are not believers. My honors advisor, who I love so dearly, has an utter disdain for religion and Christianity and marriage, and for the life of her, she cannot comprehend my faith. We’ve touched on it occasionally, but so much went unsaid throughout those four years. So many opportunities passed me by to share my faith with her, to try and help her see.

And you hear about how academia in the United States is one of the most hostile environments for faith, and I’m sure that many of you who’ve gone through college have encountered at least one openly anti-Christian professor on campus, and probably many more who were implicitly critical of religion, and I can’t help but think, what purpose would this serve, Lord? Evangelical Christians have zero cultural capital in higher education. To put it another way, they have no intellectual blue chips. My faith and my education are so seemingly at odds in the world, even if I see them as flowing beautifully together… and I ask again, to what purpose, Lord?

I think that we forget that people are watching. I think we forget that our calling is higher. Loving them in word and deed is far more important than being hailed as wise and knowledgeable in the ways of the world.

One of the writer friends I cherish most dearly is probably almost twice my age. She went to a top 10 English program, has written books, articles, you name it, she’s done it – and she cares about her students. She’s also one of the most ridiculously intelligent women I’ve ever met; she explained a complicated literary theorist to me using Harry Potter. I mean, come on!

Well, she and other writer friends of mine were at a convention, and apparently the conversation in her suite turned to faith, Christianity and Harry Potter. She sent me a message saying she wished I had been there to share my insights.

They are looking. They do notice that you’re different. I say to God, my professors – these are my heroes – they’re so smart – they write books and articles and prepare hour long lectures that leave me just mind-blown and they debate supreme court justices and went to top 10 and top 20 programs and – I get so intimidated by them. And so scared to talk to them about matters of faith. What could I have to say to them about Jesus and about what he has done in my life, how knowing I am loved by him gives me vigor and excitement that only further stimulates my mind?

Do I love them more than I care about them respecting me? That’s the question. Do I love them enough to risk my scholarship not being taken seriously?

In grad school, is it more important that I love people, emulating Christ, or that I produce groundbreaking scholarship?

And does what’s on the other side of grad school really matter? If God sends my fiancé and I to grad school, it’s to love people, pure and simple. Whether I’m teaching or writing or working in publishing or doing whatever on the other end of it doesn’t really matter – God will put me where He can use me. Here I am, Lord.

1 John 4:12 tells us, “No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” It is by our love that people will know we are his disciples (John 13:35). Are we acting this out?

Chan reminded us of 1 Corinthians 12:7: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” In response to this verse, he said, “Why did God gift you in the way that He did? It’s for us, it’s not for you! [The question to ask is] how can I build my brother up? How can I build my sister up?”

Today is my self-imposed deadline for the statement of purpose. Suffice to say, it’s not finished, even though there’s plenty written. And all day, I’ve been terribly nervous, trying to remember that no matter how I articulate my research interests, God has the final say.

Chan’s words have convicted me. Why on earth am I nervous? Because I want them to like me? In short, yes. But God’s the one who has the final say, and I can’t enter a program all willy-nilly over wanting to be liked. To repeat a phrase, if God puts my fiancé and I in grad school, it’s to love people. To witness to them. Plain and simple. Whether I’m teaching at an R1 on the other end doesn’t really matter.

This is what the LORD says:

“Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom

or the strong man boast of his strength

or the rich man boast of his riches,

but let him who boasts boast about this:

that he understands and knows me,

that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness,

justice and righteousness on earth,

for in these I delight,”

declares the LORD. — Jeremiah 9:23-24


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August 10, 2010

Free Indeed: Writing & Reading Outside of Academia

Today, it struck me how different my summer would have been had I been accepted to grad school, particularly in terms of reading. In the eager anticipation of entering a doctoral program, I had prepared a list of “must read” books – notable 19th century novels, notable theorists. A small sampling:

Nathaniel Hawthorne – Blithedale Romance

George Eliot – Middlemarch, Mill on the Floss

Matthew Arnold – Culture and Anarchy

Catherine Gallagher – Nobody’s Story

Judith Butler – Gender Trouble

Since grad school didn’t work out, I’ve been reading very different sorts of books – the sort that doesn’t secure cultural capitol in academia. Genre fiction, memoir, Christian living. Desiring God and Women Food and God were two of the best reads this summer, and I just finished Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (I didn’t realize Janzen was an English professor until I started reading). I’ve been traipsing around Egypt with Amelia Peabody and indulging in the romantic comedies of Jennifer Crusie, whose titles (Welcome to Temptation, Faking It) are apt to send the literati into seizures. The disappointment of the summer was James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club series – I made it through four books before tiring of the formula.

The closest I’ve come to grad school reading material is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, and maybe The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. And I’m almost done reading the short stories in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer-prize winning collection Interpreter of Maladies, but I don’t know if that counts since I would read her stuff even if she hadn’t won the Pulitzer. She and Atwood are quite possibly the only literary writers I enjoy – reading Toni Morrison is like pulling teeth and I’ve never been able to get past the first chapter of a Salman Rushdie novel, sorry.

All this has me wondering: exactly why did I want to go to grad school? I’m terrific at forcing myself to read books I don’t want to, mainly because it feeds my English Major Ego – I could force down Native Son again if my professors told me to. It’s about being able to say you’ve read this novel or that novel or this theory or that theory…

The question arises: what’s the point? I might pick up one of the aforementioned novels, because I really am interested in reading more 19th century work, but they’re obviously not my priority or I would have read them already.

Here’s the thing: if you give me the option between writing a novel and studying a novel, I’d rather write a novel. My English major was an external result of a deep love and appreciation for the power of a good story. I think literature is of critical importance in a society, mainly because good stories are absolutely critical to the nourishment of the human spirit.

My reading this summer has been the sort that nourishes that spirit, or at least mine. It’s encouraging, revelatory, instructive, hopeful. In its own way, it teaches. (It also teaches you how contemporary novels are structured, because I’m sorry, but Middlemarch and Pamela are utterly useless when it comes to learning how to write a novel.)

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a close friend. We were talking about how God had leveled our plans and expectations. My friend had thought she wanted to pursue teaching or higher education in public policy, when what she really loves is being on the ground, working with the people, loving the people. For me, I’d thought I wanted a doctorate in literature so I could teach about other people’s stories, when what I really love is writing my own stories. God took away the chaff and gave us the wheat, the small, concentrated portion that had been driving us the whole time.

God’s taken us both to a place where our real passion is evidenced. She’s working on the ground with people, and I’m writing a novel. Unemployed and living at home, but writing! I can read whatever I want to, and no one is going to judge me. I can write whatever I want to, and who cares if people judge me? My goal is to write a good story, imperfectly told, that is emotionally honest and accessible.

That’s what I want. I don’t need to be the next Jhumpa Lahiri; I’m content to learn from her. I don’t need a Pulitzer or a Booker or to be “literary” or to please my professors or even to please my friends… I need to tell the best story I can, one that is honest and emotional, that demonstrates the value of the human spirit. A friend recently texted me these words of encouragement: “You have something to share with the world that no one else does. God has words for you to communicate – not even necessarily sacred writing – but stories.”

And who knows? Maybe someday I will want to read Middlemarch and Pamela, and maybe I’ll want to pursue a doctorate… just not right now. Not while I’m writing, gloriously writing. For the first time in years, I feel free.

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