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!