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A Job Announcement

Monday, November 11th, 2013

For the last few years, I received the same dreaded question time and again: “So, what is it that you do exactly?”

“It’s complicated,” was the most honest answer to that question. Since 2009, I have completed a doctoral degree, written two books, taught

religion part time at a community college, traveled to speak at pastors conferences and academic meetings, and worked freelance as a writer and editor. And had a baby. And moved three times.

It is for this reason that I’m happy to report I now have a somewhat simpler answer to the question, “What do you do?” As of November 1, I am on staff at New Life Church, and my primary responsibility is to oversee the development of a partnership between New Life Church and Ouachita Baptist University that we hope will lead to offering college courses at NLC next fall.

That’s a little vague, I know. I’ll be able to say more in a month or so. But here’s what I can say for now: I am overwhelmed by God’s sovereign provision. This opportunity allows me to pursue two passions at one—local church ministry and Christian higher education. It’s a job I wouldn’t have had the imagination to design for myself, but it truly feels like this is what I’ve been preparing for all these years.

I can’t help but think of the words of that beautiful hymn, “Has thou not seen how thy desires e’er have been granted in what he ordaineth?”

As work on the partnership with OBU continues, I’ll have lots of opportunity to explore the Bible and theology with the congregation here at NLC. So whether I’m in the classroom or behind the pulpit, I’ll be serving through teaching and putting all that education to good use. And I’ll be grateful that God’s providence is not limited to my view of what’s possible.

Writing Tip: Channel Rick Steves

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Academic research is an expedition into unfamiliar territory. Propelled by instinct or educated guesses or the research of others, scholars strikeout in search of answers with great hope—but no guarantees—of finding them. This, for me, is the appeal of scholarship. At its best, scholarly research is like transcontinental exploration: We know the Pacific Ocean is that way. Find us the best route to the coast.

The promise of discovery is what makes scholarly research attractive to unscholarly readers. People like to hear the untold story, the behind-closed-doors conversations, the surprising history of familiar people or institutions. People are curious and will gladly follow an able guide on an intellectual adventure.

What kind of guide do they want?

They don’t want an expedition guide. As romantic as the notion of exploration may be, it requires great sacrifice. Many scholars expect their readers to make big sacrifices to make it through their research. Kiss your wife and child, set your affairs in order, and pack a lunch. We’re gonna be a while. Most nonspecialists, if they can’t see a clear path through the underbrush or aren’t sure their guide knows where she is going, will give up before they invest themselves too deeply. And who can blame them? The process is not nearly as important as the destination for most non-academic readers.

What most readers want is a tour guide. Someone who has made the journey and knows the way. Someone who can assure readers he knows where the journey ends and that it is well worth the time. Someone who is sensitive to the pace at which and the stamina with which most readers read—the way a good tour guide understands when travelers need to stop for a breather and a snack. In my opinion, there is no subject matter that is too weighty for a popular audience. If readers feel they are in the company of a sensitive guide, they will follow wherever you lead them.

My advice?

When you study, channel Meriwether Lewis. When you write, channel Rick Steves.

The Student Becomes the Teacher

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

Today I begin teaching a class that I took as a student—in this very same classroom—thirteen years ago. There’s something surreal about this situation, and I’ve had a hard time putting my finger on what it is exactly. But I’ve figured it out.

It’s not my first time to teach a college class. I’ve been doing my best to mold impressionable young minds for the last three years at a community college in Chicagoland. I’m more or less over the first-day jitters. It is my first time to teach as a PhD. And you can bet your sweet bippy I’ll insist on being called “Dr. O’Brien.” But that’s not it either.

What strikes me is that when I entered this classroom thirteen years ago, my primary responsibility was to ask questions. Today these kids expect me to have answers. Then my job was to deconstruct misperceptions, challenge inherited interpretations, question everything. (It’s like the French Revolution, south Arkansas edition.) And, sure, an important part of what I’ll do this semester is ask students to follow me into new territory as we leave behind misinterpretations and misinformation. But my goal is constructive, not destructive. Thirteen years ago I questioned everything with very little caution for where I might end up. Hopefully this semester, as I pass through this course a second time, my questions will to dry land.

I guess what I mean is that this time around I’m accountable to thirty-something young Christians who trust me to be responsible with their faith (and whose parents are praying that I’ll be responsible with their faith). I don’t have the luxury of pondering and speculating out loud, consequences be damned.

Make no mistake—I’ll ask hard questions. And I sure hope they do too. (I love questions!) I’m eager to push them and pull them and, if need be, drag them through this sixteen-week survey of the Bible. But I’m humbled by the weight of what’s going on in these discussions.

So this is what it’s like to be a grown up?

From the Horses’ Mouths: Students on Religion

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

About this time last year I wrote a series of posts on the religious lives of twentysomethings, in which I summarized some anecdotal findings under the headings of things I didn’t find surprising, things I did find surprising, and some suggestions for Christian leaders.

I’m going to be briefer this time.

Here are some themes that have emerged consistently in the last year from my students’ reflections on religion in their lives.

They are pretty certain there’s a higher power.
I get my fair share of atheists and agnostics, but when push comes to shove, the vast majority of my students are confident there is Something or Someone out there. (In this way, they reflect the population of the United States in general.)

They don’t feel church is necessary.
Many of my students, regardless of their religious background, don’t believe worshiping with a religious community is necessary. For most of them, “being a good person” is essential; being part of a congregation is superfluous. Some of my Roman Catholic students feel guilty about not attending mass, because they feel they are supposed to—but that doesn’t change the fact that they don’t see the point.

They pray when they are in trouble.
An overwhelmingly high percentage of my students say that they do not consider themselves religious but, even so, when they are in a tight spot—they pray. I’m tempted to say this is a conditioned response that kids learn growing up in religious families or communities. But many without a religious background still claim to pray when the going gets tough.

They feel their questions are unique.
Many of my students say they are no longer religious because they wrestled with difficult questions as they were coming of age in their faith. They felt isolated by their perception that no one else was wrestling with the same questions. I hear this enough that I have to assume that many students are asking the same questions and none of them know it!

They feel their religious leaders and family can’t handle their questions.
These students who struggle with faith questions are routinely turned off by one of two responses: 1) they are scolded by parents or religious mentors for lack of faith or 2) their parents or religious leaders try—and fail—to offer satisfactory responses.

They don’t feel free to make truth claims.
Even my students who profess faith—whether in Christ or karma (or both!)—are afraid to claim that they are right. Many of them will say, “I believe Jesus is the Son of God,” and then immediately qualify the statement: “But that’s just my opinion and people are free to disagree with me.” Religious leaders may feel young people don’t know what they believe. It may be that they know but are afraid to admit it for fear of appearing intolerant.

What should we make of this? Well, for one, it strikes me that we most often emphasize what young people believe. We rightly want them to be equipped with the right information about the faith. Maybe, since prayer appears to be an instinct of sorts, we should emphasize spiritual formation. Second, we should be thrilled that students have questions about their faith. And we need to learn not to be intimidated by them. I frequently tell students, “I don’t know”; and they don’t mind. But they want someone to talk through the issues with. Who doesn’t?!

I’m eager to hear from you. Thoughts?

New MDiv Program to Watch

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

My friends at Palm Beach Atlantic University have just launched a new Master of Divinity program.

Based on what I’ve heard from the program’s creators, it promises to be a unique course of study that integrates subject matter between courses and emphasizes practical preparation and pastoral experience–a truly academic church-focused MDiv.

In any case, I encourage you to check it out here.