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Filtering by Category: Personal

What I've Learned From Writing My Dissertation . . . So Far

Thomas Whitley

Leonid Pasternak, Throes of Creation I've been actively writing my dissertation for just over 4 weeks now. I had done a significant amount of research and translation of primary sources (oh, the translations - I have a single-spaced document with my own translations of all of the relevant primary sources that currently stands at 57 pages) prior to beginning the writing phase. Also, this 4 weeks includes taking off almost a full week of writing when family came to visit.

As of writing this post, I have over 15,000 words written. The combination of text and footnotes puts me currently at 48 pages. I'm not sure how that compares to the pace of other writers. I know that it's quite a bit slower than my normal pace of writing, but it's going well. I've read a lot about how one should write - enough to know that there is no single answer (aside, of course, from sitting down and actually writing). Should I write 20 minutes every day or 2 hours? Should I write every day or only during the week? There is no shortage of those who are willing to offer their answers as gospel, but what I have learned over a decade of post-high school education is that the best way for me to write is my way.

That looks different than some and I often break many conventional rules. For instance, I edit, look up sources, and input footnotes during my writing [GASP!]. The nature of the chapter I'm currently writing means that every day or so is a new mini-research project that requires the acquisition of new sources. Some will say that I should simply put in [CITATION] where one is needed or come back during a distinct editing time to drop in that quote. For me, though, that just seems to create more work for later when it will take me much less time to do it now than later when I have to go back to where I was, remember the quote I wanted, determine if I worded the surrounding text appropriately, etc.

My writing strategy is nothing special.  Contrary to the rumors a friend of mine is apparently spreading, I am not "basically done" with my dissertation. I came into the summer with a healthy amount of research and a well-thought-out outline. I made a goal to write X number of pages over the summer and promised myself - and, by extension, my wife - to only write on weekdays (I have a life outside of academia that I love and I want to keep it that way). As a result of my progress so far, I have been able to increase my summer page goal. I have one day where I wrote almost 3,000 words. I have another day with only 39. And that's okay for me. An arbitrary daily word count only ensures that I will keep writing just to write when a day's task has already been appropriately completed.

My experience in academia has not been as long or varied as many, but it has been long enough to see the ubiquitousness of particularly mindset: as an academic You should always be working/writing. There is a pervasive mentality that academics should not take time off. They should work every day, even weekends. Vacations should be done so that research can happen concurrently. Many (especially graduate students) offer humblebrags about how late they stayed up, how many all-nighters they have pulled, or how they never take a day off. I got in to academia and I research early Christianity because I love it, true, but it's also a job (if you can call what I have now a "job" - and I hope it leads to a "real" job in the not-too-distant future). I have a wife with whom I enjoy spending time. We often eat 3 meals together in a day. We watch (probably way too much) HGTV. We've started playing tennis. I like to travel. I like to run. I like to ride my bike. I have friends. Work is important, but it's also important to set boundaries, even more so when your work is also a passion.

You'll notice that this mentality among academics differs with what most non-academics think of academics; namely, that they teach 2 or 3 classes and then hang out at a coffee shop for the rest of the day reading Karl Marx. This, even as new research is simply confirming what we have always know: "Professors work long days, on weekends, on and off campus, and largely alone."

So, what have I learned?

1. My way of writing works for me; it may not work for others. It's amazing how much you can get written when you sit down and write instead of reading other people tell you how to write.

2. Setting boundaries has meant that I've been productive and been able to take much needed breaks to go to the beach or a baseball game.

3. Good time management is essential. This has always been a strong suit of mine (I'm leading a roundtable/workshop on it at AAR in San Diego in November), but it's even more important during the summer when I have all this "free time" and have to make my own schedule, be my own motivation, set my own deadlines, etc.

4. Writing a dissertation can actually be a fun process. To hear some academics speak, you'd think the dissertation process necessitates that one come through it with scars, a horror story, and talk of a life-changing experience. Maybe it's because I'm only 15,000 words in, or maybe it's because I like what I'm writing about (hint: I write a lot about sex), but I've quite enjoyed my writing so far. To be sure, some days are less enjoyable than others, but on the whole it's been fun so far. This may change. Stay tuned.

What do I have left to learn about this process? What did you learn?

Bonus: You can get occasional insights into what I'm writing on on a given day or during a given week, if you follow me on Twitter.

The Journey Continues

Thomas Whitley

For Sam, that is. He's heading back to finish his Master of Divinity.

Back to Seminary | Sam Harrelson: However, incessant gentle prodding from a hand unseen drives me towards an extended realization that to be fully actualized I must throw myself into the fiery and mysterious darkness of Sinai where God's voice still hovers and beckons humanity to listen.

Sam has been (and continues to be) a great friend. I can't wait to see what the next leg of his journey looks like and to be involved in any way possible. Head over and check out the rest of the post where he lays out why and why now.

Also, be sure to check out ministrieslab.

On Mother's Day

Thomas Whitley

My mom is great. Really. She loves me and accepts me unconditionally, but she also challenges me and pushes me to be more caring, more open, and more loving. She celebrates even my smallest achievements as only a mother can. I won't say that my mom is better than your mom (she is) or that my mom can beat up your mom (she can), but I do hope you have a mom that's just as great. She's taught me a lot and, I'm sure, tried to teach me much more. So, on Mother's Day and in honor of her, here are a few pictures from the trip that me, Trinity, and my parents took to Sweden this summer to visit friends. It was a great trip and I can't wait until our next one.

DSC01922 DSC02216 DSC02103 DSC02034

Picture 1: Downtown Stockholm in the background Picture 2: At Lyckans Slip on the west coast Picture 3: At Håkan and Margareta's house in Munkeby (also, in front of their sailboat) Picture 4: At City Hall, Stockholm, overlooking the Baltic Sea just steps from where Trinity and I got engaged in 2006.

Thanks, mom, for who you are and who you've helped me become.



Is Dead Poets Society Hurting the Humanities?

Thomas Whitley

Dead Poets Society

Dead Poets Society is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities | The Atlantic: For what Keating (Robin Williams) models for his students isn’t literary criticism, or analysis, or even study. In fact, it’s not even good, careful reading. Rather, it’s the literary equivalent of fandom.

I admit to loving the movie, or at least to having loved the movie. After reading this piece, I find myself questioning just what I loved about the movie.

To be honest, I think it is the "fandom," the appreciation that Keating instills in his students. Yet Dettmar is right:

But while avoiding the pitfalls of dull pedagogy, Keating doesn’t finally give his students anything in its place besides a kind of vague enthusiasm.

As Dettmar does not want Dead Poets Society to be the image that people conjure up when they think of his work as an English professor, so I do not want people to think of my work as simply fostering a "vague enthusiasm" for the texts I study.

Enthusiasm and appreciation are, I maintain, important elements in the humanities, broadly speaking. I have a great deal of enthusiasm for the texts I read, translate, study, and analyze. But that's just it: I do not stop at enthusiasm and appreciation.

Dettmar's larger point is that the picture of the humanities presented by Dead Poets Society is detrimental on two fronts. Since it does not accurately reflect the rigorous work done in the humanities, but rather presents an anti-intellectual, anti-critical-thinking image of the field, some are able to dismiss this "sentimental humanities." Others, who have a somewhat more accurate view of the humanities dismiss them on the very grounds that they analyze too much. Neither view understands humanities professors as professional scholars.

There are, to be sure, many more factors at play in the so-called "crisis in the humanities," but is Dettmar on to something here, that Dead Poets Society calls for - and prefers - "fans over critics, amateurs over professionals"?

The Olympic Marriage Metaphor

Thomas Whitley

Ice Skating - McLaughlin_Brubaker_Death_Sp iral

An Olympic Lesson for Husbands and Wives | Desiring God: They do not fight for equality on the ice; they possess it as a given. They are not jostling about fairness. They are focused on doing their part well. No one yells, “Oppressor!” as he leads her around the arena, lifting her up and catapulting her into a triple spin. No one thinks she is belittled as she takes her lead from him, skating backwards to his forward. No one calls for them to be egalitarian. “She should get to throw him into a triple Lutz half the time!”

This blog post has garnered quite a bit of attention since it was post two days ago. Some have been humorous (Rachel Held Evans tweeted the link with the comment, "Egalitarians: Urging female figure skaters to toss male figure skaters through the air since *never*."). Some have been responded more thoroughly (like this post that draws on the author's dancing experience). And some have been more akin to the subject of an email I received about the article, "Really??"

If the author weren't so serious about why complementarianism is THE ONLY APPROPRIATE CHRISTIAN AND BIBLICAL MODEL FOR MARRIAGE, we could laugh at the absurdity of a piece which claims that a man should be the clear masculine leader of his appropriately feminine wife by means of a metaphor that includes men who dance, on ice, wearing make up, and often in costumes that contain beads, rhinestones, feathers, and glitter.

But as it is, John Ensor is serious. His larger point seems to be that pairs ice skating is an appropriate metaphor because everyone who watches it instantly realizes how each skater complements the other perfectly because they understand their roles. Esnor clearly does not fully understand pairs ice skating, as this piece points out. But the part of the blog post that bothered me the most was his suggestion that everyone agrees with his view of pairs ice skating. In truth, many of us realize the systemic sexism involved in many sports and in the Olympics as a whole. With many commentators making comments like, "She's even as good/fast/strong as some men we've seen here in Sochi," even the Olympics, with their high ideals and international appeal, leave a lot to be desired when it comes to promoting true equality.

So, no, I will not be telling my wife that I must now lead here and she must receive me because some guy thinks that pairs ice skating shows some inherent "truth" about how men and women should interact in all facets of life. Pairs ice skating is nothing like marriage, but you know what is a lot like marriage? Marriage.

I think I'll let my wife and I figure out what's best for our marriage and ignore the unsolicited advice of someone who expends so much time and energy on trying to make sure that a male hierarchy is maintained.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Identity Politics of Celebration

Thomas Whitley

MLK JrIt seems to be becoming more and more difficult to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The vast majority of articles I have seen leading up to this day seem to have done one of two things. They either co-opt King's words, name, and brand in an attempt to drum up support or sales. Or they tell me why I do not actually understand what Dr. King was about. Articles of the latter kind are, likely, more necessary than I would like. Many people do seem to have forgotten (or perhaps simply never knew) many of the issues about which Dr. King cared so dearly. Even so, it seems a rather arrogant position to announce to the world that you are one of the few chosen ones who really understands Dr. King, particularly when your own pet interests turn out to be "what Dr. King really fought for." The disingenuousness is palpable.

We are at a time when just about everyone desires to claim the mantle of Dr. King, to assert that he/she is continuing his fight. This is not, I think, a completely bad thing. For it means, at the very least, that, generally speaking, we as a nation recognize what Dr. King meant to our country and the power of his legacy. Yet much of it still strikes me as distasteful and a bit of a charade.

I am not questioning any single person's commitment to carrying out Dr. King's dream, but I am wondering to myself whether simply putting up a quote from one of his speeches or letters actually does anything to see this dream realized. Is it done out of more than desire to have a certain box checked - the box in question being something like, "Thinks Civil Rights are a good thing"? And what about other causes which I think are important and for which I voice my support? Is what I'm doing actually helpful? Am I advancing the causes of freedom and equality? Or have I become too comfortable with my slacktivism?

[Aside: I reread Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" again today. It is one of the few modern texts that I reference in my Introduction to the New Testament class. This letter comes up when I talk about the process of canonization and how we got to the New Testament that we have today. I explain to my students that the canon has never been stable. The first list that we have record of that contains all 27 - and only these 27 - books that are currently in the New Testament is from 367. That's over three centuries after Paul wrote his letters. And the list-making did not stop there. I talk about other canon lists but my students perk up the most when I tell them of the suggestion that King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" be included in the New Testament. I always enjoy the surprise on their faces.]

My larger point is that I recognize how history-making and history-writing happens. I am quite familiar with famous people, ideas, and movements being used to advance various causes - some seemingly quite foreign to their ostensible inspiration. This is much of what I study in my own work as a historian of early Christianity. Doing history well is hard work - some would say impossible - even with a figure as recent and as well-written as Dr. King. Michel-Rolph Trouillot has shown us this quite well in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History and Constantin Fasolt reminds us that "history is in and of itself political" in The Limits of History. The days leading up to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the States this year and the spate of articles, commentary, and social media posts they produced only make this reality more clear to me when I see the co-opting, revisionism, selectivity, etc. at work in how he is talked about, celebrated, and used to condone one's own views and actions while condemning everyone else's.

We are all of us, it seems, engaging in politics. Do I understand Dr. King better than another because I have read the authors he frequently references like Socrates, Augustine, Tillich, Buber, and Eliot? Or does someone who has grown up on the opposite end of the privilege-scale from me better understand Dr. King because of shared experience? No answer to these questions is free from some sort of political agenda (and I don't mean political in the Republican-Democrat sense). And this is what is so hard about being an actor in a society and not merely an observer distanced by time and space. For now I must think about my own use of a famous historical figure like Dr. King.

Just how deeply involved in these identity politics am I already? And is there another way?

SBL Paper

Thomas Whitley

Back in May I gave my word that I would post about my Society of Biblical Literature paper. The annual joint meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion will be in Baltimore at the end of the month and I'll be there with 10,000 of my closest friends . . . or something like that. I am excited to catch up with some friends and former professors most of all, and am quite interested in the conversations regarding the state of higher education, the humanities, religion, etc. and to attempt to garner a bit more information about what my job prospects may soon be. I will also be presenting a paper. My paper is a part of the SBL Rhetoric and the New Testament Section and is titled, "Docetism, Gnosis, and Laughter: The Rhetorical Reception of the Passion Narrative at Nag Hammadi." Here is my abstract:

There can be no denying that the death of Jesus was a watershed moment for Christianity. For some early Christians, the death - and subsequent resurrection - of Jesus was a sign that he had defeated death and could bring salvation to his followers. For other early Christians, however, the idea that Jesus, being fully God, could die was a heresy above all heresies. This paper examines the reception of the Passion of Jesus at Nag Hammadi, specifically in the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter and the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, and analyzes the rhetorical strategies employed by these authors in their retelling of the Passion story. These two texts have been chosen for the prominence they give to the laughter of Jesus, and it is this element of the text that provides insight into the rhetorical work being done by these texts. A thorough examination of these texts reveals that their use of a laughing Jesus serves rhetorical and polemical purposes. I will highlight three rhetorical strategies at work in these texts in regard to this laughter.

First, the laughter of Jesus emphasizes his full and utter detachment, reinforcing the generally docetic ideas found elsewhere in these texts and in broader gnostic literature. In Apoc. Pet., for example, Jesus is seen above the cross, “glad and laughing” (81.15-18). The “living Jesus” is fully detached from the material world in this retelling of the passion narrative. Thus, he can sufficiently mock the circumstances through his laughter. Second, Jesus’ laughter, by being continuously and systematically linked to the ignorance of others, reinforces the central gnostic tenet that the true followers of Christ possess a certain gnosis, without which salvation is impossible. Third, a Jesus who is able to laugh during these iterations of the Passion scene is discursively engaged in identity-formation by providing a means for the authors of the texts to deride and mock their opponents, rhetorically polemicizing the Other. In Treat. Seth Jesus calls multiple champions of the faith (Adam, Abraham, David, etc.) a “laughingstock” (60-63). This move reinforces that these characters do not possess adequate knowledge and thereby works polemically - by othering those who have followed in their tradition - to push back against the real or perceived threat to the identity that this author is working to construct and validate. Thus, these texts from Nag Hammadi, in their reception and recasting of the passion narrative, engage in real rhetorical work in attempt to accomplish specific theological and social goals.

So, you now have something to do in Baltimore at 9am on November 24.

Mind Your Own Business

Thomas Whitley

From my reading of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations today:

He who ignores what his neighbour is saying or doing or thinking, and cares only that his own actions should be just and godly, is greatly the gainer in time and ease. A good man does not spy around for the black spots in others, but presses unswervingly on towards his mark.

I've long thought that those who are overly concerned with what's going on in my life must have a very boring life of their own. Keep your eye on the prize.

Communion Wine, Ordination, and Me

Thomas Whitley

Baptist consider returning to using wine for communion. Some baptists anyway. I'm all for it, though I do also fully understand the concern for recovering alcoholics. Beyond the simple issue, this article stirred up a memory of mine from long ago.

Historian Seeks Return to Communion Wine: “Here we are talking about retaining immersion, but we gave up wine at the drop of a temperance hat,” [Bill] Leonard said.

Many years ago I went before an ordination board seeking to be ordained in a baptist church. The process was going quite well until the issue of alcohol came up. I wasn't even of legal drinking age yet, but knew that alcohol could be consumed moderately and didn't believe the very act to be a sin. This was clearly not the right answer. And when I explained, as Bill Leonard has here, that the baptist aversion to alcohol was as clear a holdover from prohibitionist attitudes as there could be, I was scolded by a minister who I thought was a friend and told that that was just something that I needed to "check at the door."

At that point the meeting turned south and never recovered, with this one issue being the catalyst. The committee ultimately suggested that I be licensed instead of ordained. I never decided again to seek ordination and that was an important turning point in my relationship with the church (I was on staff at the church at the time and would go on to be on staff elsewhere afterward, but it was never the same) and especially the baptist church.

I am still struck by the sway that the norms of a particular subculture can have and the ignorance that subculture can have of its own past, though I guess at this point I really shouldn't be.

The Well-Being of the Soul

Thomas Whitley

From Epicurus' "Letter to Menoeceus":

Let no young man delay the study of philosophy, and let no old man become weary of it; for it is never too early nor too late to care for the well-being of the soul. The man who says that the season for this study has not yet come or is already past is like the man who says it is too early or too late for happiness. Therefore, both the young and the old should study philosophy, the former so that as he grows old he may still retain the happiness of youth in his pleasant memories of the past, the latter so that although he is old he may at the same time be young by virtue of his fearlessness of the future. We must therefore study the means of securing happiness, since if we have it we have everything, but if we lack it we do everything in order to gain it.

I do significantly less philosophy these days than I once did and I never styled myself a philosopher or even an advanced student of philosophy, but I did appreciate this introduction in Epicurus' letter to Menoeceus.

Why Religious Liberty Won Today

Thomas Whitley

No doubt you've heard by now that the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on the basis that it is "a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is  protected by the Fifth Amendment." (Read the entire decision here) This is a win for marriage equality, for equal rights, and a huge blow to those who want to continue discriminating. The ruling says that those who have same-sex marriages recognized by their state must also be federally recognized. This means that (some) same-sex couples can now get the benefits that opposite-sex couples have and take for granted every day ranging from tax and health care benefits to parental and immigration benefits. Today was a big day.

But not everyone is happy about it. I suspect many of you are less than thrilled with the decision today and, like Albert Mohler  see this as an indication that national marriage equality is inevitable. Or maybe, like Mike Huckabee, you think you're Jesus' spokesman on this issue:

My thoughts on the SCOTUS ruling that determined that same sex marriage is okay: "Jesus wept."

Today, though, I chose to wear my Baptist Joint Committee t-shirt:

BJC Shirt

But why? Because I also see today as a victory for religious liberty. Religious liberty for all means freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion. This means that you are not required to subscribe to anyone else's religious views and you also are not allowed to force your religious views on anyone else. The fear is rampant among many conservative Christians that I follow that pastors will be "dragged out of the pulpit" or will be forced to perform same-sex marriage.

These reactions fail to understand one of the things that truly does make this country great: real religious freedom. President Obama made this clear in his statement after DOMA was overturned:

On an issue as sensitive as this, knowing that Americans hold a wide range of views based on deeply held beliefs, maintaining our nation’s commitment to religious freedom is also vital.  How religious institutions define and consecrate marriage has always been up to those institutions.  Nothing about this decision – which applies only to civil marriages – changes that.

Yes, I am a Christian and a proponent of marriage equality. But I promise that I will fight just as hard for your religious freedom as I will for my own, because my firm conviction on religious liberty does not allow me to think that my religious freedom is any more important than anyone else's.

An Original Thought

Thomas Whitley

From E.J. Kenney's introduction to Apuleius' The Golden Ass:

There is little evidence either for or against this hypothesis, which is a good example of the type of explanation to which scholars resort from an ingrained reluctance to believe that any classical writer ever thought of anything for himself.

Maybe we took the author of Ecclesiastes a little too seriously when he said that "there is nothing new under the sun."

Marriage Equality and The War on Adoption

Thomas Whitley

I will be the first to admit that I have not always been a proponent on same-sex marriage. In a former part of my life I was as adamantly against same-sex marriage as many who have been protesting in support of Prop 8 and DOMA in front of the US Supreme Court over the past few days. That is to say, I was convinced that homosexuality was a "sin" and that it was "unnatural." I have been fully "out" in my support of same-sex marriage for a number of years now, but I cannot allow myself to conveniently forget how adamantly I opposed it to make myself feel better about where I stand now, on "the right side of history," as some are wont to call it. One line of messaging has stood out to me recently in the arguments over whether same-sex marriage should be legal in this country or not, but it wasn't until I read Tom Junod's wonderfully vulnerable and eloquent piece that I realized just why it was rubbing me the wrong way. The line of argument says that same-sex marriage is "unnatural" because 2 men or 2 women are incapable of physically producing offspring. I pushed back against this argument with the usual points: what about opposite-sex couples where one member is infertile? What about elderly people who are no longer able to have children but desire the companionship that the rest of us desire? Should these people also not be allowed to marry because they cannot procreate?

What Tom Junod laid out so clearly, though, is that the anti-same-sex marriage arguments of this stripe are not just arguments against elderly people and infertile adults, but this is also an argument against adoption, something the right has espoused support for as an alternative to abortion.

How the War on Gay Marriage Turned into a War on Adoption | Esquire: What has changed our understanding of the way some people see our marriage is, of course, the general debate unleashed by the last two days of argument before the Supreme Court on the subject of same-sex marriage. No, my wife and I are not of the same sex; I am a man and she is a woman. But we are infertile. We did not procreate. For the past nine years, we have been the adoptive parents of our daughter; we are legally her mother and father, but not biologically, and since Tuesday have been surprised and saddened to be reminded that for a sizable minority of the American public our lack of biological capacity makes all the difference — and dooms our marriage and our family to second-class status.

And there it was. The very nature of the arguments against same-sex marriage because same-sex couples are unable to produce children is just as strongly an argument against my own family, with a mother who was infertile and chose to adopt both me and my (biological) sister. Our family's very existence is, apparently, a threat to the good, straight, biological family units in this country, and thereby a threat to the very foundation of this country.

Junod rightly points out the elementary nature of these sorts of arguments:

For all its philosophical window dressing — for all its invocation of natural law, teleological destiny, and the “complementary” nature of man and woman — this argument ultimately rested on a schoolyard-level obsession with private parts, and with what did, or did not, “fit.” There was “natural marriage” and “unnatural” marriage, and it was easy to tell the difference between them by how many children they produced. A natural marriage not only produced children; it existed for the purpose of producing children. An unnatural marriage not only failed to produce children; it resorted to procuring children through unnatural means, from artificial insemination to surrogacy to, yes, adoption. The argument against same-sex marriage now boiled down to a kind of biological determinism, and so became almost indistinguishable from an argument against adoption itself.

The idea that the purpose of marriage in this country is procreation serves to label all marriages that chose not to or were unable to produce children as "less than." They are not real marriages. And as a result, those families are "less than." They too are not real families. To many - some much closer to home than one should have to admit - my sister and I are not our parents' "real children." And we are a threat to families everywhere. Never mind the fact that we have a better relationship with our parents than most everyone else I know. We have a relationship based on openness, honesty, communication, and above all love.

No one - gay, straight, or whatever - should have to share those negative experiences with my family. And as much as anything else, this is why I support marriage equality.

There is so much more that needs to be said like how cruel it is to actively keep children in a broken social services system and away from a loving family that desperately wants to love and raise children of their own. Or how, once again, the Right has offered nothing but lip service when it says it cares about children when it is really only concerned with its own "moral disapproval" of the love of others. Or how the only "threats" to anyone's marriage - gay or straight - come from within and not from without. Or how our country's very understanding of "family" needs to take step out of 1950. Or how ludicrous it is to expect that others who do not share your particular religious views to live their lives according to your specific interpretation of a few verses from your holy book.

But for now, urging you to read Junod's article is all I really have. For just as Junod did, I have realized that these arguments are not just arguments against same-sex marriage, but are arguments against me and my family too. Thank you, Tom, for the reminder that we are all in this together.

The Work of Religion

Thomas Whitley

A great quote by Russell McCutcheon that I come back to often to remind myself that things are rarely as they seem, and almost never as they are presented, when it comes to social and religious identities, past and present.

What if we approached the study of world events not with the preconceived notion that religion was essentially pure and spiritual matter of disembodied belief but, instead, with the presumption that all classification systems (such as Church vs. State, belief vs. practice and embodied vs. disembodied) are the means whereby all too historical groups negotiate - sometimes violently, always aggressively - sets of interests that determine who they think they are and who they think they are not? A shift capable of answering this question would enable us to see that, regardless by whom they are used, rhetorics of origin, privacy, authenticity, spirit, tradition, essence, faith, along with the common distinction between belief and action (seen in the common-sense distinction between myth and ritual) or content and structure, are useful (and useful to whom is the question that needs to be posed) political techniques that can help to massage and manage an unruly social world that generally does not meet with any group's expectations, interests, and needs.

The quote is from Russ' book Religion and the Domestication of Dissent: Or, How to Live in a Less than Perfect Nation. It is a short read (95 pages), but it packs a punch.


Thomas Whitley


Today marks 4 years since we lost Dan Goodman. I took the above picture on a trip we took together for a class, "Jewish-Christian Relations in America." I learned a lot from Dr. Goodman both in and out of the classroom, but one lesson rings truer with each passing day: memory is sacred. To remember is a sacred and holy act.

We will never forget.

We will always remember.

What a Difference a Year Makes

Thomas Whitley

As I'm sure it was for all of you, 2012 was a crazy, exciting, and memorable year. Because I think reflecting and actively remembering are good practices, here are a few highlights from 2012.

  • Trinity moved to Tallahassee - It was technically 2011 (December 26), but it was a big deal and was close enough to the beginning of 2012 that I'll count it. She hated moving away from her friends and her church in Columbia, SC, but the moves has been great for both of us. I'm grateful to have such a supportive partner.
  • Family Visits - My parents were able to visit us twice in 2012 (January and November) and one of Trinity's sisters visited us for Thanksgiving. We were also able to visit out family in North Carolina a handful of times.
  • FSU Baseball - Trinity and I really got into watching the FSU baseball team play during the spring and into the summer. Hosting Regionals and Super Regionals were great experiences for us.
  • FSU Football - We became season ticket holders and will be doing the same for the 2013 season. Although we are a bit disappointed with how the season ended, all-in-all it was a good season and we had a blast tailgating and attending the games. Thanks to those who joined us this past season; you made it even more enjoyable.
  • Broken Ankle - On April 25 I broke my right ankle playing softball - yes, softball. Turns out I should have slid.
  • Back Surgery - Not three months after breaking my ankle I was diagnosed with a herniated disc with left S1 nerve root compression. It was painful, but the surgery fixed the problem and thanks to my wonderful physical therapist Tyressa Judge, I was back to running within 3 months and back to riding my bike within 4.
  • 3 Semesters Down - I have one more semester of coursework for my Phd, then it's on to exams and writing a dissertation. Staying focused and working hard.
  • Languages - During 2012 I continued to work on various languages and added Aramaic and Coptic. In 2013 I am adding, at least, Syriac and French.

I'm sure I've missed a ton of events (big and small) that changed my life, shaped who I am, and deepened relationships. Thanks for being a part of it.

As my mom always says, what a difference a year makes.

Don't Read the Comments

Thomas Whitley

Mary Elizabeth Williams has a really good piece about how not reading comments on her Salon articles has made her happier and saner.

I'm never reading the comments again | I used to believe that as an online writer, I had an obligation to read the comments. I thought that it was important from a fact-checking perspective, that it somehow would help me grow as a writer. What I’ve learned is that if there’s something wrong or important or even, sometimes, good about a story, someone will let you know. I’ve over the years amassed an amazing community of Salon readers who engage via email, who challenge me, who inspire new stories, who are decent people and treat me like one in return. What I was getting in the comments was a lot of anonymous “You suck, bitch.”

If you do any writing on the Internet - either in the form of blog posts, articles, or comments - you should read the whole piece. But I was struck by the comment above. It does often feel like it's our responsibility to read and interact with every comment. We are trying to build a community, after all. But where do we draw the line. Whom do we engage?

While not a hard and fast rule, I typically engage every comment on this site. I really am trying to build a community and by far the majority of commenters honestly want to engage in dialogue, and some of these dialogues have been fantastic and challenging. But I also write for the ABPnews blog, and have decided that while I will read those comments, I will not respond. To my commenters on this site, I am a real person that many of my commenters actually know personally. That is not the case for most of my readers over at the ABPnews blog. I'm not saying that they're horrible people, far from it. Nor are they the type of trolls that led Williams to give up comment reading altogether, but at least for now, this seems like the best practice.

But more than that, I've thought about it in a different sense. My goal on the ABPnews blog is different than it is here. It is not so much academic, but it is much less personal. So, for instance, if I publish an academic article, I do not feel a responsibility to read every response to that article to feel like I am a good scholar and have appropriately vetted my ideas and facts. This is a loose analogy, to be sure, but this is how I've been thinking about my comment policy.

Another option, of course, is to lose the comment section altogether, because we all know that trolls are nothing if not lazy. If a nasty or completely ignorant response is not a click away, most will give up and move on.

So, anyway, just a few thoughts on this whole online community thing and the state of (un)civil discourse in commenting. And a thanks for those of you here that engage respectfully and with a desire to entertain, inform, or challenge. It makes even the sporadic writing I do here more enjoyable and meaningful.

A Tethered Mind

Thomas Whitley

"I Will Wait" | Mumford and Sons:

Now I'll be bold As well as strong And use my head alongside my heart So tame my flesh And fix my eyes A tethered mind freed from the lies

Great charge for how to handle faith, politics, life.

Taking Charge of Your Academic Future

Thomas Whitley

Going Rogue | The Chronicle of Higher Education: At some point, all graduate students must go rogue. By that, I mean I had to figure out how to make decisions about my research and writing without relying on my advisers for direction. I do not mean that I refused to seek them out when I got stuck, or that I ignored their advice when they offered it.. . . By going rogue, I also mean that I had to forge ahead on my own without waiting to hear back from them, since they were not always easy to reach. I had to choose which sources to look at, when to start writing, and when to begin asking other people to read the words I put on paper.

Graduate school is meant to prepare you for a future in academia, but at some point we all have to take the reins ourselves and take charge. Graduate school is a multi-year haven during which we can learn to be scholars in our own right, in which we can transfer from student to colleague.

My graduate education is mine and I'll only get out of it what I put into it, so it's my responsibility to put in the time, the hard work, the hours reading primary and secondary sources, and the effort submitting my work to conferences and journals. This article was a good reminder of that.