Category Archives: Academia

It is finished

Well. Hello again. This is embarrassing. I mean, it’s just been a while. Anyway, yeah, I finished a Master’s at Duke – finally. Not the one I came in with. That was the Master of Theological Studies. But I finished a shorter degree called the Master of Arts of Christian Studies. Besides joking with people that I have become “divine” on completing Divinity school (and seriously I look more like traditional portrayals of Jesus now than ever before in my life – getting close in age, too…), I have told people my MACS degree means I “study the Christians”. Which may not be so far off, especially since I consider myself at least somewhat apart from that designator, but what I did with my MACS and the tone of the program is much less judgmental and removed than “studying Christians”. Duke Divinity would probably like it better if it was described simply as it is named – a Master’s-level education in the arts of Christian studies – those (academic) pursuits that people tend to be drawn towards due to (their) Christian faith.

I think that’s about all I want to say at this point. I am far less “gung-ho”, for lack of a better term, about my “agnosticism” now. I don’t want to say I’m a Christian, but I don’t want others to say I’m not a Christian, if that makes any kind of sense. And not because I want an “in” so I can bone Christian women, though, that would be a decent reason. But because neither of those are fully accurate. I am different now, but also very much the same as I ever was. Certain beliefs and values have gained vastly more or less importance than was true before, but I don’t feel there has been some entire kind of severance from the old – read, pre-doubting (~2011?) – me.

I’m not in any kind of rush to see where I will go next, or what I will think next, though I would like to return to “the fold” some day. I’m also not in any kind of rush to self-improve, which, meh, kind of bothers me, should probably bother me more. But then, I was burning the “All for Christ” torch of self-mastery for most of my life before all this, and I think I’m just tired. Teaching middle school will make you tired too. Really tired. But more on that for another day. For now- cheers!

And, Duke – meh. You were really not my favorite place. Your students were extremely pretentious, fairly profligate, and riding the environmentally/racially/gender/politically/theologically/socially-conscious train frequently less consciously than they should have. In contrast, your professors were largely brilliant, decent, even kind human beings. But stop trying to be an Ivy-league school. Your education just is not worth the price you put on it. Especially when I know thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – of my dollars went unnecessarily to building campaigns and athletic programs.

Voices from Beyond

Recent messages I have received from people from my alma mater. The first is a response from the alumni office about whether there were any alumni groups for non-Christians (I had offered to form/lead one if not). The second is from an acquaintance from my time at college.
“Hello, ____.  My staff passed your note along and I wanted to take a minute to respond.  Since all alumni events and groups sponsored by the College are representative of the College’s commitment to the Christian faith, we don’t have a formal group for people who no longer consider themselves Christians.  That said, I hope you’ll stay connected with ______ no matter where your faith journey takes you.  You’ll always be part of the ____ family, ____, and I wish you the very best.
Take care,

Interim Vice President for Advancement & Alumni Relations
“Hi ____.
I don’t know if you remember me from being in ___ at _____, but I wanted to tell you that I really find a lot of comfort from the blog you write. One of my former roommates from ______ sent me your blog because she thought I could relate to it, and I can. I went to _____ because I was losing my faith and I never really recovered from being on the fence. I wasn’t raised Christian, but became Christian in high school. I found a lot of meaning, comfort, and friendships in Christian circles and from what I thought was God. Its still something I deal with and can’t really walk away from or embrace. Its not fun to go through, but it is comforting to know that I am not the only former _____ kid who is dealing with this type of thing. Its really hard to find a niche to have doubts and not be ready to move back into Christianity or entirely away from it. So thank you for sharing your thoughts on your blog. I feel creepy reading it, so I thought I’d tell you I was a fan haha”

the California Raisins? (Steinbeck in Little Miss Sunshine)

Does anybody remember the California Raisins — the singing, dancing raisins that seemed to be racially black? What was with that? So Strange!

Anyway, I chose that name to introduce a short list of how The Grapes of Wrath (GOW) drives the plot of Little Miss Sunshine (LMS). (A fun, great movie!) This is old news and has been written about seemingly much (see this or that). But I just want to add my list to the inter-webs because I like having things in list, easy-to-read formats. (NB: list not exhaustive!)

Following the list I have an original note of analysis about GOW which I have not found on Sparknotes, Cliffsnotes, or Wiki. That’s not to say it isn’t in any commentary but I hope not?

Starts with one member coming “back from the dead”
-Prison (GOW)
-Suicide attempt (LMS)
Family in dire circumstances living in Am. South/Southwest
Opportunity arises in California
Family takes long car trip to California
Granddad dies along the way
The Law and Corporate America trouble them along the way
Every member experiences tragic personal failure
Youngest member is their last hope but that member also fails
-Baby stillborn (GOW)
-Daughter loses competition (LMS)
The family unit is their salvation


Here’s my hopefully new (but probably not) insight into The Grapes of Wrath.

Rose of Sharon. Her family calls her “Rosasharn” as Steinbeck renders it. SPOILER! In the final scene she lends her breast to a starving man to try to nurse him back to health.

Now, it’s nothing extraordinary that she plays a Madonna kind of role. For Steinbeck, I feel like almost every female character is the Madonna.

However, consider her name. “Rosasharn.” Sounds an awful lot like nothing in English. But sounds strangely like “Russia” in Russian, which I might render phonetically “ros-ee-ya”. Not perfect, but close.

Steinbeck got into trouble with this book. He was labeled a communist for this and other writings. He certainly portrays capitalistic America very poorly.

The take-away, in my read, of The Grapes of Wrath, is that the Law, corporate America, and the rich will not help the poor; the poor must help each other. Rosasharn’s selfless act of nursing a starving man is the one glimmer of hope in this story of attrition. Her baby stillborn, her family penniless, she does what she can for another suffering family. I don’t know much about Steinbeck’s political ideas. I know in the end he visited Russia and Ukraine and wrote scathing pieces about what he really found there. But in the 1930s, it’s plausible that he was taken with the idea of a country where the poor rose up to take destiny into their own hands, while his own country was squashing the poor further into the dirt.

So, yes, Rosasharn is Mother Mary, but she is also Mother Russia.


Here I will begin substantively responding to my questions about purpose (offhandedly addressing “the role my privileged and carefree life plays in my metaphysical quandaries” from my last post).

Viktor Frankl, a Viennese Jew, survived the horrors of Auschwitz and other camps for four plus years. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl writes about the grasp on meaning in life that made it possible for him and others to survive the camps.

One’s current life meaning (“current” because changed circumstances bring about different life meanings) can be discovered in three ways: “(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” (Frankl 133).

This would put me in some kind of crisis, I suppose. Hmm. Well, Frankl would say I have to discover my meaning in one of those above ways, implying that surely for at least one of them I can conjure up some life meaning (he doesn’t let people have no meaning).

(1) Creating a work/Doing a deed. For now I can stay on top of my research language skills and reading to give me the most options for the fall. Either I will continue trying to succeed in Divinity School or take time away from it to pursue test prep tutoring. Both of these seem good steps towards a future in education/teaching, something I believe I enjoy.

(2) Experiencing something/Encountering someone. I’ll focus on experiencing something (or encountering some people) here. I hope to deepen friendships made here. To do this I think I will actually open up about being agnostic. It’s time. And, I don’t think I can really get close to people without disclosing this part of me. I also am looking forward to tutoring, and the very, very faint chance of doing some international travel this summer. Lastly, I look forward to lounging about, hiking, sex, children, marriage and such things. All in due time, all in due time.

(3) Attitude towards suffering. I feel this third way, finding meaning in suffering (though my suffering is minuscule compared to others’), probably strikes a chord with me the most. For the summer, my meaning would be to discover how a person who has everything up in the air and is thousands of dollars in the hole can succeed and thrive. Finding meaning might need to be through enduring, yet again, my depressive tendencies and state of total ambivalence about my life’s direction, while trying to remain optimistic, joyful, selfless all the while. Damn. I guess I have my summer’s work cut out for me.

Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Washington Square/Pocket, 1985. Print.


Meaningful bench.

Meaningful bench.

That is the headline on my paper today. I did it! I can’t believe I did but I did!

The photo I’m posting is a picture of a bench. But it’s not just any bench. It’s the bench I was sitting on when I resolved to stick through the rest of the semester that day I wrote Rough Day; the day I made a game plan for how I would manage it.

I created and attached meaning to my life on that bench. When you’re an agnostic, that’s a big deal. But now that the goal, getting through the first year, has been met I will need to re-evaluate what the hell I am doing.

A note about community. You know, although in Drawn I said I was not sure I could trust myself to the people here, I think I find myself feeling very different now (who would have guessed, seeing as place forms person (integrating yet another post — “You are who you hang with.” Must I be?)). As I see it now, I have started a journey with these people. And now that the first year is done I would feel a little as if I was abandoning them if I gave up. But I think I could lose any guilt or qualms over that. What’s more significant is that I feel like if I quit I would be missing out on the adventure. Though even my closest friendships here are not super close, I feel invested in seeing our collective class succeed. I am very curious about what will become of these people, how they will change (or “grow”, to use a Christian word).

A note about the wild. The outdoors are a great love of mine and somewhere I have grown accustomed to spending summers. Though I wanted to spend the summer in a beautiful place in the forest where I can hike and such things, I was doubly rejected from such opportunities because of my agnosticism. Tell the truth and get what you don’t want. Whatever. I hope friends of mine doing field placements (summer ministry internships at churches) in the mountains have a good time. I will try to visit them 🙂 (my first emoticon in this blog — what solipsism is this blog coming to?)

This summer I should have time to think about the important things. Part of my task will be identifying what exactly those are. Preliminarily I will do that here: plans for the Fall/Spring ’15 (almost certainly I will be in Durham regardless of whether I continue studies), community/lack thereof in Durham, career potentials, ambitions, beliefs, identity formation, the role my privilege and carefree life plays in my metaphysical quandaries. Beliefs will be important: During an exam I was taking this week I realized I have proved to myself now that God cannot be proved or disproved. I think. I feel like this is some kind of starting place as I form my new identity.

I’ll also need to ask when I have been happy, what I was doing, and what the hell it is I think I want in life (these are certainly related to the questions above).

And another thing: I need the freedom to be agnostic. Who would restrain me from such choice? Honestly, my counselor could. I trust older men so much that I might find myself chained by his judgments. I think this is something I’ll have to talk with him about — I need to know that he’d be OK if I stayed agnostic and never came back, or wanted to come back, to the faith. Because as our sessions have been going he speaks about God or assumes God’s love and work in my life quite freely and I just don’t know if he would be OK with me choosing to remain agnostic.

That’s my update for now. I am just really excited that I am all done with year one. I had a lot of odds against me. Being an agnostic in seminary ain’t easy. And not only did I complete the year, I think I ended it really well! I’ll have to see once my final work gets returned but I felt pretty good about all of it. Hurray!

Language games

Language is a game. We all play it. We can bend its rules. But if we break the rules too frequently, we are no longer playing the agreed game; we are playing a different game. Only others who are initiated into that game and familiar with its rules will be able to successfully play with you. Those who have played the card game “Mao” know something of what I’m talking about.

These are more or less the ideas of Wittgenstein anyway. And this all makes sense to me: I think it’s a fitting description of what language is: twin systems of rules (grammar) and pieces (words) that we manipulate in order to communicate meaning.

I’m starting to think of this in other ways too, now. Even my studies and the disciplines encompassing them are language games. Cynics would say that’s all they are (I entertain this cynical sentiment in Rough Day).

I write to say that I’m learning to play those games. And, actually, I think this is a good thing. Even if we’re merely spinning words that don’t affect anything outside, I’m learning what the rules of the games are and how to play them. I hope I’m even beginning to succeed, start winning.

This sounds really cynical but I don’t mean it that way. I thought this would be an interesting and perhaps helpful insight to fellow students, that one way to think of our task is that we need to become fluent in the language of our disciplines. That requires gathering all the right pieces, knowing all the rules and beginning to learn strategy, effective combinations and moves.

Who are we playing with? Our peers and future colleagues, and teachers. I can’t say there are no losers. There are. When someone destroys another’s argument, book, or opus using his own words, that is a major loss. Ouch. I don’t know what you can do after that, but fortunately that’s not for me to worry about yet. However, the objective is not necessarily to squash the competition; there can be room (somewhere…) for them and they are needed, too (to write the top review for the book jacket of your next book).

There is a comfort in knowing that (in one sense) it’s all a game as well. Playing does not require you to believe in or love the game. You just have to be good at it. Which is what I’m hoping to do. For now. And if I’m not good, if I’m not “picked”, there are other games I can play. I must take hope in this.