The Evolution of the Thesis: Why It’s Alright to Change Your Topic

Dear Friends and Family,

If you were to go back through my old posts, starting with the oldest and working your way up (not that I’d recommend it), you would first find this post. In it I talk about what was at the time my fifth thesis topic. Then, if you kept reading, you’d end up here, where I describe not only my fifth thesis topic shift, but the fact that I’d switched supervisors as well. In the interest of describing what its like to do a PhD, I thought I’d do a post outlining how and why a thesis can change by using my own as a case study. I remember in my Master’s feeling so trapped by topic. I want others out there working to know it’s OK to change your mind, so long as it isn’t too often.

Master’s Degree: Columbanus, Grace, and the Trinity

I came into my Master’s (in Historical Theology) thinking I either wanted to write on C. S. Lewis or “Celtic” Christianity. I quickly settled on “Celtic” Christianity, got in touch with Tom O’Loughlin and decided I was going to the University of Nottingham for my PhD. Then I started my Master’s. With Tom and Bob Rea’s help––Bob being my Major Professor and boss––I decided to write about the theology of one late-sixth, early seventh century Irish monk, Columbanus.

Saint Columbanus.

Saint Columbanus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The only problem, I quickly got tired of Columbanus. In the second year of my Master’s, and the first semester of my thesis, I finally took the Early Christian Centuries course and fell in love with patristics as well as Trinitarian theology and deification. But I felt stuck.

PhD Topic #1 Columbanus and Grace

So, I kept at it. I finished my Master’s and came to Nottingham to work with Tom. We quickly settled on the topic of grace in Columbanus. I was particularly interested in how his understanding of grace sounded like the Eastern Orthodox understanding. Tom had suggested that all of  Columbanus’ Eastern Orthodox sounding notions actually came through a fifth century monk and contemporary of Augustine, John Cassian. Cue PhD topic #2.

PhD Topic #2 John Cassian, Columbanus, and Grace

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I had studied Cassian some in my Master’s and since he was the figure my Major Professor from my Master’s had written on, this would make for a good PhD. The idea had been to first show that Cassian’s understanding of grace was in line with Eastern Orthodox thinking. Then, I’d set out to prove that Cassian had a direct influence on Columbanus, thus accounting for Columbanus’ understanding of grace.

From here, some kind of imperceptible change happened. It wasn’t that I no longer wanted to right about grace, it’s just there was more to it than simply what they thought happened when one became a believer, and they thought one could. As I said above, I had, in my Master’s learned about, and become interested in the primarily Eastern Orthodox notion of deification, or theosis (see my post here for a general overview of what deification is).

PhD Topic #3 John Cassian, Columbanus, and Deification

From here I decided that what I wanted to show was first that John Cassian had a notion of deification like the Eastern Church Fathers. Then I would prove Cassian’s influence on Columbanus. After showing Cassian’s influence on Columbanus I would show evidence of a notion deification in Columbanus as well. I quickly realised, however that continued work on Columbanus would lead me into some historical minutiae I didn’t want to deal with.

PhD Topic #4 John Cassian and Deification

This brought to my, hopefully, penultimate thesis topic. I decided to drop Columbanus altogether. The problem? I had come to Nottingham to work with Dr Tom O’Loughlin on Irish Christianity, only there weren’t any Irishmen (or women) in my project at this stage. Still, I plowed on in what was a primarily historical thesis when what I was really wanting to do, had been wanting to do since my Master’s, was theology. I wanted to do theology without divorcing it from history, but I didn’t want to be a historian. Finally, after spending a whole summer reading nothing but patristic and secondary texts on deification when this academic started up back in October, I decided it was time to make a change.

PhD Topic #5 Deification

I’ve already written about the switch to my final (hopefully) topic as well as my switching supervisors. I just want to note here that part of the reason it took me so long was fear. I was afraid of disappointing Tom, even Bob (my Major Professor in my Master’s). I felt locked in by previous decisions. The thing is, I wasn’t locked in. I could’ve changed my mind at any time. Ultimately, I’m glad I did my studies the way I did because it meant I got an excellent grounding in the Tradition before more strictly doing theology.

I just want to encourage anyone, especially young (if not in age then at least to their programs) scholars, that you shouldn’t feel locked in permanently to whatever you initially chose to do. Doing research and writing means that your ideas are going to change, your interests are going to change, you are going to change. You should always temper that desire to change by seeking advice, but still listen to it. I prayed long and hard before switching topics and supervisors. Then I spoke to the perspective supervisors to see if they thought this was a good idea. Finally, I talked to my supervisor before making anything official. It was tough, and a little awkward, but I’m a much happier theologian in training now than I was historian (or at least historical theologian) before.

Have you ever made major shifts like (in any area of life)? Let me know. How did they work out for you? While I still don’t know how this will ultimately work for me, it certainly seems like it was the right thing for me to do.

Yours,
David

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Why Edmund isn’t Judas: The Chronicles of Narnia, Allegory or Supposition?

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dear Friends and Family,

One thing that I constantly hear from well-meaning Christians is how the Chronicles of Narnia, especially The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, are allegorical. I can’t even begin to tell you how much this would anger Lewis were he still alive today (and how much it did when he was alive). The Chronicles of Narnia are not allegorical, this becomes increasing clear with each book. Nevertheless, I understand why The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe keeps being so labeled.

On first blush its obvious: Aslan represents Jesus; Peter, Peter; Susan and Lucy, Mary Magdalen and the other women who followed Jesus; the White Witch, Satan; and Edmund is Judas, right? Right here, amongst other places, is where it falls apart. Edmund can’t be Judas. First, he doesn’t betray Aslan to the White Witch, he betrays his siblings. Second, Edmund, overwrought with grief, doesn’t commit suicide. You might try to argue that because it’s a children’s book Lewis decided to give Judas a happier ending, but that alone would make this not an allegory.

In an allegory, each character and/or event is a direct representation of something else. For instance, in John Bunyon’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, the title character is called Christian because he represents Christians. The are other characters like Faith and Charity who represent those things explicitly. This isn’t what Lewis has done in the Chronicles. Peter would be a poor representation of the Apostle with the same name since he never denies Aslan. Also, what about all the animals and mythological creatures? Is Tumnus supposed to be Matthew? What about the Beavers? Where does the giant fit in? Or the good being turned to stone? It just isn’t an allegory, there is no one-to-one representation.

Instead, the Chronicles of Narnia are what is called suppositional. That is, suppose God created a world where the rational creatures were certain animals and mythological creatures. Then, suppose that world were fallen and in need of redemption. How might God redeem that world? How would he incarnate himself? Perhaps as a great Lion. This way Aslan can be Aslan (and, in one sense Jesus, but not simply a representation of Jesus); Peter can be Peter; and Edmund can be Edmund.

So, the next time you sit down to read The Chronicles of Narnia, don’t try to decode it. Don’t try and figure out who represents what (or whom). Instead, let the book speak for itself and then let it speak to you.

Yours,
David

Vacation Reading: What does a Student in Theology Read on Vacation?

usbythelake

Dear Friends and Family,

As you’ve either seen from my wife’s blog or my reposting here and here, Lauren and I were on vacation last week. This was a kind of early anniversary gift to ourselves. We haven’t been on a vacation since we moved here in 2011, so we decided to go the Lake District. I have to be honest, Lauren planned the whole thing and did an amazing job. I didn’t want to leave. I could have stared into those fells and walked round those lakes all day every day for the rest of my life.

Those of you who know me, know that I love to read, and not just theology. So that begs the question, what did I take to read on this vacation? I decided early on that I wouldn’t take any research reading with me. I wanted my time spent reading to be a time of intellectual and spiritual renewal, not a time spent worrying about my work. I brought five books in total with me.

books

As I wrote here, my usual routine is to get up every morning at five and begin the day with prayer and Scripture reading. Now, to be completely honest, I was not up and moving at five once on our vacation. My usual wake up time was between six and seven. I still, however, tried to start with Scripture reading and prayer and thus, my Bible was the first of the five books.

The second book was Augustine’s Sermons on the Liturgical SeasonsI’ve been, quite rightly, reading his sermons from Eastertide. I have to admit, I still find the topics covered by ancient preachers refreshing. I wish we had more sermons that dealt with the importance of the incarnation, the Trinity, and so on and how those things affect our daily lives. I definitely recommend giving these sermons a peruse.

The third book, discounting both my devotional and personal journals, was William Morris’s The Wood beyond the World (click the link to see my review). Ever since I began reading biographies on C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien I have wanted to read this book. Well, now I have and can highly recommend it.

Over the past few months I have been slowly working my way through William Wordsworth poetry, at least everything that’s included in the Selected Poems of William WordsworthI brought Wordsworth along not only because I like poetry, but because I have a profound appreciation for poetry but because Wordsworth grew up in the Lake District, but he died in Ambleside. Now, sadly, we did not get a chance to go to Dove Cottage, but still, there was something wonderful in reading Wordsworth’s poetry in the Lake District, that area that inspire many of his poems.

The final book that came on this journey with me was A Book of Strife in the Form of The Diary of an Old soul by George MacDonald. This book is a collection of prayers in the form of poetry, one for every day of the year (in a leap year). These prayers were moving and earnest. They reminded me of my sinfulness, the greatness attached to humanity because of the Image in which we were made, and God’s mercy and justice.

See my wife’s blog for all the beautiful things we saw and did. I would have to write a story or poetry of my own (and I may do both) to express how renewing and sublime this trip was for me beyond the reading. Suffice it to say that in the end a combination of the books I brought, the landscapes I breathed in, and the companion with whom I shared all these experiences I have come back refreshed and ready to begin again at my work. Nevertheless, there will now always be a longing in my heart for the Lake District and the little village of Ambleside.

pipebythelake

Yours,
David

 

Relaxing in the Lake District

Check out the second installment of my wife’s posts about our vacation (and more pretty pictures of me).

My Homespun Haven

Thursday was more of a relaxation day. We started off by the lake and spent a little time relishing the beauty of the lake and hills. We also took some pictures of us together! It doesn’t happen very often.
Usbythelake
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The rest of the day we spend in Ambleside looking at the shops, playing cribbage, and enjoy one another’s company. I do have to mention I trampled David four times in cribbage.
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David and I are making it a point to pick something up from every place we visit so we can remember it by. This is something that we have not been very good at practicing but we find it more and more important. Some people collect spoons, shot glasses, magnets, or even dirt/sand. So, we picked up some artwork at a local gallery.
windermerelangdalepikes
forestpath
As we are preparing to make the voyage back to Nottingham I am dreaming about people…

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A Little Seven Mile Walk

Check out my wife’s post about day 1 of our vacation to the Lake District. Enjoy her beautiful pictures, especially of me.

My Homespun Haven

David and I are suckers for the more forest-y vacations. Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate a beach for a day or two. David, however, would die at the first blast of heat. But, we both like to explore. We find this relaxing. We have been to Bar Harbor, ME; Portsmouth, NH; Gatlinburg, TN; and now Ambleside, Cumbria, UK.

The Lake District is known for it’s beautiful lakes and hills (fells). We are staying in a small town called Ambleside which is situated north of Lake Windermere. We are experiencing our first traditional inn. A true inn is a pub that has rooms to stay in. We are getting quite the workout being on the third floor (fourth floor for Americans).
roomview
StMarysChurch
daffodilsStMarys
Daffodils and crocuses grow everywhere here. Sadly, they are a little late this time of year, but still pretty.
crocus
Lake Windermere is the largest lake in England. It…

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A Day in the Life of a PhD in Theology Part 2: The Differences between and American and British PhD

Dear Friends and Family,

It dawned on me the other day that my post describing my typical day left out a few important details. You see, a British PhD and an American PhD can be quite different. I have no hopes of explaining all the differences between the two (I can’t really since I’ve never done an American PhD), but I thought I would try and highlight some of the main differences. I’ll also throw-in some other aspects of being a PhD student here at the University of Nottingham that didn’t get mentioned last time.

Classes

In an American PhD you often have several years of classes you have take before you begin working on your thesis, or as they often call it, your dissertation. Typically, these are more broad classes relevant to your field, but not necessarily to the specific thing on which you wish to write. A PhD in theology would probably have to take classes on historical theology, systematic theology, philosophy and more depending on where they are studying.

In the UK, however, it is quite different. A PhD student in the UK shows up with a proposal for what they want to write their thesis on, and then start writing. We, at least here at the University of Nottingham, have no required classes we have to attend. Instead, we’re encouraged to sit in on classes at the Master’s and undergraduate levels that we might find useful. We get no credit for these courses, but we can sit in on them for free. In the two years I’ve been here, I’ve sat in on: Elementary Latin I and II; a course on Theological Anthropology; a course called Plato-Hegel studying theology and philosophy; and this term I’ve been attending a course on Christology, a course on Religion and Fantasy, and a course on Theology, Philosophy, and Post-Postmodernism. The way I decide what classes to sit in on is by asking myself if the class will either be directly relevant to my thesis or if it will help me plan courses I hope to teach in the future.

John Milbank in Theology, Philosophy, and Post-Postmodernism

John Milbank in Theology, Philosophy, and Post-Postmodernism

Teaching

In many American PhD programs, PhD students are given the opportunity to teach, sometimes whole courses. This depends entirely on how much funding the University and the department have for such things. Sometimes, also, students will be Teaching Assistants to specific professors for whatever courses they teach.

Here at Nottingham it is a little different. It is rare, though not altogether unheard of, that a PhD student would be the lecturer for a specific class. However, when there is need and funding, we can become assistants for specific classes. This usually entails leading seminar discussions and marking essays and exams. Last semester, I was a teaching assistant for the course History of Christian Thought to 1600. I led discussions on texts the students read dating from the second century the sixteenth. I also had to do a fair bit of marking (grading) of essays. I probably could have done a whole post of funny things undergraduates write, but would have hated it if someone had done that to me. Next term I’m doing a similar job for a class called Great Religious Texts which reads texts from the Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Islamic religions.

Sometimes there is an opportunity to lecture as well. I’ve only had that opportunity once, but hope to have more. The one time I did lecture, I prepared too much material and had to skip over some interesting bits to make sure we covered everything.

Seminars

The last thing I want to mention is to make clear what I meant in my previous post on this subject when I said, ‘By the late afternoon, if I don’t have a seminar to attend or a class I’m sitting in on, I pack up my things and head home.’ You see, our department occasionally puts on seminars where either visiting professors from other universities, or our own, give hour long talks on something their researching. These can range from formal paper presentations to more informal presentations on the general ideas being worked on. We don’t have these every week or even every month, though that is supposed to change once the Easter Holiday is over. I don’t always attend these because we usually have home group on Wednesday evenings (the usual afternoons on which we have these seminars) and it can make for a cramped day where supper is hard to come by if I attend the seminar and then walk home and then have to walk to home group (all total would be about 3 miles). Nevertheless, I make the effort to go as often as I can. Past presenters have included: Lewis Ayres, Helen Hunt, John Milbank, and many others.

Well, that’s about everything I can think of that can provide augments during my usual routine. Well, there is one other thing, but perhaps I’ll save that for another post.

Yours,
David