Michaelmas: The Feast of St Michael and All Angels

David Russell Mosley

1b704-4thecongregationofallangels

Ordinary Time
Michaelmas
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Another Michaelmas is before us and while I haven’t time at the moment to write a new post, I couldn’t let the feast day that actively reminds us of angelic realities pass by without comment. So, below you will find a series of letters I’ve written over the years on angels. I pray they will awaken you to the deeper realities all around us.

Angels and Demons: On the Cosmic Reality and Theological Importance of Angelology and Demonology

Unspoken Sermons: Christ the King: Angels and Poverty

A Vision of Angels: Given on the Fifth Sunday after Trinity

Happy Michaelmas: Celebrating the Reality of Angels

Sincerely,
David

The Pastor-Scholar: A Response to Andrew Wilson

David Russell Mosley

Ordinary Time
26 September 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

This morning when I woke up, I grabbed my phone (not the best thing to go for first in the morning, but I’m working on it) and as I scrolled through my twitter feed I came across this article by Mere Orthodoxy (and Mere Fidelity) contributor Andrew Wilson: “Why Being a Pastor-Scholar Is Nearly Impossible: Three tensions of combining pastoral and academic work.” I decided to give it a read. As some of you may know, I’ve made some suggestions of my own on how the theologian might be engaged in the work of his or her church.

Wilson suggest that being a pastor-scholar is nigh impossible (hence the title). I agree, as Wilson also notes, that doing anything and being a pastor is difficult. Even if one is only paid part-time for being a pastor, it is always full-time work. Yet, in my gut, I feel as though the pastor-scholar ought not to be quite the same. After all, the kind of scholarship Wilson has in mind is biblical/theological. If any other vocation ought to meld well with the pastorate, or priesthood, it ought to be that of the biblical scholar and/or theologian. Nevertheless, Wilson is right that often the aims of these two vocations can be different, or at least the arenas are different which often leads to different emphases making this combination slightly more difficult. That said, I think Wilson makes a few mistakes.

The first mistake is that nearly all of Wilson’s examples, as well as his entire article, presupposes one specific kind of scholarship, namely biblical studies, and one specific kind of pastorate, namely Protestant and, frankly, Reformed (with a few exceptions). Wilson then goes on to list three tensions that come from trying to combine this particular kind of scholarship with this particular kind of pastorate. I’ll get to the tensions in a moment, but I want to address first the narrowness of his purview.

I shouldn’t blame Wilson too much, really. After all, he is himself getting a PhD in biblical studies and is a member of a Reformed church. It stands to reason that many of his examples would come from one or both of these areas. Nevertheless, by not looking outside of them, he both generalizes in a way that will be unhelpful to readers such as myself (who are scholars attempting to be active in the church, if not ordained, but aren’t in biblical studies and/or aren’t Reformed or Protestant), and he misses opportunities to perhaps find better ways of combining pastor and scholar. For instance, Wilson neglects the fact that most of the great theologians from the first 1600 years (even in the reformed traditions) were almost always ordained clergy, many of them were bishops. Augustine likely preached almost daily and yet also wrote numerous books and letters; Aquinas was also a regular preacher (since he belonged to the ordo praedicatorum or Order of the Preachers, the Dominicans) and yet also wrote the Summa Theologiae, the Summa Gentiles, as well as commentaries on various biblical books and works of Aristotle and others. They and others like them found time to be both pastors and scholars. Perhaps, however, you will say that these are ancient and medieval examples when scholarship at least, if not also the pastorate/priesthood, were different. Then I could also draw your attention to figures such as Pope St John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, even people like Simon Oliver and Alison Milbank (professors of mine at the University of Nottingham, and not alone among our ordained staff). Now perhaps this points to a potential inherent difference between more Protestant ways of understanding the pastorate/priesthood and more Catholic ways of understanding it. Even so, if such a distinction exists, it might be worthwhile to investigate it to see how the other side treats similar problems.

Now, to the tensions, wherein I’ll also show some of the issues by focusing primarily on biblical scholars (versus other theologians). The first tension is “The Specialist-Generalist Tension.” The issue, argues Wilson, is that the scholar is called to be a specialist of a particular subject and not to stray from it, whereas the pastor must be a generalist since “that’s not my field” is not an adequate response to a parishioner who has questions. There is some truth to this, but it seems more prevalent in biblical studies. As Wilson notes, “Pauline scholars often give an apologetic cough before opining on Jesus, let alone on the Qumran Hodayot (psalms of thanksgiving), on the redaction (editing process) of the Pentateuch, or on philosophical views like Nominalism.” This level of specialization is, I think, less common in other theological circles. For instance, I wrote my dissertation on deification and human creativity, but I am not limited to talk, even authoritatively, on only those two subjects since I have read and done other work on other subjects. My point is that what might keep a Pauline scholar from entering into historical Jesus studies wouldn’t keep someone who works on the doctrine of Creation from talking about the Atonement. This largely, I think, has to do with the fact that Biblical Studies is more a subset of History/Sociology in the academic world than it is of Theology, properly speaking. But I digress.

The second tension is “The Practical-Theoretical Tension.” It is best, perhaps, to quote the example Wilson gives here:

Place Bible scholars like Michael Gorman, John Barclay, and N. T. Wright at a conference table and ask them to talk about the topic of peace in Paul’s epistles—as I remember happening at the British New Testament Conference two years ago—and you’ll have hours of stimulating discussion. But ask any of them about how to promote peace in the Middle East today, and the conversation turns eerily quiet. For scholars, praxis is the tail, research is the dog, and the former is not meant to wag the latter.

Here again, I feel as though I see a problem with focusing only on biblical scholars. Other theologians (certainly not all), often see their work as being meant to have some kind of practical benefit for the church (I believe this is true for many biblical scholars as well). For instance, in my dissertation I argue that humans creating things, like works of poetry or fantasy, can be aids in our deification, as can the consumption of those things. In other words, I argue that it’s good for people to read and write works of poetry and fantasy (as well as to create other beautiful things). This isn’t simply theoretical for me, I write works of fiction! Now again, I think some of the problems come from the fact that much of biblical studies is primarily history, trying to understand exactly what was happening when it happened and other related issues. These need not have any effect on one’s parishioners. What does it matter, for instance, to the average Christian, if Paul went to Spain or if he is the author of Hebrews? Now other theologians certainly have these issues as well. For instance, not everyone is called to write fiction (possibly not even me, despite my trying). Nor is it important for everyone to come to the same kinds of understanding that I have about certain theological issues. But my work is always meant to be in service of God’s glory and the Church, even if it not every aspect of it would be beneficial to the members of my church. The point I’m trying to make is this: if your scholarship is purely theoretical, then it might not be worth doing. If it cannot aid the Church in anyway then there might be a problem.

The final tension is “The University-Church Tension.” Here I mostly agree with Wilson. The Church and the University are two different, albeit related, entities. Even the Christian University is not the same as the local church (or even the universal Church). So of course how the pastor-scholar acts in one will likely be different from how she acts in the other.

Wilson does a good job to draw to our attention that there are difficulties or paradoxical tensions in being a scholar and a pastor. It will never be easy to try to be both at the same time, especially not as he has defined the terms. That said, I think Wilson’s focus on biblical scholars and Protestant/Reformed pastors is far too narrow. There are other kinds of scholars and pastors, as Wilson well knows. If there are tensions, it might be good to see how others in different fields or denominations handle them. And it is dangerous to forget to examine how the pastor-scholars before us, centuries before us, sought to combine these two vocations. There might be something worth adopting out there to ease some of these tensions, while likely creating others.

Sincerely,
David

Stephen Colbert, Joe Biden, and Responding to Suffering

David Russell Mosley

Edwyn during chemotherapy.

Edwyn during chemotherapy.

Ordinary Time
Feast of the Holy Cross
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

I had planned to write this letter before I realised today was the feast of the Holy Cross. I feel strange using a term like providential when it comes to writing this letter on a blog that is really of no great, or even medium, consequence. Still, it is at the very least fitting and so I will praise God for the fittingness of today’s topic and today’s feast day.

While I was never a strong devotee of either, I have been a fan of comedian Stephen Colbert since his days on The Daily Show and later The Colbert Report. Despite, and sometimes because, of the persona he put on, Colbert has had a way of getting to the heart of the matter with his interviewees that I have greatly appreciated. Add to this Colbert’s love of Tolkien and his faith and while I may not always agree with him, I have a profound respect for him. So I was happy to hear that he would be taking over The Late Show since it would mean the real Colbert, to an extent anyway, finally coming out and I have not been disappointed. Colbert has recently spoken twice on the subject of suffering and it is to this subject I wish to turn.

In an interview given to GQ magazine almost a month ago, Colbert and the interviewer come to the story of greatest tragedy in Colbert’s life to date, the death of his father and brothers. Colbert says of this incident that “‘I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.’” When asked to follow this up, Colbert responds, with tears in his eyes, with a quotation from a letter written by J. R. R. Tolkien, “What punishments of God are not gifts?” Colbert is living out the reality of Romans 8.28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God is not always the direct source of suffering in our lives, but he turns them to good, just as he turned the most seemingly evil moment in human existence, the death of Christ, into Good Friday because Christ rose again on Easter Sunday. We too can say of that moment that we love the thing we wish most had not happened.

So, imagine my surprise, after having been made aware of this interview, that a few episodes into his run as host of The Late Show Colbert would go on to interview Vice President Joe Biden. Now, there’s a good chance many of my readers may not be fans of Joe Biden’s politics and I’m not asking that we separate out politics from faith. Nevertheless, I want to draw attention to this interview, especially the first part you can watch below.

Colbert asks Biden about the suffering he has endured first in the death of his first wife and daughter and then in the death of his son, Beau. Note the two, or possibly three, things Joe said he relied on. First was the support of his family, particularly it would seem in the context of his Roman Catholic faith (Colbert asked him how his faith helped him through these tragedies). After family came the rituals of his faith, the Mass, the Rosary, those rituals we can go through regardless of how we feel at a given moment. Biden even notes that his faith at times left him. All that would be left were the rituals, and these were aids in returning him to faith. Now Biden next mentions the theology of his faith. I don’t think this is actually separable from the rituals of his faith for the liturgy informs the theology as much as the theology informs this liturgy (this is true of lower churches as well as higher churches, though not always to their benefit).

I too have gone through some suffering. I have not had to experience the death of a loved one, not yet (both of my grandparents on my mother’s side have passed but I was too young to be much effected by one and the other was in many ways a blessing to cause too much suffering). However, as many of you know, one my twin sons was diagnosed with cancer when he was 8 weeks old. The cancer is now gone and has been for nearly a year. I bring it up, however, to note that like Vice President Biden I found solace in the rituals and theology of my faith. And like Colbert I have already begun to see some ways that God is turning this moment of suffering into joy. You can view an interview my wife and I gave on this subject here along with an interview with another member of our church who has seen even greater suffering than we have: On the Grow: Suffering. (Our interview begins at about the 5’33” mark).

Here’s the truth I’ve learned from all of this. There are times when we will suffer, it’s part of being human in a fallen cosmos as well as part of being a Christian. We can survive this suffering, however, when we take solace in our faith, remembering that Christ suffered and died to defeat all death and suffering. We can take solace in the rituals of our faith when our belief is fleeting. But most of all, we must so align ourselves with God’s will that we can have joy in those moments we truly wish had never happened. I wish my son had never had cancer, but I can love that it happened for the ways it has grown the faith of my family, my own faith, and how it may touch the lives of others in ways I cannot conceive and will never know. To be clear, this isn’t an argument for why there is suffering in this world. I’m not terribly interested in theodicies. Rather, this is simply how I think Christians are meant to respond to suffering and how God responds to our suffering. I hope those of you who are suffering now or have suffered can take some solace in that.

Yours,
David

Reflections on Teaching My First Collegiate Level Class: Student Evaluations

David Russell Mosley

Obviously not a picture of my students since my class was online.

Ordinary Time
11 September 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

As many of you know, I recently finished teaching my first collegiate level class. I taught an online class for a Christian university in the Restoration Movement on the Trinity. In another letter I’ll write about what it was like to teach a class online and what it was like to teach a class on the Trinity. Today, however, I want to focus on my student evaluations in specific and student evaluations in general. The issue is this, most colleges and universities have student evaluations of all or most of their classes and often make decisions based on them. What’s more, when applying for jobs as a lecturer, many colleges/universities want to see past student evaluations. But what exactly do student evaluations show?

My class, to give you some background, was 11 students large at the beginning. One student withdrew from the class during its course leaving me with 10 enrolled students at the end. Of those ten, only three with Christian ministry/theology majors of any sort (a Christian Ministries major, a Preaching major with a deep interest in apologetics, and a Worship major). The majority of my students were majoring in Management of Non-Profit Organizations. All of my students were taking this class because they are required to take an upper level theology class. For various reasons most of them wanted or needed to take one online and mine was the only one on offer.

Now, of my ten students only 3 filled out evaluations. So we’re not really talking about a statistically significant data sample here (though in general statistics is rather imprecise, especially when based on polling, which evaluations essentially are polls). It should be noted that I have not been informed precisely who these students are though I can guess who two of them were. Of those three, 2 students seemed to have appreciated the course. Both consistently agreed or strongly agreed with the various questions they were asked about how well the course was run and how well I did as an instructor. The third student was not as happy about the course.

For most questions, this student would respond with Neutral. So, for instance, when asked “8. A Christian perspective was appropriately integrated into the content and conduct of the course.” They responded with Neutral (from the options Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree, and Strongly Disagree). There non-Neutral responses were either Disagree or Strongly Disagree. For some of these I’m not responsible, like how user friendly they found the website used to host these online classes. That said, they were also either Neutral or Disagreed (Strongly or otherwise) with my performance in the class. In the end, the students were allowed to write some comments of their own. I will not share here precisely what this student said about me, but suffice it to say that I did not come off well (I was called rude and arrogant, for example). Now, I do not deny that I was imperfect in teaching this class. I’ve already thought of things I’m going to change when I teach it again in the Spring. That said, I certainly didn’t deserve, or at least so thought two other members of the class, the vitriol poured on me by this student. And herein lies the problem with student evaluations. They are often representative of how well a student did in a class compared with how well they believe they should have done.

I have some guesses about who this student is that would shed even more light on this subject, but I feel that would be inappropriate to share. However, when a class is difficult, and there’s no denying that a class based primarily around ancient and medieval texts on the Trinity is going to be a difficult class, that difficulty can be seen as a flaw with the class. So the problem is we’re trusting students to be objective, to put aside how well they did in a class in order to properly evaluate it. This is probably less of a problem for the student who does well, they may be able to remove themselves from the grade they earned and reflect on the class, but for the student who does poorly this is going to be more difficult. So the question then becomes, what do student evaluations actually teach us? There is of course a chance that they might teach us things we really ought to change about a class, but that is not, at the very least, my experience with this class. Neither the students happy with the class nor the student unhappy with it provided any feedback that will actually change how I teach this class again.

Perhaps, then, we ought to do away with the typical style of class evaluation (a series of questions/statements one can gauge one’s opinion on using some kind of scale). Perhaps we ought to try different methods, or at least insert different questions. Lecturers/Professors aren’t meant to know who wrote what, this is meant to allow the students freedom to express themselves fully. However, for those who review these evaluations, perhaps questions ought to be inserted about how well a student did in the course and why they think they faired the way they did. This, it seems to me, ought to force the students to think at least somewhat introspectively and ought to provide those reading the evaluations some insight into why a student might have evaluated the class the way they did. Outside of these suggestions, I don’t really know how to fix the problem. Hopefully some of you who have been teaching longer than I have will have suggestions. In the mean time I need to move on and not get too wrapped up in one bad evaluation from one student and prepare myself for the next time I teach.

Yours,
David

The Plight of the Adjunct and the Goal of Education

David Russell Mosley

Ordinary Time
9 September 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Today I finally read an article posted on 1 September entitled “The Social Injustice Done to Adjunct Faculty: A Call to Arms.” In the article Randall Smith, who is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, argues that the adjuncts are being severely mistreated. Smith notes that the origins of the adjunct professor are to be found in honored members of a community coming in to teach one-off classes for which they are particularly qualified to teach: for instance a business executive teaching a class on business management or a long-time clergyman teaching a class on pastoral care. These people were paid an honorarium because the work they’ve done requires some kind of remuneration but because they already work full-time jobs, typically with benefits, elsewhere they don’t need to be paid their normal salary nor be offered benefits like the other members of the faculty. This is no longer the case, at least not exclusively. Now, most adjuncts are people like me, qualified, or nearly so, academics who have attained our terminal degrees but haven’t been able to find full-time academic work.

You should read the whole article and the call to arms at the end, for me it’s quite moving. After all, I have such a little voice in these conversations. I have no one to represent me, to speak for me and others like me to the universities at which we teach. Now, I should say that things aren’t so bad for me as they are for others. For starters, at the university for which I currently teach one class online their tuition rate is much lower and one student spends less per credit hour than I make, unlike the examples in the article. Also, when I teach the class again this Spring, I’ll make a bit more since I have my PhD now (or will have it more firmly after I finish my corrections for next month). That said, even in these slightly better circumstances, my class, which had 11 students made the university $9570 and only cost them $1800 for my pay (I’m sure it cost them more than that for the web developers with whom I worked and fees related to that; they also paid me separately, and rather well, for developing the course, but that’s a one time fee, I won’t be making it again in the Spring since I’m teaching the same course). Even if you add the $3000 they paid me for writing and recording the lectures and otherwise developing the class, they still gained $4770 and can now use this class with other online instructors, paying them either $1800 or $2100 depending on whether or not they have a PhD, for as long the university and the digital recordings exist. I don’t say this to denigrate the people for whom I work. I’m glad for the opportunity and mostly had a good time teaching the class. Nevertheless, there’s a systemic problem here when people like myself, and many of my former colleagues from my PhD program, have to take these little one off jobs that don’t pay us enough to support ourselves let alone the families that so many of us have. (Another person in a similar boat to mine is Artur Rosman who wrote on a similar issue on Labor Day: “The Anxiety of the Freshly Unemployed Man on Labor Day“).

So, things are hard, not just for me, not even primarily for me. I’ve been very fortunate in receiving aid of various kinds from friends and especially family. I don’t want to be a downer, to be that guy who just sits around complaining about how bad things are for me or people like me. It’s not typically in my nature. But I feel like we need to draw our attention to this issue and others like it. We need to start thinking about the changes that need to be made on a societal level. There have to be solutions to these problems. Perhaps a kind of guild system as Smith suggests is one way of avoiding poverty-stricken academics (for those who have read the work of John Milbank, you’ll know that this would appeal to someone like him). Perhaps its time for parents and students to ask more out of their universities, but not more sports centers or hotels, or greater focus on how x degree is going to get me jobs y or z, but instead a better focus on the actual teaching and forming of the students.

To end on a lighter note, I want to share part of another article I read today, “7.5 Tips to Survive and Thrive in (a Jesuit) College.” I’m a big fan of Jesuit schools, at least on the philosophical level, because I agree with their notions concerning holistic education. In nearly every cover letter I send out I write some version of this sentence, “I am dedicated to the notion that education, particularly theological, but all education, is intended to help form human beings, to prepare them for the Beatific Vision and to participate in the transformation of this world.” The end of education isn’t to get a job, but to be formed as a human being. So let me share with you this quotation from Tim O’Brien who definitely seems to agree with me:

Who you are today, and who you become in these four years, matters a great deal to us as Jesuits. Because we believe that who you are and who you become matters for this world of ours. Because we believe that who you are and who you become matters greatly to God.

Yours,
David

Fairy Tales and Distributism: A Quotation from G. K. Chesterton

David Russell Mosley

Ordinary Time
Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

I’ve finally started reading Chesterton’s The Outline of Sanity in earnest and wanted to share this quotation, a day late for Labor Day, but perhaps not inappropriate for the feast of the birth of Mary:

“About fifteen years ago a few of us began to preach, in the old New Age and New Witness, a policy of small distributed property (which has since assumed the awkward but accurate name of Distributism), as we should have said then, against the two extremes of Capitalism and Communism. The first criticism we received was from the most brilliant Fabians, especially Mr. Bernard Shaw. And the form which the first criticism took was simply to tell us that our ideal was impossible. It was only a case of Catholic credulity about fairy tales. The Law of Rent, and other economic laws, made it inevitable that the little rivulets of property should run down into the pool of plutocracy. In truth, it was the Fabian wit, and not merely the Tory fool, who confronted our vision with that venerable verbal opening: ‘If it were all divided up tomorrow.’

“Nevertheless, we had an answer even in those days, and though we have since found many others, it will clarify the question if I repeat this point of principle. It is true that I believe in fairy tales––in the sense that I marvel so much at what does exist that I am the readier to admit what might. I understand the man who believes in the Sea Serpent on the ground that there are more fish in the sea than ever came out of it. But I do it the more because the other man, in his ardour for disproving the Sea Serpent, always argues that there are not only no snakes in Ireland, but none in the world. Suppose Mr. Bernard Shaw, commenting on this credulity, were to blame for believing (on the word of some lying priest) that stone could be thrown up into the air and hang there suspended like a rainbow. Suppose he told me tenderly that I should not believe this Popish fable of the magic stones, if I had ever had the Law of Gravity scientifically explained to me. And suppose, after all this, I found he was only talking about the impossibility of building an arch. I think most of us would form two main conclusions about him and his school. First, we should think them very ill-informed about what is really meant by recognizing a law of nature. A law of nature can be recognized by resisting it, or out-manoeuvring it, or even using it against itself, as in the case of an arch. And second, and much more strongly, we should think them astonishingly ill-informed about what has already been done upon this earth.

Sincerely,
David