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Entries in Seminary Notes (114)

Saturday
Dec022017

Yet another reason to attend seminary

It's crunch time. In the next two weeks, I will write a vocabulary text and and exam in Greek and, Lord willing, finish my term paper. The latter is not going as well as I would like. My mind is trying to balance the mysterious vision of Hildegard with the mysterious operations of liquid verbs and the future middle tense in Greek. My preference would be to focus entirely on Greek. I confess it is my preferred subject, which is something I didn't entirely expect. I love Church History. But even though I find Hildegard fascinating, it's proving to be a big job to unravel her thought and put something down on paper.

It isn't that I don't like my term paper topic. After all, I did choose it myself. But I really love Greek, and when I can't figure something out, it frustrates me, and I want to sit down and work at it until I do. This past Thursday, for the first time, I did not not know the bonus questions, and I left one of the translation questions blank, while feeling quite certain that I didn't answer the others correctly. It also occurred to me after writing the quiz that I had made an error in the parsing.

When I got home, I wanted to sit down and study Greek, but I have a lot of History reading to finish in addition to getting this term paper finished. I am feeling stressed, especially now that Christmas is coming quickly. Yesterday, I surprised myself by thinking, "Oh, why do I have to take Church History anyway?" I never imagined I'd think that. However, it is a required course, and there is a very good reason why a complete theological education should include Church History.  

There is something very valuable about studying and writing about things we may not be entirely excited about. There is something valuable in being told "You must learn this." It is valuable to have someone else place expectations upon us. It teachs us to be humble and allow someone else to evaluate our work. For example, one of my required courses, which I will take next fall along with Greek Exegesis, is Spiritual Formation. That class doesn't excite me, but I have to take it. 

The blogging envrionment places no expectation of required material. We can write about whatever we want. Being expected to write about something we may find unappealing is not part of this wide open communication medium. Seminary is much more difficult in that there are required courses. This past week, in Church History, I had to read a writing of Bernard of Clairvaux and write a reflection about it. I didn't hate the whole process, but it would have been nice if I hadn't had to do it, and could give more time to something I wanted to do; like reviewing future tense of "to be" in Greek so I could recognize it on this week's quiz (which I didn't).

I think I'm rambling now. Perhaps that's because I've been up since 5:00 reading about Hildegard's visions and a commentator's attempts to interpret them. Hildegard is fascinating, but writing about her isn't nearly as enjoyable as other topics. But I'll forge ahead, and be thankful. If one can writte about something she finds difficult, then writing about the things she likes will be that much more enjoyable.

Tuesday
Nov072017

Looking like monastics

I am deep in literature about Medieval women and mystics at the moment as I research for a term paper in Church history. At the same time, in our class readings last week we looked at the Desert Fathers. Some of those saying were just simple common sense, but others reveal a real desire to live a life of self-denial and humility. One of the sayings caught my attention:

A hermit said, 'This is the life of a monk; work, obedience, meditation, not to judge others, not to speak evil, not to murmur. For it is written "You who love God, hate the thing that is evil" (Ps. 97:10). This is monastic life: not to live with the wicked, not to see evil, not to be inquisitive, not to be curious, not to listen to gossip, not to use the hands for taking, but for giving; not to be proud in heart or bad in thought, not to fill the belly, in everything to judge wisely. This is the life of a true monk.

Some of those are very worthy aspirations. I'm all for hating evil and avoiding gossip. I'm against pride in my heart and bad thoughts. But I did raise my eyebrows at the admonition not to be curious or inquisitive. That attitude was not confined to the Desert Fathers. In some of the reading regarding women that I've done, I have discovered the reality of a premium put on the spirit above the intellect, despite the fact that many of the notable women of the Middle Ages were well-educated. For example, Hadewijch, a 13th century monastic woman was herself educated, but she did not believe that reason was the clearest path to God, and placed value on the spirit above the intellect.

The sentiment that a developed intellect interferes with our spirituality is alive and well. On more than one occasion, when women find out I'm in seminary (and even before then, when I said I liked to read theology) I've been met with the comment, "Well, I just really depend on the Spirit to teach me." 

I see some similarities between monastic women of the Middle Ages and groups of women today in the principle of separating ourselves. I saw it alive and well in homeschooling circles when my kids were younger. I've come across it with other women who will vigorously reject the use of a commentary in a Bible study because they want the Spirit to teach them. This notion of a simple life, free from the interferences of the secular world is promoted as the higher spiritual life.

I occasionally feel like my own curiosity and inquisitiveness is looked upon by other women as one of those weaknesses that must be tolerated, sort of like being the one in the crowd with the irritating, loud laugh; probably not something to be encouraged too much.

In reality, it's not the curiosity itself that is the problem; it's the content. Women are expected and encouraged to be curious, but perhaps not about theology. I don't understand why some women are curious about what movie stars wore on the red carpet at the Academy Awards. I am not curious about the lives and happenings of celebrities, but many women are. Curiosity isn't necessarily bad; it's just that there is an expectation of what we should be curious about. 

Men and women who went into monasteries were often looked upon as being elite Christians. I wonder sometimes if we think that by separating ourselves we are demonstrating a superior spirituality. I have yet to be convinced that shunning learning makes me more spiritual.

Thursday
Oct052017

It's all about the endings

He spoke the word.

Who is doing the speaking? If you're an English speaker, you know that it is "he" who is doing the speaking. That's the subject of the sentence. Generally, in English, the subject precedes the action of the verb. Now, if you're Yoda, you could say, "The word, he spoke," but you're taking a chance if you copy Yoda because someone could conclude that we're actually saying something like "The word which he spoke." Word order is really important in English. English is not an inflected language.

Koine Greek is an inflected language. That means word order doesn't matter. Αυτος ειπεν λογον, "he spoke the word" can also be written ειπεν λογον α­­υτος or we could move the words around again. What tells me what is the subject of the sentence is the ending of the word, in the case of "he," the pronoun αυτος, with its -ος ending indicates that the word is in the nominative case, and hence, the subject of the sentence. The word λογον with its -ον ending tells me that it is in the accusative case and that means in this sentence, it is the direct object, or the receiver of the action.

These endings are crucial for understanding what all the grammatical components of the sentence are. And what is more interesting is that when it comes to prepositions, the meaning can change, depending on what the ending of the noun is. Adjectives also have different endings, and the way one tells which adjective goes with which noun is the ending of the word. These endings are something students must learn. Once we learn what the endings are, it's just a matter of recognizing them in context. When we do translations in my Greek class, it's like putting puzzle pieces together. I've never been good at number puzzles, but so far, I'm good at this kind of puzzle. It does take time, though, and one has to be careful and pay attendion, because even the absence or prescence of an accent can make a difference in meaning.

This is probably mind-numbingly boring to most people, but it is fascinating to me to see how words work. And it is a great reminder to me that paying attending to little details as we learn to read Scripture is really important. Maybe you don't have any aspirations to learn Koine Greek, but if you're a Christian and you want to grow, you'll want to open your Bible up. It requires time and attending to read in English, too. Just why did the author use that particular word? What modifies what? Where is the main verb? Why did the writer draw that conclusion?

We are fast learning to become skimmers rather than readers. If you consume a diet of mostly online content, unless you're reading academic journals and abstracts, you can get by on skimming. But is skimming really the best approach to Bible reading? The art of reading slow needs to be preserved. Slower reading means more reflection, and that's a good thing.

Monday
Sep252017

Empty Nesters Love Greek

I love my Greek class. I knew I would, and I hope it stays that way. Even though we are not required to necessarily know why the language works as it does (we are only there to learn how to read it), I want to know the why's. I want to have a better understanding of the language in general. Theory and practice go together.

Not everyone needs to learn Greek. Not everyone shares my enthusiasm for it. I recognize that for Bible study students, it isn't necessary. We have good English translations. Yet, having an understanding of the original language, especially if we are teachers, can only be a good thing. No, knowing Koine Greek does not make one more holy or more godly. You can know Koine Greek like a champ and yet be a total boor. But when one is teaching, and especially if one is expecting others to take her seriously, Greek isn't a bad use of her time. And the bonus is that our prof promises that knowing Greek will have an impact on our devotional life.

There are a lot of things that women can do when the nest empties; valuable things and not so valuable things. I want to do the valuable things. We all have our areas of strength. The point is to stay active and productive. I did not have a career to return to when my kids grew up, and for that I am thankful. I am glad my heart was not divided between my kids and a career. Some people may think that makes me "just a housewife," and hopelessly out of touch. Perhaps that is true, but I know that today, I have the time and opportunity to learn Koine Greek, and that's exciting. To know the original languages of the Bible is exciting to me. I'd rather be doing this than hanging around in a board room in a meeting or navigating the dog-eat-dog world of an office environment.

I have met my share of blank stares from others when saying I attend seminary. Saying I'm taking Greek is even more entertaining. There is often suspicion. Why would I need that? Am I involved in a theological coup? Some look at me as if I've just said that I like to kick puppies and kittens. I can't change someone's opinion of a woman learning Greek. I trust that, ultimately, I will be a better student of the Bible and a better teacher.

There are many ways now to learn biblical languages. Many seminaries offer online classes for students who want to learn. Bill Mounce's Basics of Biblical Greek is very user friendly, and one can benefit from the online resources he provides at his website. We can all claim we are too busy. But if we look at how we spend our time, there may be way to make time. Cut back on television watching or social media time. Get up a little earlier every day. If you want to be inspired for learning Greek, check out Bill Mounce's Greek for the Rest of Us.

I won't say that having my children leave home and become independent has been easy. It's been five years since our last one left home, and I'm still adjusting. Adult kids have their own lives and are in the process of establishing their independence. They don't need us as much. Empty hours can be a bad thing. Why not fill it with something? For me, seminary is helping fill those hours. And Greek is contributing in a particularly exciting way. 

Wednesday
Sep202017

The appeal of Augustine

Augustine said some pretty wonky things, but he said much that I can totally understand and agree with. One of those things is how he confronted his own sin. Even after his conversion, Augustine wrestled with temptations. One of them was the praise of men. As a trained rhetorician, he would have sought the approval of men. After his conversion, he talks about the remaining struggle:

. . . there is a third kind of temptation which, I fear, has not passed from me. Can it ever pass from me in all this life? It is the desire to be feared or loved by other men, simply for the pleasure that it gives me, though in such pleasure there is no true joy. It means only a life of misery and despicable vainglory . . .  This is why the enemy of our true happiness persists in his attacks upon me, for he knows that when men hold certain offices in human society, it is necessasry that they should be loved and feared by other men. He sets his traps about me, baiting them with tributes of applause, in the hope that in my eagerness to listen I may be caught off my guard. He wants me to divorce my joy from the truth and place it in man's duplicity. He wants me to enjoy being loved and feared by others, not for your sake, but in your place. 


But we, O Lord, are your little flock. Keep us as your own. Spread your wings and let us shelter beneath them. Let us glory in you alone. If we are loved or feared by others, let it be for your sake. No man who seeks the praise of other men can be defended by men when you call him to account. Men cannot save him when you condemn. (Confessions, X.36).

The praise of men is something we can all get caught up in without even realizing it. Yet how often do we admit such a temptation? How often do I consider the approval of others a trap? 

I love how Augustine ends this discussion: by throwing himself upon the truth he knows, that we are his flock.