Category Archives: Durham

Ashes, and yet Crawfish

This Lenten Reflection originally appears at

I had the strangest Saturday.  To be clear, it was strange, but not bad.  You see, it was strange because of a couple of disparate things that came together to make my day.  Artists, whether in visual arts, film or even music, often use juxtaposition to make a point, to make something that you’d normally take for granted – well -strange, to jar your attention and uncork your imagination.  I think that’s what was happening to me. So I felt strange.

I spent my midday downtown with a buddy at a “Mardi Gras Primer.”  While this festival was filled with life and jubilation, it was decidedly less debaucherous than its Crescent City cousin (this was after all, only a primer, no appearance from Bacchus himself). We sat and listened to music teeming with joy and tradition, rich tones and raucous improvisations.  The saints came marching in along with literally dozens of brass playing “strutters” and of course, “Hey Pocky Way” had its hearing. The dance floor filled with an ever-evolving mix of goofballs, Deadheads, toddlers, NPR Sustainers, girls from Raleigh, and guys in bands….

I remember marveling at the common joy, the shared humanity, the unbridled enthusiasm and overflowing affection for our dear Bull City. We scooped up our crawfish trying to avoid bits of soggy spiced newspaper or the wrong stalk of celery and then held a clinic with the entry-level agrarian girls that stole our seats on exactly where to pinch the tail and pull for maximum crawdad consumption efficiency. I left happy, filled, unable to touch my eyes even after several hand washes, bearing the proper olfaction of a proper Fat Tuesday.

I returned home to the kids and our rigorously orthodox dinner, bath, and pre-bed liturgy. After they were down and out for the night in their white-noise washes, I set about my priestly task.  You see, I’ve been reading Leviticus, and its copious requirements and descriptions of what clergy does, for the sake of their people and on behalf of God. I don’t envy their job, or the guiding divine mandate that required it, but as I’ve waded through the tedium of the text, I’ve been acutely aware of how little my job as a pastor requires me to shower. Cutting up animals and burning grain offerings is not even implied in my job description. On a typical Sunday, I feel particularly handy (in a holy way) if I use a power drill to raise and lower the basketball goals out of our line of sight or when prepare the already prepared bread and juice for Communion.  That said, I set about my priestly, and carbon-neutral, task of converting last year’s Palm Sunday palms into this year’s Ash Wednesday ashes.

You see that’s precisely where the juxtaposition lay. Last year’s party, this year’s fasting. My hands, the same hands that still reeked of feasting, that were beginning to betray the sour of prebed, spit-up, now overwhelmingly stunk like singed hand hair and carbon. Where I had witnessed so much joy, a motley krewe of a congregation, I now flashed back to our Hosanna-singing, palm-toting congregation and the small pile of embers their messianic accoutrement had come to. There was a stark realization, a both/and affirmation, that both experiences are real, and valid, and faithful even and especially in their seeming contradiction.  That human beings, imaging their creative Creator God, were neither made for all party nor all funeral procession. But somehow, in Christ and by his Spirit, both at the same time.

Ashes, and yet Crawfish.

Ash Wednesday, and yet Mardi Gras.

Saint Paul got at this in his second letter to the Corinthians, when he wrote about his ministry and his hardships. After a grocery list of difficulties, he gets into the paradoxes. “…through glory and dishonor, bad report and good; genuine, yet regarded as imposters; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on…” (2 Corinthians 6:8-9a).

As I enter into Lent, I pray that I remember that juxtaposing stench on my hands from Saturday. That it might somehow reinforce that dying-living life that Christ lived and made possible for me, for us, for this world. That I might not fear that seeming contradiction, but submit to its foolish-wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). And that I might “know Christ, the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in death, and so somehow, attaining the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10).

Making an Announcement: A New Ministry Assignment

St Mary’s College, Durham

On January 2 I begin working as the Chaplain at St Mary’s College here in Durham. It is a real pleasure to be able to make that announcement. Everyone I have interacted with at the College have been so helpful and enjoyable.

For over a year now I have had the distinct delight of being a “layperson.” For the previous 11 years or so before moving to England, I had been serving as a minister in some official capacity. Since my vocational path has thus far tried to resist forking into Academics or Pastoral Ministry, the role of chaplain at a university college seems quite fitting.

My post will be part-time, with the bulk of my day-job energies still going to the PhD work. But I will now get to ply the crafts of academic biblical studies and pastoral ministry simultaneously. I have been in these waters before (Duke Div School/Mt Hermon Baptist Church), so the territory is not unfamiliar. What will be rather excitingly unfamiliar is that I will get to help lead Anglican-styled worship services every fortnight. This Baptist-ordained theology student has much to learn; but I am keen to soak up the wisdom of the students and staff I will get to work with.

Your prayers will be appreciated!


New Testament Studies at Durham… New Strengths

In spite of the horrific costs of postgraduate study in the UK, I am so pleased that Durham is where I have ended up.  I am biased, of course.  But bias might actually be a criterion for truthfulness—sometimes the only accurate portrayals are not the “objective” views from outsiders, but the subjective view from insiders.

(On that statement one could wax on and on with an exciting theology of hermeneutics, by the way— biased insiders are, for the most part, the “implied readers” of Scripture).

The strengths of Durham’s Dept. of Theology are widely recognized.  From an insider’s perspective, there are some less known elements at play that increase my thankfulness for being here.

For one, there is a sincere and energetic agenda of strengthening the academic skills of us postgrads.  Some serious thinking and evaluation is at work as faculty members wonder how they can make us better scholars and address our potential weaknesses.  This agenda is not enacted in a heavy-handed way.  Instead, the faculty are sacrificially making themselves more available in an array of opportunities which are simply there should we choose to take advantage of the offerings.

Here are examples.  Our NT Seminar meets not fortnightly (every other week) like most in the UK, but weekly.  And Prof. Francis Watson (the seminar convener and my supervisor) has added a skills development dimension.  Every other week we have paper presentations (the standard fare of postgraduate seminars in the UK), but on the alternative weeks there are training sessions in reading primary texts, open only to postgrads and faculty.  This means that every other week we NT doctoral and masters students are reading ancient texts with expert ancient-text-readers.  For this term (Michaelmas), our training sessions are dedicated to textual criticism.  In effect, we will have experienced something akin to a doctoral level seminar on text-critical reading of the Greek New Testament.

In addition to the NT seminar, an impressive host of language reading groups are on offer.  Our faculty have quite a breadth in linguistic competencies, and they are making themselves available so that we can choose to meet them in small groups to read Hebrew, Aramaic, Coptic, Greek, French, etc.

Also worth mentioning is the new Integrated PhD program, just initiated.  The standard US PhD program is 4-5 years with heavy emphases on doctoral level coursework and language study built into them.  The 3-year UK program, on the other hand, expects the competencies gained from language study and coursework to be developed before entering doctoral level research.

Times are changing, so that expectation has proven to be a bit too optimistic.  Many of us begin with an array of linguistic and research weaknesses, a situation that has at times drawn criticism from Americans who have managed to get one of the rare PhD slots in the elite US schools.  Durham is addressing these perceived weaknesses with vigor.  And this new integrated PhD program (4 years) allows an extra year of work on the front end of doctoral research so that these potential areas of scholarly weakness can be mitigated.

Below is the schedule for this term’s NT Seminar.  I’m glad I have a seat at the conference table.


8 October | Prof Walter Moberly, “Biblical Hermeneutics and Ecclesial Responsibility”

*15 October | Prof Francis Watson, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (1): Matthew [selected passages]”

22 October | Dr Rainer Hirsch-Luipold (University of Berne), “John and the Religious Philosophy of his Time”

23 October | Dr Rainer Hirsch-Luipold, “Plutarch’s Religious Philosophy and the New Testament” (DCC Seminar Room, 1.30-3.00)

*29 October | Prof John Barclay, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (2) Luke”

5 November | Dr Helen Bond (University of Edinburgh), “Dating the Death of Jesus: Memory and the Religious Imagination”

*12 November Dr Lutz Doering, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (3): John”

19 November | NO SEMINAR

26 November | tba

*3 December | Dr Jane Heath, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (4): Acts”

10 December | Prof Larry Hurtado (University of Edinburgh), “Interactive Diversity: A Proposed Model of Christian Origins”

PhD, 1-yr Review: What I do when I clock in…


Now that I have written about the spiritual and existential crises of living in the UK as a PhD student with a wife and four kids, I am turning my attention to the sort of work I am up to.

There is the possibility that what follows might dull you….


My greatest academic insecurities are linguistic.  Hebrew and German, particularly.

It is obvious why Hebrew would be important.  Less so German.  Competency in the biblical languages (Greek and Hebrew) is like competency in market trends for the stockbroker, in biology for the doctor, in hammering for the carpenter.  My Greek has been steadily improving since I had to face Joel Marcus everyday at Duke some years back, asking me to read portions of Mark’s Gospel in Greek aloud in class (when he was finishing up a commentary on the Gospel of Mark), then asking grammatical questions after I translated (“what use of the subjunctive is this?”  “Why is that participle in the genitive?”

A New Testament scholar has to be proficient in the Old Testament, too, which requires Hebrew.  And since the NT writers worked primarily with the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), there is much more Greek to learn than what one finds between Matthew and Revelation.

On a “normal” day, I try to devote an hour and a half to studying a Hebrew textbook after reading portions of the NT in Greek.

As for German….  Well, biblical studies is an international discipline, of course, and the classic understanding of a scholar is that she is multilingual, at least when it comes to reading.  Tomes and tomes of theological work has been produced out of Deutschland.  And new articles come out everyday by German scholars.  So reading competence is essential, not only for keeping abreast of what is going on in one’s field, but for drawing from the vast history of research in biblical studies, much of which has been done in places like Tübingen, Heidelberg, Marburg, and Göttingen.

My German has improved since I came to Durham, but the vocabulary is so vast that I can hardly make it through a sentence without having to look up at least a few words. I rarely use a German grammar.  Mainly I am just reading and translating, reading and translating, pushing, shoving, plowing through the syntax and vocab.


Primary Lit

“Primary literature” in NT research refers to the actual texts from the Greco-Roman world that inform the discipline.  This includes the enormous body of literature produce out of Early Judaism.  It includes the vast writings of the Jewish historian Josephus and the Jewish philosopher Philo (both rough contemporaries of the Christian church’s initial generation).  My focus this year has been on the Apostolic Fathers, the earliest texts written by Christians just after the New Testament documents were penned.  Though he is writing a few hundred years later, I am currently reading Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History—this work is probably our best access to early Christianity, even if Eusebius himself cannot be regarded as the best theologian or the best historian.


Secondary Lit

“Secondary literature” refers to the scholarly writings produced in recent decades/centuries in one’s academic field.  I am working in John’s Gospel, and Johannine studies is notorious for its massive corpus of secondary lit.  There is just so, so much to read.  So much.  I have concentrated on literary and theological approaches to John, as well as those works which take an interest in Johannine ecclesiology (which is my topic of focus).



Then there is the discipline of writing.  The British PhD is all about writing a top-notch “thesis.”  There are no other metrics—no grades, no language exams, no competency tests.  Just the thesis.  And it had better be good.  At the end of a workday, the doctoral student over here in the UK checks her word count.  We need words on those Word documents staring from the screen.

At the beginning of each term I know what I have to produce in terms of writing.  So I begin the term devoting the 1st half of the day to language work, then the afternoons to reading, reading, reading.  But about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way into the term, the demand to have something written enforces a new routine.  So I end up spending almost every hour of the day in writing mode, but this might mean that I get a paragraph in.  And only a paragraph.  Because as I write I normally have to re-read a lot of what I have worked through in the 1st part of the term, as well as read lots more.  To write in interaction with other scholars requires such precision.  I have had to read chapters or articles by Bultmann and Käsemann over and over.


Supervision and the NT Seminar

I meet fairly often with my supervisor.  Those discussions have been milepost-moments.  The rudder gets tweaked, the arguments get tested, new ideas are suggested, oversized aspirations are cut down, undervalued points are elevated.  I also attend a weekly seminar where other postgrads meet with the NT faculty around a paper presentation and discussion.


I absolutely love what I am doing.  But my mind is stretched and yanked and exercised every day. Next, I will be writing on my reading of the Bible—how is it different reading Scripture as a NT PhD student as opposed to a pastor?  And how do I read in general—skimming, scanning, long-form, or in disrupted piecemeal?  I can’t think of much else one would be eager to read about than my reading habits….





1-Year into the PhD: 12 Months of Living Squeamishly

[The map above is an inset in a map of “The Bishopric and Citie of Durham”—the inset shows the peninsula where I study, between the castle and cathedral.  You can find more of these at]
“Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, with Annotations – 1841-1844
A friend of mine sent me that quote.  To be clear, though I certainly respect Emerson, I would not invest in him an authority by which I would live my own life.  But the timing of my friend sending me that quote seemed providential.
Looking back on this past year, I am disappointed that I was miserably squeamish throughout so much of it.  Here I am living in one of the most beautiful little cities in the United Kingdom, studying everyday within 25 yards of a 900-year old cathedral, watching my kids as they fend off corrupt knights from Sherwood Forest and resist Viking invaders, and, on top of all that, I have actually, finally, commenced in doctoral work on the New Testament—something I have been tentatively hoping in for more than a decade now, something I have sensed a divine appointment to pursue.
To boot, Durham’s Department of Theology is outstanding.  I admit bias, but Durham is fairly well recognized as the best place to study theology in the UK.  And I could not be more pleased with the learning, wisdom, perspective, and guidance of my supervisor (Prof. Francis Watson).
My squeamishness is due to the costs, of course… and not just the price tag of tuition and UK living expenses.
Along with the squeamishness, there has been a debilitating, overpowering sense of shameShame over the impracticality of moving a family overseas for an expensive doctoral program with no funding.  Shame for not drawing an income.  Shame that my wife was working so hard to help offset the debt just a bit.  She was gone 2-5 nights a week (usually 3 or 4).  That’s a really tall order for a mom with 4 kids with a full-time PhD student as a husband.  We LOVE, just love her place of employment (our church here in town) as well as the folks she works with.  But we are not at a life-stage for the sort of schedule required of a youth and children’s ministry worker.  Though our marriage is strong—the bonds of our friendship, to God’s praise, are so tough and enduring and joyful—it was hard to live a year passing each other by, sometimes literally on the streets as we met on the road here or there to exchange kids or a car or something.  It has been a maddening year in terms of scheduling.
Hence the squeamishness.  And the shame.  Strange how you can pray and pray and pray over a span of years for clarity, make some really costly decisions as an act of devotion to Christ—decisions that you would feel ashamed for NOT making—only to endure an awful season ashamed that you did make them… yet feeling simultaneously that you did the right thing.
(If any professional counselors are reading this, they may have already diagnosed me with some psychosis endemic to my personality type: ‘squeamishness disorder,’ maybe, or something like that).
I am not sure how to reconcile all this, to be honest.  Seems as though there are two people for me to be angry at and lay the blame for being so cornered on one end by a powerful sense of divine calling and on the other end an implacable obstacle providence has yet to remove.  The parties to blame seem to be either me or God.  Me for being a fool and mishearing God.  God for… well, for not doing something right.  Because something is just not right… at least according to the figures.  And so when those are the options for directing one’s disappointment and frustration, I try to default to myself.  Hence again, squeamishness and shame.
I’ve counseled so many dear folks who were at vocational crossroads wondering how to place the next foot forward.  I seem to have lived in those crossroads for quite some time now.  What I guess I am finding is that the hardest part of following the vague voice of Christ up ahead in the fog is not deciding which way to go, but being content in the path you’ve so painstakingly chosen.
My wife has left her job (and on good terms).  We are so relieved.  And I do get a small stipend for my writing on a website here in the UK devoted to increasing biblical literacy in the digital age.  Actually, I am working so many hours, mornings, days, nights, but mostly for stuff that just happens to not come with a salary (writing a second book, trying to get my mind around German and Hebrew, trying to write a thesis on Johannine ecclesiology).
Student loans are an inevitable part of academic life for most of us slogging down this path.  And there are all sorts of policies embedded in the repayment process that make them manageable.  Still, they are emotionally and spiritually indigestible for me.  Yeah, they make me squeamish.  And ashamed.
All this to say that I need to repent.  Not by leaving Durham—everything besides the funding issue has been so powerfully affirming that we are in the right place at the right time.  I need to repent of my attitude.  I think I have been practicing “faith” like one make moves in a card game.  I’ll lay this down… now God, you lay your card down.  There is a sort of cat and mouse strategy at work in the way I trust the Lord.
But you can’t play God, can you?  So I am going to try to believe in the Gospel, the Gospel I am devoted to studying and paying so dearly to do so.  Far be it from me to think that the Crucified doesn’t know what to do with my debts….
Of course, many a fool has chased some dumb dream and slapped the word “vocation” on it in Jesus’ name.  That has been my greatest fear, I think.  “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Prov 14:12).
Even so, I can’t live in that sort of anxiety any longer.  My constitution just won’t take it.  And it certainly doesn’t honor the Lord.  Sometimes, you drain your cup to its dregs, even if you are not sure if it is the right cup.  The Lord knows I am a blind fool, and He also knows I have begged and wept for Him to take my feeble hand in His.  As far as I can tell, the right cup is in hand.  The other  hand is on a plowshare.  And He had strong words to say something about putting one’s hand on such an implement (Lk 9:62).   So I am gripping tighter.  Tighter.
Here comes year 2.

The Future of the Church: Cynic-Saints?

Gospel Centered Discipleship asked me to write something about how we disciple cynics.  In working on the piece (“Discipling the Disillusioned”), I was struck with the urgency of that task.  If young (and not-so-young) folks are leaving the church due to their frustrations and disillusionment, then the future of the church lies in our capacity to reach them.  And they are out there, hovering out on the margins.  Maybe you… maybe me… the disillusioned souls who get branded (often self-branded) as cynics.

So how do we reach them?  Click on the link if you want to read on….

(And spend some time on the site.  GCD has some excellent stuff!)

NT Seminar at Durham (Epiphany Term) & the New “Integrated PhD Programme”

(my study space is a hole in one of these awesome walls)

Below is the list of papers and their presenters for the Durham New Testament Seminar this term.  I am very thankful that here at Durham the Seminar meets every week, rather than fortnightly (which is a great British way of saying “every other week”).  On the off-weeks not listed below, our NT Faculty members will be leading the doctoral candidates in translations and discussions of early Jewish and Christian texts pertaining to Scriptural interpretation (Selections from 4 Maccabees, Pseudo-Philo, and Qumran are on the roster).

I must say, I am quite pleased to see two seminars directly concerned with John’s Gospel (my field of research).  As a PhD candidate with a thesis project I deem worthwhile and exciting, it is both thrilling and intimidating to see a scholar of Prof. Bauckham’s rapport writing on something similar!  I am sure to learn much by Easter….

16 January: Dr Wendy Sproston-North, “The Anointing in John 12.1-8: A Tale of Two Hypotheses”

30 January: Prof Francis Watson, “Prologue” to Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective

13 February: Prof Richard Bauckham (Emeritus Professor, University of St Andrews), “Divine and Human Community in the Gospel of John”

27 February: Dr Rodrigo Morales (Humboldt Research Fellow, Ludwig-Maximilians Universität, Munich), “1 Corinthians 6.9-20 and Baptismal Participation in Christ”

12 March: Dr Martin Kitchen, “Reading the Transfiguration: Characters and Plot”

The New Doctoral Programme…

Another exciting bit of news to pass on is that Durham’s Department of Theology is now offering a new option for potential PhD applicants.  The new “Integrated PhD” extends the traditional British doctoral program from 3 years to 4.  The clearest distinction between British and American PhD programmes is that the former does not require a list of courses but directs all emphases on a thick, specialized thesis to be completed after three years of research and writing under a primary and secondary Faculty supervisor.  The American program is usually 5 years long, with the first 2 years devoted to coursework and a considerable amount of time focused on taking a range of “comps,” or competency exams.  The result is that the longer American route is deemed more well-rounded, and the shorter British path a bit more specialized.  Here in the UK, it is assumed that British PhD candidates will have already developed the competencies tested after a couple of years in the American system.  The reality for American students entering a British program is that many of us are lagging behind, especially in terms of skills in German and French.

For this reason, it has become standard for the British programmes to expect of American applicants another Masters’ degree in addition to the M.Div.  Durham’s new Integrated PhD is essentially an MA + PhD program, but students who are accepted will presumably get to avoid the stressful (and costly) process of re-applying for the doctoral course (as well as for the visa).  The programme makes great sense and would be ideal for U.S. students who are interested in studying in the U.K. but have yet to gain enough confidence and clarity for a proper research proposal (a, if not the, major component in the application process) and need a bit more confidence in the area of languages and background material.

If you are so compelled to torture yourself with doctoral studies (like me), then this is a great option to look into!