Dissertation Frustration

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A very candid look at first-year Steffi. Oh, how naive I was back then…

When I started graduate school in the fall of 2012, the DGS (Director of Graduate Studies) explained to me and my fellow first-years that the key determinant of PhD success is not brain power but “Sitzfleisch”, ie the ability to sit. On your rear. For incredibly long periods of time.

… and let’s just say that at this point 3.5 years later, I have gotten pretty sick of sitting—and all the frustration that goes with it.

No, grad school isn’t all bad. There are definitely moments when I like, or even love, what I do. I enjoyed the rigorous discussions with my fellow students during seminars. Teaching my own class last spring was incredibly rewarding. And even my exams, hellish though they were, still rank among the greatest and most satisfying accomplishments of my life thus far.

But this whole archival research and dissertation-developing process? Well, sometimes it’s just not my cup of tea/coffee. You see, sometimes it just plain stinks. And, you guessed it, right now is one of those times.

While lamenting my plight to EQL the other day, I likened this stage in the dissertation to a high-school relationship (not that I know from personal experience, but having seen enough Disney Channel Original Movies, I have a vague idea of what one looks like). I express an interest in a topic, I spend lots of energy, time, coffee money getting to know it, only to have it dump me in the end—or play so “hard to get” that I ultimately just give up.

Odd though that analogy may sound, it’s the best description I can think of for my research situation right now. No matter how hard I try to get something to work out, I only find myself back at square one again, with seemingly nothing to show for it. And after five, six, or seven failed “relationships”, this can become very, very frustrating.

And to make things even worse, this is my problem! You see, at this point in graduate school, I have already made the leap from being a “consumer” to a “producer” of knowledge. Or to use another metaphor, I have been pushed out of the nest and expected to fly. Yes, my advisor, committee members, and colleagues are still there for me. And yes, they will support me and help me as best as they can. But ultimately, this is my project, which means that these are my problems. No one can solve them for me, and there are no more answer keys to tell me which direction is correct. I have to figure this out on my own. Which oftentimes leaves me feeling a bit like this:

circus monkeys lucy

And so at this point, halfway through my archival research, I am simply exhausted. And I am really, really tired of what I am doing. In one sense, I’ve been here before multiple times. Each semester of coursework brought its own set of challenges, and exams were anything but fun. But unlike the end-of-semester “crunch mode” or my 10-day exam period, there is no definite end in sight. Yes, at some point in the still-distant future, my funding will run out, I’ll start getting “motivational” emails from the graduate school, and it will no longer be socially or academically acceptable for me to be a PhD student. But that is still a long way off, and there are still many mountains to climb in the meantime. And the one I have been trying to climb for the last several months is so unstable and slippery that I just keep sliding back down again.

So besides ranting on the internet or eating my feelings in Nutella (*cough* both of which I may currently be doing), how am I supposed to respond to this? Yes, it’s all well and good to say that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”, but that expression never says exactly where they go. And right now the only place I seem to be going is backward, and the only place I want to go is out of here. What am I supposed to do?

I don’t know. I really don’t.

But as I’ve been trying to figure this out the last several days (while also trying to drag my well-trained Sitztfleisch to the archive), I keep coming back to my first marathon last spring. After years of saying that I wanted to run one, I finally decided to commit to a race in Nashville. I’d run a few halves before, but I’d always shied away from the full because it required so much more time. Who has time to run 10-15 miles multiple times in a week? But last spring, I decided to make time, and so train I did. It had its share of difficult moments, and some days my body felt absolutely miserable. After my first long run of 9 miles, I was so tired that all I could do was curl up on EQL’s couch and watch a movie. But as the training progressed, my body slowly got stronger, and by the end, I was cranking out double-digit mileage with virtually no trouble at all. Yes, some runs were grueling (12 miles around an indoor track, and 20 miles around Stone Mountain in the pouring rain weren’t exactly fun), but I got through them. And when race day came, I managed to do what I’d been doing all along: I just kept going.

That’s exactly what a marathon is: a deliberate choice to continue forward, to keep putting one foot in front of the other, mile after mile after mile. And the more that I think about it, the more convinced I become that a PhD is basically the academic (and very sedentary) version of a marathon. No, it’s not fun. Some days are harder than others, and oftentimes things just plain stink. But when you boil it down to the core, the key to success is to simply keep going.

And so I guess that’s what I’m going to do, putting one academic foot in front of the other. Thumbing through another file, visiting another archive, writing yet another mediocre draft of my half-formed thoughts. Someday it has to come together, right? And someday when I cross the finish line (or, in this case, the commencement stage), the process will have worked, I’ll be done, and it will have all been worth it.

Alright, that’s enough sitting and thinking for one day. It’s time to go for a run. Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten so much Nutella…

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Perfect “Time”-ing

This semester has been a whirlwind.

The next step after passing my exams in December was teaching my own class. “The Making of Modern Europe”, as the class is cleverly named, covers almost 500 years of—you guessed it—European history. We’re currently in week 6, and we’ve made it from the Reformation through the 1880s. Yikes. On a practical level, this means that every Tuesday and Thursday, 24 undergraduates show up in room 118 because they want to learn from what I have to say… and they don’t want to lose points due to my strict attendance policy. To get ready for these 75-minute class sessions, I spend significant time writing lectures, making PowerPoints, and searching for nerdy history memes like these:

newton meme

einstein you matter

And, of course, the occasional YouTube video:

As you can see, it’s been a lot of work (there aren’t as many appropriate history memes out there as you would think!), but also a lot of fun. After all, I’ve always loved a captive audience, haha.

In addition to teaching, I’ve also been hard at work writing my dissertation prospectus. “Prospectus” is a fancy academic-sounding word for “proposal.” Although these can range drastically in length (I’ve seen some that are 55 pages long), in theory this should be 20-page document explaining the background, logistics, and purpose of the project that will consume the next 3-5 years of my life. No pressure, right? At the end of March, I will “defend” my prospectus before my committee (ie, faculty who work on similar things) and a public audience comprised of whoever wants to come. Since I’m scheduled to defend next month, I need to have my project well defined and well-articulated very, very soon. Last week, I had a major epiphany about what I’m doing, which was fantastic, but it also meant that I needed to completely rewrite my earlier proposals. And since my advisor and I agreed on an “internal deadline” of this Tuesday for her to review my proposal before I sent it to my committee, I suddenly had a lot of work to do.

So, if this semester has been a whirlwind, then this past week was an F5 tornado. Not only did I need to plan my usual two lectures (and locate the accompanying memes), but I needed to rethink, research for, and rewrite my prospectus. Add to that the fact that I had promised my students I would their first papers and provide a study guide for the midterm by Thursday, and I suddenly had a lot on my plate.

Now, I’ve been through stressful and high-pressure weeks before. One doesn’t finish college and get through 2.5 years of graduate school without a fair share of late nights (or all-nighters), near-overdoses on coffee, and coming down to the deadline-wire. In that sense then, this week was nothing new. Infrequent, yes. Unpleasant, definitely. But not unfamiliar.

In theory.

In reality, this week was very different. But not because of the stress level, but because I was in a terrible mood for much of it. As in, abysmally bad. Like, getting annoyed with pedestrians for crossing the street. Or wanting to curse out a driver (*cough* multiple drivers) for not using a turn signal. Or with virtually anyone who got in my way or made my life even slightly more difficult. Even when I was serving at church, I found myself wanting to reprimand a toddler for simply being too toddler-y. Yep. I was a mess. And all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball, pull the covers over my head, and let the bad mood pass. But, thanks to the aforementioned tasks looming on my to-do list, “sleeping it off” was the last thing I had time to do.

To make matters worse, I couldn’t figure out what the heck was wrong. I don’t normally hate pedestrians (in fact, as a runner, I usually am the pedestrian), I don’t usually use mental expletives while driving, and I never before in my life have gotten so frustrated with a toddler. What in the world was wrong?

Then on Monday evening as I was stewing, I found a common denominator in my recent moments of irritation: I felt pressed for time. The pedestrian crossing the street made me slow down, the guy without the blinker ended up getting in my way, and I would have rather been working on my prospectus than watching the toddler. I felt like I wouldn’t get everything done, and so I reacted with anger and frustration.

A year or so ago, I read a book called Time Peace, in which Ellen Vaughn makes a similar observation. She argues that our responses to life are intricately linked to our view of time. If we think we have too little time, we will be stressed out and explosive. But if we believe we have enough time, we are more apt to be patient, loving, and kind to those we meet and to ourselves.

Vaughn then insists that our perception of time directly relates to our view of God: if we believe that He is eternal (ie, that He exists outside of time) and that He has unlimited resources at His disposal, then we can trust Him to provide us ample time for us. Ultimately, then, it’s not “our” time anyway; God gives us time to steward and use for His Kingdom purposes.

Not every time I get moody can be explained by my view of time. Stress is a real thing, deadlines are scary, and sometimes life truly does seem to ask more of us than we can handle. But even in those times—especially in those times—our Heavenly Father desires for us to turn to Him, so He can provide us with the energy, grace, and time we desperately need. For in the midst of the chaos, the deadlines, and the stress, He is our Source of peace and rest. The Psalmist captures this well:

“But as for me, I trust in You, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in Your hand.”

Well, that’s enough for today. I need to start looking for memes for Tuesday’s lecture… 😉

einstein space time

For Art’s Sake

One of my favorite pics from my semester in Graz. "Where is the art?" Who knows? :)
One of my favorite pics from my semester in Graz. “Where is the art?” Who knows? 🙂

It’s a new year. And one of my resolutions is to be more honest about my own weaknesses. So here is my first confession of 2014: I have a terrible memory for historical details… And I’m a historian-in-training. Uh-oh.

Fortunately, though, I don’t have a hard time remembering all details, just certain types of details. And military history is among the worst. I came face to face with this shortcoming during my junior year of college when I signed up for a class called “Civil War and Reconstruction.” I breezed through the first third of the course about the “antebellum period” (#SATword) and the last third about Reconstruction. But that pesky little third in the middle? Well, it posed a significant problem. You see, no matter how hard I studied, how often I quizzed myself, and how many flashcards I made and mneumonic devices I created (Ex: “Pea Ridge was no Confederate glee ridge”) , I simply could not remember anything about the Civil War itself. It just wouldn’t stick. And unfortunately, as you’ve probably guessed, in a class titled “Civil War and Reconstruction,” the Civil War is pretty significant. If it hadn’t been the generous help of my classmate John (who, incidentally, is now a PhD student in American Military History), I likely would not have passed that test. And even with all his help, keeping Appomattox Courthouse and Antietam straight in my brain was still an uphill—and often losing—battle. (Pun intended; metaphor accurate). I am just not cut out to be a war buff.

But if my comprehension of military history is terrible, my understanding of Art History is abysmal. Through high school and college, I had ample opportunities to enrich my knowledge of art through numerous European history courses. But as with military history, no matter how much I tried, I just couldn’t retain the information. And to make my situation even more pathetic, I’ve seen much of this artwork firsthand. During my semester in Graz, I visited the Louvre, toured the papal museum at the Vatican, and wandered through most of the major art museums of Rome, Florence, and Venice. But apart from a handful of “big name pieces” (the ones that even Jeff Foxworthy’s 5th graders should know about), I can’t remember the specifics of what I’ve seen. If it weren’t for the hundreds of pictures I took, I would have absolutely no recollection. And this isn’t from a lack of effort either. It’s just that no matter how hard I try, Art History simply doesn’t stick in my brain.

There is one exception, however. In the sea of nameless (or better, names I’ve forgotten) artwork, a small collection of pieces stand out.

At the Accademia Gallery in Florence, just down the hall from the larger-than-life shepherd boy David, is a small group of work that Michelangelo never finished. These sculptures, together known as the Four Prisoners, were intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but they were never completed. The Pope halted work on his funerary memorial, and Michelangelo found himself busy with other projects. When he moved to Rome in 1534, he left the Four Prisoners behind in his workshop, never to be completed. Today these half-carved sculptures stand neatly in a row, waiting for tourists like me to stop and stare. What were they supposed to be? How did Michelangelo want them to look? While we’ll never know for sure the answers to these questions, as I sat down to rest my aching study-abroad feet, I couldn’t help but wonder. What was the master creating them to be?

Four Prisoners

And that’s exactly why, 3.5 years later, I can’t get these four sculptures out of my mind. Because even though Michelangelo didn’t finish them, you can still feel what he wanted them to be. And even though they are made of cold hard marble, you can’t help but think that they are almost alive. It’s almost as if these half-completed sculptures spent their entire existence trapped, just waiting for the master to set them free. As if at Michelangelo’s touch, they began to stir and wake and they have spent the last six centuries straining against the stone that constrains them, hoping for that moment when the master’s work will be finished, and they will finally be complete, finally be who he intended them to be.

Just like me. And just like all of us.

You see, like those Four Prisoners, we are each trapped inside a block of brokenness and sin. Yet the Master has claimed us, and He recognizes a beauty in me—in each of us—that we cannot see in ourselves. In His hands, our marble hearts become malleable. He patiently carves away the uneven places, the broken spots, the jagged edges–everything that doesn’t look like Him. And just like Michelangelo with his chisel, He patiently transforms us into the beautiful new creations He made us to be. This is redemption in action; this is what God does for us.

For reasons unbeknownst to me, Michelangelo never finished these sculptures. Maybe he got tired of working on them, maybe he moved onto what seemed like more promising projects, maybe they were just too heavy to haul to his new studio in Rome. Or maybe, like me, he saw in these unfinished Four Prisoners the message of restoration. Maybe he recognized in them, as I did, the beautiful tension of a creation ready to finish becoming.  And even though Michelangelo never finished this work, our Master will. We know that “that He who began a good work in [us] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). Because of this, I have hope. He’s not finished with me yet. And if you are in Christ, the same is true for you. So here’s to another year of the Master’s transforming work in our lives. Although we don’t know how it will turn out, we can rest assured that He won’t give up on us. Not for art’s sake, but for our sake.

… And maybe, just maybe, He can even help me understand military history. 😉

As the Romans Do

It was a day like any other day. I’d been third grade for almost a week, and it was alright. More of the same classmates, more Shirley grammar assignments, more math review before starting multiplication tables. Nothing exciting had appeared on the horizon, and it looked as if I’d simply be repeating the bland, boring life of second grade. And then it happened.

Mrs. Semple walked into our classroom, toting a stack of Level 1 Latin primers. And before you could say, “Amo, amas, amat,” I was in love.

Now I know what you are probably thinking: Why in the world would a third grader be learning Latin? At my classical Christian school, Latin was an integral part of the elementary curriculum. We started in 3rd grade and continued until 8th, when we shifted to the wonders of Logic and Critical Thinking. Oh, the syllogism-filled joy!

(Note: I realize the second question you might be asking is, “Why in the world would a third grader be giddy about learning Latin?” Rather than re-delving into my already oft-explored intellectual idiosyncrasies, I will simply direct you to my other blogs on this subject. Simply put, I’m a hopeless nerd.)

For the next five years, I thoroughly enjoyed my tri-weekly Latin classes and was truly saddened when I had to choose between Latin and German upon entering high school. Don’t worry; I got to take Latin IV my senior year. #bestclassever.

Now some of you out there are still unconvinced that Latin was worthwhile. Yes, it’s a dead language. And yes, no one speaks it anymore (that’s why it’s called a “dead language,” in case you were wondering.) But Latin really does come in handy in everyday life. If you’re taking the SAT or GRE, you’ll find Latin roots everywhere—and your score will drastically improve. Like the show Law and Order (or the movie Legally Blonde)? Understand bona fide terms like pro bono, mens rea, habeas corpus, and quid pro quo. Plus, Latin makes you look cool, albeit in a rather nerdy way. 🙂

So as you can see, the uses and applications of Latin are multifaceted and conglomerate. And because we are still using Latin, this dead language is very much alive! (Or should I say, “vivacious”?) Isn’t that magnificent? But wait; there’s more.

This week at the Kanakuk Institute, we studied the book of Romans. And although this book was written almost 2,000 years ago to a group of people who, like their native language, are now very dead, we can stilll learn so much from it today. So strap on your sandals, tighten that belt, and readjust that toga because we’re going on a quick journey through the book of Romans.

The scene opens on the apostle Paul. He’s just finished up his third missionary journey through Asia Minor and into Greece and Macedonia. The year is approximately 57 AD. A church has been growing in Rome ever since the Messianic Jewish believers returned there after experiencing Pentecost in Jerusalem. Though Paul has never personally visited the Roman church, he plans to do so soon. In the meantime, though, he decides to write them a letter explaining all the tenets of the Christian faith—the culmination of his years as a bondservant of Jesus Christ. In a sense, you could call this book his magnum opus (Latin for “great work,” of course.)

The overall outline of the letter is simple: Behavior follows belief. In other words, you have to know what you know before you can live it out. Thus, he spends the first eight chapters on belief. Like the Marines, he completely breaks down all their paradigms and rebuilds new ones. Then in the last five chapters, he explains what to do with it.

“Now wait,” you might be thinking. “Aren’t there 16 chapters in Romans? That only adds up to 13!” Yes, your math skills are exquisite; I did leave out three chapters. But don’t fret; we’ll come back to those.

Okay, so back to the beginning. Let’s break this down.

In chapter one, Paul explains a central truth: God has revealed Himself. That’s right; all of creation shows who God is, His divinity, and His unlimited power. (Don’t believe me? Visit Niagara Falls.) God also reveals His wrath. Why? Because He is completely, fully, undeniably righteous. And we are not. As the epitome of righteousness and as our Creator, God has a right to hold us to His perfect standard. But instead of choosing to submit to and obey Him, we choose to go our own way and make gods for ourselves. Result: Sin. And a general state of crappiness.

In chapter two, he addresses the Jews. Aren’t they special because they’re Jewish? No. (And yes. But we’ll get to that later.) No, they aren’t special because they have failed to keep God’s law. They’re failures. Just like the rest of us.

Chapter three: We stink. Badly. God gave the world His law to show us how to live, and we didn’t keep any of it. He’s the only righteous One. Like arrows missing the target, we’ve all fallen hopelessly and miserably short of His perfect standard. But according to His great mercy and love, He did something incredible. Instead of leaving us to wallow and decay in our sin, He sent His only Son Jesus as the payment for use. By His blood, He bought us back and redeemed us. #awesome. #understatement

Cut to chapters four and five: We are saved through faith alone! It’s only by Jesus’ sacrifice and grace that we can have a right relationship with God. Before Jesus, we were ruined by the sin born into us through Adam and Eve. But now because of Jesus, His righteousness and holiness is imputed—spread through—to us who believe. #reallyawesome #anotherunderstatement

Moving right along to Romans 6: What do we do with this grace? Keep sinning? Heck no, techno! No, instead we are continually made new through a process known as sanctification; this is a fancy word to say that God is setting us apart for Himself to be like Him. We are now dead to sin; it’s no longer our master. Instead, we are alive in Christ and free to live for Him.

Chapter 7: No more Law! According to the “power of suggestion,” the Law tempted us to sin even more. No bueno. This internal struggle of the sin nature (old self) versus the spirit (new self) continues through the process of sanctification. Paul expresses his frustration about it. #bummer

(And now for my favorite chapter in the Bible. Romans 8! Go read it for yourself! Right now!!! I mean it!)

Did you read it? Okay, good! Romans 8: Just as we are waiting to be finally made perfect and be freed from the frustration of sin, the world waits eagerly to be redeemed. Even during this in-between time, God is working powerfully. Everything happens according to His greater purpose of conforming us more and more into the image of His Son Jesus. Nothing can separate us from His love, and through Him, we can overcome anything.

Now we come to those special three chapters: 9-11. These all deal with God’s chosen people, the Jews. Paul is beyond distressed about the condition of his kinfolk. He so desperately wants them to be saved, that he would trade his own salvation for theirs. They are special in God’s sight, but they will only be saved through Jesus. He will restore Israel in due time, but right now, theJews have rejected Jesus, so Gentiles could be brought into the covenant.

How to apply all this? Let’s look at chapters 12-15. As believers, we should give ourselves fully to God as living sacrifices, ready and willing for Him to use us. We honor Him when we use our gifts for His kingdom, when we treat others with love, when we submit to His will, and when we worship Him with our entire lives and beings.

And last but not least, the end of 15 through 16: Paul concludes by telling the Romans to get ready, get set and go. Prepare to take the gospel to those who haven’t heard it. And then go do it!

So whether you’re a third grader, a Law and Order cast member, or just someone who stumbled upon this blog (no pun intended), I encourage you to carpe diem and read Romans for yourself. Examine it. Study it. Internalize it.

And then “do as the Romans do.” 😉

A Chapter in “His Story”

Ahhh, history. The major for those who can’t do math. The choice of study for people who like to ramble about nothing. The field full of dead people. … Er, not literal “field” like a place with grass and dirt. (which, when full of dead people, is also known as a “cemetery.”) “Field” as in “area of expertise.” As Ingeborg Bachmann, the Austrian writer, cleverly stated, “Die Geschichte lehrt dauernd, aber sie findet keine Schüler.“ History has much to teach but no one wants to learn. In light of this, I would like to propose a new slogan for history students everywhere: The few. The learners. The history majors.

This week at the Kanakuk Institute, my classmates joined the ranks of the amateur historians. Together we embarked on a journey through a very special, yet often unexplored aspect of history: the history of the Church.  When most people think of Church history (which is rare, if ever), they probably visualize one or two stereotypical things. If you’re Catholic, the Pope likely comes to mind. If you’re British, you may think of Henry VIII. If you paid even the slightest bit of attention in your Western Civ class, you might visualize the Reformation. Overall, though, if I had to hazard a guess, I would speculate that most people know very little about Church history. Whether or not you consider yourself a Christian, that is a travesty, for the Church has had an undeniable and indelible impact on the world, especially in the West.

However, as much as I would like to spend the next umpteen words enlightening you on the fascinating nature of Church history from 33 A.D. to the present, I know that a) you would get bored very quickly and b) that would make for an extremely long blog, even for me. So instead, I am going to simply tell you about one of my favorite characters in this 2,000-year-long story. And his name is Martin Luther.

Normally, I tend to sympathize with people who are left out of history’s limelight; I prefer to study those off the beaten intellectual path. But as a born and bred Lutheran, I can’t help but make an exception with good ol’ Martin Luther.

Born in Erfurt in 1483 in Eisleben, Luther had no dreams of grandeur; his father simply hoped he would become a lawyer. But history—and God—had other plans. Tortured by his own sin, Luther struggled to believe that he was saved and forgiven. After a traumatic, near-death experience in a thunderstorm, Luther became a monk. But as he studied the Scriptures day-in and day-out, his anxiety increased. How could he be sure of his own salvation? And would he ever be free from this agony of uncertainty? Of this time, Luther later said, “I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailor and hangman of my poor soul.”

But then—lo and behold!—Luther discovered something incredible in Romans 1:17, which says, “The righteous will live by faith.” Until this point, Luther had done everything possible to become righteous on his own, yet he still felt the crushing weight of his own inadequacy. Then, like an anachronistic light bulb from heaven, the truth illuminated his mind, filling his weary soul with a liberating hope. Faith, not works, brings salvation! Luther had rediscovered the essence of the Gospel—and the Truth was about to change European history forever.

Soon after this epiphany, Luther wrote the now famous (then infamous) 95 Theses. In them, he challenged the Catholic Church for its many non-Biblical practices, including the sale of indulgences (paper certificates of forgiveness) to finance the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. On October 31, 1517, he hammered the “nail heard round the world”—and started the wave whose ripples can still be felt today. Luther then went on to translate the Bible into German, so the common people could read it for themselves. Thanks to Gutenberg’s printing press in Mainz, the Scripture spread like wildfire. Soon the Church in Rome could smell the smoke.

Naturally, as head of all spiritual authority, the Catholic Church was more than a little peeved about this chain of events. So in 1521, the Diet of Worms (No, this is not a disgusting way to lose weight; it was a conference in the city of Worms, Germany.) was convened and Luther was summoned. Under threat of excommunication (i.e. permanent removal) from the Church, he was ordered to recant everything he had said and written. In response, Luther uttered the following memorable and courageous words:

„[Da] … mein Gewissen in den Worten Gottes gefangen ist, ich kann und will nichts widerrufen, weil es gefährlich und unmöglich ist, etwas gegen das Gewissen zu tun. Gott helfe mir. Amen.“

Which translate as, “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”

Even though Luther lived 500 years ago, his words still speak to us today. As humans, we must remain true to our consciences and courageously stand up for our beliefs. And as believers, our beliefs must be rooted firmly in God’s Word. When we see something that contradicts what God says, we have a duty—nay, a responsibility—to stand up and speak out in love. Yes, this will likely be scary; and no, we may not want to do it. But if we look over our shoulder, we can see many great heroes of history, like Luther, cheering us on. And more importantly, the Author of history—the One who is writing “His story”—is on our side. Then we, along with Luther, will be able to confidently say, “Here I stand; I can do no other.”

May The Source Be With You

In January 2011, I met my arch nemesis. And she had already been dead for 287 years.

Okay, so I might be exaggerating just a tad. Or quite a lot. She wasn’t exactly my arch nemesis (even though she had been dead for almost three centuries), but my history thesis about her would become the bane of my senior year existence.

Johanna Eleonora Petersen wasn’t a terrible person. In fact, based on everything I read about her, she seemed like a pretty nice gal. It’s not her fault that she caused me mental anguish and maximum stress, so I really shouldn’t blame her. No, I’m the source of the problem because I’m the one who decided to do my senior history thesis about her. I should have known when I chose an obscure 17th-century female German Pietist that I was digging my own grave. No pun intended.

Back in January, Petersen (or “JEP”, as I called her. Yes, we were on a nickname basis) seemed like a super choice for a variety of reasons: She was a woman; she was a devout Pietist (Pietism was basically a resurgence of Luther’s Reformation of the church and call to personal faith in Christ); she lived a really long time ago, and she spoke German. Of course, everything that made Petersen the best choice also made her the worst. Ironic? Welcome to my life.

You see, I had unwittingly set myself up for a challenge. A really big challenge. First of all, I had to find sources about Petersen. That was easy enough. A few skillful online searches and a dozen interlibrary loans later, I had my secondary sources. But then—ooooohhhh, but then—my quest for primary sources began.  Therein lay the rub.

Although Petersen was a prolific writer with dozens of published works (a HUGE accomplishment for a woman at that time), the majority had either ceased to exist or were locked away in “special collections” at research libraries in Germany. In historian-speak, “special collections” means “no-touchy” or better yet  “sorry boutcha.” Barring an order from the UN or an act of God Himself, I wasn’t going to see these books. But fortunately, modern—or, er, semi-modern—technology saved the day. And that’s how I found myself in the Oklahoma State library’s microfiche-reading room.

In case you were born after 1985, let me explain to you microfiche or microfilm. Basically, it’s a long roll of film that contains itty-bitty photos of pages from books. Newspapers use microfiche to archive their copy. And apparently libraries do the same with German Pietist writings. In order to conduct my study of Petersen, I had to use the microfiche to print pages from her book. And then once I had the text, I had to figure out how to read 17th-century font … in German…. and figure out what it said. Suffice it to say, I had my work cut out for me. Luckily, however, even though I had bit off more than I could chew, I somehow managed to swallow it without choking. In the end, I had a 27-page original research paper I could be “stolz auf” or proud of.

Now, I know what you’re wondering: First, why in the wide world would I willingly subject myself to such torture? And secondly, why in the even wider world am I telling you this? Unfortunately, the first question will require deeper psychoanalysis than I can currently afford. But the second question? Well, I’m so glad you asked! 🙂

History, you see, is more than just a blow-off class from your freshman year of college. History is like a buried treasure waiting to be discovered. But in order to find it, in order to truly understand history, you have to get back to the original source. With Petersen, I could have simply read commentaries about what she had written. I could have extensively studied biographies written about her (all two of them). I might have even found expert opinions from top scholars about what she believed and why she acted as she did. I could have worked really hard to find out from other people about Petersen, and I could have written a phenomenal paper based on their work. But no matter how Pulitzer-prize worthy it might have been, I would have wound up with a big, fat F. Why? Because I didn’t use primary sources. And every historian knows that primary sources are the primary source of history (Pun very much intended.)

Historians know that the only legitimate way to learn about a historical figure or past event is to study sources from the time. Photographs, journal entries, letters, eyewitness accounts—all of these are windows to the past. Yes, secondary sources written by experts can be helpful; yes, they can provide insight and direction, but they are no substitute for primary sources. This is the most basic concept of historical study, the historian’s version of 1 + 1 = 2. No legitimate student of history would ignore this rule.

Now I know what you’re thinking, “Steffi, I don’t need a lecture on proper historical research techniques. Thanks for the info, but this really doesn’t matter to me.”

Or so you think.

Although you will likely never have to write an academic paper using original historical research, this lesson on primary sources applies directly to you. Because if you’re a Christian, you spend at least some fraction of time reading the most important primary source ever written: The Bible.

So often, though, we turn to books and commentaries about the Bible rather than the text itself. Yes, these other sources can be helpful to understand and apply Scripture, but they are no substitute for the Bible itself. Just like I had to read JEP’s work to grasp her beliefs, so we must read what God says if we want to know Him and, moreover, live like Him. God is the most important Being in the entire universe, so we should devote as much time, effort, and care as humanly possible to studying Him. And that begins with digging inductively into His Word. To do otherwise would be beyond foolish, and our faith—which is far more consequential than a grade—depends on it.

But how are we supposed to study the Bible? It can be so confusing that we don’t know where to start, or we are too intimidated to try. And that’s where Inductive Bible Study saves the day!

First, you must Observe the text. Read it through several times and look for the basics, asking Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? For instance, who is writing to whom? What are they saying? What words are repeated? Jot down notes as you go. Once you have a general idea of what is happening, you can move to the next stage: Interpretation. What is the author saying and what does that mean? Use the notes from step one as clues. And then finally, once you have determined the meaning, you are ready to Apply it. How does this passage affect or change the way I live? And how can I act on it? And the bonus step: Give yourself a pat on the back. Congratulations! You have successfully studied God’s Word! Now you’re ready to move on to the next passage… and the next one after that… and after that… etc, etc.

And who knows? If you keep applying the Bible to your life, if you keep seeking after and living for Him, someone may write about you in 287 years. 😉