How Academic Research Supports Mission

Just about every December for the last few years, I have looked back over the paucity of blog activity in the calendar year, made some sort of apology to my audience (however wide or narrow it–or you–may be), and reflected on how very blessed I am as a professor to have so many outlets for creativity and thoughtful engagement. This year, nearly every post pertained to a sermon, a talk, or an academic publication. The one that did not–besides this one–hearkened back to earlier days when I would often share quotations from books that I was reading which were stimulating but too far above my level of full comprehension. (I’m much too busy and too prideful to do that, now–what would my students think if they realized I don’t understand everything I read?!)

These last couple of years, though, have seen ideas come through to publication (or near publication) that were originally floated on this blog. Whether anyone besides folks I shared them with personally ever read them, I don’t know. Yet now at least a few of them will have been read by others, I hope (at least some journal editors and reviewers saw them, anyway). Several posts on passages of Scripture have turned into sermons over the years as well, which is just as rewarding for me.

In the year to come, I need to work on fewer conference papers, while making more sustained progress on a book and an edited volume that have been in the works for a while but need to be completed sometime soon. One effect might be a few more substantive blog posts on passages that can’t fully command my attention but are worthy of further investigation. Hopefully this will sow the seeds of future sermons and articles.

There are some scholars and authors who manage to keep up with their research while also maintaining an active life on social media and regular blogging output. I have no idea how in the world they do it. Those who are employed as academics perhaps have their teaching rhythm and lectures set already, and perhaps TAs who grade–so they have more time and mental energy to engage other scholars and the public. For my part, there is only so much conversation I can engage in. I am constantly teaching new courses (sometimes of necessity, sometimes by choice), and my teaching has become more conversational and less…presentational(?) over the years, so I have lots of conversations with students–inside and outside of the classroom. Then I read conference papers and articles by other scholars. Somewhere in there, I have marvelous cross-disciplinary discussions with university colleagues (often in the lunchroom), engage with friends, family and church, and communicate with supporters. If there is room in there for social media (which I am not interested in) or more blogging (which I would like to do), I don’t know where it could be.

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There is a well-established Christian tradition of pastor-theologian or pastor-scholar: those whose academic and pastoral work support each other. To my recollection, no one has ever asked me to justify “academic research” as a component of my vocation as missionary/Christian worker. (Certainly none of our supporters has ever asked why this was necessary–perhaps because many are themselves engage in research in their professions, making use of their advanced degrees.)

On an instrumental level, I can and do explain that such work is necessary to “fulfill all righteousness”–or, better, to “render under Caesar”: publications by me and my colleagues help LCC stay accredited by the Ministry of Education, which allows us to continue our work with students.

By “academic research,” I mean chiefly the production of new essays and publications that–ideally–advance the scholarly conversations toward better understanding of an object of study: in my case, the biblical text. This takes the form of thoroughly researching what has been written on a particular text or topic in other scholarly journal articles and books; applying different analytical methods and frameworks to the text; and subjecting insights to the scrutiny of other scholars. Such scrutiny is obtained at academic conferences through oral presentations, and ultimately by sending essays to journals for consideration by (typically anonymous) peer-reviewers. (In some disciplines, such as my own, chapters published in edited volumes are considered roughly equivalent to journal articles, with the understanding that the book editors and series editors are responsible to scrutinize what other authors publish in their books.)

The contrast between academic and popular publications is evident in these two works of mine which resulted from my MTh thesis.

The process of academic research takes time and effort, and some funding to attend conferences and visit libraries with commentaries and books (journal articles are thankfully accessible online in most cases, provided that one is affiliated with a university that subscribes to the right databases). In the humanities, where experimental method is not as commonly used (this might say something about the “scientific” quality of our findings!), a journal article might represent perhaps a hundred hours of reading, writing, re-writing, editing, etc. In the sciences (social or “hard”), an article may require even more colleagues, time, money, and equipment to produce. (A monograph–the gold standard in biblical studies and some of the humanities–might be the result of several thousand hours of work. It’s not a neat breakdown like this, but my dissertation book took roughly two years of part-time work to write, from conception of the idea, to research and writing the dissertation, to revisions, to presenting the book proposal to publisher, to revising again based on peer-review, to editing, to press.)

Why do we do all that? It is certainly legitimate to ask about the opportunity cost of “generating new knowledge”: what a professor or grad student could otherwise have accomplished during that time (e.g., mentoring students, grading, institutional service, promoting time-tested insights through lectures and popular books–knitting scarves, etc.). It is also a widely discussed problem that far too many publications are produced that are not read by anyone and so do not really advance human understanding or culture (this piece comes to mind, but there are others). Biblical studies, theology, and cognate disciplines are no exception; much of which is published doesn’t really benefit anyone, or the benefit is not worth the expense in terms of time and money.

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The case can be made that research supports teaching. Recalling my undergraduate studies, I found myself drawn to professors who seemed the most knowledgeable and passionate about learning–professors who I later discovered (when I started to care about such things) were the ones most actively involved in research. It is certainly the case that graduate students need to be mentored by professors who are active in research.

In the last few years, but particularly in early 2019, I developed a personal research statement that articulates my own aims and goals, and helps to steer me toward certain projects (and away from others). In particular, my active work in research communities supports my missional calling at a unique place like LCC.

  • Academic research earns the respect of students, and provides context for conversations that would not have happened absent our shared presence in an academic institution or academic circles. Students who would would not be inclined to set foot in a church nevertheless would consult a professor with a PhD who has published papers and books as an “authority” (however narrow the expertise may be!).
  • Active involvement in research upstream from biblical commentaries and other literature allows me (in a very small way, but in concert with others) to pull scholarly conversations toward ideas and approaches that are most fruitful for theologians, pastors, and lay readers of the Bible to hear and understand God’s Word.
  • Research directly contributes to conversations with students: leading them to the edge of big questions, giving them the tools to process and learn more, rather than providing simplistic answers. For example, Nino*, a philosophically-minded student from Georgia, was referred to me by our philosophy professor because she had questions about Job and Ecclesiastes. We ended up reading all of Ecclesiastes, week-by-week over the course of this semester. Nino has attended our ICF worship services over the years, but has been gradually drawn toward faith in Christ–and, I believe, is now a sincere believer. My conversations with Nino were informed by my work in Lamentations and the Wisdom Literature. (Her journey is also a testament to the work of the Holy Spirit using several of us colleagues in concert with one another—she continues her dialogue with my Christian philosopher colleagues, whereas my conversations have been just one small part of her process. This is why the work of organizations like Global Scholars should be supported, along with more traditional sorts of mission!)
  • Research allows me to model the learning process for my students: developing meaningful research questions, reading what others have written, and humbly subjecting my ideas to my colleagues’ scrutiny.
  • Research enhances my preaching and worship-leading in the church. This in turn models for my students the integration of study and worship, faith seeking understanding. (See seminars here, and here.)

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I recognize that I am exceedingly blessed with the ability, training, time, space, resources, and support to write. My colleagues, my teachers, my students, our supporters, my presbytery, and my research communities have given me these opportunities, and I strive to make the most of them. Someday, God may see fit to take this away from me, or to re-channel these gifts; that is His prerogative. Until that day comes, I’ll continue (by God’s grace!) to read, write, speak, and teach to help others understand and know God through His Word.

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, living and learning in Eastern Europe…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth…eldest sibling to three…uncle to Marshall, Leeland and Isaac...son-in-law to Claudia.
This entry was posted in Bible-Theology, Giffones in Lithuania, Research. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to How Academic Research Supports Mission

  1. Susan Soesbe says:

    I re-read your personal research statement and was again impressed. it is important to remind oneself from time to time what one is about, so as to choose projects that tend in the direction(s) one has chosen. Good work!

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