Personal Statement

Describe your academic and other interests. What a prompt, scholarship people. This is too long for both a post and the submission form – but it is what I’ve written today.

There are opinions and ways for writing a Marshall Scholarship personal statement. I should like just to tell the truth. Before, I had the wild thought of trying to convince you I had some more sane reason for wanting to study theological ethics, one that kept my own Christian spirituality to a palatable minimum. But in truth, I have only a rag bag of decisions and passions leaving me with the conviction that I am called.

Calling – a word people throw around all the time; but in the Protestant tradition, vocation, the name for something at once sacred, mystical even, and pedestrian. A life’s work, it sounds grand, but in reality it is the courage in the difficult decision and the tireless toil of the everyday that add up to a vocation. Such is the irony in choosing something so radical as following after the voice of God, which itself can hallow the mundane in its quiet insistent grace.

There was, first, the realization freshman year that I did not have to leave books and paper and ideas behind after college, that by some miracle of civilization there exist people who dwell in them forever and support themselves doing so. By another miracle it was within my feeble powers to become one such person. There followed an agonizing year of indecision in choosing a major; how to cast every fascinating field of study aside in pursuit of only one?

The answer lay in the question persisting, nagging really, from “International Conflict and War” to “Rhetoric and Public Discourse” to “Pop Culture” – what about the church?  I thus began my theology training without much notion of specializations – I knew only that I wanted to study God. But soon my inconvenient penchant for the interdisciplinary and frustration with impractically abstract discussions found me at home in the study of Christian ethics. Classes and an assistantship with Dr. Daniela Augustine furthered this habit. My mentor’s own interdisciplinary vagaries introduced me to postmodern epistemology; first connected me to Marshall McLuhan’s work, and thereby to communication studies; her connections to South Africa encouraged my interest in reconciliation; and assisting with her research on the prosperity gospel in developing countries brought a new dimension to my thinking on social justice. But even more importantly, her example convinced me that academicians do not have to be shut up in private study closets far from the world’s practical needs. It is possible to be a good scholar and a good person, to live in the world of journals and students and that of the real-world problems one purports to research.

I, too, have attempted to straddle both worlds in my undergraduate career. My improvisational theater training and leadership, for example, began as a stress reliever and artistic outlet. But improv ultimately also shaped my beliefs about human ability, our bodily existence in space and time, and an individual’s relationship to a collective. I struggle to articulate this particular experience outside of a group of improvisers. But I would like to study these questions from a theological perspective for the context of a group of people following Christ rather than one performing improvised stories.

Myy experience at the local youth center also began as a simple thing, trepidatious obedience to the understood necessity of expressing God’s “being for” the poor as communicated to me through research on Deuteronomy. But through the young adults and mentors I encountered there, I learned more about myself, God, and the Bible’s call to justice than I have perhaps anywhere else. Moreover, I learned an enormous amount about poverty and found myself yearning to talk about it with others, as well as research solutions on both an individual and a societal level. One of the deepest longings of my heart is now to see the church take an ever more active role in finding and implementing those solutions with the poor throughout the world.

Like many college students, a large portion of my time has also been spent under the influence, neither glamorous nor industrious, of various recent technological advances. Reflection on the technologies that can both facilitate important communications and efficiently distract us from them led me into classes in communication studies. From theories of rhetoric to understanding the psychosocial effects of various mediums, I believe this is another field with which theology must interact in the search for answers to some of the world’s most pressing new ethical questions and problems.

Annie Dillard said that writing is like climbing a ladder in the near-dark: “You watch your shod feet step on each round rung, one at a time; you do not hurry and do not rest”, and are surprised by your arrival at the top. For many people, discovering a vocation is a similar plodding bit-by-bit process; I for one have only got so far as “Christian ethics”. I wait for the next whisper towards perhaps the slightest turn. Meanwhile I am seeking new places and people for inspiration in my present vocation. I am seeking a new cultural perspective. I am seeking variety and guidance in exploring and deepening my theological foundations as well as support and flexibility in my own research. In other words, I am seeking a taught Master’s.

Beyond the academic pursuits of the near future, beyond a general idea of writing and teach, my only notion of the vocation I will receive is that I will serve the church as it serves others. I do not usually find this as glamorous or appealing as some other calling I would have chosen for myself. I would often like to be a heroic doctor in sub-Saharan Africa or a small coffee shop owner with simpler responsibilities to others. I am disappointed near-daily with the American evangelical church’s overactive political involvement, internal feuding, inattention to Church history and apparent inability to interact with postmodern or Millenial culture; I would rather not make a career in it. But this church, in St. Augustine’s words, is my mother, and I feel a shift as a new generation learns with the old a new way of following Christ together. This church will need and want help navigating changing cultural waters and relearning the role of servant. On my bolder days I imagine I could someday help provide it.

Besides, these evangelicals, among few besides Julian of Norwich and the other mystic saints, will not laugh. If I claim to hear God’s voice whispering through a small stage, a low-budget youth center, and afternoon hours across a desk from a mentor, calling me to cathedrals, conversations, and libraries an ocean away, they will not laugh but pray in thanks and faith. Faith is that out of which we Christians live our shared calling. And in a cynical era, so needful of problem solvers, reconcilers, givers and optimists, faith is a precious gift indeed.

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1 Comment

  1. We should talk about this! I like it a lot and I look forward to seeing how you will edit and shape it for Marshall, et al. And the great thing about it is that you do not depend on these people and their money at the end of the day, you depend upon the Lord whom you honor so well with this pursuit of excellence. And He will make a way for you 🙂 Love it.

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