How Do You Write So Much? Tips for Aspiring Writers (Gupta)

Book, school, paper.

I get folks asking me quite often, how do you write so much? I have written 20+ articles, several chapter essays, four books, and I have a few manuscripts I am working on now. Here are my tips:

Writing has to be a passion. It can’t just be something you do. You have to love it. You have to have a fire in your belly and heart and mind to get these ideas out there. If it is not a passion, it will get sidelined. You have to ask – why am I doing this? Do I love this?

Schedule and protect your writing time. For me, I have a master weekly schedule and I have blocks of time set aside for research and writing. I like to have 2-3 hour blocks to really focus. I know for others, you can only manage one hour blocks between classes or meetings. No matter what, though, you need to protect that time. It’s not “free time.” It’s writing time. If you don’t restrict it, you won’t use it well. One can easily get caught up in a conversation at the water cooler (or Facebook!), but I have disciplined myself enough to “excuse” myself from the conversation to sit down to write.

Overlap research and teaching. One of the main ways that I have been able to be “productive” involves the way I have been able to combine my course material with my research and writing interests. If I want to write on Philippians, I focus my Greek course on interpreting Philippians. If I am teaching a prayer class, I write on prayer. The one supports and fuels the other, and I am able to give fresh thought to my students, and I feel like the interaction with students supports my reflection on the writing project. This may seem obvious, but I assure you it has made it possible for me to do a lot of research.

Set word count goals. Don’t just make time for research, set goals. Set big goals (completion of book, article, etc.), but also weekly goals of how much you want to write. Goal setting will help motivate you to protect and use your writing time.

Permit yourself to write garbage at the drafting stage. This is probably what I have learned the most about myself as a writer. I struggle to commit to writing things down because I am afraid it is not good. But this has now become my mantra: Write something bad, and then make it better until it is good. Of course, the main thing I do at first is outline the chapter or essay. Then I fill in the outline. But the bigger point is about letting yourself spend time free-thinking and drafting.

Reward yourself. Set certain milestones for your writing (finishing the researching stage; getting to the half-way point of word count; finishing the first draft, etc.), and then reward yourself. Maybe it is a good cup of coffee. Or a hike. Or a nap! For me, little rewards are like milestone celebrations – I got through stage 2, 3, 4, 5…

Finally – and somewhat ironically – learn to say “no.” One of my mentors told me he did not learn how to say “no” to book project offers until it was too late, and now he is buried under piles of manuscripts, which is both stressful and also doesn’t leave room for fresh ideas. This has helped me to remember that I want writing to continue to be a joy, and not a burden (of endless deadlines). I am learning how to focus my writing energy more and more on projects I am passionate about, not just getting another “thing” on my CV.

Now, there are certain special projects or people that are hard to say “no” to, but the point is that we must evaluate why we want to be productive. Is it to feel important? To “be somebody”? Yes, getting that article accepted can be a “high,” a nice achievement. But I am thinking more and more about a scholarship legacy. What do I want to be my lasting mark on biblical scholarship? How do I want to change scholarship? How do I want to improve the world? It’s nice to pad the old CV, but you don’t want to look back at your career with regrets. Stick as best as you can to your mission and passion, and leave “space” in your life for fresh ideas to pursue.

What are your productivity tips?

 

 

 

 

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Moberly – The Bible in a Disenchanted Age (Gupta)

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In this thoughtful short book, Prof. Moberly engages the matter of how to communicate the uniqueness of the Bible in a postmodern age. Put another way, while some have argued that we ought to read the Bible “like any other book” (using historical critical methods), Moberly makes a case for also reading the Bible as something special: “On what grounds, if any, is it appropriate to privilege the Bible and the biblical account of God in the world today?” (40). Moberly does not go the way of traditional apologetics – arguing that the Bible has objective authority because of its historicity.

He begins by debunking the notion that Christians are illogical or odd for privileging the Bible. Moberly argues that everyone privileges some lens or perspective for thinking about the world and the meaning of life. Christians happen to focus their lens on Jesus and the Bible. Moberly also appeals to the notion of “Plausibility Structures.” By this he means, “the idea that the social and cultural context within which people live regularly make a difference to the understandings of life that they hold to be true; among other things, to be surrounded by a consensus can encourage people to adopt that consensus for themselves” (93). I think this is Moberly’s way of saying that people will come to be convinced of the Bible’s unique perspective when they see a compelling, winsome, and special life of a special community that lives according to the Bible. I think he pretty much states this much: “the biblical portrayal of human nature and destiny will present itself to consciousness as reality only to the extent that its appropriate plausibility structure, the Christian church in its many forms, is kept in existence” (101). Thus Moberly can talk about the “complementary nature of Bible and church” (102).

There is more in the book, but this appears to be the main contribution. Overall, I am sympathetic to Moberly’s argument, and indeed in a postmodern and pluralistic era this is a wise approach to commending the Bible as revelation. Still, I am not as sour on the possibility of traditional historical arguments that this historical figure called Jesus did and said some amazing things that we must consider.

On a personal note, I also want to mention that, historically, Christian advocacy of the message and lifestyle of Scripture has focused on sin and salvation. Moberly is not denying this, but neither sin nor salvation is given much attention directly in this work. That is not unexpected in this kind of discourse, but I will say that in my personal story, the Bible’s pointing out of my sin, and promise of grace was a powerful message, and a message I did not hear anywhere else. Yes of course I was brought into a community of faith (a “plausibility structure”), but my direct encounter with the text, and with God through the text, was life-changing.

The Bible in a Disenchanted Age demonstrates Moberly’s mature thought and exquisite writing style. It is not easy reading, but it is richly rewarding.

Known by God – Brian Rosner on Personal Identity (Gupta)

Known by God

I had a chance to do some reading over the winter break. One book I was eager to look at is by Brian S. Rosner, Known by God: A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity (Zondervan, 2017). As the title suggests, Rosner tackles the theme of “identity” by focusing on the idea of “being known by God,” tipping his hat to Galatians 4:9. The book is about the answer to the question who am I? People today are so desperate to build and curate their image and identity, but Rosner argues that Scripture teaches how what is most important (in terms of identity) is being known by God; that is, how we belong to, are remembered by, and loved by God in Jesus Christ. This gave me good pause for thought about the damage done by social media in our society today. We can feel “known” by people on FB or Instagram, but it can be so shallow and superficial and fake that we really don’t feel “known” at a deeper level. God knows us “through and through,” and that can make all the difference in terms of the security of our identity.

If I had one small bone to pick, it is the limitation of focusing on the word “known.” For my part, belonging to God is more central to what Scripture communicates about identity. Rosner talks a lot about belonging as a feature of being known, but I think it made more sense as the focus (especially in view of the centrality of familial metaphors in the Bible).

While Rosner does a lot of good work in Scripture itself, this book is wide-ranging in terms of dialogue with theologians and church leaders as well, and what is most striking is how Rosner talks about his own journey to locating his identity in “being known by God.” I think this would make a great Bible study and a good book for personal growth as well.

(Some) Best Academic Books of 2017

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Well, I realize I haven’t blogged much this term  – I am finishing up several writing projects, and I got shingles in November which set me back for several weeks. But thinking about the close of 2017, I thought I would briefly mention some noteworthy books. This is far from a true “Best Books” list (as I usually do) because I did not read very much this year beyond what was directly related to my scholarship needs. But I did some reading, and now is a nice time to mention what I think are worthy contributions. In no particular order:

Jonathan Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing (Baker, 2017). 

Read it cover-to-cover and loved it. It is more than a commentary; it tries to read the Sermon in historical and cultural context, but also draws out the way the Sermon addresses timeless questions about life and flourishing.

Michael Gorman, ed. Scripture and Its Interpretation (Baker, 2017).

This is a welcome companion to Gorman’s excellent Elements of Biblical Exegesis. Experts give insight into a variety of topics and perspectives pertaining to hermeneutics. Perfect textbook material here!

Matthew Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone (Baker, 2017).

This book has made some big waves in the last several months, and for good reason. Matt is a sharp scholar and gifted teacher. Learn and engage. Also, it’s short and cheap. #XmasList

Joshua Jipp, Saved by Faith and Hospitality (Eerdmans, 2017).

This just may be my book of the year. The word that kept coming to my mind when I read this is: bold. It is a bold manifesto on what lies at the heart of Scripture – the unilateral hospitality of God towards sinful, broken, and rebellious humanity, and the call to reach out to the outsider, foreigner, or “other” with God’s love. #XmasList

Stephen Chester, Reading Paul with the Reformers (Eerdmans, 2017)

This is a meticulously researched and carefully argued academic work that gives penetrating insight into how the Reformers read and approached Paul. Really liked his reading of Luther.

Fleming Rutledge, Crucifixion (Eerdmans, 2017)

I did not agree with everything Rutledge had to say in this, but unarguably she is a profoundly gifted communicator, and there are numerous flashes of brilliance in this tome.

Christoph Heilig et al, God and the Faithfulness of Paul (Fortress, 2017)

Just scratching the surface of this massive response to NT Wright’s PFG – very happy to see detailed engagement with Wright and plenty of pushback. Expect an RBL review of GFP (WUNT version) from me sometime in 2018.

Paul Holloway, Philippians, Hermeneia (Fortress)

Anytime a Hermeneia Commentary is released, it is a big deal. Holloway is a respected historian of early Christianity and knows a thing or two about Philippians. I am about 60% through the commentary and I have mixed feelings. In some ways it is more of a monograph (Holloway takes a very particular approach to interpreting Philippians) with an explanatory commentary – which can be a good thing, because it is fresh and intellectually stimulating. At the same time, it is rather short and can feel rushed or incomplete. I am reviewing this for Interpretation and I will have much more to say about the strengths and weaknesses of this volume. But I will readily admit that I am learning a lot from Holloway I would not have learned elsewhere.

John Walton, Old Testament Theology for Christians (IVP, 2017)

I don’t get much time to read OT literature, but this one grabbed my attention. Walton is a winsome writer and has thought a lot about interpreting the OT theologically. Just getting started with this book, but very much enjoying his approach so far.

Books I WANT to read soon:

Sarah Melcher, et al, ed. The Bible and Disability: A Commentary (Baylor Press, 2017)

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Lynn Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes, Christian Women in the Patristic Period (Baker)

Important historical work that is long overdue.

Christopher Skinner and Sherri Brown, ed. Johannine Ethics: The Moral World of the Gospels and Epistles of John (Fortress, 2017)

This book boasts a top-flight list of scholars weighing in on a perennially thorny question – did John have an ethic, and if so, what was it?

 

 

 

 

 

Johannine Ethics: Coming Soon! (Skinner)

In just over two weeks, my forthcoming book, Johannine Ethics: The Moral World of the Gospel and Epistles of John (co-edited with my friend, Sherri Brown of Creighton University) will appear with Fortress Press. We have been planning and working on this book for over three years now. This is the eighth book project I have been able to shepherd through to completion and I am as eager to hold this book in my hands as I have been with any previous project.

It has long been held that the Fourth Gospel in particular possesses nothing that could be considered “normative ethics” within the world of earliest Christianity. Wayne Meeks has given clear exposition to this idea when he writes that “the Fourth Gospel meets none of our expectations about the way ethics should be constructed.”[1] We would contend that much scholarly emphasis on ethical teaching in the NT (and John’s relative lack) is rooted in either/both (1) a limited definition of what constituted “ethics” in the ancient world, or/and (2) an overemphasis on an indicative/imperative schema similar to the categories used by Bultmann in his description of Pauline ethics. After a “state of the question” essay in which I trace the major views currently operative in discussions of Johannine ethics, the book is divided into three sections: (1) “Johannine Imperatives,” (2) “Implied Ethics in the Johannine Literature,” and (3) “Moving Forward.” Sherri and I were pleased to be able to assemble an international cast of leading Johannine scholars for this project and we are both quite pleased with the final product. We hope those interested in the subject matter will also be pleased. (Be sure to pick up a copy or two at AAR/SBL in a few weeks!)

Here’s the Table of Contents:

1. (How) Can We Talk About Johannine Ethics? Looking Back and Moving Forward
Christopher W. Skinner

Part 1: The Johannine Imperatives
2. Believing in the Gospel of John: The Ethical Imperative to Becoming Children of God
Sherri Brown
3. Love One Another: The Johannine Love Command in the Farewell Discourse
Christopher W. Skinner
4. “Follow Me”: A Life-Giving Ethical Imperative
Raymond F. Collins

Part 2: Implied Ethics in the Johannine Literature
5. The Creation Ethics of the Gospel of John
R. Alan Culpepper
6. Love Embodied in Action: Ethics and Incarnation in the Gospel of John
Jaime Clark-Soles
7. The Lyin’ King? Deception and Christology in the Gospel of John
Adele Reinhartz
8. John’s Implicit Ethic of Enemy-Love
Michael J. Gorman
9. Just Opponents? Ambiguity, Empathy, and the Jews in the Gospel of John
Alicia D. Myers
10. The Johannine Request to “Come and See” and an Ethic of Love
Toan Do
11. God, Eschatology, and “This World”: Ethics in the Gospel of John
Francis J. Moloney, SDB

Part 3: Moving Forward
12. Genre, Rhetoric, and Moral Efficacy: Approaching Johannine Ethics in Light of Plutarch’s Lives and the Progymnasmata
Lindsey Trozzo
13. Creation, Ethics, and the Gospel of John
Dorothy A. Lee
14. Virtue Ethics and the Johannine Writings
Cornelis Bennema

Conclusion:
15. Moving the Conversation Forward: Johannine Ethics in Prospect
Christopher W. Skinner and Sherri Brown

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[1] Wayne A. Meeks, “The Ethics of the Fourth Evangelist,” in R. Alan Culpepper and C. Clifton Black, eds., Exploring the Gospel of John: In Honor of D. Moody Smith (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 320.

 

 

 

Re-Post: Counting the Costs: On Pursuing Life in Academia (Skinner)

Sad Academic[I initially published this post around this date in 2014. My institutional affiliation has changed since then but everything else I say here remains true. Since it’s hiring season once again, I thought I would re-post it as it may be helpful for those in the cycle.]

This morning I received my program book for the annual SBL/AAR meetings in San Diego. The last time the meetings were held in San Diego was 2007, which consequently was the last time I was there. I was just days away from defending my dissertation and I was in town for a job interview—a job I didn’t get, by the way. Anyway, thinking about my last time in San Diego got me thinking about my own journey in academia, and it occurred to me that it’s that season once again for so many hope-filled academics. It’s the season when grad students, ABDs, freshly-minted PhDs, and in some cases, those who’ve been on the job market for years, set about preparing (literally) dozens of documents for hiring committees; you know, those notorious committees that (1) may not ask for an interview—which is understandable; (2) may not even look at your materials—which is somewhat less understandable; and (3) in many cases, won’t even acknowledge that they’ve received your materials, let alone that the job you were hoping for has been filled—which is inexcusable. I have been on the receiving end of all three of these (non) responses in my career, and I feel your pain. (BTW, if you have time, check out this pretty spot-on indictment of how unethical the hiring practices in our profession can be for people in this very situation I’m describing.)

As readers of this blog know, I am fortunate to have a full-time job teaching in higher education and in my area of specialization. I am also fortunate to teach in a part of the country that allows me to be relatively close to my extended family. In many ways, it’s like I have found one of Wonka’s golden tickets. Those closest to me will tell you that I genuinely love what I do, and as I have grown in my teaching, I have also had relative success in publishing my research. Still I find it possible to be very cynical about life in academia. So much of this is related to my own experiences. With so many of my own students requesting letters of recommendation for graduate school at the moment—some with an eye on landing a job in academia—I felt the need to get real for a moment. I’m speaking to my students in this post, but I invite you to listen in, if you’re interested. (I apologize in advance if I come across as Debbie Downer.)

Life in academia is not for the faint of heart. It is a path fraught with rejection at every turn. Each stage of the process brings more opportunities for rejection. Some think the rejection stops after you’ve landed a job, but actually there are more opportunities to experience the sting of a brush-off. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of the untold possibilities for rejection, as I see them:

(1) Applying to doctoral programs: This is the first test we must all pass. I know several people who were not admitted to any doctoral programs during their first trip through the process. At least one of them currently has a doctorate from one of the best schools in the world, a full-time teaching post, and a monograph that has just been released. This sort of rejection is not the end of the road. Just know that it’s a possibility. Fortunately, I was admitted to the doctoral program of my choice, but there were other schools that said “no” to me. I shudder to think what would have happened had they all said, “no.” I was a young seminary graduate with a wife and small child. It might have been easy to give up on the dream and turn toward something more “practical,” more “gainful.” Applying to doctoral programs was my first hint that life in academia, along with being a highly competitive profession, has the potential to be a soul-crushing enterprise. (If after reading this bit of honesty you still choose to move forward, you should see Nijay’s comprehensive work on this subject.)

(2) Applying for jobs: This is clearly the most soul-crushing process of them all. I was on the job market for three full years after earning my Ph.D. If I’m being honest, I was applying to jobs for at least two years before I finished. After losing my job in 2009—another story for another day—I spent an entire academic year living in a three-bedroom house with my wife, three kids, and my in-laws. (How’s that for soul-crushing?) During those three to five years, I probably put out 50-60 applications (and killed several baby sequoias in the process). I had a dozen or so interviews and several on campus visits before I finally got a job. In one instance, I was CERTAIN there was going to be an offer in a week. Eight weeks later I was informed via email (yes, that’s right, an EMAIL) that the search committee was cancelling the job due to lack of funding. Can anyone say, rejection? (Just in case you think I’m alone, you can also see some of the details of Nijay’s employment journey here.)

(3) Presenting your research: I try to attend several professional meetings every year, and I have not missed an SBL meeting since 2005. I have given several papers at SBL and elsewhere, but I have had numerous proposals grounded on the tarmac before they could ever take flight. For instance, for four straight years I put in a proposal to read a paper in the Johannine Literature section, and for four straight years my proposals were shot down. To make it worse, each of those proposed papers went on to be published somewhere, but I could not get the Johannine Literature group to give it a sniff. Finally, this year, for the first time I will read a paper in the Johannine Literature section.

(4) Publishing your research: After surviving the gauntlet of rejection presented by the previous three stages, you now have arrived at the part of academic life that continues to offer you various and sundry opportunities to experience soul-crushing rejection. This is the part of the job that no one tells you about. Especially if you are in a “publish-or-perish” institution, you will find yourself face-to-face with the realities of this sort of rejection. Just this week I got word that an article I wrote over two years ago was finally accepted for publication. I had previously sent the article to three different journals. In all three instances, one reviewer liked it and the other wasn’t sure. Practically, this means that each time I submitted said article, it was rejected. After re-working it three times in response to previous reviewers’ comments, I was finally able to get it into a form that two outside readers found acceptable. Thankfully, each rejection served to make the article better, but each time it was “back to the drawing board.”

All of this is to say nothing of the processes of applying for grants, external funding, sabbaticals, promotion, etc. Academia is a profession in which you consistently put your fate in someone else’s hands, without the promise of anything in return. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment….maybe a bunch of us are, but not everyone is going to be able to sustain such continued rejection and emerge unscathed. Sure, there are those anomalous individuals who get into every program to which they apply, earn the doctorate, get their dream job right out of the gate, and have everything they write accepted for presentation and/or publication. In my admittedly limited experience, however, those people are the rare exceptions rather than the rule.

To my current and former students I say: If, after all of this, you still want to go forward, I do understand. Life in academia is sometimes crazy, often beautiful, and always interesting, and I’m  not sure I would be this fulfilled doing anything else. Just be sure come in with your eyes open and continue to count the costs.