Guest Contributions

Studying Theology as a Christian

Ever since the start of my undergraduate theology and religious studies degree, people have always asked me “Oh, theology? Are you going to be a priest?’. Well, the answer is and always has been “no”. growing up in the Church with my father being a reverend, it looked to be the obvious choice, continuing in my father’s footsteps. People in the church could not see the point of studying theology if it were not pouring back that knowledge for the church. As a Christian, my studying of theology has allowed to both be critical and appreciative of my faith: I translate this into permitting myself to ask questions for myself and not be afraid of the answers that might not fit into my ‘Sunday School’ curriculum. Whilst my knowledge has granted me the ability to re-read the bible, (and some of my favourite narratives) in a way which allows that knowledge to be expounded upon.

In light of this cycle of probing, understanding, and appreciating for the past six years of studying theology, it has been met with some challenges along the way. University in itself is a wonderful outlet of meeting those outside your social circle; couple that with being a Christian, it may be met with the ability to not just be tolerant to those who don’t hold your views, but also embrace them and give yourself the opportunity to grow as an individual.

So, here lies the challenge: how do you sit in seminar if your beliefs and the very things you hold dear are being challenged? You don’t. I found myself many a times, flinching inwardly when a core doctrine was being debated, yet this is the beauty of the whole university experience; you don’t have to be passive about anything. You find out quite quickly that just as other views are being shared across the room, being a Christian does not silence me from also participating and sharing my own views. Here’s the funny thing: the very thing you think people will shun you for is actually what they find most fascinating. I found that with me embracing my status as a Christian studying theology at university it was a touchstone for which I can begin to have not only meaningful conversations actually meaningful friendships with others.

It has been six years, and now undergoing a PhD, my stance has only gotten stronger. Only now other Christians expect you to be a Bible guru and will randomly ask me questions on the meaning of Daniel 12 (I don’t do eschatology!). Nonetheless , I have grown in becoming extremely comfortable about being a Christian in a university environment; it is possible to do so, to be devoted to your faith and not be afraid of opposing views that arise from others. This is about dialogue; don’t be afraid to have dialogue! 1 Peter 3:15 asserts ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect’ (NIV).  Some of my most rewarding encounters have been with those who from the outset do not share my beliefs whilst simultaneously giving me the confidence to articulate my beliefs concisely without offending people. To add, there is a state of respect that is formed between two parties, and it can reflect the very best of academia, in that we probe not to attack but to learn.

A few thoughts to conclude with, and these are a few ‘nuggets’ I’ve learned for being a Christian in academia. First, I don’t have to compromise. This took me a while, because compromising is not just an active concept, but also a passive one. To be silent when your views are being questioned is to compromise. So, I joined in with the conversation and allowed myself to be an alternative lens in the discussion. Second, learn to question, critique and embrace your faith. There is nothing wrong with being suspicious; that suspicion leads to a greater knowledge and thirst to truly understanding your faith. And finally, be gracious to everyone, accept that you will meet those who range on the spectrum from being tolerant to hostile, however, remain gracious. I discovered it was not my responsibility to be on a conversion mission. Rather I learned to do my duty, being a fully functioning member of my university, expressing my views when need be, and forging meaningful relationships with everyone without shying away from being a Christian.

 

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Guest Contributions

Securing that all-important PhD funding

Emily Lynn is a first year PhD researcher at Lancaster University. Her research broadly investigates the relationship between faith-based organisations and social welfare in contemporary British society. Emily is also the founder of the academic blog, Let’s Talk Academia (www.letstalkacademia.blogspot.co.uk). It can also be found on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/letstalkacademia/). She can be found on Twitter at: @EmilyJLynn

 

It was in April 2016 when I received the news that I was a successful applicant for an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 1+3 (MA & PhD) funding award. That was one of the best days of my life and I can safely say that I’ve never felt relief like it. After all, we’re constantly told that receiving funding in this day and age is borderline impossible, especially for people within humanities. Although it’s not impossible (I’m living proof of it!), I can understand why this is a popular perception because it is just SO ridiculously competitive, and even now I feel an element of “I was in the right place at the right time” when I think about my funding. With that being said, I’d like to shed some light on some (hopefully) useful tips that I learnt when I was going through the application process. I really do hope that this post can potentially be a helping hand for those who are looking at their applications, or thinking about applying for funding, with absolute fear and apprehension. Don’t worry, it’s totally normal to feel scared, and even lost and hopeless, but you can totally get through it!

Know what you want to research
This seems obvious, but a lot of the time people only have a general idea about what they want to research. That is a great start, but when applying for funding you have to really show that you have thought about your research topic/area in depth and that you know exactly where you want to take your research. This means knowing precisely what your research questions are; what your research context is; what your methodology is going to be; how your research will impact the general subject area, and how it will make a contribution to knowledge. Therefore, you have to give yourself enough ‘thinking time’ before you actually start the applications.

Remember, funding bodies primarily base the quality of applications on their PhD proposals. Without a solid, well-articulated PhD proposal that elucidates specifically what and how you aim to research, it will be really difficult to acquire funding. Furthermore, don’t forget that you’re expected to explicate all of the above in very limited space. It is absolutely vital to show the funding bodies that you are capable of not only getting your research ideas across well, but getting them across in a very succinct way. You have to learn the art of being concise as it is ultimately part of the ‘test’. Although this can be extremely challenging, try to be straight to the point and narrow down your ideas to the points that really matter (and that show off your ideas the best!)

It’s all about the ‘impact’
A PhD not only needs to be original, but funding bodies are increasingly scouting for research ‘impact’. In a nutshell, this means that your research topic will, in some way or another, have impact outside the mere realms of the academy. Will your research impact policy making? Will your research have the potential to change how aspects of society are perceived? More specifically, will your research help certain organisations, such as NGOs? In current times – from what I’ve gathered anyway – the relevance of a PhD proposal is more often than not based upon how impactful it is outside of the subject area.

Tailor your applications
It is commonplace for people to apply to several different funding bodies, and therefore different universities, at the same time. If this is you, make sure you tailor your applications as every university is different, as is each funding body. For example, AHRC will have different guidelines to ESRC. Don’t ever assume that research councils have the same application processes or research expectations. Research thoroughly what each funding body represents and think about how your topic ‘fits’ their remit. Likewise, research the universities your applying to and their departments. Does your research topic align with their departmental interests?

Also, maybe don’t apply to *loads* of funding bodies and universities. It’s just not possible to juggle a large amount of applications and produce well thought-out applications simultaneously. Quality over quantity, always. The year that I was successful in my funding application was the year that I only applied to ONE research council and hence one university, but I did put my *everything* into it even if it was a tad risky!

Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Asking for help could potentially be one of the best things you can do in your application process. Normally, you would have to put down a potential supervisor on your application so it may be worthwhile to liaise with him/her about your proposal. They will be able to offer advice and potentially recommend improvements that can be made in your proposal. In my own personal experience, my supervisor was so incredibly helpful and I genuinely believe that I wouldn’t have got my funding without his support and encouragement. Sometimes it’s just nice for someone to tell you that your idea is good and to keep going! When you’re going through such an anxiety-inducing process, try and get all of the help you can – please don’t be afraid to ask for some advice because it may be the difference between you being successful or unsuccessful. After all, lecturers have far more experience in applying for funding, and their pearls of wisdom were definitely appreciated in my funding application process!

Don’t give up!
I know how hard getting funding is, especially from research councils such as AHRC. As I said above, funding grants are getting more and more competitive meaning that, regardless of how amazing your application is, it could still get turned down. This can be incredibly deflating, but I would advise to never give up. The first time I applied for funding I was unsuccessful, but I tried again the year after and got the funding I wanted! If you really want it, you will find a way to get it, even if it means revising your research ideas and tweaking your proposals. The love for your research topic should hopefully give you the strength to persevere through these hard times – as applying for funding is definitely not a stress-free process! Have faith in yourself, try your absolute best, stay focussed on the motives that are driving you to apply for funding in the first place, and hopefully you will be successful. You have to be dedicated to your funding applications, as it will be the sheer dedication that will get you through them.

PS. Don’t forget to leave room for down time and take care of yourself – cuppa teas and biscuits were my saviour!

 

Guest Contributions

The Perils and Pleasures of being a super-mature Undergraduate

I finally arrived at university for my first undergraduate year at the ripe old age of 43.  In between ‘A’ levels and registration I had two children, a marriage, and a divorce; all abroad.  When my children left home I returned to the UK, and when I realised I could apply for student finance it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

 

Sheffield was kind enough to offer me an unconditional place, and I visited the campus, slightly suspicious of any institution which would give me a no-strings opportunity.  What I found was a reassuring diversity of research, and a truly friendly department.  That sold it to me, and I cancelled all my other applications, throwing my lot in with Religion, Theology, and the Bible.  At the time, I assumed this would be the prelude to full-time Anglican ministry training, but things have turned out differently.  I caught the academic ‘bug’ early on, and now want to continue to post-grad.  Whatever happens, I do not expect to go on to work for the church.

 

When you’ve been out of the academic loop for a while, coming back is terrifying.  I am aware that arriving on campus is daunting for most people at some level, but my education had never been very startling (no-one ever taught us to write an essay, for instance) and I seriously doubted my skills were up to the challenge.  As it happened, I turned out to have aptitude, and the general knowledge accumulated over the decades was a bonus.  However, I was expending far too much nervous energy.  I was working too hard, and as a result, although the results were good, I could have done better all round.  Kind post-grad friends, and academic twitter have really helped.

 

Older does mean wiser in some ways.  Because I approached my degree as a project, I started out by identifying resources and opportunities.  I attended all sorts skills classes, got involved with various extra-curricular activities, and applied for the Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE), which runs in the summer between years two and three.  As a result, I am beginning my final year with vastly more confidence than I expected at the start of my course.  Anything may happen between now and (hopefully) graduation, but I know I have made the most of the academic opportunities available.

 

Sheffield used to have a large Religion/Biblical Studies department, but the year I arrived it was still adapting to being integrated into Philosophy.  Falling numbers, and the pressure on Arts and Humanities generally since the introduction of tuition fee loans, have not helped.  However, there are definite advantages to studying in a very small department.  Especially in an institution which supports student-led innovation.  I have had some amazing opportunities, such as participating in the ‘Orange is the new Bible’ conference in my first year, and writing for the post-graduate journal in my second.  Neither of these things would have happened had I not been personally known to the post-grads who were organising these things – and to whom I am eternally grateful.

 

This summer, I obtained a SURE grant for six weeks of supervised research, and I was lucky enough to work with Jo Henderson-Merrygold (who roped me into the conference last year).  I spent my summer conducting a narratological analysis of the Godly Play®[1] retelling of the Abraham cycle, exploring the ways in which it distorts the Genesis text, and embeds ideologies of gender and reprosexuality[2] which would not be accepted in other types of discourse such as advertising or school text books.  In fairness to the texts I focussed on, they are typical of religious materials for young children, and some serious attention to such questions is long overdue.  I have been asked what I might study for a master’s dissertation, and that may well be my chosen area, as and when that becomes an option.

 

Studying for my degree so far has been an invaluable experience.  Thus far, it is a bet which is paying off.  The work has forced me to be brave, and make thesis statements which will be read by professors who have written books. (Only imposter-syndrome-suffers can understand this I know, but bear with me.)  I have been able to explore aspects of biblical reception which have troubled me since childhood: why does Isaac have to be naked to be sacrificed? What is it with Boaz’s feet?  Why does Jesus rise bare-chested?  My becoming a student of Biblical Studies was clearly destiny, and somehow there is great satisfaction in being able to explore these issues, if only for my inner child.  I hope to be able to pursue them for a while yet.

 

My research blog can be accessed at: https://playingwithgod.hcommons.org/

 

[1] See brief introduction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLGoaztCgKY.

[2] Michael Warner, ‘Introduction : Fear of a Queer Planet’, <https://sgrattan361.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/files/2010/09/warnerfearofaqueer.pdf&gt;.

WoNJAR Introducing

WoNJAR Introducing: Helen Lee

Hello! I’m Helen, the third co-founder of WoNJAR. Due to my relatively quiet presence on Twitter compared to Joanna and Bex, it is high time I say a little something about myself, and how I reached this point, hoping for an academic career in religious studies.

As a child, I attended church on a weekly basis from the age of four, and it became a huge part of my life. I loved absolutely everything to do with church, except from the lack of a Sunday lie in! Fast-forwarding a few years, I was a very religious teenager. I had been confirmed as a full member of the Church of England, was a ‘worship prefect’ at my Church of England school, and at some points had seriously considered ordination as a career path. I had done really well in GCSE Religious Education (thanks to my teacher), and had been heavily encouraged to do ‘religious studies’ at A Level (whatever that was). I thought that this ‘religious studies’ would be some kind of extension of my GCSE course, and that the Philosophy of Religion component would both deepen my faith, and help me as a church youth group leader. It didn’t do that. It made me an atheist.

So, what did teenage atheist do? Teenage atheist carried on going to church for a while anyway, wondering how people continued to believe, and how this belief could translate into evangelical activity. Every Sunday lunch time consisted of me ranting to my poor mum about church and the (to my teenage mind) increasingly tenuous arguments from that morning’s sermon. I found this ‘insider-but-really-outsider’ state of being incredibly confusing, but I was still hooked. It seemed I loved learning about religion and religious communities, even as a non-believer. I used this as my rationale for applying to do Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds, did my A Levels, and got in.

My undergraduate studies at Leeds were a departure from what had gone before. Out went Philosophy of Religion, and in came the elementary study of various religious traditions, religious environmentalisms, and religious feminisms. In my first year I did fieldwork at a Quaker meeting house in Leeds, and loved it. I remember thinking quite naively, “I’d love to do this as a job”. My personal tutor and dissertation supervisor Dr Rachel Muers, was always excited about and supportive of my research ideas, and was extremely helpful during my planning and writing my dissertation (on Quaker ecospirituality and environmentalism). I did an ERASMUS exchange year at Charles University in Prague, and learned a lot there. I wholeheartedly loved my degree, and wished it could go on forever.

Throughout, though, I remained decidedly not confident, and not proud of many, if any, of my academic achievements. I graduated with a 2:1 and was so disappointed, I saw no point in attending my graduation ceremony. I spent a couple of months post-graduation on unemployment benefits, and eventually found a call centre job with the Government sorting out benefit overpayments. During this time I tried to convince myself I was not good enough for an academic career (both academically and inherently as a person), and tried to squeeze myself into looking for a career in finance or accounting, because I thought at least I would earn a load of money. For some perspective on how twisted this was, I failed my GCSE Maths first time around. However, I missed Leeds and academic life terribly. The things I missed most were my lecturers and the libraries- I missed having academic discussions. It took a lot of courage, but I emailed my former supervisor Rachel for some help. I then applied for the MA course in Theology and Religious Studies and was accepted, with a fees scholarship to boot. I was amazed, both at my luck, and how much I felt ‘wanted’ by my department.

Therefore, that sense of ‘imposter syndrome’ is something I can relate to very well. I am now halfway through my MA as a part time student, and my research interests centre on Islamophobia in the UK, and how this has tied into politics. Recently, I’ve written about the Conservative-majority Coalition of 2010-2015, and looked at the discourse of both David Cameron and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, and their avoidance of the term ‘Islamophobia’ through this time. I’m really interested in Islamophobia because, like most of my generation, I grew up surrounded by media and culture hostile to Muslims and their place in British society. Through my postgraduate studies, I have learned that racist ideas are both rendered invisible by their normativity, and that people therefore try to avoid discussions on racism, and how Islamophobia fits into that discussion. However, I’m a firm believer that what is avoided, and what is not said, should be looked at in great detail, and I especially enjoy grappling with issues that people would rather not look at!

I’ll end, for now, by saying how excited I am to be a part of WoNJAR. My main hope for WoNJAR is that we can help to eradicate the phenomenon of low confidence in female academics, especially those from families like mine, with no prior academic background. I’m really looking forward to working with more people, and watching our network grow.

WoNJAR Introducing

WoNJAR Introducing: Joanna Pedder

The WoNJAR co-founders have decided to kick this blog off with a short series of “introducing” posts so that give us the chance to talk about who we are and what we research. Its Joanna’s turn today.

Perhaps I should mention my own background and relationship with religion. For the earliest years of my life, I learned that religion was something to decide for myself. It was then a strange experience, as a 10-year-old in Australia, when I attended a church for the first time, as my dad begin to engage with Christianity (my mum, like her parents, remains very much an atheist). While we lived there, my dad befriended a Baha’i family, who invited us to the Temple in Sydney – my first experience of visiting a non-Christian place of worship. ‘Religion’ took to a background place for me when I was back in the U.K. during my high schooling and I decided that I was an atheist. Yet I became very interested in philosophy and I always enjoyed the ethical debates in my Religious Studies classes, so I continued this class into my A-Levels. I moved to a Catholic Sixth Form college, however, and I found myself in many debates as an atheist (one of the more vocal) with others in the class (not excluding the Priest who was my teacher).

Bizarrely, I did not originally apply to do my BA in Theology and Religious Studies, so my route was somewhat accidental onto the course. However, I thoroughly enjoyed my course, where I generally pursued modules with a stronger philosophical bent, so it was the right course for me. While I’d continually flirted with the prospect of doing an MA, I didn’t really have my heart set on any particular field in the study of religion until I studied a module in my final UG year called “Religion, Politics and the Future”, a module which challenged and shifted some of my own political perceptions. Despite writing a dissertation I thoroughly enjoyed on meta-ethics and the Hebrew Bible, I had found a passion for political theology in that module. My interests required a move to the University of Manchester for my MA, so I took a somewhat Kierkegaardian ‘leap of faith’ to give me the best grounding to pursue research in my chosen field.

During my MA ‘Religion and Politics’ module I was introduced to conservative dimensions of political theology: Thomas Hobbes and Carl Schmitt. It was reading Schmitt which led me to my current interest in conservatism and its intersection with Catholicism. Although I am not politically conservative (currently I am a member of the U.K. Labour Party), what intrigues me is the defence of Catholicism as a public entity against liberalism and privatisation of belief i.e. the values which I had been raised in. Hence for me, there is a personal philosophical and political connection in my studies, indeed, my own perception of what ‘atheism’ means has evolved substantially since I was 12 years old. Recently I finished a research essay on Schmitt’s 1923 tract Roman Catholicism and Political Form, with a focus on his engagement with Renouveau Catholique literature, a genre containing mystical dimensions aplenty. Politically I have an admiration of miracles in the leftist and emancipatory sense a la Žižek (who I am politically sympathetic with).  However, after studying the conservative interest in the miraculous, I have seen how they’ve become symbolic of divine authority and demonstrative of the ‘anti-technocratic’, thus forming a theological basis for decisionism, a characteristic of conservative/fascist thought. Studying conservatism has honed my own politics – I now refer to myself as an “auratic leftist” (anti-technocratic leftism). Embarking on my current dissertation research into “Arcane, Esoteric and Mystical Intersections with Conservative Political Theory”, I’m sure the personal politico-philosophical challenges will remain as integral to me as the academic.

Find Joanna on Twitter @JoannaPedder

WoNJAR Introducing

WoNJAR Introducing: Rebecca Anthoney

The WoNJAR co-founders have decided to kick this blog off with a short series of “introducing” posts that give us the chance to talk about who we are and what we research; I guess I’m up first!

My name is Rebecca Anthoney, but I usually go by Bex. I grew up in a fairly religious environment, with a Methodist mum and an agnostic dad, attending church regularly and being educated in a Catholic school where Religious Studies (or, more correctly, Christian Studies) was given a lot of emphasis. All of this meant that I grew up with a lot of questions about religion and philosophy which led me to take an A Level in Theology and go on to study for a BA in TRS at the University of Leeds. While I was there, my interests in history, mythology and literature naturally led me to biblical studies, and in my final year I wrote a dissertation on the biblical virgin birth prophecy. This gave me the chance to explore ancient languages (Hebrew and Greek), ancient mythologies and concepts of sacred women and goddesses which have been of interest to me ever since.

I always wanted to go on to postgraduate study, but a lack of confidence and some less-than-ideal circumstances got in the way for a while. Luckily I have some fantastic friends and family, and back in July of last year my wonderful partner sat me down and told me to stop putting off pursuing my goals just because I was scared. That week, I sent out a lot of emails, pulled together some last-minute applications and somehow found myself looking at the prospect of starting an MA in Biblical Studies Research at the University of Sheffield. This was the home of the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies (SIIBS for short), and I couldn’t have found a better environment for my studies – even with the 4 hour round trip involved in getting to lectures! The weekly SIIBS Seminars exposed me to an array of research that I might not have never have come across. I was a part of their Dead Languages Society, which gave me the incredible opportunities to improve my Hebrew and even teach some beginner classes, which was a very cool experience. Most importantly, it was such a supportive and friendly environment, filled with staff and students who saw my research as important and interesting even when I had no faith in it myself.

Just last week, I submitted my MA dissertation, which explored the possibility of a “missing goddess” in the creation accounts of Genesis and gave me the opportunity to really sink my teeth into issues of gender studies, near eastern mythology, psycho-analytical approaches and a lot of other really fascinating areas. I was honestly quite hard to say goodbye to it! It’s hard to believe that my time with SIIBS came and went so quickly, but it was invaluable to my growth as an academic and I look forward to seeing more of the research coming from there and I’m sure that I’ll stay in contact.

Right now, it’s hard to say what the future holds for me. The time has finally come to try and find myself some funding to start a PhD in 2018, so my focus over the next year or so will be on that. Funding applications are something of an intimidating journey which I’m sure many of our followers will also be going through, so I’ll try and post the occasional update on that whole process. I’m going to try and improve my Hebrew as well as teach myself the ancient near eastern language Akkadian (gulp) and keep researching and learning. On top of that, WoNJAR is going to be an exciting and demanding project which will keep me more than busy!