What makes a good biblical scholar or theologian? What advice would I give students—or have given myself 10 years ago—looking into advanced degrees? For those who are interested or who just compulsively read this blog, here are five suggestions amid many better ones already written in this series:
1. Love it! There are plenty of things you could line your CV with, but find something that actually makes you want to get up from the table and hit the library. You’ll be better poised as a colleague, researcher, and teacher. And if your project drives and excites you, it will be easier to muster the Sitzfleisch needed to read another thousand pages of Barth or learn that obscure language because doing your project well is worth it. (Also, learn the word Sitzfleisch. It’s a good one.)
2. Read more than you write. More reading = better writing. If everything is output with no input, you’re left running on an empty tank or churning out “spin” on the same stuff. The scholars I admire are always interested in something (in their field and out of it), always turning over new stones, and their specialties are better for it.
3. Learn other languages, whether you need them for your research or not. It’s not just about learning foreign words for things, but about reformulating ideas and even new ways of thinking. I’m constantly inspired by scholars who can reformulate thoughts with diversity and creativity. They’re good at the jargon of their sub-fields, but not bound by it, and can move outside the thought patterns entrenched in their disciplines to bypass old stalemates.
4. Encourage people. Scholarship can get lonely, and competitiveness can make us acerbic (even in faith-based institutions). We all need people into whom we can pour ourselves and from whom we gain courage and joy. Choose a few, give them your time, and try to encourage other scholars. We are all interdependent.
5. Find art that you can get swept into. Whatever kind of art teases your mind and spirit to think and feel—music, film, opera, oils, finger puppets—it can calm, energize, inspire, and motivate. It doesn’t matter if its “serious” art: impressing cocktail colleagues is not the point. Maybe only Wagner can capture the pathos of your office, maybe a cathedral’s rose window fills you with peace and awe before that seminar. For me personally, it’s usually one of the Rocky films (just not #5).
James B. Prothro is Assistant Professor of Theology at Ave Maria University and editor at The Religious Studies Review for the sub-area of Hellenistic and Koine Greek and Translation. He is the author of Both Judge and Justifier: Biblical Legal Language and the Act of Justifying in Paul (Mohr Siebeck).