The Importance of Being Earnest and Excellent

by Anna Blanch on March 25, 2010

I will get back to posting on a regular schedule in the next week – but here’s another remixed post you might not have seen. I’m scrambling to finish Chapter Two and prepare to fly out to Australia, so things have been a little patchy of late. A version of this was originally posted here.

Millions of words are published every week. They are not necessarily good words. Some pass us by without ever seeing the light of day and others are read by only a handful of committed individuals. Some end up wrapping fish and chips, or glassware, while others find their true utility on the bottom of the litter tray or for washing windows.

It is sobering to note that apparently most PhD theses are lucky to read by three people other than those on your committee (those paid to read your work). Others still inexplicably end up as best sellers or grace the covers of the New York Times Book Review heralded as the next big thing. Some are endorsed by Oprah or Dr Phil (only to be uncovered as fraudulent – whoops, did i just say that?), oohed and aahed over.

However, intiguingly, there is not necessarily an identifiable relationship between benefit to the intellectual advancement of the human race, or the edification of the heart, mind, or soul, and the relative “popularity” or readership of said publications. Popularity does not evince inherit qualities of edification but is also does not deny their presence.

It is kind of like adding to the human race (excuse the comparison – i don’t think these things are remotely comparable in terms of eternal importance): we know that adding another human being to a planet whose resources are overstretched is potentially irresponsible but we this doesn’t stop us from either having a desire to populate the earth one extra person at a time nor acting upon that impulse; writing is kind of like this – it is both an instinct and a necessary ingredient for academic survival. Unfortunate but true, and while it seems primal, like childbearing, positive results are not assured. that is to say, wanting to bear and raise a Rhodes Scholar does not make it so, any more or less than wanting to helpfully and productively contribute to the intellectual advancement of the human race makes it so.

Furthermore, I would like to propose that the importance of being excellent (as a scholar) is magnified for a Christian scholar. Not just because of the intellectual bias directed towards individuals who are happy to label themselves as Christian scholars, though believe me that should be a motivator, but because we are playing for keeps.

As an application point,  Justin Taylor wrote in a recent post Between Two worlds titled “John 3:16 Conference, Steve Lemke, and the Importance of Christian Scholarship Done Well” the following:

We all need to redouble our efforts to practice the Christian virtue of representing others correctly, especially those with whom we strongly disagree. It’s wise to invite counsel and criticism from those who don’t see eye to eye with us.

This is edifying advice that we should allow to hit home, hard. Strive to do what you do well! But remember that your identity is not in your publication record. My earlier post on Measuring Academic Success will give you some more food for thought. Note particularly the comment from one of you:
I’m learning that behind every truth is a really good question. So let’s start asking GOOD questions – not just the pragmatic or short-term ones. Life is lived in the grey and we have the privilege of living our lives and callings wholistically – and one day at a time. I suggest we take a scavenger hunt through the cemetery and see how many people put their publication records on their tombstones!

On similar, but not entirely related vein: some other advice especially applicable for those of you who are also bloggers comes from Ben Myers over at Faith and Theology – He gives sage counsel (with a healthy dose of humility and humor) in his Ten (new) Commandments for Bloggers. Also, John Frame’s short note on “How to Write a Theological Paper” is instructive.

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Anna Blanch is founder of Goannatree, and a PhD student in the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, Scotland.

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