Theologian in residence.

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What is it like to be a theologian in residence?  Or moreso, what is it like to be a theologian who lives in residence at the school in which one is training?

I took this opportunity to take a step back from my role as wife, and take on the role of aspiring journalist in this conversation with Brendon.

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(Mel)  So Brendon, would you consider yourself a theologian in residence?

(Brendon) Well Mel, I suppose I am a theologian in residence because I fill my days doing theology, and I live on campus- very close to my office. So, yes, I suppose I am a theologian who resides where I work.

How do you feel about the title ‘theologian in residence’?

I guess the title of ‘theologian in residence’ is fairly descriptive of my role right now, so yeah, I feel positive about it. I would also be open in the future to have this title applied to me in a different way… say the theologian in residence of a school, or a company that was not explicitly a theological institution.

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In your opinion, what does it mean to be a theologian?

Good question Mel. I think that a theologian in someone who, within a community, takes on the role of trying to figure out what binds that community together, and how to describe and pass on these convictions in a way that makes sense of and is helpful to the world external and internal to that community.

When did you start to feel like a theologian (as opposed to a theology student)?

That is a tough one. I think it was when I had the sense that I could contribute to the conversation. When you are a student (I do still consider myself a student also because the field of theology is so vast and historic) you are mainly listening and trying to figure out what is going on. There came a point when I wanted to speak and think in a way that might be helpful to the broader conversation. I guess thats when my identity as a theologian came into formation.
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Describe a typical day in your world.
Well, over the last few months, my typical day has begun with an early morning work out at the gym across the road, then back for breakfast and a coffee before making the 30 second commute to my office. Once there, I do the regular check of emails and social media, then try to get into my work.  I figure out where I left off and try to find that same mind set and get back into it. I aim to write a solid first draft so that I won’t have to do drastic revisions. I usually stop for a second coffee/morning tea around 9:30 – 10, then break for a short lunch mid-day.  I usually plug away until I have no momentum or feel like starting to cook supper. It is usually around this time that I look forward to your return from school.

Sounds like you’ve got some strong routines going.  What kind of challenges have you come up against in working on your PhD, and how do you overcome them?

I guess the main challenge is a confidence issue- to be confident that what you are saying is worthwhile and significant.  Because a PhD has to contain a significant amount of original contribution to the field, it is easy to feel like you are making stuff up sometimes, which is a bit unnerving especially when it comes to theology. After this, there are the normal problems that writers encounter, such as getting stuck in a section, becoming distracted by ideas which are not central to the thesis, lack of motivation, total brain blocks, etc. I’m lucky I have an encouraging wife who helps me with pistachios during the rough patches.

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And the most rewarding part?

The most rewarding part… I suppose it is having people read it (which is only my supervisors at this point) and to have them understand what I am trying to do.  It is encouraging when that happens.  Receiving the affirmation that what I’m doing insn’t crazy, but actually will contribute in ways that I think it can, is immensely rewarding.

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Has doing a PhD been what you expected?

Well, my expectations about what a PhD would involve weren’t overly concrete coming in, but I guess what I did expect was for it to be a very large research and writing process. I have found it both harder and easier than expected. Harder because there are not very many people whom I can talk to about my topic. It is a fairly lonely thing sometimes. It is easier because I get to write what I want, how I want (within reason). It is very interesting because I get to explore the ideas I think matter, and are helpful.

For those who may have forgotten, what is the focus of your PhD, again? 

I am looking at the theological method of James McClendon.  He was an American theologian writing in the late twentieth century, who is worthy of study, but not much has been done on him so far.  One aspect of my PhD involves taking McClendon’s use of biography as theology, and turning it back on himself to examine his own theology through his life story.

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Tell us about your workspace, where all the magic happens.

Oh, this little old, yellow floored, converted dorm room… Well, what can I say?  I have tried to make it a space where I can feel comfortable, and have some productive times. I’ve put up a few things on the walls which are cool to look at, but have kept it fairly simple.  I guess there are less distractions down here in this former boys’ residence hall than in my previous office, and I think I have been more productive since making the move, so that is good.

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I noticed a wooden knob encased in carpet hanging by your door.  Can you tell us about that?  

Oh that?  That’s the light switch.  Pure old school charm, right there.  Give it a tug and you’ll see the light come on.

Theologian Brendon Neilson

What’s in your cup?

My cup is most often filled with coffee. The past two favorites have been from Andrew at EW, sorting me out with some custom roasts of Santa Clara from Guatamala, and a beauty Kenyan Gatunyu. Aeropress has been my brew method of choice lately. I have also been going with tea in the afternoons- mainly Earl Greys.  Those have been nice too.

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What books is your nose in these days?

I feel like I have been living in the same books quite a bit lately. Probably the main one that has been open has been McClendon’s Vol. 2 of his systematics, Doctrine. For what I have been working on lately, it has been the most important. But I have also been getting into Wittgenstein a bit more in this chapter, which has been a nice treat.

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Are theologians a common breed around here?

It really depends on how you understand what a theologian is. I would say that we are not a very common breed. There are more people who study the Bible, which I guess could fall under the first part of how I answered what it means to be a theologian. But I feel like they often then stay there, without  connecting this Biblical study to the other parts of what is going on in the world.

I was lucky enough, however, to have connected with a few other theology students who enjoy getting into theological discussion… Theological conversation takes time, and to really understand someone else takes lots of exposure to their thinking and their lives. Over the course of the last couple years, the four of us have had some great theological discussion. We met regularly on Fridays, and this was a time that I greatly appreciated.  I will miss having these friends/colleagues around in the future. We are planning on starting a sort of online theology journal type thing in the near future to continue our sharing of thoughts.

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What do you most enjoy about the student life?

There are many aspects to being a student which are pretty great.  The freedom and flexibility in my schedule have allowed me to take time off with you and go on adventures fairly freely compared to most occupations. I also love the learning. I get to think, and learn about things which are important. That is a huge honour, and I take that seriously and want to contribute to society with what I have learned.
What’s next?
Next? I don’t really know. I want to continue to refine my perspective on things. I like how I have come to see the world, and want to keep that growing. I look forward to applying my learning and understandings to other facets, the first one being the coffee industry. I have an idea for writing a theology of coffee, which I think could be quite cool.
Thanks so much for chatting, Brendon.  It’s been neat getting a peak inside the life of a theologian in residence.   Congrats on nearly reaching the halfway point in your PhD, which I look forward to reading the entirety of someday.
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6 thoughts on “Theologian in residence.

  1. Heehee! I could hear Brenno’s tone and inflection so clearly in his replies! Good to get a look-in at what life is like for a theologian.

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