Sitting Down with John Piper to Talk about the Role of History and Biography in the Life and Ministry of a Pastor

At the recent Theologians on the Christian Life conference, hosted by Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, I had the opportunity to sit down with John Piper for an hour to talk about the role of history and biography in his life.

Here are some of the questions I asked:

    • Do you recall your early experiences with biography? Did you read missionary biographies s as a boy?
    • How were were biographies particularly helpful to you when you began pastoral ministry?
    • Why does biography seem to have a different effect on us than just collecting a list of principles we might learn from a life?
    • When did you decide to make pastoral biographies a part of your annual pastors conference?
    • Why do you think it’s helpful for pastors not only to read biography but to present it as well?
    • Can you walk us through your general approach to read and preparing such messages?
    • What is the difference between the approaches of a George Marsden and a Iain Murray when it comes to doing history in general or in particular with someone like Jonathan Edwards?
    • How do we process our historical heroes—like a Martin Luther King or a Jonathan Edwards or a Martin Luther—who saw so much and got so much right having such significant blindspots and being unrepentant in unrighteous attitudes and behavior?
    • How do you think your life and theology would be different if you hadn’t encountered C. S. Lewis and Jonathan Edwards?
    • What is it about J. I. Packer in particular that causes his work to have a timeless quality and his ministry to have such a spiritual impact?
    • Of all of the men you did biographies on, who would you most like to . . . hear preach? ask a theological question? receive personal counsel?

For more videos from the conference, go here.

For the book series, go here.

For Piper’s collection of 21 biographies in one volume, go here.

See also my post, “Why and How John Piper Does Biography.”

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Should You Pursue a PhD?

I routinely get questions from undergraduate and master’s students, at Baylor and elsewhere, about applying to PhD programs. Here is some of my standard advice to those thinking of pursuing a PhD and a career as a college or university professor.

How do I choose a PhD program? I had a wonderful experience in my graduate program at Notre Dame, especially because of the particular historian (George Marsden) with whom I worked. Many people make the mistake of thinking “school” instead of “adviser” when considering PhD programs. Not that the quality of school is irrelevant—there are some lower-quality PhD programs out there that do not offer adequate financial or academic support to current students.

But typically the most important issue in considering a program is the faculty with whom you plan to work. This includes your prospective dissertation adviser, as well as professors who might compose your field supervisors and doctoral committee. If you are an undergrad or master’s student, and as you continue to read in your field, are there particular scholars whose work you really admire? Are those professors still active, and do they work with graduate students? This is one of the best ways to think about where to apply—the focus is on particular professors, not so much an institution.

Should I apply to a PhD directly, or to an MA program?
 I was a political science major as an undergrad, so it made a lot of sense for me to switch to history for an MA before I applied to PhD programs. It helped me get my bearings in a new field (even though I had been a history minor) and made me a much stronger candidate for PhD programs. If you are not sure a doctorate is for you, a terminal MA can make a lot of sense. You can apply directly from a BA to a PhD in most cases, but students with only a BA will obviously have a harder time justifying preparedness for the PhD.

How hard is it to get in? At strong programs, it is phenomenally difficult to gain admission. If you do not have at least a 3.7+ GPA, and 90 percent+ percentile scores on the GRE (verbal and analytical for humanities programs), you probably will not receive serious consideration. These programs often have far more applicants than spaces, sometimes accepting fewer than 5 percent of those who apply. Be honest with yourself about your credentials. Even some people with 4.0 GPAs and perfect GRE scores do not get in everywhere they apply. Thus, you are going to have to apply to multiple programs if you are serious about pursuing a PhD—including a range of “dream schools” and “backup options.”

What about the job market? I hear it is rotten. As I have noted before, the job market is indeed terrible, and anyone going into a PhD program needs to take a broad, flexible view of what they might do career-wise at the end. There can actually be a few more opportunities if you would be open to teaching in either a Christian or a secular school environment (Christian schools sometimes struggle to find candidates who have both a serious PhD and a serious faith), assuming that the secular schools in question do not get scared off by signposts in your c.v. that you are a Christian.

If you are a Christian thinking about graduate school, let me say this: we desperately need serious, thoughtful Christians to be active in academia and publishing, as a matter of Christian witness to both students and other professors. Being a professor is a great life, assuming you can get a job. But graduate work is not for everybody.

— Information about Baylor’s graduate program in history, which offers both PhD and MA degrees.

This post originally appeared at Patheos.

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