Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

1/15 2019

Inside the PTS Curriculum: American Religious Biography

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The “Inside the PTS Curriculum” series gives you an inside look at what students are learning in their courses at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Each article focuses on one class, its subject matter, what students can expect to learn, the required texts, and the kinds of assignments students can expect. We’ll let you know whether the course is required or available for the Master of Divinity (MDiv), the Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies (MAPS), or Master of Theological Studies (MTS). Each article will include the professors’ bio.

This week’s course is “American Religious Biography.”

Heather Vacek teaching MDiv, MAPS, and MTS program students in PittsburghAbout American Religious Biography

In the Fall Semester, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary students learned about Church history with the Rev. Dr. Heather Vacek in the class “American Religious Biography.” An upper level elective, this class is open to students in the Master of Divinity (MDiv), Master of Theological Studies (MTS), or Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry (MAPS) programs.

This course offers an investigation of the history of Christianity in America through the study of religious biography. The course explores the interaction of theology, context, and religious practice in the lives of Christians from the colonial era to the 20th century. Rather than an abstract study of published theologies, institutions, and movements, this course acknowledges that a wide variety of individuals have asserted those theologies and shaped movements and organizations and have done so from unique social locations.

In this course, Dr. Vacek invited students to explore how Christian belief and practices have shaped one another in concrete historical settings. Reading biographical monographs of religious figures and reflecting on those narratives in writing and in conversation, students gained an appreciation for what it means to live, worship, and serve in particular historical contexts. Through writing assignments, Dr. Vacek invites students to make connections between the past and present in order to shape current and future life and ministry. Upon completion of this course students were able to: 1) describe the historical relationship between context and the shape of Christian practice and 2) narrate the value of historical study to current lives of faith.

As to required texts, students read Margaret Bendroth’s The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, Catherine Brekus’ Sarah Osborn’s World, Jon Sensbach’s Rebecca’s Revival, John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, Matthew Avery Sutton’s Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, and Barry Hankins’ Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America. Brief additional readings were posted throughout the course.

As a hybrid class, this course met online on odd weeks and face-to-face on even weeks. Students in this class completed historical context summaries, reading responses, discussion board contributions, weekly tweets, and a final project or sermon. In addition, students were expected to not only participate regularly in class, but to undertake leadership of a class discussion.


About the Instructor

The professor for this course the Rev. Dr. Heather Hartung Vacek is ordained in the Moravian tradition. Dr. Vacek joined the faculty at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 2012 and in 2016 became vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty / associate professor of church history. Her research focuses on the historical relationship between Christian belief and practice in the American context, particularly as it relates to suffering. Her book, Madness: American Protestant Responses to Mental Illness (Baylor University Press, 2015), explores Protestant reactions to mental illnesses from the colonial era through the 21st century. Her research interests also include American religious history, practical theology, and theologies of disability and suffering. After working for a decade in corporate positions, Vacek earned an M.Div. and Th.D. from Duke University, Duke Divinity School.


1/8 2019

Defending Resolutions

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Many churches just celebrated Epiphany. In the church calendar, Epiphany fills one official role and one unofficial role. Officially, it’s the time that we celebrate either the arrival of the Magi or the baptism of Christ. Unofficially, it’s the time we begin to joke about broken New Year’s resolutions.

Actually, that’s too generous. Many of us started joking about broken resolutions almost a week ago.

For some reason, we have the idea in our cultural consciousness that we break most of our New Year’s Resolutions within a few days—if not hours.


Give Yourself Credit

But it’s not true. When it comes to our New Year’s Resolutions, we don’t give ourselves enough credit.

Consider the most popular resolutions. You might guess that they tend to be things like “get in shape” or “get healthier” or “exercise more.” In whatever form, many resolutions end up meaning “lose weight.”  The American Psychological Association published an article a number of years ago confirming this suspicion. The top three resolutions they found were “lose weight,” “exercise more,” and “quit smoking.” At the time the article in the APA was published (2004), those three resolutions made up roughly three quarters of the total reported resolutions.

Luckily, these two issues—smoking and weight—are thoroughly researched. With some help from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov) and a medical journal or two, we can find out how well we kept our resolutions.

So, over the last decade and a half, how have we done?


Resolution: To Stop Smoking

Let’s look at the smoking resolution first.

Since the APA article listed above was in 2004, we can start there. In 2004, the CDC reported that roughly 20.9 percent of adults in the United States smoked cigarettes. That’s roughly 44.5 million people.[1]

Since non-smokers don’t usually resolve to quit smoking, one can only assume that the people resolving to quit are in that 44 million. Did they keep their resolutions? According to the CDC’s most recent data, in 2016 roughly 15.5 percent of adults in the United States smoked cigarettes. That’s 37.8 million people.[2]

That means that over twelve years, the smokers in the U.S. dropped from 20.9 percent to 15.5 percent. In raw numbers, there are about seven million fewer smokers. That’s a drop of about half a million smokers each year. While there are many reasons for the decline, it seems that at least some of those who resolved to quit smoking actually did!


Resolution: To Lose Weight

But the weight thing—that’s tougher.

Over the same time period (2004 to 2016) the United States has seen a marked increase in the number of people with extreme weight problems.[3] The change indicates that we need to do a better job controlling our weight as a country. Yet, the final word about weight loss resolutions may be more encouraging.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine[4] examined holiday weight gain in Germany, Japan, and the United States. The results indicated that in the United States, weight tends to peak about 10 days after Christmas, around Jan. 4.  By Jan. 6 or 7, however, our weight starts to drop.

About the time we start joking that our resolutions are broken, they’re just starting to work!

“Weight Gain over the Holidays in Three Countries”. 2016. New England Journal of Medicine. 375 (12): 1200-1201.[5]


Typically half of the weight gained in December drops away pretty quickly, evidence that the “lose weight” resolution may be taking hold. Often the rest of the weight is gone within a few months, despite a setback around Easter. Our scales typically show the lowest numbers in late summer or fall. In other words, we put on weight in December, pledge to lose it in early January, and then spend the next several months successfully doing exactly that.


Do Resolutions Work?

So what does this mean for our resolutions?

It means that we do a pretty good job keeping them. We resolve to stop smoking, and many of us do.  We resolve to lose the holiday weight, and many of us do.

These victories may not be caused by the resolutions but perhaps the resolutions help. Of course we eat less after Christmas is over, but combined with intentional effort, the weight may come off a little easier. Sure, some of us won’t quite make it. Many people want to lose not just the holiday pounds but a few more. Plenty of people are still trying to say goodbye to nicotine.

But on the whole, maybe we do a better job at our resolutions than we realize.

This is good news.

It means that we have reason to be a bit more optimistic about ourselves and our ability to reach our goals.

It also means that our resolutions are bigger than the first few weeks of the year. When we experience setbacks, it may be helpful to remember that keeping our resolutions, whatever they are, can be a longer term goal than January.

As this new year continues, we will be tempted to give up on or even make jokes about our resolutions.  When you hit that temptation, try to slow down and remember that our resolutions are far more successful than we sometimes realize and offer some grace to yourself and others as you try to keep up the good work!


The Rev. Derek Davenport ’05 is director of the Seminary’s Miller Summer Youth Institute and digital marketing analyst. Derek is also a PTS alumnus of the Master of Divinity (MDiv) Program and Master of Sacred Theology (ThM), between which he served at a church in Orlando, Fla., for five years. Besides working with youth pastors and young adults, he serves as a guest preacher in Western Pennsylvania, researches church symbolism on his website, and tweets at @DerekRDavenport.


[1] https://www.cdc.gov/Mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5444a2.htm

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/adult_data/cig_smoking/index.htm

[3] https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/obesity_adult_13_14/obesity_adult_13_14.htm

[4] https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc1602012

[5] https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc1602012


10/26 2018

Eugene Peterson: A Pastor to Pastors

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Today I feel like I lost a friend and mentor that I have never met. Author and pastor Eugene Peterson died earlier this week at the age of 85. According to reports, Peterson was put in hospice last week with dementia and congestive heart failure. Some of his last words as he looked up to heaven were, “Let’s go.”

He is probably best known for his paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. I have heard critiques of this, with people saying it is not a good translation of the Scripture. It is not a good translation, but it was never meant to be. As Eugene Peterson paraphrased his sermon text every week for his church, he started the work of The Message. He would take the text for Sunday and put it in words that his congregation could understand. He even wrote portions of the book while in residence at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

That was the kind of pastor that Peterson was. He labored for his people and worked to teach them the Bible. You can see that kind of effort in his recently published sermon book, As Kingfishers Catch Fire. He had a way of diving into the Bible with an eye for story and mystery and inviting those that heard (and read) his words into that way of thinking.

Pastor to Pastors

For many pastors, Eugene Peterson was their pastor—a pastor to pastors. He taught many of us what it means to be a pastor, how to love our people, and how not to get caught up the in glamour or career possibilities of ministry. His memoir The Pastor will be a treasure to many generations of clergy. His lesser known book Under the Unpredictable Plant gives a biblical understanding of what it means to follow God’s lead faithfully as a pastor and is the theological underpinnings of his memoir. I try to read it again every year.

I have been sad today at the loss of Eugene Peterson—sadder than I expected. On reflection, I think it is in part because of how formative Peterson has been for me. Many of my thoughts about what it means to be a pastor and the importance of the Bible in ministry come from him.

Spiritual Giants

But I am also mourning the loss of many other leaders. In the last few years we have lost important pastors and preachers, such as Billy Graham, Haddon Robinson, Fred Craddock, Robert Schuller, Gardner Taylor, and R.C. Sproul. We have said goodbye to great thinkers and writers, such as Phyllis Tickle, C. Peter Wagner, Kenneth Bailey, Thomas Oden, and Lyle Schaller. At the same time, numerous other leaders have retired, such as Walter Brueggemann and Timothy Keller. Others are retiring soon, such as N.T. Wright.

What I am mourning today is not just the loss of Eugene Peterson, though that certainly stings, but what I sense is a growing gap in leadership for the church today. Yes, other voices are stepping up, but I worry that many young leaders do not have the spiritual depth, personal class, and love of Scripture that the generation we are losing had.

I pray that more leaders will rise up. I hope that the church of the future will be guided by pastors like Eugene Peterson. I also look for more diversity in our leadership in the future—that the pastors of the future will have more women and minorities to look up to.

As Elijah and Moses were taken up, and as those who have fought the good faith are receiving their reward and entering the resurrection so long spoken of . . . as our church stands in need of influence, may we all step up and play our part.

Jordan Rimmer ’12 is the pastor of Northminster Presbyterian Church in New Castle, Pa. Previously he served at Westminster Presbyterian Church in New Brighton, Pa. He earned his Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and completed his Doctor of Ministry degree. Before moving to Pittsburgh, he was the director of outreach and youth ministries at Glenwood Methodist Church in Erie, Pa. He is a husband and father of four children. Jordan blogs at jordanrimmer.com and tweets at @jrimmer21. His sermons are available for download on iTunes or at http://jordanrimmer.podbean.com.

1 2 3 43