Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

1/15 2019

Inside the PTS Curriculum: American Religious Biography

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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.

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1/8 2019

Defending Resolutions

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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

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1/3 2019

Inside the PTS Curriculum: Foundations of the Christian Story

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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 “Foundations of the Christian Story.”

Ken Woo teaching MDiv church history classAbout Foundations of the Christian Story

In the 2018 Fall Term Pittsburgh Theological Seminary students learned about Church history with the Rev. Dr. Ken Woo in the class “Foundations of the Christian Story. ” A required course for the Master of Divinity (MDiv), it also fulfills a requirement for the Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies (MAPS), and is open to students in the Master of Theological Studies (MTS) degree.

This course surveys the history of Christianity from the late first century to the eve of the Reformation. Doctrinal and ecclesial developments will be considered within wider cultural contexts, with special attention to different ways of interpreting the biblical witness to Christ and life in Christ, and how they contribute to a shared, yet dynamic, Christian theological heritage.

By the end of the class, students were able to describe key figures and events of early and medieval Christianity within their cultural and political contexts. Also students were able to discuss theological issues that shaped, and continue to shape, Christian faith and traditions. Dr. Woo provided students with a historical framework for understanding the development of Christian doctrine, practices, and institutions that will prepare them for further theological study.

As to required texts, this course used The Story of Christianity, Volume I by Justo L. Gonzalez. Students also read The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, translated by B. Ward, and Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. Frederick C. Bauerschmidt’s Holy Teaching was also required.

Dr. Woo also recommended a number of other texts to offer further insight. Students explored texts such as Elizabeth A. Clark’s Women in the Early Church, Denis R. Janz’s A People’s History of Christianity Vol. 1, Kevin Madigan’s Medieval Christianity, Patricia Cox Miller’s Women in Early Christianity, Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, and Frances Young’s From Nicaea to Chalcedon.

Students in “Foundations of the Christian Story” actively participated in class and completed two short papers, as well as a midterm and a final exam.

 

About the Instructor

The professor for this course, the Rev. Dr. Kenneth J. Woo, began teaching at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 2016. Previously he was historian and archivist of Duke Divinity School. He has taught at Duke Divinity School, Redeemer Seminary, and the College of New Jersey. He has also served as a faculty member in the United Methodist Church Course of Study program for ordained ministry. Woo received his Th.D. in the history of Christianity (Reformation Studies) from Duke University in 2015. Before that he completed his M.Div. at Westminster Theological Seminary and B.A. at the College of William and Mary.

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