Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

12/22 2011

Fasting and Spending

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The Rev. Dr. John Burgess, professor of systematic theology, was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship and a Luce Fellowship. These awards made it possible for him to return to Russia to teach at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Humanitarian University and research the Orthodox Church’s resurgence in the country. He and his family regularly write about their experiences to their blog. Find below a recent entry.

Fasting and Spending

The run up to the holidays is in full swing here in Moscow just like it is in the States, with the difference that the family gift-giving, good food celebration falls on New Year’s Eve/Day and the Orthodox celebration of the Nativity (Christmas) is a largely religious celebration on the 7th of January.  And not unlike Christmas in the U.S. it is a season of mixed messages and contradictions.

Stores and shops are decorated, large artificial Christmas trees stand in front of shopping centers and in parks and squares around the city, ads everywhere trumpet the superiority and terrific price of their product and, now and again, you catch snippets of “Jingle Bells,” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” (Springsteen version). And, based on a non-scientific poll taken at the local mall, Russians are out there looking for the perfect gifts and stocking up on chocolate and champagne.

Meanwhile this is a season of fasting and repentance for the Orthodox. When I brought the topic up in class earlier in the month one of my students let out a big, “Hah!,” followed by “No one is fasting.” After some discussion it was conceded that at least some students in the dorm were fasting and as far as I can tell our Orthodox friends and colleagues in the Philology faculty are observing the fast. But my student’s comment actually hit the nail on the head. The percentage of Orthodox that observe the Advent fast is small so that, in the end the actual number of people fasting is miniscule relative to the population. Another non-scientific poll supports this. On a recent trip to our local Ashan hypermarket and Ikea it was clear that people’s eating patterns have not changed. The women in front of me at the check-out at Ashan had carts loaded with meat, sausage, cheese, eggs, and milk products (things that you don’t eat during a fast) and I was almost knocked over by a woman at Ikea who had been to the snack bar and had her hands full of sausages in buns (looked like she was feeding a crew).

All of this is further complicated by the fact that the New Year’s celebration falls in the middle of the fast, so how do you observe the holiday without breaking the fast?  “Christmas” without eggnog, coffee cake, or whatever else is traditional in your family?  Hard to imagine.

The Orthodox Church would like to claim the New Year’s celebration as its own. To that end one of the parishes that we attend will celebrate the liturgy on New Year’s Eve beginning at 11:00 p.m. and ending at 1:00 a.m. It may be that as the priest intones the words “Take, eat. This is my body which is broken for you for the forgiveness of sins,” he will be drowned out by the fireworks going off all around as people greet the new year.  Another reminder that the Orthodox Church is in an uphill battle in its attempt to shape Russian culture for the future.

Finally, when everyone is tired of the long holiday break, spending too much money, watching too much T.V., and over-eating, the Orthodox will quietly celebrate the Nativity with all-night services, festive meals, and parish celebrations. It will be not unlike that night in Bethlehem when people jostled for space on the floor of the inn and worried about getting their animals fed, the kids quieted down and registering in the census, while unbeknownst to them God came into the world and changed the course of history.

May all of us spend less and consume less. May we instead fix our affection on our Lord through worship. Let us be filled with the abundance that can only be had through Jesus Christ.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Dr. John Burgess, James Henry Snowden Professor of Systematic Theology



12/15 2011

Constructing Jesus

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One of the best things about Pittsburgh Seminary is our faculty. One of the best things about our faculty is their accessibility. Everywhere you go you are bumping into one professor or another. Whether engaging by office appointment (or an open door), eating lunch together in the cafeteria, or worshipping in the chapel, PTS students and faculty spend a lot of time with one another. 

However, in the midst of class syllabi and the familiarity of daily encounter, a professor’s scholarly work can sometimes go unnoticed unless they teach a class on that particular topic. This is where Faculty Colloquium comes in.

Several times each year, the Evangelical Student Fellowship (ESF) sponsors a community-wide colloquium where a faculty member is invited to present one of their recent publications. The presenter then chooses a respondent from among his or her colleagues (usually across-discipline) to provide a reaction to the work. The event follows that same sequence and is followed by a Q&A session. The intent of the colloquium is to foster even greater student-faculty relationships, and also to provide faculty members and administrators the opportunity to see what their colleagues are up to. This event involves everyone at PTS!

Wed., Dec. 13 was our most recent colloquium. Professor Dale Allison, Errett M. Grable Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, presented on his latest publication, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History. Professor Allison spoke briefly on how we remember things and why this is important for properly understanding the reliability of the Jesus traditions as recorded in the Gospels. This work truly has the potential to introduce a major shift in historical Jesus research. But, as amazing as that may be, I believe that I was most impressed with the characteristic humility that Dr. Allison displayed in his lecture. 

These are the qualities that the PTS faculty has to offer: world class scholarship, to be sure, and more importantly, the fruits of the Spirit. I am grateful for the opportunity to be shaped by these teachers.

Michael, Senior M.Div.


12/8 2011

The Love of God through Study of Biblical Languages

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One summer I worked at a Christian summer camp where we would teach our campers the Scripture passage that went with our theme. When we were ready to start practicing the verse out loud we would yell “SCRIPTURE!!!” I loved my experience as a counselor. I especially loved that we stressed God’s Word as a source for knowledge, wisdom, and encouragement.

As I began seminary, I realized that I was required to learn both biblical Greek and Hebrew with the purpose of delving more deeply into the Word. I trusted that my studies would enable me to accurately share the wisdom, hope, and love found within Scripture.

I just wrapped up my third and final term of biblical Hebrew! I took Greek during my first year in seminary and Hebrew this past summer. Once I began memorizing words and learning the nuances of the language, I remembered how much I love learning about another culture through language.

Since high school I have studied the German language. I even minored in German during college. I have always loved the aspects of interpersonal communication through other languages. What I didn’t expect in taking Hebrew was that I would grow to better understand my relationship with God the Creator. Through learning the meaning of different Hebrew words, as well as learning to recognize the intentions of the authors, I have come to understand more deeply the love that God has for me and the rest of humanity.

One purpose of a seminary language course is to help us preach the Word with boldness and accuracy. This alone is a great reason to study the language, but I was surprised to find how much closer I felt to the heart of God when I read Old Testament Scripture in Hebrew.

My interest in communications and language study has been enhanced by the Greek and Hebrew courses I’ve taken at PTS. I am confident that when I am called into a congregation, I will be prepared to analyze, explain, and clarify both Old and New Testament Scripture through the original languages. PTS has helped me to take what was just an interest in languages and turn it into a way to better proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ and for that I am grateful.

Donna, Senior M.Div.

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