And the Best Background Music for Writing Is . . .

Which kind of music helps you do your best thinking, writing, or creating?

I took several stabs at that question as I wrote my dissertation. I tried Rachmaninoff but found my heart too carried away with the emotion of the music. Sometimes I brought in Mozart’s chamber music. But most often, I enlisted Bach, supplemented with a dull “brown noise” to block incidental sounds.

But I found that the best background music—at least for the work I was doing—is the music of silence.

At first, I wasn’t sure about this. I had noticed, among writers of Ph.D. dissertations, a trend to name their writing playlists in the preface. Some prefaces featured songs and groups that I found to be highly distracting. I myself nearly caved into peer pressure by naming Johann, Ludwig, and Sergei as my writing buddies.

At last, I decided that—as much as I loved these composers—my favorite had been silence, sweet silence. And I found some people to back me up on this. Consider these quotations, culled from James Sire’s Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling.

It is only in silence that the mind can function without being carried along, albeit subconsciously, by the often profoundly moving sub-theme of whatever music is playing.
-James Sire


Best of any song
is bird song
in the quiet, but first
you must have the quiet.
-Wendell Berry

Of course, silence means more than the absence of noise. There is profound quietness of soul that is necessary for sustained, creative concentration. I think this is what the following two writers are getting at.

Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work.
-A. G. Sertillanges


To perceive means to listen in silence. Only in silence is hearing possible.
-Josef Pieper

Finally, here’s some advice from Sire:

Solitude means silence. Of course you may wish to play music, but resist the urge. Play it only when you are off-line intellectually. Any noise, any music—Bach, rock or Bacharach—grabs your mind or your subconscious and trails it along after it.

Sick of My Dissertation Topic?

People have asked me whether I ever got sick of my dissertation topic, as someone might ask a person who had vowed to eat only lasagna for breakfast for several months.

Actually, the opposite happened. As I neared the end of my dissertation, I became increasingly fascinated with the topic, especially as it intersected with the topic of personal sanctification—how believers become more and more like Jesus.

Far from being a dull diet of breakfast lasagna (don’t get me wrong: I love lasagna), it was like a multi-course banquet with a finger-licking dessert.

For those who are curious, my dissertation operates at the intersection of two huge areas:

  • the doctrine of the image of God (the fact that we humans were created in God’s image), and
  • the apologetic approach of Blaise Pascal (a make-you-feel-stupid brilliant mathematician and inventor who lived from 1623-1662)

Pascal’s big idea is that human beings are a convoluted mixture of greatness and wretchedness, and that nearly everything that we do shows how deeply unhappy we are. From this observation, he argues that only the Bible can explain why we think, act, and feel in such bizarre ways, and that only the person and work of Jesus Christ can solve this problem. Since Pascal’s method of arguing follows a pattern of reasoning called “abduction,” it’s been called an “abductive argument.” And since it deals with humans, it’s been called an “anthropological argument.”

Pascal never explicitly refers to the fact that we were created in the image of God. So I got curious. Does the Bible’s teaching that we are created in the image of God support what Pascal is saying?

After a lot of reading and thinking and writing, I decided to make this my main idea: the doctrine of the image of God does give more detail and support to Pascal’s way of convincing people to believe the Christian faith. Not a very earth-shattering idea itself, but it opened the doors to some pretty mind-blowing ideas.

Of course, not everyone will find my topic interesting. But perhaps these words from my preface will help explain why I enjoyed it so much:

As I approached the time to decide on my dissertation topic, I began to pray that it would tie together several themes that had sparked my interest throughout my coursework. I had been intrigued and captivated by Blaise Pascal’s apologetic approach. But the doctrine of the imago Dei had also beckoned me, not only because few seem to understand what it means, but also because it forms an important thread in the majestic tapestry of biblical theology. Further, I had become increasingly aware—in reading Augustine, Pascal, and Jonathan Edwards and other Puritan authors—how every sphere of life finds its raison d’etre in Christ, “through” whom and “for” whom “all things were created,” who is “before all things,” and by whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17). I was delighted, therefore, when the SBTS faculty approved my prospectus for a dissertation that endeavors to deal with the intersection of Pascal’s apologetic and the doctrine of the imago Dei. I have been even more thrilled to discover that both these subjects center on Jesus Christ. Those who follow the star of the imago Dei from Genesis 1, will find themselves gazing into “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). And students of the Pensées encounter an apologist who insisted that knowing God can come only through Christ: “Apart from Jesus Christ,” Pascal declares, “we cannot know the meaning of our life or our death, of God or of ourselves.”

I give thanks to the Lord for leading me to a topic that captured my interest, and to friends who counseled me to find a topic that would be an intellectual and emotional on-ramp instead of a cul-de-sac.

How I Prepared for My Doctoral Comps

Doctoral. Comprehensive. Examinations.

Cue the late-night studying, caffeine addiction, panic sessions and ulcers. Well, not the ulcers. But just about everything else.

The short story is: I passed! And the long story—for anyone interested in finding out—is how I prepared.

Obviously, doctoral comps are going to differ widely, depending on your field of study, area of concentration, school, and other factors. I don’t expect that my method will be helpful to everyone. But in case it’s helpful to some people, I’ve summarized it here.

To give some context, my major concentration is Apologetics and Worldviews at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. My minor concentration is Puritan Spirituality.

For my major concentration, the instructions were shrouded in mystery (cleverly calculated to increase student angst). We were given a (long) list of books, with the exhortation to have a “firm and competent knowledge” of them. That’s all the guidance they gave me, so I came up with some personal goals for my preparation. I aimed to

  1. demonstrate a broad mastery of the concepts I had learned throughout my years of coursework,
  2. substantiate that mastery with specific argumentation and data, and
  3. state and defend my views in areas of controversy.

Here are the main steps I took to get ready.

1. Prepared early

I started preparing early. One year before the comps, I requested the book list (Thankfully, since many of these books were required for previous courses, I had written detailed book summaries). Then six months before the comps, I started re-reading my summaries and key sections of the books. I really kicked into gear about three months before the exam, memorizing the main lines of argument in each book.

2. Organized material

I organized my book summaries into one big outline, condensing some, expanding some. My aim was to put this big mass of information into a logical sequence. (It’s always easier to remember something that is connected and coherent).

3. Used Cloud Outliner

I typed these outlines into Cloud Outliner Pro (Thanks to Joel Arnold for introducing me to this useful app). This app was key for organizing and memorizing my material.

Here’s why:

  • I could collapse and expand headings to go back and forth between major concepts and supporting concepts.
  • I could rely on information hierarchy to trigger my memory.
  • I could tap to reveal or hide notes on a specific heading. I would hide notes and try to recall it from memory instead of just dragging my eyes over the text.

4. Memorized outlines

I memorized my outlines. By “memorize” I mean I could talk through it, as if I were giving a lecture, using it only occasionally to jog my memory.

5. Had a test-day strategy

I had a strategy for taking the written comps. Quite simply, my strategy was to quickly outline what I was going to write and then write it. Some of my friends said they just started writing without outlining. I was too afraid I’d miss some important points if I immediately started focusing on the particulars. Writing the outline first helped me pace myself and gave me the peace of mind that I had covered the important material.

6. Drank good coffee

‘Nuff said.

I don’t expect these to work for everyone (well, #6 does apply to anyone). But for me, these steps helped make the comps more enjoyable. Two weeks before the comps, I felt I had reached a saturation point. Instead of soaking more information in, I needed to squeeze it out. So when comps time finally came, it felt almost exhilarating to write out—as fast as my fingers could type—what I had spent so long to retain.

If you’ve passed doctoral comps or a major exam, feel free to comment and let me know how prepared for it.

Writing? Close Your Laptop. Use Pen and Paper.

Here is one of the most important writing habits I have learned over the past couple years: I avoid using my computer until I know exactly what I’m trying to say. I have wasted hours staring at a blank Word document, waiting for inspiration from the blinking cursor, or–this is my personal weakness–obsessing over the formatting of my text, which is still only shallow bits of nonsense. By closing my laptop and using only a pen and notepad, I have been able to formulate thoughts clearly and more efficiently

So why is the task of writing best begun with good old pen and paper? Of course I can’t answer for everyone, but here are the reasons it works well for me.

1. You can’t check the news with a piece of paper.

I am naturally lazy. Therefore I tend to switch to something easy when the writing gets hard. I get this incredible urge to browse the news or social media, or anything that doesn’t require me to think so hard. Paper is a perfect solution to anyone struggling with indiscipline in this area–no matter how many times you flip it over, you’ll never find Google news or your Facebook feed on the other side.

2. Writing on paper allows you to focus on the ideas themselves instead of the presentation of those ideas.

Typing something out requires you to present your information in a linear fashion. But that’s not how thoughts occur to us. I must reserve the presentation of my thoughts for later. At the outset of my writing task, I must focus on figuring out what those thoughts should be. Using simply pen and paper, I can easily write in different sizes, different directions, and different places on the page. With pen and paper I can draw lines from one sentence to another. Then I can begin to form a mental map of the ideas I am trying to convey.

3. Writing on paper gives you the freedom to quickly draw concepts that are hard to explain in words.

By using only pen and paper I can quickly sketch out my ideas. For example, I can portray my thoughts as links in a chain, layers in a foundation, or branches of a tree. Yes, you can do this on your computer, but the process will be slower, and it will and lack the flexibility you need to quickly change your drawing if new ideas come to your mind. And please, don’t waste your time scouring the internet for diagrams and illustrations.

4. Writing on paper increases the chances that connections and thoughts will occur to you.

I have noticed that the added flexibility of drawing lines and diagrams increase the chance that new ideas will occur to my mind. I am rarely as creative when beginning my writing task on my computer.

5. Writing on paper saves your eyes.

Finally, save your eyes! The less time I spend staring at a computer screen, the better.


Six Convictions of the Christian Scholar

At the outset of my PhD program, my professor assigned a paper with the topic “faith and scholarship.” Due to the word count limitations, what I’ve posted here never made into the paper I actually submitted. But writing that paper compelled me to think through the convictions that would guide me as I began my academic journey. I’ve tried to arrange these convictions in order of logical necessity. Beginning with God, who is the source and ground of all being, they proceed to the certainty of God’s revelation, then to the scholar himself and his ability to know truth. Finally, they circle around to God and his call to scholarship.

1. God is the source of all truth: faith in seeking.

The Christian scholar is convinced, first, that God is the source of all truth. The fundamental building blocks of thinking—the laws of identity and noncontradiction—find their spring within the existence and nature of God. The mystery of unity in diversity finds its supralogical rationale in God’s Trinitarian nature. The formulas for goodness and beauty reside within the secrets of God’s mind. Because God is the source of all truth, the Christian philosopher affirms with the psalmist that “in your light do we see light” (Psalm 36:9, ESV). Because God is the source of beauty, the Christian artist can “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 96:9, KJV). Because God is the source of goodness, the Christian ethicist can “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8, ESV)

2. Human knowledge is real but fragmented: humility in knowing.

Convinced that the God who exists is also the God who imparts knowledge, the Christian scholar can be certain that he can possess knowledge. In this respect, he rejects the false epistemic humility of Humean skepticism. If God exists, he has chosen to reveal himself. And if he has chosen to reveal himself, there must be objects of that revelation, namely humans, created in his image. This conviction breeds a humble confidence—confidence that we can know, yet humble in that the source of knowledge springs from God, not ourselves.

The scholar finds himself further humbled by another conviction: exhaustive knowledge on any topic is impossible. Because he is finite, the scholar will only ever have an incomplete grasp of any area of study. The scholar’s incomplete knowledge compels him to maintain some tentativeness about truth claims outside of Scripture.

Still another conviction about human knowledge produces humility in the scholar: the noetic effect of sin. In their natural state, humans “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). Our sinful wills obscure the light of God’s revelation. Although the regenerated mind has a radically new orientation, endowed with the Holy Spirit’s guidance (John 16:13), the influence of the sinful flesh is not automatically eliminated. Accordingly, the Christian scholar must constantly fight laziness, pride, self-deception, and the temptation to defend rather than examine cherished beliefs and habits. Thus, because of the self-revealing character of God, the scholar can have real knowledge, but his confidence in that knowledge must be tempered by a humility that is the only appropriate response to his finiteness and the lingering effects of sin.

3. Special revelation gives certain knowledge and final authority: confidence in the Scripture.

Yet there is knowledge about which the scholar can be certain, and that knowledge is found in the Holy Scripture. The scholar must not be tentative about what the Scripture teaches. In contrast to knowledge gained by experience and reason, knowledge gained from the Scripture is certain and unassailable. Because of this, the scholar should apply the test of Scripture to whatever claim he encounters. The Christian scholar moves forward in his scholarship with the conviction that true and certain knowledge is found in Scripture.

4. The scholar is a composite whole: balance in living.

A fourth conviction that impels the Christian scholar concerns himself: that he is a composite being, composed of a body as well as a mind. While he may not be able to explain the nature of these psychosomatic connections, he at least acknowledges that his mental, emotional, volitional, social, spiritual, and physical aspects are inseparable, each part affecting the others.

5. Scholarship shapes and is shaped by other people: thinking in community

Scholarship does not happen in a vacuum—it takes place in conversations with other scholars, past and present. The scholar recognizes that he is an intellectual heir of a long line of scholars whose ideas have shaped, unconsciously or consciously, his own thinking. He recognizes that he is listening to a conversation that began millennia before he was born, and will most likely continue long after he dies. He recognizes, further, that if he listens carefully and thoughtfully, he can have a voice in the conversation that may be heard for generations to come. For good scholarship to happen, then, the scholar must master ideas—good and bad, past and present.[1]

6. Christian scholarship is a divine calling: loving God with one’s mind

The Christian scholar is devoted to cultivating the life of the mind—not merely as a career path or hobby, but as God’s call on his life. The call to love God with all one’s mind applies to all Christians; but for some Christians, whose capacities, interests, and opportunities allow, this love takes the form of scholarship. Christian scholarship, then, is an expression of love for Christ.

The Christian scholar views his scholarship, not only as an expression of love, but as his obedience to the dominion mandate (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:15). Just as God delegated to Adam the responsibility to extend God’s kingly dominion over the flora and fauna, so God delegates to the Christian scholar dominion over another corner of his garden—the wild frontier of ideas. If Adam had work to do in that primal garden before the fall, how much cultivation must the modern Christian scholar do! Before him is a chaotic jungle strewn with unbelief, error, and wickedness. And within him is a fallen (though regenerate) mind, prone to the same moral laxity. The task of the Christian scholar—to bring the world of ideas under the liberating lordship of Christ—is a daunting task indeed.

If it were not for God’s divine calling, then, the Christian scholar would have no courage to move forward. But with the assurance of God’s calling and enablement, he can face the task with joy and adventure. As the scholar applies his energy, learning, and creativity, the pure light of his Christian faith will be refracted into spectral colors through the prism of his particular academic discipline—whether natural science, psychology, history, philosophy or theology. God has called him to study, and he will do it will all his might (Colossians 3:23).

[1] Dulles, A History of Apologetics, 206. In his assessment of the apologetics during the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, Dulles laments that apologists “seem[ed] unable to turn the tables on the adversaries by mastering and correcting the new currents of thought.”