Lab Girl (2016) by Hope Jahren

I found Lab Girl (by Hope Jahren) helpful for understanding the experience of academics in the sciences, both graduate students and faculty, especially those involved in labs. I wasn’t sure, though, what to make of the interspersed chapters on plant biology, as fascinating as they were. They did provide a metaphor for understanding the rest of the book: “People are like plants: they grow toward the light. I chose science because science gave me what I needed – a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be.” (18)

At times, though, these interspersed chapters on biology felt like they got in the way of the story I wanted to hear more about, even as much as Jahren’s telling us of the biology of trees is as much a part of her story as all the (mis)adventures that she had. Her story was unique: “there’s still no journal where I can tell the story of how my science is done with both the heart and the hands.” (20) Nor can she speak fully of all the non-successes that obviously don’t make it into journals. Instead she notes that “I have become proficient at producing a rare species of prose capable of distilling ten years of work by five people into six published pages, written in a language that very few people can read and that no one ever speaks. This writing relates the details of my work with the precision of a laser scalpel, but its streamlined beauty is a type of artifice, a size-zero mannequin designed to showcase the glory of a dress that would be much less perfect on a real person.” (20)

The book was also helpful in providing insights into some of the unseen challenges of academic, especially that of science professors (and those who direct labs). She notes how, while we might expect knowledge and research to be the hardest questions that scientists face, funding is actually the biggest stress:

“Next time you meet a science professor, ask her if she ever worries that her findings might be wrong. If she worries that she chose an impossible problem to study, or that she overlooked some important evidence along the way. If she worries that one of the many roads not taken was perhaps the road to the right answer that she’s still looking for. Ask a science professor what she worries about. It won’t take long. She’ll look you in the eye and say one word: “Money.” ” (124-5)

She also talks about the challenges and loneliness that she experienced, particularly as a female in her profession. Despite being someone who won some prominent awards (and was on the tenure track at 26 already!), funding was a significant problem for at least ten years. She also speaks about being taken advantage of by another lab in the building, of being yelled at a conference presentation, of being ignored socially at conferences by the senior scientists in her field. She also notes about how hard when her life went against a lot of societal norms, especially what is expected of females:

“I didn’t know if I was crying because I was nobody’s wife or mother – or because I felt like nobody’s daughter – or because of the beauty of that single perfect line on the readout. I had worked and waited for this day. In solving this mystery I had also proved something, at least to myself, and I finally knew what real research would feel like. But as satisfying as it was, it still stands out as one of the loneliest moments of my life. On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known. In the years to come, I would create a new sort of normal for myself within my own laboratory. I would have a brother close than any of my siblings, someone I could call any hour of the day or night. . . I would nurture a new generation of students, some of whom were just hungry for attention, and a very few who would live up to the potential that I saw in them.” (71-2)

Despite all the challenges, there is a lot of hope in the book: the community that she builds, the grace and acceptance that she presents, and the quiet presence of God:

“My lab is a place where my guilt over what I haven’t done is supplanted by all the things that I am getting done. . . My lab is a place where I can be the child that I still am. . . . My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe. The machines drone a gathering hymn as I enter. I know whom I’ll probably see, and I know how they’ll probably act. I know there’ll be silence; I know there’ll be music, a time to greet my friends, and a time to leave others to their contemplation. There are rituals that I follow, some I understand and some I don’t. . . And, just like church, because I grew up in it, it is not something from which I can ever really walk away.” (19)

Difficult conversations

Conversations that matter are often difficult. Stone, Patton, and Heen do a good job of explaining what makes a conversation difficult:

“Anytime we feel vulnerable or our self-esteem is implicated, when the issues at stake are important and the outcome uncertain, when we care deeply about what is being discussed or about the people with whom we are discussing it, there is potential for us to experience the conversation as difficult.” Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations, xv.

By God’s grace, however, we can learn to have those difficult conversations through learning from the wisdom of others (like the authors of this book).

God who cannot be seen, known, or spoken about properly

Our discussions on Lauren Winner’s Wearing God and who God is have led us to recognize that despite being the God who sees us (and who we see), we can never see God fully. It is like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle where “the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known.” In relation to God, Winner describes what that might look like: “I cannot describe God in the same way that I cannot describe a picture I am holding millimeters from my eyes – the picture is made strange and unknowable not because it is distant but because it is close.” Winner, Wearing God, 235.

She notes further that:

“God is boundless and perfect; human language is precarious and contingent and decidedly small. Perhaps, say some philosophers, the only true things you can say about God are what God is not – God is not unjust, God is not finite- because to say anything positive is to limit a limitless God. To speak about this boundless being with our pockmarked words might be insulting, or deceiving, or just plain false. Maybe we would come closer to telling the truth if we said very little, or nothing at all.” Winner, Wearing God, 228.

But since I do need to speak of God and definitely want to speak to God, I appreciate Winner’s wisdom in how to go about doing that:

“It is only through prayer that I become able to speak about God at all; it is only in speaking to God that I can say anything about I remember this morning how prayer is first and finally a confession of dependence on God, and it is that confession alone that drains my speech of the power and argument and self-assertion that speech usually implies.” Winner, Wearing God, 234

God and laughter

Winner in Wearing God sees God’s laughter as intimately connected to justice:

“the laughter of God is inseparable from God’s justice. In the here and now, the kind of laughter that friends of God pursue is laughter that is proleptic – laughter that hints at, or partakes of, the world to come. The best laughter now is laughter that bespeaks a heaven in which those who have been made to weep by earthly rulers will, in the fullness of time, heartily laugh. . . Laughter arranges power, and God provokes us to laugh as testimony – testimony to our belief in a God who is ruling over a calamitous or oppressive situation, despite all signs to the contrary.” Winner, Wearing God, 190.

I deeply appreciate this focus on God’s justice and how God rearranges power. At the same time, this is not how laughter works in my own life. Laughter often comes from being surprised by the unexpected; this doesn’t seem to apply to God. As God is omniscient, even if the rearrangement of how things will be is surprising to us, it is not to God, and so it is hard to imagine God laughing the way I do so many times a day.

Instead, it is easier to see God as lovingly chuckling at us, as an adult laughs at a child who tries out words that he/she does not understand and doesn’t quite get it right. Winner describes this laughter somewhat in a text she read in a commentary on Ecclesiastes:

“‘Laughter makes it possible for us to make a negative judgment while yet remaining open to the other person, or even to parts of ourselves that we find inadequate or embarrassing.’ I will think back to the morning in Ashe County when I heard God laughing at me [rueful – as thought God appreciates that I cannot do any better but wishes that I could . . . as though God wishes that I would become a little bit more transformed, and see that I have not.] I will think: God has made a negative judgment; God is still open to me. I am still open to myself, even to my small, sinful, curdling parts. I will welcome them with laughter.” Winner, Wearing God, 199.

As graduate and professional school so often confronts us with our own failures and sense of being inadequate, it is encouraging to think of God as loving us even in the midst of our embarrassing moments. This laughter gives us the perspective to recognize that we are not as wonderful as we sometimes believe we are – and thus do desperately need God and those around us. At the same time, God’s laughter carries hope that we will still become transformed like Christ, and so we are given the courage to keep trying.

Are our big spiritual questions intellectual or something else?

Kerry Egan, in her book On living describes the big spiritual questions of human existence as relating primarily to community. She argues:

“We don’t live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories. We live our lives in our families: the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends. This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, and this is where our purpose becomes clear.”         – Kerry Egan, on living, 28.

While many graduate students do have intellectual questions about faith, the big questions often have to do with belonging. This is true even for graduate and professional students whose whole lives seem to be caught up in theories and thinking. And it is true even when the new academic “family” feels somewhat to have been chosen for them: for example, the labmates of the lab they join and spend all their time in, the other (vet) med students who are in all their classes and labs, the cohort that helps them through the challenges of comps and difficult classes.

When this family seems to understand them better than the church family, then it is hard for people to feel like they belong to the church. It is then that the intellectual questions become harder to answer – or even become less important to answer. We in the church sometimes see only the questions, as it is often easier to blame (intellectual) questioning than to recognize how the strength of another family (and perhaps the weakness of our own) might have drawn people away.

All of the Ideas Living in my Head by Don Everts (2009)

If you are in search of an entertaining, enlightening, and quick yet potent read, then consider picking up All of the Ideas Living in my Head, or any of the books from this series by Don Everts on a similar, yet distinct, character living in your head. I read these books nearly two years ago, and I continue to use the language of this book series to discuss my own internal conflict and invite others into disarming dialogue about the residents living (or visiting) in their head. The basic premise of the book is that each one of us has different ideas (represented as people) living in our heads. Some of these ideas are more permanent residents than others who are just visiting. A few examples of the ideas that the author introduces in the book are the Old Man with the big black book, the Fingerless Lady (who represents tolerance), and the Dirty Beggar (who represents evil and suffering). Nevertheless, these ideas run the show, dictate behaviors, and reinforce the beliefs one may possess. Things get interesting in the book when a conference is called in the living room, and the ideas interact with one another (normal people call this thinking). The author writes with clarity, wit, and honesty, and my friends and I have begun to describe our own ideas living in our heads – racecar drivers, dirty hippies, the hermit. Enjoy!

– JF, Emerging Leader 2016-17

Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How women live and write the heroine’s story by Jody Gentian Bower (2015)

Jane Eyre’s Sisters is not only for those who enjoyed watching Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice films; rather, it is an invitation to consider how women lead heroic lives of bravery, creativity, and rebirth. The author uses multiple classic works, such as Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, to draw an archetypal journey that some women embark on throughout their lives. Some of the chapter titles reveal the various phases the “wandering heroine” may experience: the descent, problematic parents and other relationships at home, the wrong husband (i.e., marrying a fantasy or marrying unconsciously), leaving, into the wild, the time of learning, on her own terms, a new life, and transforming the world. The author extrapolated much from the lives of literary characters in order to build her argument of the grander archetype of the wandering (and eventually, found/at home) women. At times, the examples from various classics were excessive for me. Nevertheless, the thrust of the book is compelling, and I found it to be helpful in framing my own journey into selfhood.

– JF, Emerging Leader 2016-17

n.b. Campus Edge does not own this book.

Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber (2014)

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor for a congregation in Denver, CO. She is a witty, honest author and speaker  who is challenging the Church to be more honest, bold, and loving to all people. Pastrix was easy to read because the chapters seemed to be short sermons that began with a personal story and wove in a Biblical truth. Many of the stories highlight Nadia’s self-proclaimed struggles with pride, indifference, and stubbornness. She takes no measures to protect her ego or hide her past stories; those become the fodder for the story, the mess which Jesus redeems. I admire her honest writing and anticipate the impact that will be made for the Kingdom through her ministry.

– JF, Emerging Leader 2016-17

n.b. While Campus Edge does not own this book, Brenda does have a copy that people can borrow.

How Dante can save your life by Rod Dreher (2015)

A friend recommended this book to me, and I am so grateful! Somehow, I have (nearly) made it through a graduate degree without reading Dante, but this book served as an accessible entry into one man’s life-giving interpretation of Dante’s poetry. In How Dante can save your life, Dreher (blogger at the American Conservative) narrates a number of transitions – his sister’s death to cancer and his nuclear family’s subsequent move back to his hometown in small-town LA (yes, Louisiana) from DC – that eventually led to his development of a chronic, stress-related illness. In attempts to finding healing on multiple levels, Dreher describes his journey through conversion to Orthodox Christianity from Catholicism, his conversations with a therapist, and his nearing-obsessive readings of Dante’s inferno. Dreher masterfully explains the journey that Dante travels in this historic writing and offers tangible lessons for his readers to consider and take action (i.e., lust, envy, pride, love).

– JF, Emerging Leader 2016-17

n.b. Campus Edge does not own this book.

The Ignatian Adventure by Kevin O’Brien (2011)

The Ignatian Adventure has been my roadmap for the past 15 weeks, and it will continue to guide me through the Ignatian Exercises through May of this year. In short, the Ignatian Exercises are a historic journey of “four weeks” (broken down into smaller bite-sized pieces to stretch over 8 months in the 19th edition) that were initially inspired by St. Ignatius of Loyola. The book first introduces its readers to the Ignatian way of reading scripture and prayer, and then gently leads through the traditional four weeks of exercises

  • experiencing the boundless mercy of God (week 1),
  • accompanying Jesus Christ on mission (week 2),
  • being with Jesus in his suffering and savoring the grace of compassion (week 3), and
  • experiencing the joy and sharing the consolation of the risen Lord (week 4).

I am reading this under the tutelage of a spiritual director from the Hermitage, and we began in October in order to align the “weeks” with the spiritual calendar. For instance, during the week of Christmas, I read about the birth of Jesus; and nearer to Easter, we will join the Ignatian exercises in the suffering and death of Jesus.

The intent of these exercises is to develop and commit to a spiritual practice of prayer and Scripture reading each day (for upwards of an hour). This, you may be thinking, is an ambitious goal for anyone, let alone a dissertating graduate student. There is no denying the fact that such a practice has been a struggle to diligently pursue; I often feel as if I am only skimming the surface of the depth of this historical journey of the soul. Nevertheless, I am grateful for the structure and simplicity of being given one verse or passage a day and asked to be with it in different ways.

I’ve learned that Ignatian spirituality invites its participants to enter into Scripture and prayer that may be foreign, uncomfortable, perhaps even scary. Throughout this book, the author introduces gradual steps into various approaches to the time participants spend in prayer and Scripture reading. Some of these include the following:

  1. The Examen – a daily prayer of awareness
  2. (Re)imagining God – having an image of God that works
  3. Ignatian repetition – repeating a scripture reading and finding new angles/depth
  4. The Principle and Foundation – a sort of life’s resume summary statement
  5. The Colloquy – putting yourself in the biblical scene
  6. Discernment of the spirits – desolation vs. consolation, a little like Lewis’ Screwtape Letters
  7. Ignatian contemplation – imaginative prayer

Additionally, O’Brien sprinkles beautiful, well-timed prayers by other saints and spiritual leaders throughout history within each chapter in order for his readers to enter into prayer through others’ words. See, for example, these prayers by Merton and de Chardin.

In all honesty, I am not sure what product will be revealed at the end of the Ignatian exercises for me. For now, I am simply enjoying the journey, the process, reading the scriptures with the NRSV (a different lens than youth), and having “no idea where I am going” (the opening line to Merton’s prayer, p. 37). I imagine this would be a fruitful journey for a committed book club, university ministry group, or intentional community to take together.

– JF, Emerging Leader 2016-17