This past weekend (03-05 Sep) was the annual British New Testament Conference, which this year was held at the University of Aberdeen (Scotland). Next year, it will enjoy the picturesque environs of Bangor University (Wales). In many ways, this year’s conference was a stepping-stone for me–both personally and academically. In the next few posts, I will detail why that is the case. As can be surmised from the title of this post, my focus here (and the next one) will be on the personal; although, there is some overlap with the academic.
I will readily admit that attending such a conference was an emotional and mental roller-coaster, simply because I constantly struggle with self confidence. In new situations, mostly with people I have never met, I know how to put on a brave face, and I know how to hold my own in a general conversation. However, if the ties of the mask become loose or my input to simple dialogue runs dry, nervousness sets in and I tend to lose focus and long for a quiet refuge. I want to do better, and I want to move past these struggles–I need to. Strangely enough, despite my inner reservations, these sorts of events are an excellent catalyst for making such progress. I am deeply grateful that I had my wonderful wife beside me who gave me the words of encouragement and the warm smile of assurance at all the right times.
One thing that impressed me about this BNTC was the congenial atmosphere of those who were present–some 170 New Testament scholars from various places. The academic snobbery typically endemic of conferences such as the Society of Biblical Literature was lacking at the BNTC. (If it was present, I did not encounter it). The scholars here were approachable and willing to dialogue on a diversity of topics, ranging from current research projects to favourite pubs in the UK. This sort of atmosphere helped alleviate many of my initial fears and reservations.
Immediately, on the first night, I ran into other PhD students that I knew personally–either from previous encounters or through e-mails. One of these was Ben Blackwell (at Durham University), previously known only from e-mail correspondence. Ben was extremely helpful in providing useful information for us prior to our move from the States to the UK. When I met Ben this past weekend, for the first time, I quickly realised that the help he provided prior to our move was reflective of who he is as a person. He is a very gracious and welcoming person. Ben also kindly introduced me to other PhD students–several of whom are working in similar fields of study.
Another encounter was Matthew Malcolm (at University of Nottingham). Matthew and I (and my lovely wife) met earlier this year at Oxford right before a lecture given by James Dunn. Matthew and I share research interests in that we are both working in 1 Corinthians. When he and I met earlier this year, he was amazingly insightful with recent trends and ideas–many of which have become foundational to my studies. Between the Oxford lecture (which was in March, I think) and now, Matthew and I have remained in sporadic contact through e-mail. Matthew has always shown incredible patience with my ‘newbie’ type questions and my occasional delays in correspondence, and he has been a wonderful sounding-board for ideas related to 1 Corinthians. It was simply good to see him again.
As the evening progressed, I found myself meeting a slew of entirely new people–both student and professor alike, and many of these professors were ones I deeply admired, which initially prompted feelings of worry. However, as mentioned before, the atmosphere of welcome proved to me to be opportunities for personal growth; and my wife’s presence with me and her supporting love were immensely comforting, which allowed me to be real and open with everyone I met. After a rather entertaining welcome from Andrew Clarke (the overseer for the conference) and Andrew Lincoln (the president of the conference), we broke for dinner. This proved to be beneficial in that I was immediately thrown into a context where being in contact with new people was inevitable. However, I found myself strangely calm.
Jenn and I sat with my other supervisor, Lloyd Pietersen, which meant we would be close to someone we knew. In front of us sat another PhD student called, Joe Baker who is working part-time on his research. The conversation between us was both relaxed and challenging. Challenging because Joe and I quickly became immersed in each other research projects, and I was deeply intrigued by his (rather ambitious) project, which is essentially a philosophical re-reading on Tom Wright’s narratival approach to the New Testament. Joe clearly sees the tasks before him and all that he must do to reach his goal; and, from what I can tell, he’s ready for the journey. The conversation was relaxed simply because of the company.
The evening, after dinner, closed with a main session, which was a lecture given by Todd Klutz (of the University of Manchester). The subject matter of Todd’s topic was clearly beyond my knowledge and I readily admit that I was lost about half way through the lecture. (His talk was on a particular interpretation of the so-called Eighth Book of Moses [in Papyri Graecae-Magicae XIII.1-734] and possible allusions to various Jesus traditions). It was at this point that my struggles with self-confidence began to re-emerge in a powerful way; and the darkness of the room was not helping. However, to myself, I prayed for comfort and asked for a mind of receptivity–not only for what was being discussed but also for being okay with the fact that my knowledge of such things was completely lacking.
The evening session ended and I began to make my way back to the room to see my lovely wife. (She was exhausted from travelling and as a result did not want to attend the lecture). Before making it out of the conference hall, I met one final person: Richard Ascough (of Queen’s Theological College [Canada]). I overheard Richard having issues with the internet service in the room–issues that I too was having earlier that afternoon. We chatted briefly about possible solutions to our similar plights and then parted ways, but not without the promise of talking more over the weekend. Richard was yet another example of the congenial make-up of the conference. On my short walk back to the room, I was able to reflect on all that had happened and how God constantly provided the comfort I needed. I said a quiet prayer of thanks and asked for strength to make it through another day and a willingness to learn and grow from this experience.