Academic Work as Spiritual Discipline

by Russell L. Meek March 4, 2018

I’ve always loved studying; my first foray into biblical studies came when my mom bought me an introduction to the Old Testament when I was thirteen. I devoured the book and started reading any commentary I could get my hands on. At the same time, I’ve often struggled with having a consistent “quiet time.” Sometimes I’m no good at praying; sometimes I’m no good at picking up the Bible and reading through it. I’m largely distrustful of “devotional” books. Something about the genre just tends to irritate me, and I realize the fault is most likely with me. Like one of my professors once told me, “If a lot of other people find something helpful or interesting, and you don’t, the problem is probably not with all the other people.”

I’d always heard that academic study is dry and leads to arrogance, haughtiness, and disconnection from the real world (and certainly it can). Reading the Bible devotionally, on the other hand, was thought to be the only real way to connect with God. I’m certain many people don’t see things this way, but this is the dichotomy I learned growing up in church. As a result, my love for academic study of the Bible combined with my difficulty having a traditional “quiet time” and the dichotomy that I had learned between the two made for a lot of guilt.

So when a seminary professor of mine told me that my academic work can, and indeed should, lead to a richer and deeper worship of God, I was elated. Could that be true? Could I really know God through studying his Word in a classroom or working through a technical commentary or poring over the Greek and Hebrew? Yep.

I just finished writing several entries for an expository dictionary. I’ve been mulling over one entry for several days now. The Hebrew word ‘ēgel means “calf” or “young bull.” It’s the word used for the golden calf Aaron crafted in Exodus and later for the golden calves that Jeroboam sets up in 1 Kings. The ‘ēgel is a clean animal and therefore suitable for sacrifice, but the only time it is mentioned in a sacrificial context is in Leviticus 9, which describes Aaron’s and his sons’ inauguration into the priesthood. The Lord commanded Aaron to offer an ēgel as a sin offering for himself. That’s the only time the term ‘ēgel is used to refer to a sacrificial animal in the Old Testament. What was that like for Aaron? What was the thinking? How did he feel?

Writing that short entry on ‘ēgel for an expository dictionary caused me to contemplate sin, holiness, sacrifice, personal responsibility, the nature of God, God’s goodness, and my own dark heart. By not bifurcating the “academic” and the “devotional,” God was able to speak to me and cause me to know him and love him more, to make me want to pray and read the Bible “devotionally.” And I could add more examples, but here’s the point: academic writing is for me a spiritual discipline. For those of you doing graduate work or chugging along in the academy, if you haven’t already, I urge you to take my professor’s advice and tear down the wall between your academic work and your devotional life. Instead of seeing them as distinct, let your academic study and writing become a spiritual discipline through which you are able to behold the wonders of our God.