In order to complete my Master’s degree, I had to write a thesis. I wrote a book. This took a lot of my time during the two years I attended Rutgers. Draft after draft after draft. Input from peers. Feedback from professors, my advisor. It was a difficult, arduous process but that’s what I had signed up for.
Oh, and there was a comprehensive exam.
We would be provided 18 quotes, each from a work or author on our reading list. We had to identify the work from which the quote was taken and explain the significance of the quote within the work. The list contained 70 authors and/or works, ranging from the Medieval period through 20th century. Among other requirements, we had a slew of poems to read from Langston Hughes (two books worth), short Victorian novels like Middlemarch, and Paradise Lost. As most of these works and authors would not (and reasonably could not) be covered in our courses, we had to tackle the list on our own. I printed the list and highlighted a work once I’d completed it. I had a lot to get done.
Reading the work was half the battle—now we had to understand what we read. One of the strategies I adopted was, along with some of my peers, creating a study group. There also were not a lot of students in the program, so we didn’t have many peers to choose from. Wouldn’t it be nice to open it up to everybody, get the most out of our studying? This sounded like a bad idea, and not because the more people in the group, the less gets done. No, in this case, it was because one of my fellow students drove me crazy. This person had a habit of being unprepared for class, complained about our workload often, and basically found as many short cuts as possible—and in grad school there aren’t many. If my passing this exam relied on studying with this person, I wasn’t sure I needed the degree all that badly.
The Book of Acts mostly chronicles the early growth of Christianity. And since not all Jews were on board, God opens his membership drive to Gentiles. Not all Jews were happy about having Gentiles among their ranks. In fact, recruiting them was often discouraged. But their numbers grew, and perhaps sensing there was little that could be done about their conversion at this point, even with all their waves of discontent, a council convenes with the purpose of deciding how to tame these newbies. They will welcome the newly “saved,” albeit with some crystal clear rules. The council drafts a letter of concessions that make clear what is expected of these new followers of “The way”: abstain from food polluted by idols, sexual immorality, meat of strangled animals, and from blood (15:20). Follow these four guidelines—oh, and God, incidentally—and you’re in the club.
Seems like an easy list to follow, although the second rule can be a bit vague. Based on how people have interpreted parts of the Bible, this apparently means no homosexual activity. But there has to be more to it. What about not raping women? How about not cheating on your spouse? Are these things not immoral sex acts? Perhaps they meant all three? And since it’s vague, I don’t see how it ONLY refers to homosexual acts (if at all).
Still, the fact that they had to make this rule one of the four concessions says a lot about their perception of their new fellow believers. I’m not sure this is a compliment—it assumes they were engaged in sexually immoral acts? Regardless, the letter shows that they needed the help and if joining forces made their religion stronger in the long run, at least they were willing to curb their objections.
I went on to do well on my exam (and graduate). Part of my success can be attributed to my study group. The person still drove me crazy, but I would be lying (or at the very least unjust) if I didn’t admit how, when it came down to it, the person had some useful insight to a couple works I did not spend a little time on. One of those works included a quote that was on the exam.