My (Successful) Grad School Personal Statement to UCDS

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This past year, I spent much of my time applying to graduate schools around the country.  Since I specifically wished to study Second Temple Judaism, the letters of Paul, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, I applied to various graduate and divinity schools.  Though I accepted an offer of admission elsewhere, the following was my (successful) personal statement for the University of Chicago Divinity School.  I used the same template for each school, but I thought this one was my most polished.

Clifford Geertz once said, “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun.”  The webs of signification that weaved throughout my adolescence were highly religious, sectarian, and apocalyptic. In fact, after my cloistered high school days, I moved to Kansas City to attend a large vocational ministry school, which was charismatic and apocalyptic in nature. Insulated from the outside world, our class sessions and bible studies revolved around futuristic interpretations of John’s Apocalypse, the imminent return of Jesus, and the “prophetic revelations” of our pastor.  Just as John the Baptist fasted and prayed, preparing the way for the first coming of the Messiah, the school authorized a lifestyle of constant prayer and fasting, as a prelude to his second coming, and anathematized all other lifestyles.  As with most teleological meta-narratives, powerful identities of good and evil were fashioned, internalized, and assigned to the Self and the Other (or those inside and outside of the ministry).  The school created an apocalyptic discourse and, once embedded in the student’s psyche, used that knowledge/power to legitimize its own vocation in the world, as one who conditions and scripts students into a drama of its own making.

It was during that time that, unbeknownst to the ministry school’s leaders, I began studying the bible with a more academic orientation, reading history and theology books by NT Wright, Richard Hays, E. P. Sanders, Albert Schweitzer, Dale Allison, and Douglas Campbell.  While studying Koine Greek and Biblical Hebrew with a private tutor, I took interest in Pauline theology, Christology, intertextuality, hermeneutics, and the sociology of Second Temple Judaism.  For three years, I desperately tried to reconcile my newfound academic study to the sectarian ministry school I attended.  I met with leaders, attended extra services, and continually asked for prayer for my “intellectualism.”  However, after taking a unique interest in Jewish apocalyptic literature, I soon recognized that any historically sensitive interpretation of John’s Revelation was irreconcilable to the school’s dangerous rereading.  In the spring of 2011, I left the ministry school and, by association, lost many of my closest friends.

In my attempts to become a historically minded reader of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the non-canonical texts of that era, I undertook a Bachelor’s degree in ancient history at the University of Missouri – Kansas City (UMKC). Rather than merely providing students with the content and context of various historical eras, my history professors at UMKC offered instruction in the various methods of reading history (Marxism, Annales School, postcolonial and identity theories [gender, class, and race]). Within such discourse, I was challenged to read a litany of primary sources in fresh ways and, oftentimes, against the grain.  Stemming from my interests in apocalyptic literature in imperial contexts, under the direction of Dr. Jeff Rydberg-Cox, I wrote my senior thesis on native temple plunder in the Seleucid Near East. Drawing largely from 2 Maccabees, Josephus, and Polybius, while also employing John Ma’s theory of Seleucid euergetism, I sought to demonstrate how Seleucid benefaction of near eastern temples not only primed local economies for long-term taxation, but also increasingly fostered opportunities for state sanctioned temple plunder. I went on to present this paper to faculty members and fellow students at UMKC’s annual Senior Capstone Student Conference and have recently submitted it for publication.

The University of Chicago Divinity School has distinguished itself as an intellectually curious ecosystem, committed to both the rigorous study of religion and the nurturing of a radically diverse environment.  This commitment to hard-nose research and inclusive conversations in a pluralistic society uniquely fits my desire for advanced theological studies. Though my primary interest is in the academic study of the New Testament and the social matrix in which it was produced, I do not wish to partake of such rigors only to be cut off from engagement with our wider world.  I desire a theological education that is incarnational, which precludes both the seduction of the ivory tower and the muting of marginal voices.  As stated above, much of my passion for biblical scholarship and my ethics of inclusion grew in opposition to the painful experiences of my former sectarian ministry, which inclined itself towards elitism, exclusivity, and dubious interpretations of Scripture.  While I strive for costly solidarity with any oppressed person or group (race, religion, sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation), I recognize a unique compassion in me for young women and men who, like myself, have been caught up in monolithic traditions, where humanity’s irreducible differences are denied and fresh readings of Scripture are suppressed.

I am broadly interested in the critical study of Pauline literature.  From socio-rhetorical analysis to intertextuality and epistolary theory, it has been my joy for the past seven years to read countless books regarding the apostle, his mission, and his world.  Having read NT Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God and Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God, I am fascinated at both the covenantal and apocalyptic vision of the apostle.  Influenced by John M. G. Barclay’s Paul and the Gift, I have recently researched Paul’s Jerusalem collection as it relates to the autobiographical accounts of his suffering, specifically in 2 Corinthians and Philippians.  When viewed through the lens of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic capital, Paul seemingly rhetorically employed his sufferings as a sort of cultural capital that both corroborated his apostleship and underpinned his authority for taking up a collection.

My desire for studying Second Temple Judaism and the New Testament at the University of Chicago Divinity School originates from my belief that the Divinity School provides a faculty, a facility, and an intellectually curious environment worthy of rigorous theological education in the 21st century.  From world-renowned scholars to one of America’s top academic libraries (Joseph Regenstein Library), the University of Chicago exhibits all of the necessary qualities to prepare serious master-level students for doctoral studies.   Since my goal is to one day serve students by teaching and conducting research in a university setting, I wish to attend the Divinity School largely on account of its commendable faculty.  I would love to work with Margaret M. Mitchell, who exhibits methodological sophistication in her scholarship on the rhetoric and composition of 1 Corinthians.  In the same vein, it would be an honor to glean from the lectures and life of Hans-Josef Klauck.  As a student of Paul, I have found his book on comparative epistolary composition and theory (Ancient Letters and the New Testament) to be both enlightening and provoking.  If accepted in a program, I would love to follow suit and continue researching Paul’s epistolary rhetoric and composition as it relates to his communities.  Seeing that the University of Chicago Divinity School is committed to interdisciplinary research, I would also enjoy taking classes outside my discipline to work with scholars I admire (e.g. Clifford Ando) and to pursue fields in which I am interested in developing (e.g. literary theory).  More broadly, I wish to continue cultivating languages, both ancient (Greek, Hebrew, and Latin) and modern (German and French), gain exegetical tools for research (e.g. structural and grammatical analyses), and learn to process and organize information with conceptual sophistication.  All in all, this application represents my desire to be shaped by the lectures and lives of those that make up the University of Chicago’s faculty and the wider student body, whom they faithfully serve.

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