Monday, October 24, 2011


My last post got a lot of passionate responses (including one from Jim Kidder), which was a bit of a surprise to me. I guess I hit a nerve. A few were kind of miffed at me, but most were overwhelmingly sympathetic to what I wrote. So thanks for all the comments.

To those who were a little annoyed, let me clarify something very important. If you read my comments as nothing but condemnation, you've missed the point entirely. The tragedy of evangelical mediocrity is not the mediocrity itself. Every culture has its mediocre underbelly (like the vast majority of music, television, and movies). That's inevitable, I suppose. What makes evangelical mediocrity so frustrating is the fact that we can do better. That's the whole point. If evangelical Christians were mediocre, second-rate people, then sure, I could totally understand the mediocrity of our work. But we're not mediocre, second-rate people. We don't have to settle. We can be excellent.

Taking it to the science arena, I have certain limitations here at Bryan that scientists in industry or public universities don't have. Facilities and funding are big limitations for me, and a lot of my time is consumed with teaching and administrative duties. Seems like I could easily just retire from my research career altogether, but in my eleven years at Bryan, I've published 34 research articles. For someone in my position, that's pretty amazing. I don't have to let my circumstances hold me back. I can be excellent.

No, it does NOT come easy for me. I've had all sorts of journal rejections over the years. Just last year, I had two different papers rejected. One rejection was just an editorial decision that our paper was not suitable for their journal, despite the positive peer reviews. The other rejection was more irritating. I thought the reviewer was just being cranky, but as I examined our results (a DNA phylogeny for a certain plant genus) more carefully with additional sequences from GenBank, I discovered that there were some complications that we could not have anticipated when we submitted our paper (new sequences show that the genus is not monophyletic). Our results really were wrong (a point that the cranky reviewer didn't actually catch). Add to that the rejected abstract that I submitted to the CBS conference (my own conference, no less!), and you could imagine that I'd be very discouraged by all that rejection! But why? If one journal doesn't want the paper despite the positive reviews, send it to another journal (which we did). We found out that the genus we've been working on isn't really a monophyletic group, which makes for an even more interesting research focus. Yes, it's annoying that our paper wasn't published, but we can improve it with new research. Failures are not a blot on your record. Failures are opportunities to get better.

I tell the same thing to my students. When they come to me for research projects, I could easily send them upstairs to the molecular lab and have them repeat some classic experiments to give them experience in laboratory techniques, but I don't. Instead, every student working for me is working on something entirely new, usually with the aim of having the research published. This makes a lot of extra work for me, but I think it's worth it to the students. They get to see how they can make real contributions to science right here at Bryan College. They can be excellent.

When it's time to apply for grad school, any student asking my advice will get the same recommendations: Go for the best you can. Don't just settle for what schools you think you can get into. Go for your dream schools. If they reject you, then maybe you can settle for something slightly less than the top schools. If all your applications get rejected this year, find something scientific to do while you wait to apply again next year. Volunteer your time to help out on a research project. Find some way to keep your skills and mind sharp. Yes, there are people out there who will look down on you for your background and your faith, but there are also folks who will not. If you do good work and keep at it, eventually people will take notice. Why should you let the bigots hold you back? Be excellent! Don't settle for a life and career of mediocrity.

That's the point. Christians don't have to settle for second best or leftovers. You can be excellent! You don't have to keep churning out sub-par dreck and whining about how the world is discriminating against your Christian values. You can be excellent with what you have. You don't have to settle.

As for me, I read this passage in Isaiah 62 as I was thinking about excellence:
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet,
till her vindication shines out like the dawn,
her salvation like a blazing torch.
The nations will see your vindication,
and all kings your glory;
you will be called by a new name
that the mouth of the LORD will bestow.
You will be a crown of splendor in the LORD’s hand,
a royal diadem in the hand of your God. (Is 62:1-3)
Be excellent!

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.