ESN continues its series of interviews with authors of Faithful Is Successful.You can read Bethany Bowen-Wefuan’s post on David’s Faithful Is Successful essay here. David E. Lewis is the William R. Kenan, Jr. professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. His research interests include the presidency, executive branch politics and public administration. He is the author of two books, Presidents and the Politics of Agency Design (Stanford University Press, 2003) and The Politics of Presidential Appointments: Political Control and Bureaucratic Performance (Princeton University Press, 2008), and numerous articles on American politics, public administration and management. David and his family attend the Village Chapel in historic Hillsboro Village in Nashville, Tennessee.
1. ESN: You mention at the beginning of your essay that when you started down the path to becoming a professor at a research university, you didn’t know any Christian professors. How did you find role models/mentors over time, and what advice would you give to Christian scholars looking for mentoring?
David: I guess I would say a few things. First, I would say that there are Christian faculty. There may not always be a large number but most who are working on the faculty see it as part of their role to support and encourage as much as they can. Often they have connected with ministries on campus. I would check in with the leaders of the different ministries to see if they know Christian faculty. Second, I would note that God has taught me a lot about what it means to follow Christ and do what we do faithfully through faculty that are not Christians or at different stages of their own walk. God is able to provide what you need but does not always do it in ways that we expect.
2. ESN: You also describe a turn in your graduate work where you moved from political theory about questions such as faith in the public sphere to research questions that focused more on statistics and very detailed knowledge about bureaucratic structures within the U. S. Executive Branch of government. At the time, you knew you loved what you were studying but not how to connect it to your faith. What would you say to emerging scholars with a similar experience—they love what they’re doing and are doing it faithfully, but don’t at present have big philosophical answers for how it connects to their theology?
David: For these folks, I would say be open to what God is doing and also be patient. Your experience may be like mine, where your work does not have a redemptive coherence except in retrospect.
If your work never has a clear substantive connection to your faith, this does not mean that God cannot be intimately involved in your research life. In the chapter I write about ways that my faith influences both the process of research and the substance. This includes asking God to provide good ideas, direct the questions I pursue, and help me craft something excellent. We do not control the production of good ideas, the currency of our research work.
My prayer is that at the end of a project I can thank God honestly for the output. I think honest thanks is rarer than we acknowledge in research because we did the work. If I am honest, I often give thanks because I don’t want God to punish me for not being grateful or humble enough. I give thanks because I don’t want to do anything to stop the good research from coming. Perverse, I know. Inviting God into the process at the beginning and throughout has made it easier for me to see God and work and to honestly give him thanks at the end.
3. ESN: You give some great thoughts in the essay about how to show Christ’s love through how you act as a researcher. One thing you mention is that sometimes awards in your field of research are given only to one individual, even though scholarly work naturally involves a certain amount of collaboration. You talk about seeking to recognize all contributors well, even when you’ve received an individual credit for something. How have people in your field responded to that practice?
David: This is hard to say. I know the people that have been recognized do feel gratified (and sometimes surprised). It does avoid the resentment that comes from a lack of proper recognition. For other audiences, I come across as less smart than I would otherwise. That is the tradeoff even if true. It is definitely countercultural. The currency of our profession is ideas and giving other people credit for our good ideas does not make a lot of sense. But, it is about the work and it’s about the distinctive presence of God in our world.
4. ESN: You also talk about praying in the process of writing one of your books, and even asking for grace to craft a good next paragraph. You describe in the essay how transformative that was. Have you continued to approach writing in that way, and how has it continued to impact you?
David: On my best days, yes! When I am busy, this can often go. I am just trying to get through the day or meet the next deadline. And, my work and faith suffers for it.
The older I get, the less I feel I can take credit for the things I have done or accomplished, from the ideas to well-crafted paragraphs. I think inviting God into the process has created that realization.
5. ESN: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
David: Most of us engaged in research are used to succeeding by being cleverer than most of our classmates or colleagues and working hard. This has always worked for us. When crunch time comes, we just work really, really hard and get stuff done. To be honest, we have perhaps not had to consciously rely on God. And, this is our default. I am persuaded, however, that there is a better way. In my experience my default mode of work does not give God credit for what he has provided and it keeps me from being what he intended, both as a full follower of Jesus and as a scholar.