How to Inflect Spiritual Formation for Academic Life: A Bibliography

Individual vocations require specific kinds of formation.1 Dentists undergo one kind of formation for their craft, lawyers another, biblical scholars still another.

Although the fact is sometimes obscured by standard preparatory curricula, this formation is a kind of spiritual formation. It’s all the more so if you’re undertaking it to obey a calling you believe God has on your life.

Some elements of this spiritual formation are distinctive. Others are shared across vocations, even when they aren’t explicitly addressed in preparatory curricula. One example might be the fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5:22–23. For instance, both the Christian dentist and the Christian biblical scholar are called to kindness and self-discipline.

On the other hand, these vocations often require even their common elements of formation to be “inflected” in different ways.2 How, for example, the virtues of kindness and self-discipline get inflected, or contextualized, will differ somewhat for dentists and for biblical scholars.

Resources for Inflection

In that context, I’ve taken encouragement from some recent discussion in the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology to develop a start to a core, annotated bibliography for how spiritual formation can be inflected, or contextualized, for academic life.

In several cases, I would differ with some of the ideas in these volumes. Some readers may also find there to be occasional instances of objectionable language in some of these volumes (e.g., Pressfield’s).

So, as goes the general principle, so here too—a work being included doesn’t indicate wholesale endorsement of it. Where differences are particularly pertinent to the topic, I’ve tried to comment on them in the accompanying annotations. Such things notwithstanding, I’m hopeful that others may find as much profit in these texts as I and others have.

If you have suggestions for additions, please feel free to add those in a comment on this post. Though, please do note that I’ll be selective in making any additions to the bibliography per se in order to keep the main list as close as possible to what seems likely to be most helpful.


Allen, David. Getting things done: the art of stress-free productivity. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin, 2015. Affiliate disclosure; citation

Allen’s book is the classic about how to manage all of the “stuff” that goes along with modern knowledge work. At the core of his method for “getting things done” (GTD) is a five-step system. That system begins with capturing what has your attention—getting it out of your mind alone and into a trusted system. It then proceeds to clarifying what that thing means or requires. Because having your entire life in a single list would be massively unhelpful, you’ll then want to organize what you’ve captured and clarified. You should also regularly reflect on everything you have in your system—whether weekly or at least often enough so that you’re comfortable with how often that is. All of this getting things out of your head then frees up the mental bandwidth for you to execute efficiently on what you’ve identified that needs doing. Elements of Allen’s approach can lend themselves to “productivity for the sake of cramming more in” or “working better for the sake of working more.” But these tendencies aren’t necessary ones and are helpfully counterbalanced by some of the other resources listed here. Despite these caveats, Allen’s work remains an exceptional resource for thinking about the architecture of the processes that go along with “getting things done” in knowledge work.

Burkeman, Oliver. Four thousand weeks: time management for mortals. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2021. Affiliate disclosure; citation

Life is short—about 4,000 weeks on average (≈ 77 years). In that amount of time, there’s no way to “get it all done.” So, rather than treating mortality and finitude as problems to solve (since you won’t be able to do that), treat them as givens from which you start. You’re probably more than a quarter into your allotted 4,000 weeks by the time you’re reading this. So, how do you want to spend the ever-shortening remainder of your time? Answering that question requires deliberate decision. And owning up to that positive decision of something definite cuts you off from doing everything else with which that decision competes. This outlook immediately trivializes a great deal of what clamors to us as important and helps us focus on investing our incredibly brief and fleeting lives in the work and relationships that we genuinely find truly meaningful. Along the way, Burkeman offers useful critiques of productivity approaches like Allen’s that lend a more humane lens to but still don’t obscure the value of the careful thinking about process that Allen does.

Collins, Jim, and Morten T. Hansen. Great by choice: uncertainty, chaos, and luck—why some thrive despite them all. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. Affiliate disclosure; citation

Collins and Hansen’s research is about businesses but is easily translatable to academic life, which is perpetually filled with its own more or less serious uncertainties. They identify five characteristics that allow businesses (or academics) to come through and even thrive amidst the uncertainty and chaos of the world in which they work. Those that thrive observe a “20-mile march.” They ensure they make consistent progress on work that matters. They don’t bet the farm on something that’s unproven. Instead, they “fire bullets, then cannonballs.” They always leave margin for unexpected negative events to occur. That way, even when those events happen, they’re still “above the death line.” They develop and utilize a SMaC recipe for turning their plans into reality—i.e., a plan for how to do so that’s specific, methodical, and consistent. And having done all of this, when they have a stroke of good luck, they’re poised to (and do) make the most out of their “return” on that good luck.

Covey, Stephen R. The 7 habits of highly effective people: powerful lessons in personal change. 25th anniversary ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013. Affiliate disclosure; citation

Covey’s book is a perennial best seller. As the title indicates, after the introduction, the book focuses on 7 habits highly effective people tend to have. The first three Covey groups under the heading of the “private victory”—i.e., habits of effectiveness that have to do with one’s own internal formation. These habits include proactivity, beginning with the end in mind, and putting first things first. The second three habits Covey groups as pertaining to “public victory,” or habits that primarily pertain to interaction with other people. These habits are thinking “win/win,” prioritizing understanding of others before making oneself understood, and being cooperatively creative toward group goals. The final habit of “sharpening the saw” pertains to the “self-renewal” that enables continued development through each of the other six habits.

Godin, Seth. Purple cow: transform your business by being remarkable. New York: Portfolio, 2003. Affiliate disclosure; citation

Purple Cow is most immediately a book about business and how businesses hoping to be successful need to find some niche in which they are “remarkable” in the strict sense of being worth paying attention to. The discussion has ready analogs to the question of what makes a piece of scholarship publishable.

Godin, Seth. The practice: shipping creative work. New York: Portfolio, 2020. Affiliate disclosure; citation

Like any other creative work, biblical scholarship has no guarantees. Something might look wonderful to its creator but not to anyone else. Yet the only way to find out is to ship it—to put it out into the world for others to react to how they will … and then to keep doing it all over again. Godin also has some helpful thoughts on reframing “writer’s block,” the importance of consistency, and how to think about “imposter syndrome.”

Grant, Adam. Give and take: why helping others drives our success. New York: Penguin Books, 2013. Affiliate disclosure; citation

Grant’s book is particularly helpful in connection with the interpersonal side of biblical studies. In the volume, he focuses on two (or three) groups of people. “Takers” often get ahead quickly because they consistently focus on using the people and resources around them for their own benefit, without giving thought to negative impacts of that practice. Yet takers inevitably hit a ceiling when they burn through the resources and good will at their disposal and don’t have the relational capital to continue moving ahead. “Givers” fall into two groups. The first are individuals sometimes celebrated as “self-sacrificing,” who are willing to burn their candles at both ends to get a job done. As Grant points out, these individuals can accumulate large reservoirs of relational capital. But—continuing the candle metaphor—burnout and quitting are real dangers. The second sub-group of givers, however, are the kind of generous individuals who help others and do so in ways that are sustainable for them in the long term. As such, they can make still larger contributions than the self-sacrificing givers and ultimately also receive much more—though perhaps in different ways—than the takers.

Hyatt, Michael S. Free to focus: a total productivity system to achieve more by doing less. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019. Affiliate disclosure; citation

Hyatt’s volume is good, concise, non-technical “productivity system.” Hyatt divides his system into three steps, although only in the final third step does he recommend actually doing anything “productive.” Instead of frontloading action, Hyatt suggests beginning by “stopping” to determine what you really want to achieve and making the space to rejuvenate and reflect. The second step involves “cutting” away things that you shouldn’t be doing—whether by eliminating them altogether, by automating them so that they get done with a lower footprint in your life, or by delegating them to others. The final step of “acting” Hyatt then sketches out in terms of planning an ideal week to give you a scheduling “home base,” prioritizing what you will do in a given week, and focusing on the priorities you’ve identified. In many ways, Hyatt’s volume is one proposal for operationalizing the kind of philosophy of productivity that McKeown’s Essentialism describes.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011. Affiliate disclosure; citation

Kahneman’s book is, in many ways, a study in hermeneutics from the perspective of psychology. The discussion is relevant and helpful both to the task of interpreting texts and to the task of interpreting the world around us and the life we are deciding how to live in it. As ways of thinking, Kahneman describes two “systems.” System 1 is quick, intuitive, and emotional. System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Both can be subject to oversight and overconfidence, but being aware of this fact—not least through the book’s many examples—can provide a helpful antidote (though not a full cure) to these kinds of tendencies.

McKeown, Greg. Essentialism: the disciplined pursuit of less. New York: Crown Business, 2014. Affiliate disclosure; citation

In a society where doing more and more and “always being so busy” is often seen as a mark of success or effectiveness, McKeown’s volume delivers a compelling call to focus instead on doing “less but better.” Part 1 discusses what McKeown means by the terminology of essentialism, focusing on the importance of deliberate choice and the inevitable reality of tradeoffs. Part 2 recommends five ways to gain clarity on what choices and tradeoffs you want to make. These are to disconnect from the frenetic hum of ongoing demands (escape), observe what truly matters (look), embrace fun (play), prioritize key habits that allow you to prioritize (sleep), and apply extreme criteria for deciding what finally to accept as being on your plate (select). Part 3 addresses how you can eliminate whatever doesn’t make the cut for something you want to focus on as discerned in Part 2. The five angles from which Part 3 suggests addressing this problem are to carefully make decisions that then eliminate the need for many more subsequent decisions (clarify), learn how to say “no” gracefully (dare), sunset existing obligations (uncommit), remove non-essential appendages to essential activities (edit), and set clear boundaries (limit). Having eliminated the non-essentials in Part 3, Part 4 offers six ways to execute on the activities you’ve identified as essential. These strategies are to plan for the unexpected (buffer), focus on removing obstacles (subtract), utilize the cumulative force of small wins (progress), create helpful routines (flow), always be asking “What’s important now?” (focus), and enjoy the freedom that comes with a life focused on what truly matters (be).

Newport, Cal. Deep work: rules for focused success in a distracted world. New York: Grand Central, 2016. Affiliate disclosure; citation

Newport’s book argues for the value of developing the skill of extreme focus on completing difficult and valuable projects—a.k.a., “deep work.” For this argument, Part 1 offers three interconnected reasons that address the value, rarity, and meaningfulness of deep work. In a society where more and more can be done by automation and human knowledge workers are more and more distracted (and, therefore, less and less productive), the skill of deep work becomes an increasingly valuable commodity. This skill has great boons for employers as it increases the amount and significance of employee output. But it also has huge benefits for employees (including, e.g., faculty) because of how it allows them to accumulate “career capital,” or a body of distinctive work and expertise. To foster this skill, Newport recommends two negative actions—to “drain the shallows” generally and to “quit social media” specifically. Like Hyatt’s first two productivity steps, these actions have the primary function of recovering space for deep work (e.g., time, attention) that is currently being lost to less valuable activities. A third supporting practice is to “embrace boredom,” which Newport suggests helps to tamp down the brain’s craving for “novel stimuli” (e.g., social media) as a way of avoiding the effort required to apply your attention to a difficult problem. In addition to these supporting practices, Newport of course also recommends actually doing deep work, for which he describes several possible general approaches.

Newport, Cal. A world without email: find focus and transform the way you work forever. New York: Portfolio Penguin, 2021. Affiliate disclosure; citation

Somewhat sensationally titled, A World without Email isn’t actually about email (alone) or the elimination of email from existence or use in knowledge work. Instead it’s about what Newport terms the “hyperactive hive mind” as a default way of doing knowledge work that email was the earliest and still most pervasive tool to enable. The hyperactive hive mind requires and prioritizes constant connectivity and expectations for “responsiveness” to incoming messages. This scenario creates several problems, however. Among these are (1) the vastly greater ability of everyone else to send messages than any one person has to respond and (2) the way responsiveness to ad hoc incoming messages slices up time that could otherwise be devoted to deep work until effectively none is left. Newport traces the development of this default workflow along the history of the development of email. And he offers some initial suggestions for alternative workflows that would allow knowledge workers, including biblical scholars, to re-center the deep work that they do to create real value. Implementing some of these suggestions or working out alternatives may require collaboration among colleagues. But versions of some of them can certainly be put into place by individual biblical scholars to protect their own time and focus as well.

Pressfield, Steven. The war of art: break through the blocks and win your inner creative battles. New York: Black Irish, 2012. Affiliate disclosure; citation

You might not think of biblical scholarship as a particularly “creative” endeavor. But not least because it involves writing, creativity is an important element of biblical scholarship. It isn’t the creativity of writing fiction. Rather, it’s the creativity of understanding and of making oneself understood. And that activity of commitment, often in writing, can involve an odd kind of struggle. That struggle Pressfield describes as being against an enemy whom he names “Resistance.” Pressfield discusses some different forms Resistance might take, suggests strategies for countering Resistance, and includes a good amount of motivational encouragement not to let Resistance win the day and keep you from producing the kind of creative work you know you should.

Pressfield, Steven. Turning pro: tap your inner power and create your life’s work. New York: Black Irish, 2012. Affiliate disclosure; citation

The passage from student to faculty or scholarly peer can feel tricky and intimidating one to navigate, as can the transition from junior faculty to “sitting at the table with the big kids.” These transitions require the development of certain expertise. But beyond that, the change is essentially mental. As Pressfield advises about transitioning from being an amateur to being a professional, “You don’t need to take a course or buy a product. All you have to do is change your mind.” That said, the transition does come with dues that have to be paid. Being a professional requires a certain amount of public accountability for your work—it’s not as though you decide to be a professional and then somehow magically everyone sees everything you do as priceless gems. The amateur might complain or bemoan critique. The professional owns up to it, retools, and comes back graciously with something more compelling.

Pressfield, Steven. Do the work: overcome resistance and get out of your own way. New York: Black Irish, 2015. Affiliate disclosure; citation

Continuing the metaphor of “Resistance” from his War of Art, this volume of Pressfield’s focuses on often predictable points where Resistance shows up in long-form creative projects (e.g., articles, dissertations). Pressfield offers encouragement and coping strategies for beating resistance when it shows up so that you can complete whatever project it is that Resistance is threating to stall. In this connection, the book particularly resonates with Godin’s Practice.

Sertillanges, A. G. The intellectual life: its spirit, conditions, methods. Translated by Mary Ryan. New ed. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1998. Affiliate disclosure; citation

As its title indicates, Sertillanges’s volume speaks to the nature of academic life formed within a community of faith. For Sertillanges, that community is particularly Catholic, but what he describe is broadly applicable to scholars from other confessional backgrounds as well. After discussing the nature of “the intellectual vocation” and the particular virtues and attitude that an intellectual should exhibit, Sertillanges considers the structure of intellectual life both in terms of its consistent habits and in terms of its times for work. Sertillanges addresses also the kind of work that the intellectual life requires, how to prepare for it (particularly in terms of reading, notetaking), and the task of creative work. Finally, Sertillange discusses some elements of the intellectual as a human person (e.g., not losing touch with life, the value of relaxation, navigating the problems and successes that inevitably arise).

Vaden, Rory. Procrastinate on purpose: 5 permissions to multiply your time. New York: Perigee, 2015. Affiliate disclosure; citation

The heart of Vaden’s proposal is what he develops in the metaphor of a five-stage “focus funnel.” Any action must pass through all five stages of the funnel to be something you actually devote attention to. Stage 1 is to “eliminate.” If something doesn’t need to be done, you don’t do it. Stage 2 is to “automate.” If something does need to be done (passes Stage 1) and you can create a system or process so that it doesn’t require attention from you in the future, the time you invest creating that system or process will be repaid. Stage 3 is to “delegate” if possible. If something needs to be done (Stage 1) and can’t be automated (Stage 2) but doesn’t need to be done by you, you should look at whether someone else would be better suited to complete the activity. This step can be tricky if you have no one reporting to you. But even in this scenario, creative solutions can be possible. Stage 4 is to “procrastinate.” If something needs to be done specifically by you (Stages 1–3), it bears asking whether it needs to be done now or whether it can be done later. From this proposal comes the title of Vaden’s book. His idea is that the specifications for work—or sometimes even the need to do the work at all—sometimes change between the time you become aware of it and the time at which you really need to begin the work if you’re going to complete it on time. Within that range, if you begin the work too early, you’ll suffer the need to redo some of it or adjust it to changed needs. So, sometimes, starting work too early has hazards and costs just as does starting work too late. If you determine the work can wait, then it waits without action until the point in time when you determine it can’t wait any longer without jeopardizing the result’s quality, timeliness, or other factors. (In this connection, McKeown’s discussion in Essentialism of the principle of “buffer” is an important balancing emphasis.) Only when work passes the final checkpoint of not being able to be deferred to a later date does it become something on which you then “concentrate” until it’s complete (Stage 5). To this discussion, Vaden adds a final admonition to make decisions now that will end up creating more time for you in the long run.

  1. Header image provided by Eugenio Mazzone

  2. For this language of “inflection” of spiritual formation, I’m grateful to Craig Bartholomew. 

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3 responses to “How to Inflect Spiritual Formation for Academic Life: A Bibliography”

  1. Matthew Miller Avatar
    Matthew Miller

    old: First, how might books not of an overt spiritual nature cultivate spiritual maturation as a Christian scholar and second, given the robust pursuit of faith and reason in medieval philosophy, might there be books from that time that may also be helpful to such ends? These books may give a helpfully distinctive perspective from contemporary works focused on productivity or personal effectiveness. Just a thought. In terms of books, my suggestions are Cal Newport “Digital Minimalism” for being focused and productive. Also I think of George M. Marsden’s “The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship”, William Law’s “A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life”, and Thomas a’Kempis’ “The Imitation of Christ”. I haven’t ascended the ranks of scholarship by any means, but I find these works humble and inform serious thought about focus, intention, and challenges of devoted living while trying to do rigorous thinking. Thanks again for your insights and kindness!

    1. Matthew Miller Avatar
      Matthew Miller

      I am not really sure what happened to the first half of my response…oh well. I am deeply appreciative for this working list and am interested in how it develops. Thanks again Dr. Stark!

      1. J. David Stark Avatar

        Thanks, Matthew. And these are great questions. First, I’d fully agree that there are helpful things that I’ve left out of this list at this point. Some are absent (e.g., Law, à Kempis) because they’re so broadly helpful and applicable across various vocations. And what I’m trying to give here are resources that might be particularly helpful in inflecting formation as needed for academic life. Some aren’t here because I felt like their essential contributions were already made (and made better) by other books. Digital Minimalism is a case in point. It’s a helpful book but I think somewhat redundant (though that’s not in itself bad) when paired up with Deep Work and Wold without Email. I’m definitely open to pulling in older texts, as well as those from a more overtly Christian perspective. But I’m also trying to keep the list as tight as possible. To that end, one of the Pressfield volumes is likely on the chopping block at some point. In addition to what you’ve mentioned, there is also Matt Perman’s What’s Best Next, which is a good and helpful book. But I’ve not found it or much else from identifiably Christian authors to be as helpful as some of the other titles here (Hyatt is a notable exception). That’s certainly not a dig at the relevance of Christian faith to this question—the question of formation. Rather, it’s a dig on how well Christians have generally done thus far at leading the van in thinking about the specific inflection of formation that’s appropriate for academic life (and of course, to varying degrees, related vocations as well). In short, to hackney Augustine’s metaphor about “plundering the Egyptians,” at least personally, I’ve thus far found better resources in texts like those listed above than in those from explicitly Christian sources. But then, trying to make up for some of that lack is one of the reasons I write here what I do. And I’ve recently come across what looks also like some really good, encouraging work being done by Reagan Rose. Hope this is helpful for context, but I do totally agree that the list above is hardly final. 🙂

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