I had submitted my thesis to the university some months ago, but they were having a hard time finding someone who knew about converts from Islam to Christianity to be my external examiner. At the time I was living in Nazareth, which is the largest Arab city in Israel, teaching at a local seminary. After some delay my viva had been scheduled, and I decided to pick the brain of my colleague Phil Sumpter, who had recently received his PhD in Old Testament from a university in Wales. I had, of course, asked several of my friends at Edinburgh about vivas, but that was early on in my doctoral research when actually preparing for my own viva was a remote concern. I had heard horror stories—the guy who had failed and then failed again his PhD, leaving the uni with student loans but no degree. I also had friends who passed with flying colors. But then there was the murky middle area, a friend who was given major corrections, which included reordering his chapters, and another one who was instructed to adopt a different theoretical framework.
I had the good fortune in that Phil was very interested in my research topics, which boils down to what do ex-Muslim Christians think about God? While his PhD was in Old Testament, and mine was in the field of World Christianity, there was some overlap: he had an undergraduate in cultural anthropology and there is a lot of ethnography in my thesis, as I traveled all over the world (four continents) talking to these converts and observing how they prayed to and worshiped God.
Phil offered to read my entire thesis, give me pointers and recommendations, and then do a test viva with me. And so, one day we hopped in my car and drove to the nearby town of Cana of Galilee (where Jesus converts the water into wine in John’s Gospel), and found a shabby café where we could indulge in one of our favorite vices: the water pipe, or hooka, or shisha, or hubbly bubbly, or arguile—call it what you like.
Phil asked some penetrating questions: aren’t you essentializing evangelicalism in paragraph two of page 79? Why do you use this scholar’s approach to contextualization rather than that scholar’s approach? On page 83 it reads such and such—is that your opinion or are you summarizing the opinion of the interviewee on the previous page because it’s not at all clear. And so on.
By the time the test viva was over I was pretty frazzled, thinking, Good Lord, if one scholar finds so much to question in this thesis what will happen when I need to defend it before two people? But the experience was very helpful—it gave me an idea of the sort of questions that might be asked. It also helped me to look at my thesis from the outside and I started to come up with questions that I would ask myself. By the time you are at the viva, you should be aware of any weaknesses in your sources or arguments. Why did I use the relatively obscure Taiwanese educator Shoki Coe and his theory of contextualization rather than a more detailed and better-known theory? Was it not a stretch to argue that some of these converts are proposing a form of liberation theology when they themselves don’t explicitly say it? And so on.
I also learned that you can get a good idea of what questions people will ask based on their own background. Phil knows anthropology and Scripture, and many of his questions were concerned with those areas. And so, the days before my viva in Edinburgh I buried myself in the books of my two examiners, and was even (to their evident humor) able to quote their own words to them in the viva.
Another thing that I learned, from the test viva and the whole experience in general, is that as long as you can answer the question intelligently, and your examiner is reasonable, it does not necessarily matter if the examiner agrees with you. Maybe the examiner really doesn’t think that Shoki Coe as expanded on by Robert Schreiter was the right theoretical framework—but I was ready to explain why I had chosen that framework, and conversely, why I had not chosen to use other approaches, though I was aware of them.
In the event of the actual viva, it was not as difficult as I thought it would be. Why did you study one group of converts from Shi’a Islam, and then a group of converts from Sunni Islam? Would it not have been better to compare two communities emerging from the same tradition of Islam? This was the most challenging question, and when I answered that conversion from Islam is dangerous stuff, and that these were the only two communities that I was able to even find, and that I had limited funds for travel, my very pragmatic (and honest) answer was accepted and we moved on to the next topic. I did have some corrections to make, but they took me all of two weeks.
I understand that not everyone has a friend or colleague who is both able and willing to do a test viva, but for me the experience was immensely helpful, and I heartily recommend it.
Duane teaches theology at St Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, and is also Lecturer in Church History and Theology at Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary in Israel. Married with three children, he received his PhD in Divinity (World Christianity) from the University of Edinburgh in 2014.
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