Monday, November 14, 2005

Christianity in the literature classroom

This post is inspired by, and partly a response to, a substantial post on dealing with religion (as background or subject matter) in early modern texts, written by ScribblingWoman at her site. It also takes up, obliquely, something New Kid referred to in passing (and promised to take up in greater detail herself at some point). It is also a subject that has been addressed in the non-blogging world (what’s that?). It was addressed at last year’s MLA (on one of the Middle English division panels) and the forthcoming inaugural volume (March 2006) of the newly designed ELN (English Language Notes) is devoting its entire issue to the subject in terms of research and scholarship, under the title “Literary History and the Religious Turn.” All of which is to say that this is an ongoing professional conversation about teaching and scholarship, one that is not likely to go away, especially given what seems to be a growing urge to talk openly about religion and religious beliefs in public culture, which wasn’t always the case in what my parents’ generation called “polite” society. But it is especially pertinent to those of us who teach and research explicitly religious texts, in my case, the vernacular devotional texts of medieval Christianity.

It is also very long, and I haven't yet figured out how to use the “below the fold” function of Blogger. Consider yourself warned.

Once in my medieval drama course, a student wrote in his evaluation that I had so much respect for the texts I taught that I made it hard for students to be openly critical of them. And another student, in a similar class at a different institution, allegedly told other students (or so I heard) that he thought you had to be a Christian to talk about these texts and that he felt out place in the class. (He clearly assumed that I and all the other students were Christians. This made atheist Dr. Virago and her Jewish grad student – the one who reported this to me – laugh very hard.) And one of the students in my medieval women writers course thought there were too many religious texts on the syllabus. (Well, now, that was a very frustrating eval, given that most women’s writing from the Middle Ages is religious. What’s a prof to do?) Those are all comments from obviously non-Christian students. Meanwhile, the Christian students of all denominations seem to gravitate towards my classes – it may be the subject matter, or it may be me, or perhaps it’s both. One of these students told me I had a “gift,” and I’m pretty sure she meant that my talent was God’s purpose for me. (That’s usually what an evangelical means when they tell you you have a “gift.”) And another told me (and also Victorianist colleague) that we’re “nice to Christians” (which made me cringe to think what that implied about my colleagues or, more likely, her assumptions about them). Others just keep taking classes with me and some students have taken classes with me on the recommendation of friends from church who are also students here. Plus, I seem to think that there are more evangelicals here than my colleagues think and it may be because more students openly announce themselves as Christian in my classroom.

Now, what on earth has led all these students to think that this atheist, feminist, liberal virago is at all Christian or favors religious texts at the expense of non-religious ones? The Boyfriend says it’s because I can “talk the Jesus talk,” which is kind of true, and it’s also true that I take seriously the texts I study and teach – who doesn’t? – but just because I can describe their worldview doesn’t mean that I share it. But I think many of my students do assume such a one-to-one correspondence. (This is why a misguided Penn State conservative student assumes that courses in Medieval Studies are necessarily conservative in this article. I also think these kinds of assumptions about professors, their subject matter, and their beliefs is part of what’s driving all the nonsense about liberal profs indoctrinating their students. But that’s an issue for another post.) I think Christian texts in particular provoke strong feelings, negative or positive, from many or even most students. If they have reason to fear or resent Christianity, their first reaction to Christian devotional texts is likely to be “Yech. Religious stuff,” and they switch off. I know that reaction first hand. Having been raised Catholic and having survived 12 years of Catholic schools, the last thing I wanted more of in college was overtly religious stuff. But after heavy doses of Modernism (which also has its religious side – Yeats, anyone? – but in a more mythic, less doctrinaire, sense) and time away from all those Catholic schools, I was ready to come back to religious texts with scholarly distance but also a kind of disinterested sympathy (perhaps an oxymoronic phrase, I know). I’d like to be able to teach that stance to the non-Christian students. But they’re not the only ones who need a little distance.

Others who need some critical distance include the fervently Christian students who sometimes over-identify with the texts, often not seeing the historical or theological differences from their own practices. And then there are the few evangelicals and even a few mainline Protestants who think ahistorically that the stuff they like – Julian of Norwich, for example, or Chaucer when he’s making fun of friars and monks – is “really” Christian and the stuff they don’t like belongs to the false “Roman Church.” (Some of them are just confused historically. Some of them don’t know that their brand of Christianity came after the Middle Ages. Some of them have a consciously formed providential view of history and will always interpret things this way. I can’t do anything about that last group, but they are by far the rarest. I think I’ve only ever had two in my years of teaching so far.) And then there are the feminists who think that The Church universally oppressed all women and made them all mere chattel, and that Julian, Margery Kempe, Christine de Pizan, et al., therefore can have nothing to say of value because clearly these women were just mystified and brain-washed. To appropriate La Lecturess’s words in her thoughtful comment at ScribblingWoman: “Not. Useful!” And the lefties (feminist or not) subscribe to a similar view (only replace “all women” with “all people”).

But wait, there’s more. Then there’s the identity politics/experience angle, which makes some of my students think they can’t speak of or about these Christian texts or beliefs because they aren’t Christian and don’t share that experience. On the flip side, for some of the evangelicals and politically conservative students (not always the same thing, remember!) the fact that I even speak of Christianity and Christian practices and do so with any kind of respect or objectivity (or even just the lack of derision) must mean, in their minds, that I am a believer and a conservative, because they have bought the myth of the persecution of and discrimination against one or both groups (Christians and conservatives) in mainstream culture, especially in universities.

Ai-yi-yi! What’s a medievalist to do to clear the air? (Note: I’ve never gotten all these kinds of students in one classroom. The above group portrait is an amalgamation of a mere four years of teaching upper-division and graduate courses on medieval texts.)

I think up until now I’ve simply assumed that students knew, coming in to my classes, that medieval English texts were frequently going to address Christian topics or use Christian tropes. And I forgot what it was like to be a late-adolescent still passionately rejecting or embracing belief systems of all kinds. Tony, another one of the commenters at ScribblingWoman said that literature teachers should not be embarrassed about reclaiming sacred texts as belonging to all humankind. For the non-Christian students and the Christians alike, this is a struggle, though for different reasons, and the same can be said of medieval texts with Christian subjects or themes. So, I think from now on, I’m going to talk, early in the semester, about how to think critically about these texts without either being dismissive of them or over-identifying with them. The way to do that, I will suggest, is to think of them as belonging to a mythos that no one really shares today, that we can only study – e.g., the ancient Greek and Roman cultures and their religions. No one reads the Odyssey and thinks, “Ick, there’s all this god stuff,” or, conversely, “Homer’s conception of the pantheon is just like mine!” (I have to say, I kind of wish that last hypothetical statement were so, if only for the novelty of it.) I’m sure this will appeal more immediately to the non-Christians, but I will emphasize to the Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, that this will be the best way for them to see the Middle Ages “fresh” and not through the lens of contemporary practices, which even in Catholicism are very different from the Middle Ages. (Heck, the medieval Christian church wasn’t even called the Catholic-with-a-capital-C yet.) I hope this will open up the interest and value of the religious texts for the non-Christians (and for the occasional evangelical worried about popery and Mariolatry) and also make the Christian students more aware of the historical differences between Christianity then and now.

Of course, I realize that I’m kind of assuming here that you can be objective and leave behind your emotional reactions and beliefs in reading a text. I know this isn’t entirely possible, but I think at the undergrad level it’s a place to start. I don’t want to discourage them from really “getting into” a text if they like it and identify with it. The evangelical student who said I had a “gift” also went on to read all of Julian of Norwich on her own, which is great! And I also don’t mind if they decide they don’t like a single thing we read. Really, their personal tastes don’t really concern me. But I don’t necessarily want them to start from the position of personally liking or disliking a text either, for all the reasons I’ve laid out above. So I think a little buying into the notion of critical objectivity is perhaps a practical, if temporary, stance to take.

What do you think?


Another Damned Medievalist said...

Nice post. One of my students asked me today if he could ask my feelings on religion. We'd been talking about the origins of Islam (I'm behind) and we discussed one of the lives of Muhammed, some of the Sunnah, and what was going on with the initial invasion of Spain (the whole Roderic/Ilyan saga). Yeah, we discuss religion in the history survey. Because, you know, it's hugely important in terms of the development of Western Civ.


haafmuce -- what's left six months after hunting season

Dr. Virago said...

Uh-oh, ADM, you know you shouldn't be discussing "inappropriate content" in your courses -- David Horowitz will come after you! What's Islam doing in a *Western* civ class? (I kid, of course. Btw, in that Penn State article I cited parenthetically -- with the student clamoring for Medieval Studies classes b/c they're conservative, in her mind -- that same student also complained about clases on Marxism and feminism and then said they needed more "Western" classes. Ummmmm....)

Slightly off-topic, at the end of your comments are you trying to come up with definitions for the word verifications? That's *hilarious*! I especially liked this one!

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Oh, yeah, I guess that's the thing to to these days ...

But yeah ... all that inappropriate religion. I have a student who writes me really nice notes, but signs her letters 'In Him', and 'In His Name' -- I'm not sure what that means.

chjheg -- cha-ching with a head cold

Dr. Virago said...

Well clearly I'm not up on my minor blog trends. I've been too busy making fun of aviator style glasses over at Berube's blog.

As for "In Him." Oh for pete's sake. I get those -- also "In Christ's Love." At least in the latter it seems they're sharing Christ's love with you. But in the former it reminds me of writing "JMJ" (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph) at the top of my papers in junior high. Seriously, God has better things to do that worry about some kid's homework. (That reminds me, btw, of the marathoners who wear t-shirts with slogans like "He walks with me." Well, yes, in the *metaphorical* sense, maybe, but I really doubt he cares if you set a PR today.)

So yeah. I could do without that much religion in my classes!

dxsguf -- a dyslexic's back-talk

La Lecturess said...

I don't even know where to begin with this post, there's so much good and interesting stuff here.

I really think it's a good idea to emphasize the foreign-ness of the systems of belief that we study, and I'll probably be doing the same thing in my own classes next semester as well; I think it's nice when my religiously-committed Christian students groove on the stuff we're reading, and it's invaluable to have people in the room who actually, you know, recognize an allusion to a biblical parable when it traipses across the page--but as you point out, they often have a tendency to overidentify *any* version of Christianity with *their* version of it. (Have I mentioned that one of the "definitions" on my midterm was predestination? And that many students who talked intelligently about the Reformation and even about Calvin then went on to identify Margery Kempe--or in a couple of cases, BEOWULF-- as an example of a work that deals with predestination?)

But even without the religious component, it's tricky, always, to know how to present periods not our own. I know that I'm always torn between the desire to relate an author's works or experiences to contemporary concerns, on the one hand, and the desire to emphasize how absolutely and completely foreign these people and their values are, on the other. Both are essential, I think (I wouldn't work on the stuff I do if I didn't feel that it had *some* continuing intellectual or emotional relevance, although it's obviously relevant only at some remove), but each is hard to do in itself and striking that balance is even harder. I *want* my students to identify with at least some of the works we read--but in a general, nothing-that-is-human-is-alien-to-me way, rather than a, "this proves the truth of Christ's redemption" kind of way.

And sometimes, I think they do. I have a hajib-wearing black Muslim in my Brit Lit survey who seems really INTO some of the Protestant devotional poetry we've read. You never know.

(Going to think about this some more. For now, to bed.)

Dr. Virago said...

Lecturess said: I know that I'm always torn between the desire to relate an author's works or experiences to contemporary concerns, on the one hand, and the desire to emphasize how absolutely and completely foreign these people and their values are, on the other. Both are essential, I think

I hear you! In fact, I kept thinking this as I was writing this post, but I knew it was getting too long to deal with this issue as well. This quandary is especially relevant to literatures pre-1800 as our students -- and sometimes our administrators!* -- often don't the value/relevance/worth in studying these subjects, so you want to stress the connections with the present, but you also don't want to glibly pass over the important differences or appropriate the age as just an earlier version of our own, which seems solipsistic. The old (and still popular) way of talking about the "universal" appeal of literature and its "universal" human emotions ended up devaluing and ignoring a lot of literature that was very much not universal -- like Christian devotional works, for example. But closing off an era as completely Other allows students to wash their hands of it and all the legacies it might have left it. Ack -- what to do?! Perhaps I should write another post on this topic. Or maybe you can!

*The administrator I have in mind above is our former dean who told my colleagues, when they wanted to hire a medievalist -- you know, someone to cover about 800 years of English literature -- that a medievalist was "a luxury."

Oh, and I'd forgive your students for thinking Beowulf involved predestination (though I'm trying to figure out where they saw it in Margery Kempe -- I guess *she* thought she was pretty much guaranteed to get into heaven, anyway). I know and you know that fate/"wyrd" isn't at all the same as Calvinist predestination and the "elect" (not even close) but for undergraduates it's a pretty fine distinction. I remember having a hard time with it myself. (It also depends on what translation of Beowulf you use. Some have "fate" all over the place; others play it down.)

Thanks for the great comment!

La Lecturess said...

Forgot to add: when I started grad school, a dear old medievalist on the faculty--whom I'd known well when I was an undergrad because he was responsible for the social life of my residence hall--kept trying to convince me that I was secretly a medievalist.

His logic? He'd seen me once or twice at the local Catholic church (I think on Easter; I wasn't really practicing or much interested in religion in college), and, as a Catholic himself, he felt that that period (and by implication, that period only) really "spoke" to him--and it must to me, too!

He made this argument a number of times. And the thing is, I'm now (a) working almost entirely with Protestant writers and Reformation theology, and (b) again a practicing (if extremely liberal) Catholic.

And you know, the two things are actually more related than they seem--but fundamentally, the intellectual and emotional world of the stuff I work on would "speak" to the same elements of my personality whether I were an atheist or a theist; it's much more about how I understand human nature than about how I understand the divine.

Maybe that's a way to "sell" one's classes to the students who are turned off by the Christian content: we're living in a world where we're realizing that, like it or not, religion of all varieties is important to a LOT of people, and it would behoove the responsible secularist to think about some of the ways belief systems have influenced people in the past. (And, oh yeah--especially when they were kick-ass writers.)

Dr. Virago said...

Wow, Lecturess, what a great little anecdote. I guess it's not just students who assume that correspondence between subject matter and teacher/scholar.

And I think what you said in the last two paragraphs is right on, especially this: it's much more about how I understand human nature than about how I understand the divine. That's exactly what it's about for me, too, and, I suspect, for most scholars. You're absolutely right -- that's what we need to 'sell' to students so that they can all think beyond their own (dis)belief and connect (intellectually, emotionally, what have you) with the texts in ways in addition to or despite their own spiritual beliefs. For instance, I once had a graduate student who kind of randomly decided to do her presentation in my Chaucer class on the Second Nun's Tale, which is a pretty standard version of the life of St. Cecilia (though Cecilia's not a standard virgin-martyr). This particular student was a pre-op transsexual and self-identified queer woman with an interest in gender theory, and could have found lots and lots to say about gender, alternative marriages, community, and the like in the tale. However, she was so hung up on dealing with the fact that it was so Christian -- and intimidated by that and worried about offending Christians in the class -- that she ended up doing a safe presentation on the critical history and the relation to art depicting Cecilia. Thorough and solid and well done, but she missed an opportunity she probably would've taken with a 'secular' text. *That's* the kind of distance I want the non-Christian students to break through -- even as they keep in mind that medieval Christianity is not today's Christianity.

Anyway, thanks for the continued thoughtful comments!

Miriam Jones said...

What a wonderful discussion. This is so helpful in framing a way to position these sorts of texts for both Christian and non-Christian students.

And thanks for the link to the Collegian article: "'"You can't be a good citizen if all you were taught in college was feminism and Marxism," she said."


yqskof and ye shall receive.

Dr. Virago said...

MJ/Scribblingwoman: the best thing about those quotes from that young woman in the Collegian article was the bit were she implies that Marxism and feminism are non-Western ideas. *Fabulous*.

xojhdish - I'm not sure what it is, but I bet it's spicy!

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Excellent post. I do hope actually to write that post I referred to once long ago (it's partially drafted) so hopefully I can respond there since I don't have time to say more now!

xfdjfgxb - a Basque curseword

Dr. Virago said...

No pressure, New Kid, though I'm looking forward to the post whenever you get around to finishing it.

bntyiw - a canned meat product (it reminded me of Dinty Moore Beef Stew)