"When we believe ourselves in possession of the only truth, we are likely to be indifferent to common everyday truths."... ... Eric Hoffer.
Commentary of the Day - July 12, 2005: Religion and Literature in the Age of Bush. Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.
Dr. Samuel Johnson famously believed that the Metaphysical poets yoked heterogeneous elements together "by violence"; such was his eighteenth-century, neo-classicist aversion to the work of John Donne and Andrew Marvell. Today, many would bring much of Dr. Johnson's sour pique to the enterprise once known as "religion & lit," especially in the age of Bush and amid the growing sense that many Christian evangelicals have that they are no longer consigned to the cultural sidelines. For far too long, they would argue, religion has been the whipping boy of college literature teachers. Liberal learning, I keep reminding myself, is where a student's unquestioned beliefs are called into question -- not so that the views change (although that certainly can happen), but so that students will learn how to defend views they hold dear.
The Age of Bush has complicated this long-established formula because there is nothing like a born-again Christian in the White House to embolden those who would like to impose religion as a litmus test of what works of literature should be taught, and more important, what teachers should say about them. If you think that the squabbles about teaching Darwinian evolution alongside creationism and "intelligent design" are as noisy as they are scientifically uninformed, you ain't seen nothing yet. Censorship is throwing its weight around as never before, with do-gooders insisting that works of literature perform a specific, that is, Christian purpose. The list of favorite books to bash used to include Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye; now, nearly any serious novel or poem is fair game.
At this point let me describe what happened when I first brushed against the conjunction (possibly oxymoronic) of Religion & Lit. I was a sixth grader in the l950s, a period that was, for me, just as innocent as was the decade itself. After school I studied my bar-mitzvah lessons because in less than a year I would be taking my place in front of the synagogue and announcing that my willingness to fulfill the commandments as a full adult. But in Patton Elementary School, I was simply one student among the thirty or so who faced forward and would not have known how to spell "dissent," much less how to practice it. We were, in a word, a passive bunch -- myself included.
So, when a permanent substitute named Mrs. Rohrbach took over for Miss Saunders, nobody blinked an eye when she required us to get out of our seats, get on our knees, and pray for the soul of any character who happened to die in a story we happened to be reading. True enough, we were not required to unleash our prayers "in the name of Jesus Christ"; ours were to be silent ruminations, a way that Mrs. Rohrbach probably believed would make us a more sensitive, caring bunch.
I didn't object (at 12, how could I?) but I remember feeling uncomfortable. Why were we praying for the souls of literary characters who, I knew even then, didn't have real flesh-and-blood, much less souls? It was tough enough being the only Jewish kid in my grade school, the one who was a shoo-in for the role of Wise Man in the Christmas pageant because I got good grades and could remember lines that my fellow Wise Men couldn't, or the one singled out to sing "four calling birds" in "The Twelve Days of Christmas." My father shrugged his shoulders when he found out about my seasonal singing career and insisted that I hum whenever Jesus was mentioned by name. I understood what he understood -- namely, that to live in America, where he was now safe from Russian persecution, meant that his sons would be sons of America, and that that occasionally would mean being a part of his school's Christmas celebrations.
Mrs. Rohrbach's sometime lessons in religion & lit. were one aspect of my childhood instruction; daily reading from the Hebrew Bible and from the New Testament were another. Every morning before classes began, a handful of King James verses was pumped into the room. Some of the readers from the main office were quite good, just as some were God awful, but, and over the years, the rhythms of both Bibles managed to course through my veins. I regard myself as a better teacher of, say, Melville's Moby-Dick or Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! because of this., and I would even concede that I am probably a better person for knowing about how the characters from the Hebrew Bible are sometimes noble, sometimes base, while the protagonist of the Christian Bible is cut from very different cloth.
One very strong current of literary criticism during the l940s and '50s was involved with finding the analogue for Christ in works such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby or John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Christ figures, our professors insisted, were omnipresent in the great works of literature, albeit, just below the surface. Our job was not only to "find: them" (example: in Steinbeck's novel, Preacher Casey, surrounded by a halo from the flashlights of the union busters who have come to kill him, echoes Christ's words on the cross when he says, "They don't know what they're doing."), but also to determine if the Christ reference was ironic -- as it is in the imagery surrounding Jay Gatsby.
I can still remember the dust-ups we had in class when one group insisted that the Christ figure in question was the Real Goods while others, more attuned to modernism, argued that he was ironic to his bones. What I can't remember, however, is anybody, teacher or student, who used the occasion as a launching pad for a Christian sermon. That sort of stuff belonged somewhere else, possibly at a Protestant church or at a baptism along some Southern riverbank.
Were we snobs? Clearly so, because that is what elitists were then, and continue to be now. What has changed, however, is a recognition that liberal learning exists in a climate where there are many more red states than blue ones, and that politics cannot be easily exiled from the classroom. That's what I mean by "the age of Bush," a time when the sharp division between liberals and conservatives injects itself into every corner of campus life.
That's why I realize that my hopes about the future of literary studies is fraught with peril, for what I want, more than anything else, is a return to the time when the focus was on the tensions, what Faulkner called "the human heart in conflict with itself," that justify studying literature in the first place. Far too many would-be censors read literary works with leaden ears and closed hearts. They do not see the larger Truths hidden just underneath the folds of Holden Caulfield's idealistic -- and, yes, lonely -- utterances, or the psalm-like ruminations in Marilyn Robinson's Gilead. What they want, I'm afraid, is confirmation that their particular denomination is right, and that those who hold differing views are "wrong." Serious literature transcends the parochial, however much it is grounded in particularity. In my admittedly nostalgic memories of college English courses, I ended up on good terms with the various "gods" I stumbled across from the ancient world, as well as from the one we live in now. I am the better for it, in ways that sweet, much-deluded Mrs. Rohrbach could never have figured out.
©2005 Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. Currently living in south Florida, he continues to think about God and lit. on cloudy days.
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