>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?