In the May 29, 2009 issue of The Chronicle Review, two articles underscored the power of literature to transform students’ lives. In “Life Stories Unlocked by Literature,” Margot Mifflin invited us to witness a female haunted by rape find strength in reading Alice Sebold’s Lucky and a male abused by a babysitter affirm his sexuality in response to Shelley Jackson’s “My Body: A Wunderkammer.” In “Great Books 2.0,” David Clemens introduced us to Joshua, jazzed up on the Great Books, convinced they are the “real deal.” In the classics, Clemens proclaims, students hungry for meaning feast on perennial questions of human existence-a repast far more wholesome and satisfying than the empty calories of an educational diet of multiculturalism and pop culture.
These articles are not unique in insisting that reading is good for you. In an New York Times article entitled, “Read a Book, Get out of Jail,” Leah Price reported on a program run at Dartmouth College which offers those convicted of crimes probation if they complete six discussion-based literature courses.
Robert Waxler, who runs the “Changing Lives through Literature” program, explains that in group discussion, “The stories serve as the mirror for everyone,” and that by taking seriously the lives of literary characters participants begin to construct the narratives of their own lives. “The act of reading changes-or, as we used to say, converts-the reader, even when the texts being read contain no explicit moral injunctions.” Similarly, Mark Edmundson’s Why Read? claims that reading can help fill void of meaning left by the decline of religion. Great writing can guide souls. Price and Edmondson join their voices to those who over the centuries have advocated the ennobling power of the well-told tale.
Theirs is a soapbox on which I can stand.
Having taught Bible to undergraduates and now to seminary students, I’m convinced that teaching students to read Bible as literature helps it become more, not less, relevant to their lives. Religious as well as non-religious readers approach the Bible assuming that it is an instruction book; they may differ on whether the instructions are worth following but they implicitly agree that the Book is best evaluated on the merits of its commandments. Such an assumption gets in the way of the reading process. While of course the Bible does offer some explicit rules, most of it, especially the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, is narrative and poetry. Reading a story or a poem only for its moral bottom-line not only leads to odd doctrine but also but allows readers to miss what stories and poems do best: incite the imagination and let people lose (and find) themselves within the worlds they create.
And yet, I’m equally convinced that the critique of great literature can change lives. Unlike Clemens, I can affirm that multicultural interpretation and ideology criticism also touch people’s deepest concerns. Clemens sharply contrasts a curriculum focused on “fine literature” with “militant multicultural and squash-you-all-flat postmodernism.” He defines his mission as “to save students who want to study only pop culture from teachers who want to teach only pop culture and administrators who want only packed classes.” In his moral universe, the choices are stark: either lift students up to the mountaintop of meaning by nourishing them on the great Western classics or throw them into murky, meaningless swamp of postmodernism. Suddenly, I hear echoes of Harold Bloom’s 1994 manifesto The Western Canon and of Frank Lentricchia’s announcement several years ago that was tired of theory and just wanted to read literature.
I’ve witnessed too much to the contrary to believe Clemens, and I can tell stories that challenge his own. Take Lyn, for example, whose story I tell in a longer version in my book Challenging Prophetic Metaphor (all names are real, with student permission). Lyn, a mid-career seminarian, struggled mightily in class with the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 and even more mightily with Carol Delaney’s challenge of the text’s ideology in Abraham on Trial.
Lyn kept finding ways to make this text more palatable-insisting that Abraham must have known God wouldn’t really make him kill his son or that perhaps a key element of the story had been lost in transmission. She could not stomach Delaney’s claim that the biblical text reflects understandings of fatherhood that are dangerous and worthy of resistance. But years after her graduation, Lyn emailed to tell me how struggling with our challenge of this text (along with counseling) had helped her re-evaluate her relationship with her children, as well as to weep for all the choices that people believe they have to make.
There’s Pat, who came to seminary after working as a counselor with abused women. The most engaged Pat ever got with Old Testament study was when we read feminist scholars tracing patterns of domestic violence in Hosea 1-3. We worked carefully through Hosea but we also read Renita Weems, took a spin on the power and control wheel used in domestic violence education, and compared it all with our textbook.
Pat and the class came alive. Discussion turned not only animated but personal in ways that don’t happen enough in a classroom. Those who had experienced the kind of abuse narrated in Hosea felt they had been given permission and language for resisting not only this text but their own victimization. With Weems’ arm around their shoulders, Pat and others in the class stepped up and taught their peers, not only about domestic terrorism (which is what Pat calls it) but also about the logic that holds Hosea 1-3 together. Pat even came back to teach a class session on Hosea two years later.
This year it was Dan, who transferred from a Bible college despite being warned about radical liberals who would try to force anti-Christian ideologies like feminism down his throat. Much to his own surprise, Dan found that feminist critique of the prophets isn’t just good for women. It helped him name why both he and his wife were finding it so hard to accept her role as primary breadwinner while he attended school. Reading excerpts of bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love not only changed Dan’s reading of Hosea but also helped him understand just how deeply engrained rules for masculinity are in his church, his culture, and his marriage.
He didn’t experience critique of patriarchy as P.C. theory but as what he and his wife most needed to get through the next three years.
The stories could go on: students whose thinking and lives have been changed by reading Palestinian responses to Joshua’s land conquest; by encountering queer readings of Leviticus; by learning that the portrait of David in the book of Samuel may include a lot of spin; by seeing the dynamics of ethnicity in texts and their interpreters. Transformation doesn’t only happen when students consent to what they read. It also happens when they push against what they read. The transformations are most profound when students have vocabulary and analytical skills for critique than help them go beyond “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.”
Literature matters. That’s why it deserves a good conversation rather than simple assent.