As a follower of Christ and an academic I take for granted that the stuff I teach my students in class is fair game for religious discussion. But, I have the feeling that the majority of my students do not automatically use a faith-based approach to the reading of most of the texts we read in my world literature course.
The difficulty of the ancients like the Epic of Gilgamesh, the eroticism of A Thousand and One Nights, or the wit and sarcasm of Don Quixote tend to distract us from the perspective that faith has to offer.
Not to mention that students of literature must also pay careful attention to conventions of language, the intricacies of different cultures, the particulars of genre, and a variety of narrative forms. We have a responsibility to study the literature for its own merit as literature; in a sophomore survey course in literature we rarely sit around all day and talk about religious aspects of the literature in question.
I am convinced, though, that the World Lit. course is one of the most important courses any American college student can take today. I am also convinced that it is one of the courses most naturally open to an integration of faith and learning.
In order to integrate a faith perspective on world literature one of my basic goals is to communicate to my students the unique role that literature plays in the act of general revelation.
No doubt, there are a number of texts that are explicitly religious,—the Bhagavad-Gita, the Quran, and Augustine’s Confessions—but the majority of our texts fall into the canon of world literature simply for their merit as model examples of their time period, geographical origin, or genre.
So, I begin each semester with a look at Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Foster reminds us that every story ever written is a small part of one story.
“One Story. Everywhere. Always. Whenever anyone puts pen to paper or hands to keyboard or fingers to lute string or quill to papyrus. Norse sagas, Samoan creation stories, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Tale of Genji, Hamlet, last year’s graduation speech, last week’s Dave Barry column, On the Road and Road to Rio and “The Road Not Taken.” One Story (185).
If we are wondering what that one story is about, Foster explains that it is about us—humans—about what it means to be human, about this world and the next, about where we come from and where we are going.
The first thing I want my students to understand is that all of the stories we are about to read are linked together by their own humanity. The stories we read in this class are all stories about us.
The second thing we look at each semester is the Genesis creation story. We look at the story as an example of humans telling the story about where we come from, but also as an example of specific revelation—the Genesis account is unique because it literally claims to tell God’s story—“And God said . . . ..”
For most of the rest of the semester, we examine works of world literature from this perspective, that they are all part of the one story. My hope is that students understand that the words of literature represent the intent of Romans 2:15, “They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right” (NLT).
We read about the personal flaw (sin) of Oedipus that drives his story to its tragic end in a play that we learn was originally written as an act of worship.
When we read the Bhagavad-Gita we understand the link between poverty and the Hindu caste system, and we are reminded that religious belief and practice can have a powerful , practical implication upon the lives of the masses.
Even the meta-fictional and narrative-resistant nature of Post-modern fiction reminds us of how mixed up and lost humanity is.
Ultimately, I hope that my students walk away with a glimpse of how that one, human story communicates the truth of the Biblical worldview—that there is one true God who created us, loves us, and has a plan for us.