World Literature as General Revelation

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.

don quixoteNot 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).

800px-The_Plague_of_ThebesSo, we read about Gilgamesh’s unsuccessful attempt to find the secret of eternal life.

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.

DS

Called to Teach: What Does That Mean?

6712120241_749fa986d8_oA call to teach.. what exactly does it mean? I feel as if I am not going to answer this question with justice. However, I will attempt to answer this question without spending too much time evaluating if my answer is “good enough”.

I believe you do not have to be super religious to understand that some people just “know” they are called to a certain profession. I have had wonderful non-religious/non-spiritual people in my life that were great teachers. I have also had wonderful religious/spiritual people that were also great teachers.

My call to teach is as much of a responsibility as it is a gift. I am not naturally gifted with teaching abilities, but I have to work on my teaching techniques on a daily basis. It is my responsibility to grow in knowledge and ability as I continue on my own journey as a teacher. Earning a PhD taught me that the more I know, the more I realize I still have much more to learn. Just like “ministering” is a never-ending job … “teaching” is a never-ending task as well. I find comfort and satisfaction when my students learn, and I feel discomfort when it doesn’t happen. I find joy in learning new ways to teach, and learning new knowledge to teach.

I have learned the most (as a teacher and a student) from being in an uncomfortable… sometimes even a challenging place. It wasn’t always fun… it wasn’t always pleasant… But I learned and I grew from the experience. Those experiences have shaped me into who I am today. One of the challenging parts of my job is making a safe environment for students to feel that challenge… that uncomfortable place that gives them the “nudge” to learn.

Similar to how eagles teach their young to fly, I view learning as a passaging in life for students to be successful in life and “take flight”. For example, at a certain point the mother eagle will “nudge” its baby out of the nest. Before the baby eagle hits the ground, the mother eagle will fly down and catch them.  They continue to do this until the baby eagle learns to spread its wings and fly. The point is that if we don’t nudge them … they will never be able to become who they were meant to be… or be able to do what they were meant to do.

It is my responsibility … my calling to help students spread their wings. Their future depends on me fulfilling my call to teach. Sometimes, I wish that I got an email, text message, or music playing in my ear every time one of my students catches wind under their wings….. it would make me feel better about pushing them out of the nest so often.

(read more about eagles learning to fly here: http://www.prophetic.net/eagles.htm )

The Miracle of My Life

I never intended to be a teacher.  A doctor maybe.  Or an archeologist.  But never a teacher.

A funny thing happened though in third grade.  I met Mrs. Martinez.  She loved her students.   We loved her back.  And my favorite memory?  On rainy days when we had to stay inside during recess, she’d open her Edgar Allen Poe anthology and read aloud to us.  “The Raven.”  “The Tell-Tale Heart.”  “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Sometimes thunder would rumble at just the right moment, and we’d jump in our seats.  I was enthralled.  I didn’t know it at the time, but Mrs. Martinez was teaching me the magic of story—the power of words.  And she was teaching me how to read—to an audience, to a classroom of students.

Still—in high school, I hung onto my other life plans—practicing medicine in a foreign country or discovering Noah’s Ark on Mt. Ararat.

But in college, at a place much like etbu, I met professors who would change the direction of my life.  As I sat in their classrooms, I observed men and women who loved God, loved their students, and who lived out their faith in a powerful and meaningful way.  Teaching, for them, was an act of love—an act of worship.  Once again, I was enthralled.  Memories of Mrs. Martinez floated back from the past.

So—plans changed.  I graduated.  I married.  I enrolled in seminary.  I would be a youth minister. I would teach the Bible.  I would change lives.  But in the midst of all this rock-solid certainty, the unexpected crept in.  The marriage began to crumble.  And my dreams slipped through my fingers like sand.  Ashamed, embarrassed and bitter, I dropped out—out of seminary and out of church.   And I stopped believing—in God, in dreams, in love.

But here is a strange thing.

Even though I ran so far from God and lived a life soaked in rebellion— all this time, I was haunted by the memories of the teachers I had in college . . . teachers I admired—teachers who were scholars and brilliant thinkers—teachers who loved Jesus and who exhibited an abundant life that I certainly didn’t have.

And I kept thinking, “You know—Maybe I’m missing something here.  Maybe I should give my faith a second look.  Maybe there’s something I’m not seeing.”

Make no mistake about this.  God used the memory of my teachers to bring me back to Him.  I doubt they remember me, but I still remember them:  Curtis Mitchell – Robert Morosco – Johnny Sailhamer – Clyde Cook – Ed Curtis – Nancy Bundy – Dave Black.

I recall one of my teachers telling us on the first day of class—“You’ll forget most of what I say in this classroom.  But there’s one thing you won’t forget—and that’s my attitude.  My attitude about my discipline—my attitude about you—and my attitude about God.”

And he was right. I still remember Dr. Hunter’s concern for students, his passion for the Bible, and his deep love for the Lord.

I have never forgotten that.

This is the miracle of my life—Even though I gave up on God, God never gave up on me.  And as I grew close to God again—over time—I realized the impact that Christian higher education had on my life.  College didn’t just give me a diploma—it introduced me to a new way of thinking about faith and hope and love through men and women who loved Jesus deeply.

I wanted to be part of that.  So, in 1987, I went back to school.  And I became a teacher.

This is what I tell my students—You never know what God may call you to do—or how He’ll call you to do it.  You have dreams and that’s good.  But be prepared for God to surprise you.  This is what happened to me, I tell them.  I’m not practicing medicine in an exotic land, but, in a way, I’m a physician, of sorts—touching hearts and minds and changing lives. I’m not an archaeologist, but each day I uncover something new and make discoveries that I hope will make the lives of my students richer.

I guarantee you—when I was sitting in Mrs. Martinez’s third grade class—I never thought I’d be standing in front of a classroom one day.  But today, I teach English.  And each class, for me, is recess time on a rainy day. I open a book, and I read to my students.  And I hope that they will experience the magic of story and the power of words.