Friday, September 15, 2006

Poetry Blogging and Problems of Christianity

George Herbert's "The Collar"

I STRUCK the board, and cry’d, No more ;
. . . . . I will abroad.
What ? shall I ever sigh and pine ?
My lines and life are free ; free as the road,
Loose as the winde, as large as store.
. . . . . Shall I be still in suit ?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me bloud, and not restore
What I have lost with cordiall fruit ?
. . . . . Sure there was wine,
Before my sighs did drie it : there was corn
. . . Before my tears did drown it.
Is the yeare onely lost to me ?
. . . Have I no bayes to crown it ?
No flowers, no garlands gay ? all blasted ?
. . . . . All wasted ?
Not so, my heart : but there is fruit,
. . . . . And thou hast hands.
. . . Recover all thy sigh-blown age
On double pleasures : leave thy cold dispute
Of what is fit, and not forsake thy cage,
. . . . . Thy rope of sands,
Which pettie thoughts have made, and made to thee
Good cable, to enforce and draw,
. . . . . And be thy law,
While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
. . . . . Away ; take heed :
. . . . . I will abroad.
Call in thy deaths head there : tie up thy fears.
. . . . . He that forbears
. . . To suit and serve his need,
. . . . . Deserves his load.
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde,
. . . . . At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Childe :
. . . . . And I reply’d, My Lord.

Forgive my using periods to produce some of the spacing effects. I haven't mastered the ways to space on the blog using html, and since it's not likely to happen tonight, I'll count on your generous spirit.

I love George Herbert at times. His poetry takes on the difficulties of Christianity: it's HARD to do what a Christian is supposed to do. If one takes it seriously, Christianity is a demanding religion. And he does it in poetry that challlenges my mouth when I read it aloud, brings me to full stops, to rushing changes, "I struck the board and cried, no more I will abroad." I have a hard time with "board" and "abroad" for some reason, when I read them aloud, and that makes me wonder what exactly he meant by "board." I think he means either some kind of writing tablet or a table, but I'm not quite sure.

This week, my writing class has been reading Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, and today we discussed the second section, the part where she works for a maid service and also at a nursing home up in Portland, Maine.

My students wanted to talk about how she mocked Christianity, so we looked at the section where she talks about visiting a tent revival meeting on a Friday evening. We read bits aloud, and talked about the connection the preacher was making between the money he was soliciting and the crucifiction, and I think they saw that her critique wasn't mocking Christianity, but pointing out a contradiction between soliciting money and the passion. And so forth.

Some students really do believe that Christianity is constantly under attack, and so see any critique or analysis of anything to do with Christianity as a disrespectful attack. I don't think Ehrenreich is being disrespectful (or mocking), so much as pointing out that the meeting she went to didn't address the needs of the poor people such as herself (well, at that moment) who were in the audience, didn't provide the message of caring available within Christianity, but instead provided a message condemnation.

At one point, Ehrenreich points to a preacher who says people only need one book, and shouldn't waste money on other books. At which point, his speech (within her representation) breaks down into basically gibberish. My students felt this mocked Christianity. I told them to hold up what they had in their hands. Look, a BOOK, I said. Do you think Ehrenreich believes books are important, and in fact, believes that buying books and maybe reading them is important? They readily agreed. Then I asked, do you think scholars of Christianity think books are important? They agreed, though less readily.

It was a tough day. I fear I sounded strident.

I'm so frustrated by the unquestioning Christianity so many of my students come with. George Herbert wouldn't have let those preachers get away with such careless arguments any more than Ehrenreich did.

What horrified me as I was writing the post today, was that as I started typing George Herbert's name into Google, the new drop box thingy offered me oodles of options to click on, all leading to another George Herbert, with a couple more names. George Herbert would be rightly ashamed of his namesake, I think, too.


  1. Quick fix for the period problem: replace each period with a non-breaking space: "ampersandnbsp;", where "ampersand" = "&". For small, irregular numbers of spaces I actually prefer this to CSS and other fancy fixes.

    See here for more on special characters.

  2. As someone who went into college a Christian, and came out not a non-Christian yet, but on the way to having a much more complicated relationship to Christianity, and then none at all, I'd say -- who knows what will happen with those students! Some things professors said to me about religion and faith were hugely influential, although they probably never knew it.

  3. I think the "board" refers to the altar table, although I don't have any of my books with me to double-check the notes.

    Personally, the problem I have is negotiating between religious and secular students. I expected to have more religious students at my current location than at my previous one, but so far that doesn't seem to be the case at all. So when my secular students make sweeping and inaccurate generalizations about "religion" or "Christianity," I try always to explain the variety of opinions that exist on a given issue, or the variety of different religious traditions.

    But unfortunately, my religious students aren't always the help in this endeavour that I might wish--as far as they're concerned, THEIR Christianity is the only one!

    It's a problem with Chaucer--none of my students can believe that he's actually a sincere Christian--as it is with Herrick. Hypocrisy, my students all understand. Different varieties of religiosity? Not so much.

  4. I used to worry about preaching my faith (which is, well, faithlessness -- I'm an apostate -- a socialist atheist enlightenment humanities professor) -- but shit. Why should I not? It is the truth as I know it. I tell them this is what I know. I cite my sources: I believe the world is this old because James Hutton told us this, I believe you should act like this because Kant told us that, so on.

    Unlike, for instance, their pastor, who cites the magic sky bunny. Do it or God will burn you in hell forever.

    Or Rush, who tells them that if they don't believe that he says to believe they're evil idiots like those lie-brals.

    We have to speak, or what other voices do they hear?

    They'll talk back, I know, but (a) that's good and (b) that doesn't mean they're not hearing us.

  5. I saw the stage version of "Nickle and Dimed" in Minneapolis a few years ago, Ehrenreich was there that night, having just given a talk about the book.

    I think this book is better than her most recent one.

  6. Technical note:

    You ought to be able to use the <pre></pre> tag set as well. Anything inside the <pre> (preformatted ) tags should display with the spacing you've indicated. In other words, whitespace will be respected/not compacted.