Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Reading Religion

I taught a couple of Donne's Holy Sonnets this week, and the students had a short writing assignment about one of them:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Most of the students did a fine job, looking carefully at the sonnet and thinking well about the imagery and word choices.

Some of them didn't do quite as well, and their difficulties reminded me of the difficulty one of my students had way back when doing a short assignment which asked her to look at the imagery used for Jesus in "The Dream of the Rood."  The difficulty is that they've been taught and strongly adopted one set of imagery for Jesus, and they're unwilling or unable to grasp other imagery for Jesus by themselves, without someone pointing out in an explicit way that they're accustomed to one sort of imagery, but that there's other imagery being used in this piece of literature.  Usually, the imagery they've been taught is a Jesus as pastor imagery, with a totally merciful, kindly diety.

The student who reads like this, for example, writes that this poem is talking about how much Donne (or the speaker, if they're a bit more sophisticated) loves God and knows that he will be saved, of course.

That's not the imagery that Donne uses and it's not the God he imagines.  His God is fearsome and aweful, and Donne's speaker expresses real doubt about their relationship.

In teaching early modern lit, I often teach texts that demonstrate a variety of imagery for the Christian diety, but students don't seem to ever misrecognize the pastoral, lamb of God sort of imagery for a more violent or doubtful imagery the way some students misrecognize violent or doubtful imagery as pastoral.  Is that because students who've experienced more violent or doubtful imagery have also experienced the more pastoral imagery?  Or have they been taught to approach religious imagery differently?

That said, I think some of the students who are reading Paradise Lost this semester are getting a lot out of thinking hard about the justification part.  Do I get points for inspiring existential crises?


  1. I'm thinking about teaching part of Paradise Lost next semester at the beginning of Humanities. I think it would pair well with Frankenstein, which I love teaching. I think PL will rock their world (if they actually read it).

    Especially since I'm at a religious school, we're always struggling with the majority's perceptions of God and their perceptions of "the church." Reading Dante always causes a stir.

    1. PL totally changes Frankenstein, and in a GREAT way!

  2. You may already be doing this, but I find that explicitly asking students "what's Donne/s God like?" Or "how does Donne seem to imagine God?" can be helpful -- that allows the more conventionally religious students both to recognize that the author may have different ideas about God than they do, and not to feel like they're personally endorsing a God who seems weird or mean to them.

    I like teaching early modern religious works because they're so weird, and because, ideally, they introduce both secular AND religious students to a much more complex, much more aesthetic, much more philosophical and intellectual Christianity than they're used to. But some students--secular as well as religious--really don't want to let go of their narrow assumptions. I've had students who totally can't believe that Chaucer could be a devout Christian and still be angry about abuses in the church (he must see theism for the sham it is!), as well as students who really can't talk about what's appealing in Milton's Satan because they don't want to be praising the devil. They're a minority, but they're there.

    (And then there was the time I was teaching Bible as Lit, and gave my students an assignment to write about Mark's Jesus. One student came in, in real distress, because HER Jesus was closer to Matthew's Jesus--or, really, just an amalgam of all the nice things Jesus does in all the gospels--and she didn't know how to deal with the sharper, impatient Jesus in Mark. I had to spend a good 15 minutes reassuring her that she could still have her Jesus, and that it's clear the four gospels all have different perspectives, so she should just treat Mark's Jesus as an interpretation--or better yet, a character--based on his own literary, religious, or philosophical perspective.)

  3. Thanks, Flavia! That direct question is a great idea. I don't do it as directly as I should.

  4. Funny, but I talked about The Dream of the Rood today in my American Novel class...and it was actually quite relevant.

    But I have to say that whenever I think of Donne's "batter my heart" line, I picture God as a fry cook dredging my heart in batter and plunging it into the hot fat.

    1. I will never be able to read that line without thinking about that interpretation again!