Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Voice in the Wilderness

On Friday, my students read a chapter in Graff and Birkenstein's They Say / I Say.  In the chapter, Graff and Birkenstein suggest that writers "also need to avoid sounding like a lone voice in the wilderness" (58).

One of my students asked for an explanation.

Isn't it weird? 

First, I'm pretty sure most of my students profess Christianity (I didn't ask), but none of them made a connection to John the Baptist.* 

But more than that, Graff and Birkenstein are trying to warn students that taking a stand totally alone might be unwise, and that they should think hard about whether their position is something they can justify with good reasons.

In John (the gospel), though, John the Baptist is right.  He's absolutely correct in predicting that there's a messiah coming.

So wouldn't you want to be the lone voice who, like John the Baptist, is right?  I guess it's just that of all the ways to warn students about taking a stance all alone, that's one where the character is absolutely right (within the context of the text).  They should have chosen a different way to say that, no?

*Sometimes an individual student will repeat something they seem to have heard in religious contexts, but their lack of real knowledge about what they're saying bothers me.  It's not like I think I need to live my life based on precepts I don't share, but it would be a lot less irritating if they actually knew what they were talking about in a real way.

Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein.  They Say / I Say.  New York: WW Norton, 2007.  58.  Print.


  1. Omg. The total ignorance of Christianity is rampant here, especially and ironically so for the seminarians at Heartland U. Biblical knowledge is ridiculously low, but that's not unusual for Catholics in my experience of more than 20 years in Catholic schools. Nonetheless, you'd think the true believers would somehow want to know the details of their professed religion. Nah. It's much harder to be a believer once you know the truth about the church.

  2. This is why I turn my AP Comp class into something of a biblical literacy class in addition to everything else I'm trying to accomplish. We study Genesis, Exodus, and the Gospels, on the grounds that these are the sources of so many biblical allusions that authors once assumed readers would understand.

    But also, yes, I agree with you that it's an odd choice of allusion for Graff and Birkenstein. Maybe they're being strictly pragmatic; if a student says something that seems crazy, even if she is ultimately proven correct, she is unlikely to get an A. But it's a weird way to put it.

  3. Definitely an odd choice. Even if you take the reference to be to the Old Testament (Isaiah, I believe) rather than the New, OT prophets also tend to be right even if they're not believed by contemporaries.

    And yes, professing Christians are not necessarily Biblically literate, even when they're members of Reformed denominations that supposedly put a high value on Biblical knowledge (such as, um, the one to which I belong). My church is increasingly needing to do remedial Biblical review with students who supposedly have been through about 10 years of Sunday School (and we have a good, Biblically-grounded and engaging curriculum) before Confirmation class (so, you know, they know what they're deciding whether to profess faith in). The main problems seem to be spotty attendance and parents who don't know the Bible themselves, and so can't reinforce church lessons at home. In other denominations, the problem may be proof-texting: taking bits and pieces of the Bible out of their literary/historical/cultural/theological context.

    Given this age cohorts grasp of other mythological systems (Harry Potter, various vampire and/or sci fi universes), it seems like Biblical literacy should be an achievable goal.