Sunday, 23 June 2013

Do No Harm Part III: Don’t Joke about the Bible


I hope I have made it clear that I have not lived up to my own recommendation that teachers should avoid irony.  The best I have been able to do, and I suspect this will be true for most teachers, is to be careful and to be wary of the pitfalls of irony.  In recent years I saw a dramatic increase in the multicultural mix in my classes:  students from Africa, the Caribbean, the former Yugoslavia, Iran, China, Japan and various Arab countries.   Over the years, I had learned from lecturing on feminism and what used to be called “women’s liberation” not to presume to know what individual women want or, worse still, should want.  Even though, I was supposed to be the expert on “culture” and “intercultural communication,” I think I knew enough not to presume that I understood my students' lives, and to recognize that I had a lot to learn from them.  In general, I was in awe of their openness and resilience.  H.G. Wells’ short story “The Country of the Blind” provided a perfect framework for discussing the challenges of respecting, adopting, adapting to and negotiating new cultures. I think I did alright with these students.  The group of students which proved the greatest challenge for me and who were increasingly present in my classes in the new millennium were what I would describe in general terms as “evangelical Christians.”

A professor teaching at a university in Alabama once told me that he could not invite students to say anything personal in their essays.  As he explained, if there were 50 students in the class, he would get 45 essays describing “how I was born again through Jesus.”  The proportions I faced were about the reverse; around 10% of students in my courses would express Christian convictions if I invited them to express personal opinions as well as knowledge of literature and theory in their essays.  The presence of evangelical Christians in my classes was the opposite of a problem.  They were typically among the nicest students in the room:  they were punctual, attentive, polite, respectful, typically sat at the front of the room, participated actively and asked questions.  You can’t argue with those kinds of behaviours. 

Nonetheless I was compelled to announce in my classes that while I was aware and respectful of the psychological comfort which a belief in God and religious faith might afford individuals, the context of the courses I gave was science, rationality and reason. I typically explained to students that Nietzsche’s aphorism “God is dead,” which had taken hold in the 20th century, was a pithier version of the physicist Laplace’s much earlier declaration that “God is a hypothesis of which the world no longer has need.”  We created God (and gods) because we needed answers to so many questions about the world we found ourselves living in.  As science began to answer these questions, the need for God as an answer to these questions faded.    The disadvantage of a firm belief in God and of religious faith dominating our thinking is the same reason we call the Middle Ages the Dark Ages and the Age of Reason which followed the Enlightenment:  God can be a quick and easy answer to every question  and consequently slow down if not outright prohibit rational and scientific enquiry.  Why go through the hard work of thinking if you have a ready-made answer to every question?  God did it!  It is so because God wants it to be. 

This was the warning I issued to students:  don’t use God to avoid the hard work of thinking through an issue.  This caveat was accepted with varying degrees of willingness, but where I was eventually taken to task was on how I talked about the Bible.  My comeuppance came in the form of a mature and able student, a mother of adolescent children, who was planning to open a religious-based school with her husband after graduation.  The student made an appointment with me to discuss very seriously (“complain about” would be an accurate locution, but one she avoided using) the way I talked about the Bible. 

Her concern was that I was discouraging students from reading the Bible.  This was a contention that I took very seriously.  In the first place, I counted myself among a relatively small number of professors in my field who required students to read parts of the Bible as a prerequisite to the study of literature.  More importantly, I regularly informed students that, although it did not sound particularly elevated or refined, what I taught was reading. (Although the titles used to describe what I taught kept changing—English, English Studies, Rhetoric, Comparative Literature, Cultural Studies—the skill set I was passing on and encouraging students to develop remained the same: reading and writing.  I must confess that my secret desire has long been to be known as a “philologist,” which not only has a high sounding tone but fairly accurately described what I researched and taught.)  While I thought she was wrong to think that I discouraged students from reading the Bible, she gave me pause to reconsider the ironic tone with which I exposed the Bible to students.

I typically began an introductory course comparing the Biblical story of Adam and Eve with the Greek myth of Pandora and Epimetheus, noting for example how women consistently get the blame for introducing evil into the world. Do these stories prove that this is the way women are?  Or maybe what explains the stories is that they were written by men.  However, what got my student on my case came much later.  To introduce Shakespeare, I had to explain the Elizabethan Age, which of course meant introducing Elizabeth, which in turn meant explaining Henry VIII and at least the first two of his many wives, Catherine of Aragon and Elizabeth’s mother, Henry’s mistress and second wife, Anne Boleyn.    

Henry’s problems began with the Bible.  When Henry’s older brother Arthur, the heir apparent, died, political exigencies dictated that Henry marry Catherine of Aragon, his brother’s widow, to maintain an alliance with Spain.  Henry was worried that marrying his sister-in-law might be incest.  Such moral dilemmas were of course resolved by reference to the Bible.  Luckily for the political wonks of the time, the Bible seemed quite clear, even insistent on the subject:

Deuteronomy 25:5   If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband unto her.

The Bible indicated not only that Henry could marry his sister-in-law, but that he must marry her.

However, as time wore on and Catherine failed to produce a male heir (yes, despite biology, women always get the blame!) and things were getting cozy (for now) with Anne Boleyn, Henry had a second look at the Bible.  This time Leviticus confirmed his original suspicions and gave him grounds for divorce.  Sleeping with your wife’s brother was incest.

Leviticus 20: 21 And if a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother's nakedness; they shall be childless.

As you can probably tell already, my tone in discussing the Bible was not as serious and reverent as many people might think it should be.  Nonetheless, up to this point, I think I was on fairly solid academic and pedagogical ground, but then I strayed into a number of irresistible tangents that were not directly relevant to my lecture on Shakespeare and his times.

Leviticus is that part of the Bible which explicitly condemns homosexuality. 

20: 13 If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

I’m not sure how people who claim to read the Bible literally, as the word of God, can square this pronouncement with contemporary laws against hate crimes.  As they read this proscription, I encouraged students to put it in context, noting, for example, that Leviticus commands that children who curse their parents be put to death.  I also found myself asking students if they agreed with Leviticus that brother and sister who saw each other naked or husband and wife who had sex during a menstrual period should be expelled from the community.  I should have stopped there, but I didn’t.

Levitcus also commands that:

20: 15 [. . .] if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast.

No matter what your sexual morality, it seemed unfair, to me, to kill the animal.  (Okay, definitely a tongue-in-cheek observation.) At the same time, I couldn’t help noticing that among these numerous, detailed rules governing sexual behaviour there was nothing against lesbianism.  (At last, one small advantage in being woman!) I should have stopped there, but I didn’t.

Deuteronomy 25 outlines a scenario that is oddly specific.  I would imagine it to be quite an anomalous situation, but Deuteronomy treats it as a regular occurrence which must be governed by a specific law.  Imagine two men are fighting, and you are the wife of the man who is losing.  Seeing that your husband is about to be killed, you enter the fray and grab your husband’s attacker by the testicles to subdue him.  (I’m not making this up.  It’s in the Bible.)  The question is:  what should happen to you, the wife who saved her husband?  Deuternomy’s answer is that you should have your hand cut off, the one you used to grab the attacker’s gonads.

Here’s the exact wording from Deutoronomy:

11When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets:

12Then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall not pity her.

My student was right to complain that I had no particular reason to draw attention to this passage (beyond the fact that it had drawn my attention).  It seemed clear to me that this passage was not “the word of God,” but I could imagine it having been written by some man who had once had his gonads savaged by the wife of some guy he was putting the boots to (make that “sandals”). (Despite postmodern gibberish about “the death of the Author,” it is always useful to consider who the author might have been as you attempt to fathom the meaning of a text.)

To my surprise when my student had discussed the problem with her pastor, I had to agree with what she reported his opinion to be.  The Bible was written by relatively pragmatic individuals, with a narrow range of experience, dealing with the specific, down-to-earth problems of their tribal group or community.  I couldn’t agree more, but I was left to wonder how evangelicals get from this reasonable observation to the idea that the Bible is “the word of God” and should be used to determine modern morality.

Nonetheless, I had to agree with my student that I should (and I did) tone down my irony in discussing the Bible and avoid lingering tangentially over Deutoronomy.  I think we reached an agreeable compromise and managed to maintain mutual respect.  The student chose to do at least one more course with me and when I met her a couple of weeks ago in the grocery store she suggested I might want to teach in the school she and her husband were setting up.  (Of course, now I have to wonder if she wasn't being ironic.)

4 comments:

  1. God tests you in many ways. One might even say that if you are struggling with believing certain passages, then God has you by the balls. And if Kevin Smith's Dogma is to be believed, God is a woman (played by Alanis Morissette)...

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  2. I have enjoyed decrypting your cryptic comment, JT. I am not "struggling with believing"; I'm finding it quite easy to disbelieve. I should point out that the title of the post is “Don’t Joke about the Bible” even though I haven’t quite lived up to that proscription myself. I should also remind you that the Biblical penalty for blasphemy is death by lapidation. So if you are not an infidel, you might want to reconsider casting God in the role of a woman who the Bible says should have her hand cut off. I really need to learn more about Alanis Morissette. I know her song “Ironic” and thanks to your comment and youtube, I now understand that she played a deity in a film called Dogma. Her father, Al Morissette, was my high-school football coach. (He was also the quarterback of the Ottawa Sooners.) I have a strong suspicion that her rebellious agnosticism is a reaction to the same Catholicism that I endured as an adolescent. Like Pascal, I am not prepared to bet the farm that God and eternal salvation do not exist, but the idea that God has to be masculine or that Jesus, who was born and spent his life in Africa, was a blue-eyed blond, convinces me that the Christian God is an invention of a bunch of white, European men. By the way, JT, congratulations on being the first to comment on my blog.

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  3. I'm just happy to be here.

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    Replies
    1. And, of course, I'm happy to have an active reader!

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