Tuesday 24 March 2020
It is important to recognize that the final scene of the novel is directing us away from Apocalyptic images, to something other than “grapes of wrath,” to human kindness and charity. There was an attempt to censure the final paragraph of the novel which was inspired by famous images of “Roman Charity.”
Saturday 29 October 2016
A Short History of the WorldMost people these days think of H.G. Wells as a science-fiction writer, in fact as one of the pillars of the genre together with Jules Verne, but his best selling, most popular work in his lifetime was A Short History of the World which he wrote in 1922. In the opening paragraph of this brilliant and monumental work, Wells writes:
A couple of hundred years ago men possessed the history of little more than the last three thousand years. What happened before that time was a matter of legend and speculation. Over a large part of the civilized world it was believed and taught that the world had been created suddenly in 4004 B.C though authorities differed as to whether this had occurred in the spring or the autumn of that year. This fantastically precise misconception was based upon a too literal interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, and upon rather arbitrary theological assumptions connected therewith. Such ideas have long since been abandoned by religious teachers, and it is universally recognized that the universe in which we live has to all appearances existed for an enormous period of time and possibly for endless time.
The Universe is 6000 years oldThe idea, which Wells describes, of the Universe having been created 4004 years before Christ was first established by the Archbishop James Ussher in the 17th century. Since that time it has remained a logical assumption that if you believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible’s description of creation, then you must also believe that the planet is in the neighbourhood of 6000 years old.
How many Americans think planet Earth is 6000 years old? When I asked a version of this question on Quora, the blasé, un-challenged answer that came back was 30+ million.
Is evolution news?The question of evolution became “news” once again in the wake of the Republican primary debates, when it was noted that none of the candidates would admit to believing in a scientific as opposed to Biblical explanation of human existence. Dr. Ben Carson, in particular, was singled out for criticism because he is a doctor, and therefore a scientist. To reject evolution, as many commentators have pointed out, is to reject science. It’s pretty much impossible for someone to believe in scientific descriptions of the behaviour of molecules and DNA, and still not believe in evolution.
When asked directly by Bill O’Reilly, if he was, in fact, “a creationist,” Dr. Carson responded, “I know a lot of people say I believe the earth is 6000 years old. They have no basis to say that. I don’t know how old the earth is. It says that in the beginning ‘God created the heavens and the earth’ period.”
Why can't US politicians say "the Bible isn't literal truth"?Dr. Carson’s answer was evasive and disingenuous. The really important question is why couldn’t Dr. Carson, a recognized scientist, say that in our day scientific research has displaced the literal interpretation of the Genesis story of creation. For as long as the Bible has been studied, it has been understood that the Bible can be interpreted literally or allegorically. With scientific advancement, the Bible can still be read as an allegorical text whose primacy lies in the moral lessons of its sub-text rather than in its literal, historical accuracy. Who are Dr. Carson’s imagined constituents who cannot accept the allegorical truth of the Bible over a literal interpretation? Who are these constituents who cannot accept what Wells describes as a “universal truth,” accepted for at least the last 100 years among the literate, that our planet is older and our universe took longer to create than described in the Judeo-Christian Bible?
Do they really exist? When I asked myself this question, I concluded that this constituency can only exist within a population that doesn’t read. The question becomes one of literacy.
If you read scientific explanations or, for that matter, if you actually read the Bible, it becomes pretty obvious that the Genesis version of creation should not be taken literally although, like every good myth or legend, it does have some basis in fact.
How many Americans can't read?How many Americans can’t read? Here, for me, is the real shock.
According to a study conducted in late April by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the U.S. can’t read. That’s 14 percent of the population. 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read.
[Since I first wrote this post, and continued to research illiteracy in the USA, I have discovered numerous claims that the American literacy rate is 97.7%, 99.9% and 100%. In each of these three cases, the CIA World Fact Book is given as the source. I have not been able to find literacy rates for the USA in the World Fact Book.]
The USA is the richest, most powerful and, allegedly, the most advanced country in the world, but in terms of literacy, based on the CIA’s World Fact Book, the average literacy rate for the world as a whole is 86.1%; making the USA slightly below average in terms of literacy. The USA has better literacy rates than countries in dire poverty, facing protracted civil wars, and those countries which actively prevent women from learning to read, but at an 86% literacy rate the USA lags behind China (96.4%), behind Cuba (99.8%), behind Greece (97.7%), behind Jamaica (88.7%), Mexico (95.1) and Russia (99.7%); in fact, behind most of the stable nations in the world.
Can democracy survive without literacy?How do you conduct an advanced, sophisticated democracy when so many of your citizens can’t or don’t read? As Wells points out, nations were able to exist and thrive through the invention of paper, then print, and in the USA in particular by being able to communicate across great distances using telegraph and railways and steamships. How can you conduct an advanced, sophisticated democracy when so many citizens are prepared to believe that our Universe was created in seven days, 6000 years ago, because that is what they have been told, and so many leaders are prepared to kowtow to such beliefs?
Civilization and progressReading Wells' Short History of the World, you realize that civilization has progressed on our planet because of the double-edged swords of empires, technologies, religions and economies, which can spread knowledge, unify diverse peoples and promote peace and stability, but can equally create hegemony, inequality and injustice, and ignite civil and tribal wars capable of drawing the whole world into their vortex.
With a presidential election in the USA in ten days from now, I assume we will soon be relieved from the daily barrage of Donald Trump’s name and image and bombast—unless he marries a Kardashian (a possibility I would not preclude). When you read the history of empires—Persian, Mongolian, Arab, Greek, Roman, Ottoman, European—it is impossible not to notice how the USA today shows all the signs of a well-established pattern of collapse: irreparable internal divisions, widespread injustice and inequality, declining or stagnant quality of education, xenophobia and protectionism, imbroglio in foreign wars which the population neither supports nor understands, declining attachment to shared beliefs (including and especially in the American case in democracy itself), internal conflicts based on race, religion and economic class, decline in respect for leadership and the political class as a whole, economic decline and extreme indebtedness, an oversized military putting a strain on the overall economy, a marked decline in the physical and mental wellbeing of the average citizen (obesity, alienation, paranoia, drug addiction, etc), endemic egoism and radical individualism. That Donald Trump is an icon of egoism and the reductio ad absurdum of radical individualism is of little importance, but what is truly nation-shattering is that so many Americans see him as representing them, as representing their thoughts and feelings and attitudes. That is a fact and a fracture from which the USA will not soon recover.
PS: I really got this election prediction wrong!
Sunday 23 June 2013
Do Not presumeI 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.”
On Being "born again through Jesus"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.
Why question when God is the answer to everything?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 inquiry. 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.
How to talk about the Bible?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.
The Bible is a book worth readingHer 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.
Adam and Eve; Pandor and EpimetheusI 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 VIII, Deuteronomy and LeviticusHenry’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.
Sometimes the Bible made me laugh and I shared the jokeNo 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 complainMy 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.)
And yet I was right to question the Bible as a guide to modern moralityTo 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.
But Toning down the irony was the right thing to doNonetheless, 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 Deuteronomy. 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.)
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