Do Not presume
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
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
On Being "born again through Jesus"
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
Why question when God is the answer to everything?
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?
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
The Bible is a book worth reading
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 Epimetheus
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 Leviticus
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
Bible indicated not only that Henry could marry his sister-in-law, but that he
must marry her.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 joke
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.
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
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
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 morality
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 do
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.)