Friday, December 30

Literature and Spirituality: The Final Chapter

It's been quite some time since I posted about this class. Grades are posted and the course is a mere memory for most of my students, I think.

Just recently I was asked about the course and how things went. In all honestly, I'll say the class went okay and I had fun. I learned a lot. I got to read some new things and think differently about some things I'd read before.

I got to share Rudine Sims Bishop's concept of books and stories being mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Many of us who are readers know that books and stories can take us on all sorts of adventures. I won't speak for other readers, but I believe that some stories help me see the world through someone else's eyes. 

There are a lot of things writers can do depending on the genre and their purpose. I think many writers reflect on what they see and hear. They capture that essence. They form it and craft it in specific ways to tell a story. 

I think stories can break down barriers when we are willing to accept that there are a lot of differences in this world, just as there are a lot of similarities. 

I recently read Anxious People by Fredrik Backman. I've enjoyed all of the books of his I've read. This one was a struggle for me the first time I tried to read it. It was less difficult the second time, but some of my experiences preceding the reading of the book informed how I read this book.

I can appreciate why some people don't care for it. I can appreciate why they didn't much care for the constant intrusion of the narrative voice, like the narrative voiceover in a film, but I don't think I would have liked the book nearly as much without that narrative intrusion.

Well, back to Literature and Spirituality. After reading John Donne's Holy Sonnets and then Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, we read short stories. Lots of short stories. My hope was that students would read the texts because they are short stories. I think most students did read, but it occurred to me much, much later that too many students don't really know how to read texts for comprehension. 

They don't know how to read for the story. That is a different post.

But we read stories by Amy Tan, Leslie Marmon Silko, Graham Greene, Anton Chekhov, Shirley Jackson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Chinua Achebe, Willa Cather, Leo Tolstoy, Flannery O'Connor, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. 

For one part of their five-part final "project," they read Langston Hughes' "Salvation" and for another part they could read Gabriel García Márquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings."

Our last book was The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, typically described as "a classic Christian allegorical tale about a bus ride from hell to heaven." Sure, it's that. It's also a timeless reflection on humanity and how we view ourselves and each other. I thought it was a great way to end the semester as that final reflection of the kind of person some of us might want to be.

My students are young. Some are graduating at the end of this academic year; some have one more year to go. They may not make any connections after the class, but they might. I'll probably never know.

I do know this. Two students came up to me after class to shake my hand and say "Thank you." I'm not sure for what exactly, but I said "You're welcome." And one student shouted, "Thank you for being my last English class ever." He'd made some comments about stories he enjoyed throughout the semester, so I think there was a compliment in there.

So my students read widely and got to experience how different individuals from different times and cultures and places and experiences viewed people and people's relationships, and they got to examine, even if superficially, an individual's perceptions and expectations and values. Through that, some of them really did reflect on how they determine what matters most to them, how they find meaning, and how they make connections to others, and to God. And that was the goal of the class.

Saturday, October 15

Literature and Spirituality: Boethius, Donne, and Asimov

It's been about a month since my last post. It's been a crazy month for many reasons, and only one of which is this course. When I last wrote, we were about to get started with Boethius.

I keep going back to the spirituality religion Venn diagram though I've distilled our focus to these four questions: 1) Where and how does the writer find meaning, and how do we know?; 2) What makes the writer feel connected, and with whom or what does the writer want a connection, and how do we know?; 3) What does the writer value, and how do we know?; and 4) How does where and how the writer find meaning, with whom and/or what the writer wants connection, and what the writer values inform how that writer chooses to live?

We started trying to answer some of those questions with Boethius, which was a challenge since so few of the students actually read the text. The discussion the students claimed they preferred becomes a discussion between me and a few students, which is fine for me. They make some great observations, I get to ask some follow-up questions, and we go from there.

Boethius was a bit of a challenge even for the students who read the text. Fortunately, they've started asking questions to clarify the text as they're finally learning that reading such texts often means they have to discuss what they think it could mean. Many are finally learning I'm not asking for the answer because there might not be, probably isn't, a single answer.

I am slowly realizing (again) that I have to unteach what many have been taught their entire academic careers--that a teacher, a professor is looking for one right answer, whatever might be in that professor's head.

What was a gratifying moment was when a student slapped her hand on the table and said, "Oh, I've got it!" and she shared a really illuminating idea and could back it up from her reading of the text. It was near the end of class so was, for me, a good way to end.

What they all struggle with is trying to read these texts through whatever they understand to be a "Christian" lens. They don't have the same denominational background and I have a student who comes from a Buddhist family and why he is at Judson seems as much a puzzle to him as it is to me. And I think many want to try to give me what they think is a biblical response even though I've often said I don't think that's possible, and that we have to remember that Boethius's experience with Christianity has been suspect for centuries and that even if he was a Christian, what he understood as Christianity would be unrecognizable to us.

For those who haven't delved into Consolation of Philosophy (and there are some very good translations available that make the text quite readable), Boethius did all the "right" things and live a comfortable life in a lovely villa in Rome. He rose in positions of leadership and power, and got involved in politics. He was tasked with rooting out corruption by the ruler in Italy, Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoth. But then his fortune ran out and he was charged, quite falsely, with treason. He wrote Consolation of Philosophy while in his prison cell awaiting execution.

Now, a few things occurred to me before we got into the text itself and I raised those as I gave students some background before they started reading. I suggested they might think about some historical political prisoners: Socrates, Nelson Mandela, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, and, of course, Peter, Paul, and Silas. What I should have done is assigned some of those individuals to students so they could have done research to better understand the potential correlation of the thinking and reactions of those prisoners.

Why? Because Boethius found himself trying to understand how what happened to him happened. And so in the first book he is visited by Lady Philosophy who reminds him of the importance of philosophy and reason and suggests that thinking through these things will help bring about the healing of his mind. Lady Fortune visits him in Book II and reminds him that she is not to be trusted and that she sees everything as a game. As Boethius works through these two books, he compares the value of reason vs. emotion or passion and why only reason can be trusted.

Dr StClaire from
As he progresses in his thinking, he has a dialogue (in his writing) with Lady Philosophy about good and evil and why those who are evil get away with evil. He believes that there were those he was trying to expose who went to Theodoric and spun some other story that led the king to believe it was Boethius who was corrupt. Again, questions humanity is still trying to answer and one we see in books, movies,  and TV shows all the time. At the end of most stories, the "good guy" wins, but there are some, like The Matrix trilogy that leave us to wonder who were the good guys and who were the bad guys.

I made a mental observation that we live in difficult times when students in a Christian college are unwilling to speak their minds about some things. And when I said that there are some who might believe there are strong correlations to the world today, no one said a thing. It was as though they were afraid to even acknowledge that such might be true. 

And so we moved on through Boethius as he addressed God's foreknowledge vs man's free will, and I pondered aloud how that has been a question asked throughout time just as the question about how evil people get away with things while the good seem to be punished. And then I pontificated about how we each see evil. That Boethius saw the corrupt men who told lies to an "increasingly paranoid and vengeful king" (, and that some of us might not see lying about someone as "evil" compared to other acts or behavior. Then I looped back to Augustine and his behaviors and his attitudes towards his sin as well as how Augustine saw God's hand in his life. I noted some of the differences in language and then went back to the four questions. There were nods. I didn't and don't know what that means.

I've not yet read the Boethius papers. I'm anxious for a couple of reasons. Oh, I should also note that I gave students links to five YouTube videos, each a summary of a book in Consolation of Philosophy. None of the videos is more than five minutes. None of the students watched the videos on their own.
Then we moved on to John Donne because I really like John Donne and I think his story is a powerful one. We read mostly from the holy sonnets and "Hymne to God the Father," but I talked about the other elements of his life and why those might inform how we might answer the four questions with regard to Donne. 

They had not read the four sonnets I'd assigned, but I brought hard copies for students. Then I read a sonnet aloud and attempted to elicit discussion. We finished with Donne by revisiting "Holy Sonnet X" because I'd found a great video of someone reading the sonnet and he did a much better job than I, and then a lovely musical rendition of the sonnet by a young woman. When a student asked why she put the sonnet to music, I was a bit dumbfounded, but just shrugged and said she must have been moved by the sonnet and so decided to create that music. I also showed an excerpt from Wit, but I know they weren't interested. 

They weren't much interested in "Hymne to God the Father" either although one student did see a connection to Augustine. I wondered aloud if some people aren't interested in such poems because they are old and hard to read in the original or if the poems somehow speak too loudly to their own hearts. I say such things because I believe some are listening even if they aren't speaking.

And so we are taking a giant step in a very different direction by reading I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. We start that work on Tuesday, October 18. My hope is that they have read the two articles, they have watched the interview, and they have read the first four stories. The stories may take less time to read than the other stuff. And because we did not have class last week, they should have had time even though it was midterms. 

I don't give a midterm for many reasons. I canceled class on Tuesday because I had to be out of town and then had to cancel class on Thursday because I had return flight challenges.

Anyway, Asimov takes us far away from anything "Christian" to a writer who believes in rationality and humanism. How we might discuss the four questions with Asimov could be more lively than past discussions.

One of the things that is so interesting to me about this book is that Asimov wrote it in 1950. He coined the word "robotics," developed his Three Laws of Robotics, and added a whole new vocabulary through his robots including "positronic." The first story, "Robbie," takes place in 1998. The robot is huge and cannot speak. The next few stories take place over a period of time but begin in 2015 and by then robots are quite advanced and continue to become more, well, lifelike.

"Liar!" is like a story out of The Twilight Zone, for those of us old enough to remember the original television show. That story takes place in 2021 and what is so intriguing to me is how chatbots are not yet like Herbie, on many levels, and yet Asimov imagined a sort of empathy, but also the limitations of coding. Those are the sorts of ideas in later stories: that robots must obey the Three Laws of Robotics,  human beings have to be careful how they issue commands--think how often Alexa or Siri "misunderstand" what you're saying, and there are limits to what human beings can code a robot or robotic form to do. Or can they?

The last story set in 2052 poses that very question about the Machines.
It will be important for me to remind students when these stories were written and to think about what Asimov might have been trying to convey in these stories given how he valued rational thinking and humanism, and also how we might think about what we experience today through AI and have seen in movies and television since these stories were published. Think not only The Matrix trilogy, but Star Wars and Star Trek (first air date of the original in 1966), The Minority Report, The Twilight Zone (1959), and dozens of others including the Will Smith version of I. Robot (2004), loosely based on the stories in the book.

It will be more important for me to toss questions for them to think about and give them time to process and respond, although it will all be moot if they haven't read the stories. And therein lies the big challenge.

Sunday, September 18

Literature and Spirituality: Wrapping Up Augustine and Unwrapping Boethius

In my last post, We've been in class for a few weeks and I have to say conversation has been, well, let's go with muted. There are three or four students who are willing to speak up. I'm not convinced all of them have read the texts even when they speak up, but one step at a time.

One of the things I said in my last blog post was that maybe students needed a bit more time to warm up. I was thinking they needed to warm up to me, to the class, and to each other. After all, I know that the majority of the students are taking the class because it fits in their schedule and meets the upper-level literature course they have to take.

I've battled that mindset before and it won't be the last, so I'll deal and try to whine less.

Last week I tried a different kind of activity. I'd given students questions to consider for many of the books. I created four overall topics from those questions and each topic was on its own piece of chart paper. Students created their own groups, each group had a marker, and each group started at a different piece of chart paper. They discussed and wrote whatever they thought applicable to that very broad topic. Then they rotated to another piece of chart paper, and so on. Then they revisited the chart paper to see what others had written after them, and then we did a debrief.

The next class period I tried a variation of that theme with a sort of Jeopardy-like question approach, but that wasn't quite as successful. We had several students missing that day, and that change in dynamic matters.

This week we'll be wrapping up Augustine and I'm going to ask them to start a spiritual "map," and I use the word "map" very loosely. I had shared this image with them early on in the semester. I refer to it periodically to help them be mindful of how others might think of spirituality as well as how others might view religion and faith as, perhaps, an expression of their religion and/or spirituality. This speaks, I think, to those who believe themselves spiritual, but not religious.

I've also reiterated what Augustine wrote in Book I, Chapter 5: "Why do you mean so much to me? Help me to find words to explain. Why do I mean so much to you, that you should command me to love you?" (24).

I've reminded my students that those two questions could be at the root of anyone's spiritual journey even if they are rephrased. "What is my purpose?" "Why am I here?" "Why do I matter?" "Do I matter?" I might add the question "To whom do I matter other than my family and friends, and how do I know that?"

For those who are seeking a life of meaning and purpose, regardless of what they believe to be true about God or gods or a Supreme Being, these are important questions.

This, for me, is so powerfully important to the consideration of spirituality, especially if I'm looking for a life of meaning and purpose. As I've said before, we have the opportunity, and perhaps even the privilege, to read how others have wrestled with these questions and with their understanding of sin or what it could mean to fall short or believe they fall short of whatever their god or gods expect or might want. 

So as we wrap up Augustine and turn towards Boethius, I want them to somehow map or document what they've learned using this image as a starting point. How would they adapt it and why? In wrapping up Augustine, we're going to focus on 1) his key relationships: his mother, Bishop Ambrose, and Alypius, a friend of conflicting influences; 2) Book VIII and what pulls him toward evil and what pulls him toward good; and 3) those spiritual journey signposts in Book VI that might translate, if you will, to anyone's spiritual journey.

Boethius wrote his Consolation of Philosophy as he awaited execution for treason and other things, such as magic and sacrilege. The text is a dialogue between Boethius, as Prisoner, and Philosophy, personified as a beautiful woman. The work is a logical argument. Is it consolation or comfort as we might surmise? Hmmm. Probably not to many readers, but the questions Boethius asks have startling relevance.

Is Boethius's Consolation specifically Christian, even as Christianity was understood in his time? No, and that is significant. The work also challenges us to think about the role of reason and the senses in grappling with reality as well as how we understand however we perceive God.

How each student creates his or her "map" will be up to them, and they will revise and update it as we continue to read other classical texts (Donne, Bunyan) and then more contemporary texts (Tolstoy, Achebe, Tan, O'Connor, Sepetys, Lewis).