I was busy over the holidays getting classes ready for the spring semester. I revised my notes, rewrote exams and prepared the syllabi. After I found out that the textbook cost 125 dollars, I tracked down each reading on the internet and created a virtual anthology to save my students a few bucks. To get off on the right foot, I sent out a quick note on New Year’s Eve, informing students that the textbook was optional. I settled in the evening’s festivities with a demitasse of espresso and some down time to decompress. Soon after, I received the following message from a student enrolled in the class.
My name is [name deleted]. I have signed up for [generic college-level literature course]. looked over the syllabus and I read that the students in that class need to read novels. I am a Seventh Day Adventist Christian. Ellen White is one of the founders of the church. We believe she was a prophet of the Lord.
Here is what she had to say about reading novels:
“Parents should endeavor to keep out of the home every influence that is not productive of good. In this matter some parents have much to learn. To those who feel free to read story magazines and novels I would say: You are sowing seed the harvest of which you will not care to garner. From such reading there is no spiritual strength to be gained. Rather it destroys love for the pure truth of the word. Through the agency of novels and story magazines, Satan is working to fill with unreal and trivial thoughts minds that should be diligently studying the word of God. Thus he is robbing thousands upon thousands of the time and energy and self-discipline demanded by the stern problems of life.”
Based on her counsel I choose to avoid reading fiction. May I read non-fiction works for your class? Please let me know at your earliest possible convenience.
I was floored. I was expecting a note of appreciation from students that were aware that I’d spent several hours of my vacation trying to save them some money by finding their readings online, and instead I received a note from some girl who lived in the pre-enlightenment Midwest asking me to grant her an exception from reading. Now, I’ve always been respectful to the buggy drivers that I’ve come across as I drive Old Route 66, and over the years, I’ve had my share of Mennonite students, young women with their hair in a bun and long denim skirts. I know they’d rather read about salvation than the stuff I assign, but they’re hard workers and have been fine students. Only once or twice was I confronted with a nut bag or two from Opus Dei, or a student who told me that he closed his eyes during the sex scenes of the film I was showing. Poor bastard!
On one level, I felt that they really needed to lighten up. I mean, any group that tells you what you can and can’t read is full of bull. On another level, I wanted this kid to understand that language itself is fiction; –sounds that masquerades as objects–, and that truth and fiction are structured the same way. Both are based on a series of assumptions and the more the assumptions correspond to external evidence, they more credibility they have. At the same time, what was once considered as true can be radically revised from time to time. Just ask Galileo.
At the same time, I was sure that my arguments would have fallen on deaf ears. She was probably living in some kind of polygamous Islamo-fascist harem, south of I-80, totally deprived of fiction, poetry, theater, and independent thinking. I couldn’t imagine what she watched on television, if they had reception where she lived. And, if she was already in contact with the Almighty, why was she bothering with a university education in the first place?
In any case, I couldn’t tell her to drop and save us both the trauma. Instead I wrote this response.
Thank you for your interest in my class. Yes, I expect all of the students enrolled in the class to complete the readings. Actually, you’re in luck this year because freshman literature is devoted entirely to the theme of religion. In my previous classes, I dabbled in Che Guevara, but I have grown weary of all the freshman punks wearing berets and growing beards, fantasizing over a few blunts that they are going to go save the world by becoming guerrillas in the South American jungle.
This semester I will be doing something completely different.
After a lengthy introduction of Freud, Marx and Lacan, we will read the Pentateuch, a text that was supposedly written by Moses himself. I will argue that it is by far one of the most fundamental texts in Western Culture, encompassing an entire repertoire of images and symbols that give meaning to our world. Without it, we will likely not be able to understand ourselves. When we get to Deuteronomy (34: 1-12) I will argue that Moses couldn’t have possibly written the text for the plain and simple fact that he could not have narrated his own death. Hence, the Word was always already fiction. And, we can thank God for that!
The second reading of the course comes from the modern era. We will discover how Karl Marx’s writings were as teleological as those of the Hebrew prophets, which means that even dialectical materialism can’t escape the same kind of millennial soothsaying that we find among those who read the Tarot and Chicken Bones. This reminds me that a few years ago, I had a student from Utah write a lovely treatise on how the Book of Mormon was an example of literary hybridity in which the resurrection passion play was staged against the scenery of a televised seven-part Western epic.
The final segment of the course is dedicated to the modern era. We will examine the lyric poetry of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who wrote the monumental “You can’t always get what you want,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” and “Saint of me.” Our purpose is to delve into how their rejection of religious sanctity depends on highly religious imagery. We will conclude with a reading of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, for which I have designed a field experience in which we will go to a dub-step club and examine these rituals as a hip hop version of Early Christian Agape.
If you have any further questions about the course, please don’t hesitate in contacting me.