[Milton-L] Help with a pedagogical question

Jameela Lares Jameela.Lares at usm.edu
Thu Oct 1 11:28:58 EDT 2009


As someone who is irrevocably a Christian and ready to go to the lions tomorrow, I think I'm in the group you want to hear from.

What I find myself wondering is why a "faith claim" qua faith claim particularly bothers you.  Literary analysis is full of implicit faith claims in just about everything--feminism, ecology, modernism, Marxism, whatever--and in this case making the claim explicit seems to be in the service of a rather compelling reading.  I hadn't thought about the poem itself being a further imitation of Christ and am now having a pleasant "Oh yeah, huh!" reaction.  And you are right that "God" wouldn't work later on.  One speaks of imago Dei but of imitatio Christi.

I can't see anything objectionable in what else you've reported, though perhaps I would need more context to understand your particular objection.  And it isn't as though I myself have no objections to Christian students doing affective rather than analytic work.  I can predict, for instance, that I will get 3-5 papers on The Dream of the Rood arguing that it's a Christian poem (well, duh! but what kind? and why?) or, worse, collapsing all differences between the original culture and their own particular denominational assumptions, you know, papers of the "this poem is simply about getting saved" school.  I am, after all, in the Bible belt.  But I also have students of sterner intellectual stuff capable of making fine distinctions.  It sounds as though yours is one of the latter.

So, I'm left wondering--why the squeamishness?  Or did I miss something?

Jameela Lares
Professor of English
The University of Southern Mississippi
118 College Drive, #5037
Hattiesburg, MS  39406-0001
601 266-4319 ofc
601 266-5757 fax
From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of Margaret Thickstun [mthickst at hamilton.edu]
Sent: Thursday, October 01, 2009 9:40 AM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: [Milton-L] Help with a pedagogical question

I would appreciate guidance, especially from professing Christians, about how to advise believing students in their use of "Christ" in academic discussions of religious poetry.  Normally when my students refer to Jesus as "Christ" they do so because they think "Christ" is his last name, so I point out that to refer to him as Christ is to make a faith claim, which they hadn't intended.

But this semester I have two very devout students who, in writing about Herbert poems, are using "Christ" in ways for which I don't have easy corrections.

Here is an example from a superb and subtle analysis of "The Windows" which ended:
Such an example of wordplay serves as the perfect ornament to Herbert’s poem; for, just as the Christian is called to be like Christ and thus to be as a kind of filter for his image, so too Christ’s image filters through this poem about man.  He enters subtly, symbolically and yet perceptibly; and, in-so-doing, this poem about windows becomes, itself, a window for Christ’s light.
I could just ask him to substitute "God" there, but that is not precisely what he meant.  Here is what I wrote:
“Christ,” as you know, is an honorific and a faith claim.  As such, it needs to be used carefully and sparingly in literary analysis.  When you refer to Christ in your intro paragraph, you present the argument—that the preacher must let Christ’s light shine through him—as Herbert’s argument.  So I think “Christ” is okay there.  But in your concluding paragraph, when you say that in John “we read of Christ that. . .” you not only reveal your faith position, but include your reader in that community.  What if the person reading your discussion of the poem does not identify as a Christian?  Is that person excluded from the paper’s audience?  Does the argument’s success require that readers share this faith position?
I would appreciate knowing how others handle this issue.--Margie

Margaret Olofson Thickstun

Elizabeth J. McCormack Professor of English

Hamilton College

198 College Hill Road

Clinton, NY 13323

(315) 859-4466

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