[Milton-L] Help with a pedagogical question

John Leonard jleonard at uwo.ca
Thu Oct 1 11:31:43 EDT 2009

HI Margie,

As a MIltonist (not a "professing Christian"), I think you urge the right caution for the wrong reason.  I think it is political correctness run mad to banish or prohibit or discourage the word "Christ" from students' essays because some readers might not "identify as a Christian."  Use of that term, in my experience, carries no necessary implications as to the writer's beliefs. Christians (and atheists) can and do use the terms "Krishna," "Mohammad" or "Buddha" without signaling a profession of faith or assuming belief on the part of their readers.  One of the difficulties of political correctness is that it often turns out be more incorrect (even in its own terms) than the supposedly offensive terminology it seeks to replace.  Take, for one example, the current practice of writing C.E. and B.C. E. instead of A.D and B.C.  If I were a Muslim or a Jew or a Hindu I would find B.C.E incomparably more offensive than B.C.  Who says that this is the Christian era?  "Before Christ" is relatively neutral, since it allows for the possibility that other eras have arisen or might yet arise.   That nocent word "era", for all its genuflecting, makes an imperialist claim.  But I have no wish to rant--other than to say that I think students should have every right to reveal their faith position, especially if the author in question shared that faith.  There is also an issue of free speech (including, but not limited to, academic freedom).

That said, Miltonists should be careful with the term "Christ", if only because Milton himself never used it in a poem after "On The New Forcers."


  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Margaret Thickstun 
  To: John Milton Discussion List 
  Sent: Thursday, October 01, 2009 10:40 AM
  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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