[Milton-L] Help with a pedagogical question

Samuel Smith ssmith at messiah.edu
Thu Oct 1 11:44:40 EDT 2009


If your students are as devout as I was when a college student (reading and re-reading Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, etc.), they have picked up this habit of simply referring to Jesus as Christ from Paul, who does this over and over.  So their use of "Christ" can identify their scriptural tradition as much as their personal faith.  Getting them to think about the implications for their audience strikes me as a both an instructive and a gracious response on your part.  Your non-threatening questions encourage them to think and speak more inclusively (I find the same strategy effective for encouraging students to use gender inclusive language).  

I will be most interested, however, to hear from you and other list members as to what it means to say:

"Christ," as you know, is an honorific and a faith claim.  As such, it needs to be used carefully and sparingly in literary analysis.

What is your response when a student asks "Why?"  That is, "why can't I introduce who/what identifies and forms my sense of self and community, indeed, who/what provides the deepest source of meaning in my life, into my literary analysis?  Why must I keep what is most meaningful to me at a distance when I am doing scholarly work?  What is it about the nature of literary analysis that demands keeping my faith out of the work at hand?  Especially when I am reading a poet, George Herbert, who sounds like he shares a Christian faith very much like my own?  Is this only a matter of striving for a more inclusive audience?  Is there a way to write more inclusively AND remain true to my deepest life commitments?"

(Well, I'm trying to imagine your students responding; perhaps they don't respond in this way.)

You do say that the term "Christ" can be used "carefully and sparingly," so you haven't forbidden its use.  But how do you detail what "carefully and sparingly" looks like?  How do you negotiate with a student for whom that sounds like a betrayal of their central life commitment--the very essence of who they are?


Samuel Smith
Professor of English
Chair, Department of English
Messiah College
Box 3017
Grantham, Pennsylvania 17027
717 766 2511 x7052
email: ssmith at messiah.edu
webpage: http://home.messiah.edu/~ssmith/

Speaking at length about something 
does not offer the slightest guarantee 
that thereby understanding is advanced.

--Martin Heidegger
>>> Margaret Thickstun <mthickst at hamilton.edu> 10/01/09 10:43 AM >>>
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 

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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