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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Monday, May 09, 2005

The Wrong Ones Can’t Get Saved

Posted by Lawrence LaRiviere White on 05/09/05 at 09:52 PM

Aha! My chance has come at last! Jonathan’s recent post on editorial problems in the Book of Mark is the crack in the doorway through which I will barge in with a personal anecdote for years I have been dying to tell. It is a tale of a hapless TA in over his head and how he, much to his surprise, kept his students at bay. & it all turns on the strangeness of Mark. It really should have been in the comment thread, but it’s stupid long, not to say, Holbonic. No, really, I don’t want to say that.

My first teaching was as an MFA student at the University of Iowa. At Iowa, MFA’s found their place in the great chain of being through TAships: a thin rank of top students taught undergraduate creative writing workshops, the next level got to teach Intro to Literature, the level below that Rhetoric, and below that were the unmentionables, those who had nothing. (I have been told that things are much more decent now, & everyone gets to teach creative writing. You see, the world does get better.)

I was an unmentionable my first year, but in the second year got elevated to Intro to Lit. This was functionally a composition course. But the department’s preparation of teachers was not so good. I seem to remember a couple of meetings about choosing books and giving assignments, then I was set down before the wolves. First semester was a disaster. The lowlight was the five class sessions I spent summarizing, act by act, the King Lear they were not reading. On the sixth day, we finally got around to a decent discussion, beginning with the question, “what do parents owe their children?” I nicely turned it, halfway through, onto the question, “what do children owe their parents?” But any attempt to tie our little rap back to Shakespeare was met with the fiercest glares. Oh well. I am a better teacher now.

In the midst of this term, a questionnaire was put in our boxes that asked if we would like to teach one of the elective Intro to Lit courses next semester. These took on not literature in general but a particular genre or period. Ancient and Biblical Literature was one of the choices. In my lower division days I had taken a scale-model version of the Great Books course at a California State University. Reading the Illiad again sounded like fun. Though I wasn’t expecting to get the promotion (the elective versions of Intro being a half-step up on the chain of being), I checked the box anyway.

Well, I did get it. Now I had a problem. I had said I would like to teach it, not that I could. I wasn’t afraid of the Greek and Roman stuff. I would be at least one step ahead of the students on that. But the Bible frightened me. There would be students who knew it much better than I did, students who would be gunning for some secularist, Bible-as-literature type. What to do?

For the Old Testament, I chose the Books of Samuel and of Kings and taught them as stories of heroic kingship, paralleling them to the pagan stuff. But the New Testament would be real trouble. Grace was with me, though, as I remembered a passage from my favorite Frost poem, “Directive.” In this poem, Frost comes close to admitting that he’s a crank and that he has an ambivalent attitude to his readership. Despite Cami Paglia’s call for the poet to speak to the great masses, the speaker here “only has at heart your getting lost.” For my immediate purposes, a Bible reference interested me:

I have kept hidden in the instep arch /
Of an old cedar at the waterside /
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail /
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it, /
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.

I didn’t know which biblical passage Frost was talking about, but it sounded creepy, & finding creepy in the New Testament would be good.

The Book of Mark came through quickly & in a big way. The bit I was looking for follows the parable of the sower. You know the sower. He casts seed on the four dirts: wayside, stony, thorny, and good. It fails on the first three and thrives on the fourth. Jesus closes out his monologue with the old chestnut: “He that has ears to hear, let him hear” (4:9). Cutaway to the next scene: “And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable” (4:10). Like any good teacher, he explains to the students the purpose for this particular pedagogical technique:

Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables, that seeing they may see, and not perceive, and hearing they may hear, and not understand, lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them. (4:11-12)

& if you think he’s not serious about this, a dozen verses later he re-iterates, this time with feeling: “For he that hath, to him shall be given, and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath” (4:25). I think this is called kicking a man when he’s down.

I led off my New Testament section with this passage. & it knocked the kids back on their heels. Here was Jesus, the nicest guy that ever was, being not nice. & even if they had an idea that sometimes Jesus was mean, here he was being weird, talking weird, like some hippy or poet.

& to re-enforce that impression, I had them move immediately to 16:16-18. This is in the (perhaps) added section at the end of the book. It is not only aesthetically awkward, it has some theological issues as well, for herein Jesus instructs us,

And these signs shall follow them that believe: in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

I may have been mistaken, but it seemed that the Christian kids in class hadn’t ever read these verses. I think they were surprised to learn that those rustic folk in Appalachia got their crazy ideas by reading the Good Book straight.

With the momentum this initial shock gave me, I was able to present salvation in the Gospel as an interpretation problem. Mark sets this up nicely when he says, “But without a parable spake he not unto them, and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples” (4:34). Now it seems here that the world divides into those who are only allowed to read the primary source and those who get access to secondary explications. Call it the difference between the five-hundred student lecture and the twelve student seminar. But despite their free pass, the apostles don’t seem to be doing. Directly after explaining his pedagogical purpose, Jesus attacks his best and brightest: “Know ye not this parable? And how then will ye know all parables?” (4:13). And later, after they ask yet again for him to explain yet another story, he seems to explode and to come close to consigning them among the lost: “Are ye without understanding also?” This professor despairs of the quality of his students.

In my class, we talked about the difference between literal and figurative moments and the difficulty in some cases of knowing which is which. For the obviously literal, there is 10:11: “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.” That would seem to be a straightforward statement. For the obviously figurative, there is 11:23: “whoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast unto the sea, and shall not doubt in his heart […] he shall have whatsoever he saith.” To the best of my knowledge, I know of no Christian sect trying to cast Mount Rainier into the Puget Sound. Between these limits, we had fertile grounds for discussion, such as every liberal’s favorite, 10:25: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And thus I was able to start my socialist indoctrination!

Actually, by the fourth and final class session on the NT, the students had re-grouped & started to push back. But then we were on to the more secular-friendly existential anguish of Augustine’s Confessions.

At the time I considered my gambit here merely a case of practical pedagogy, but when I got to my PhD program, while Leroy Searle guided us through the wonders of Big Red, I came upon my friend Augustine again, this time his lesser known On Christian Doctrine. It turns out he, too, considers the identification of the figurative as the essential reading technique for the Bible, but his hermeneutic key jarred with my reading. My notes are buried somewhere, so I’ll crib Adam Kissel’s: “only those interpretations shall be deemed correct which point to charity and love.” It seems I had stumbled upon a location in the Gospel where Jesus appeared to be a touch uncharitable. Though we never talked about the Book of Mark, I think Leroy would take such a stumbling block as a sign of the book’s greatness. I think Leroy told us that all great books contain such stumbling blocks that trip up any interpretation made of them. (I think that’s what he said: he’s a very creative thinker but not the best explainer.)

P.S. Jonathan makes two back to back posts. One is on a fascinating and underappreciated work from the Western canon and gets a smattering of comments. The other is some Derridian red meat and starts a feeding frenzy. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that theory’s detractors have some co-dependency issues. But, as this post makes clear, I don’t know any better. “The action is the juice,” to use wise Digby’s term, for me as well: I too am a slave to faction.


Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables, that seeing they may see, and not perceive, and hearing they may hear, and not understand, lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them. (4:11-12)

I am not the only one who is convinced that the historical Jesus must have been bitterly funny at times.

By pierre on 05/10/05 at 01:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This was a really helpful and interesting post.  I plan to borrow liberally from it in my own teaching. 

I agree that it does often seem as if members of this community would rather disparage Derrida (or academics more generally) rather than celebrate the texts they admire.

By Matthew Greenfield on 05/16/05 at 12:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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