For my students…
When I confess that I am not a “by-the-book” English teacher, I recognize two things. The first thing is that, yes, there is a great pun there. The second thing is that my occasional unorthodox approach to teaching English, and my attitude about it, can often confuse and sometimes even alienate students in my classes. I have a sarcastic sense of humor that is fused with a quirky desire to sprinkle pop-culture references within passionate, sometimes long-winded discourse on how important literature is to me. I know that, as we blaze through the spectrum of American literature each year, some of my students are left a bit bewildered, if not downright frustrated. What I try to do at the end of the year, then, is to explain why I am the way I am, and why I have chosen to teach this class for the last three years. Hopefully, in explaining that, I can help each one of my students understand the bigger picture – how all this affects our reality and how we view the world in which we live.
I love literature (that is, I love the reading and the analyzing and the discussing and the comparing and the contrasting and the interpreting) for many reasons, but the main reason I love it is that reading literature is incarnational. Something otherworldly comes alive when we read literature. Whether we’re reading a short story, a poem, a play, a novel, or comic book – somewhere in the depths of myself there is a swirling and churning of new life. Colors emerge and blend, suns ignite, stars glisten, characters take on flesh and a new world is born in my consciousness, and whether I intend for it to or not, this world will affect the one in which I actually live. As the C.S. Lewis quotation on the wall just outside my classroom door states, “Literature adds to reality – it does not simply describe it.”
The selections we read in class are chosen not only because they all belong to the general category of American literature, but also because I believe each one comments on the incredibly intricate composition of the human experience – our joy, our pain, our anger, our sadness, our prejudices, our bravery, our need to give and receive love. Naturally, some of these stories may be darker than others. Some make us feel happy while others make us feel sad. We will agree with some outcomes and conclusions, but others cause us to shake our heads in disbelief or disgust. We have these reactions because we are human, and incarnation is a concept that moves us all. A person who tosses aside a story or poem and simply says, “It was boring,” or, “I don’t think it means anything” has not truly read the work. It means something. It meant something to the author, and even in the off-chance that it didn’t, it still means something to you … if you will let it. And you should let it.
Madeleine L’Engle once wrote, “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be made sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.” Translation: there is nothing in this world that is so dark, or odd, or obscene, or pagan, or anti-God, that cannot be transformed by Christ, who became a lowly, dust-footed man from a nowhere town so he could finish God’s work of reconciling the world to Himself. Every time I read a work of literature, I remember this quote, and whatever the subject matter I am reading, I remember that God is real, that He is present, and that the minute I doubt His presence (even in the darkest of places), I doubt the Incarnation.
We’re not all going to enjoy the same kind of literature. Some of us aren’t into the same kinds of stories, nor do we all enjoy the same kinds of poetry. Some of us want happy endings to the tales we read, and there is nothing wrong with that. Some of us don’t mind descending to dark places as long as there is a clear redemption at the end, and there’s nothing wrong with that either. However, we cannot be afraid of the challenge some stories or poems or plays present to us. There are a lot of works our there that are tough nuts to crack – one thing I’ve never said in class is that interpretation is easy, because it isn’t. It can, however, be very, very good.
If we would seek understanding, like the Teacher in Proverbs encourages us to do, I believe God will help us learn something from what we read, no matter what it is. I believe a new world will come to life inside us, and we will not be able to look at our own world the same way again, and that is a good thing. When it comes to transformation, the “loss of innocence” is a necessary archetype.
Allow me to sum up these thoughts in a story…
Several years ago, when I was attending seminary, a few of my best friends lived together in a big, white house on 15th Street in Waco, Texas, on a corner known to be one of the most heavily trafficked for drugs and prostitution in the city. Hey, rent was cheap; a few other seminary students lived in a small blue house next door. My friend Josh described how he would lay awake many nights and listen to cars rumble up to the curb, how he could hear the faint shuffling and scuffling sounds of business being transacted, and car doors squeaking open and slamming shut, and burping mufflers grumbling off into the night. He told me how depressing it could sometimes be, especially when he would hear familiar female voices speaking – these were the prostitutes who my friends would come across and speak to on a weekly basis when they would walk out of their house, or return home from class. The odd thing about these women, and some of the men who lived in the area and worked as pimps and dealers, was how much they loved these six guys living in this house. They watched out for them – they kept an eye on their house during the day. It was as if the neighborhood, rough and sinful as it was, had embraced them as members of some extended family. It was common for homeless people to wander up the street, see the cars with the college decals parked in the driveway, and come to the door to ask for money – after all, these were Baylor students, and the stereotype is that all Baylor kids are loaded with “daddy’s money” (unless they’re graduate students like we were). However, the guys had decided that they would never hand out money just like that – instead, they always bought extra bread and peanut butter and jelly, and when the street people asked for some cash for “something to drink” or to “catch the bus” or for smokes or Church’s Chicken, the guys would politely turn them down, but immediately offer to make them a sandwich or give them a glass of water. Eventually, the women who hung out on the curb and the men who passed most of their days sitting on tattered couches on their porches would yell out to people they saw approaching the house’s door that they would find no money for themselves there, but if they were looking to score a sandwich…
My friend Josh tells the story of one of the prostitutes from the corner the guys saw most frequently. Her name was Dee. She often stopped by to talk with the guys or to ask for a glass of water. One day, as Josh and some of the other guys were hurrying off to class, Dee came by for a visit. They gave her some water, but told her that they didn’t have time to talk because they were late for their class. She understood, and began to walk away. Then Drew, one of the housemates, looked at Dee and said, “Dee, you know what?” When she turned, he said, “You look really nice today.” Josh says that if you could have seen Dee’s face, and the way this seemingly simple compliment lit her up, you would wonder if anyone had ever given her a compliment before in her life. If so, it must have been a long time ago.
A few days later, a group of us were sitting around one evening, conversing about deeply philosophical and theological issues (as seminary students will do in their spare time) – things like predestination and prevenient grace and why The Scorpion King is apocryphal rather than a true member of The Mummy movie series canon. Somehow, the conversation spilled into the concept of “desensitization” – the idea that seeing too much violence, or sexuality, or hearing too much bad language (whether in books or movies or in real life) dulls you to it and leaves you open to its corruption. It seems like an important thing to remember, and perhaps a reason why so many Christians have such varied feelings on things like R-rated movies, Mature-Audience video games, secular novels and the like. I had started to take the natural defense of this position, until Grayson, one of the other housemates, spoke up.
“I’m not so sure desensitization is always a bad thing,” he said. “Look at what Drew said to Dee the other day. You know, if we hadn’t been living where we’ve been living these past few years, and seeing and experiencing what we have, I don’t think he would have said what he said. At least not honestly. But he was being honest.”
Grayson explained that the guys had finally gotten past the thought of these women on the corner as prostitutes. They were women, and they were God’s creation, and they were loved. No matter how trashy they may have looked to them at first, over time, the guys had come to view them not through their own eyes, but through God’s eyes. They had become desensitized to the darkness around them, but now there was light. There was honesty that pierced through the murky film of their misgivings and limitations. They could look upon the world – even the sinful, dirty, fallen world around them – and call it beautiful.
Whatever you do in this life, be it science or math or music or art or history or mechanics or linguistics or literature, never be afraid of becoming desensitized to this world. Of course, there are measures we must take to guard ourselves from “the sin that so easily entangles,” (Hebrews 12), but we must never shut out the world in order to protect whatever measure of holiness we think we have. Jesus blazed a trail of love directly into the darkest, seediest corners of this world, and he did so confidently while all the other religious people stood back with their heads shaking, their eyes wide, and they jaws hanging open to their knees. But he did it, and if we are going to follow in his footsteps, we must learn to walk the same roads that he walked. It’s scary, and it takes courage. Courage comes from learning, and learning comes when we throw aside easy, shallow answers and open our minds. When we become reflective. When we examine and when we interpret. No one ever said this was easy, but if we are going to be Christians who actually make a difference – who actually change the world rather than badmouth it – then we have to do what is hard.
Whatever you do in this life, don’t forget to slow down every once in a while. Don’t walk this road without taking time to look around. Read a good book, take to heart a poem, embrace the Spirit behind a song. Let the power of these things come to life inside you. Let the Incarnation matter, because it does. And as you live out your own story, look up from the pages every now and then and tell the world, in all its disorder and disarray, “You’re beautiful.” You’ll be surprised how soon you come to mean exactly what you say.