A student for Easter Sunday

A couple of years ago, in the “Bible Literacy” course I used to teach, I received the following wonderful statement from a student. One of the nicest things that has ever happened to me as a teacher, I think. I did ask the student if I could share it, so here it is. JDF

<<This is probably more of a rant though it rambles on – and I suppose being a rant it delves to something more emotional than strictly academic, but I can’t seem to help having an emotional response to the text. Having now reached the end of the semester, the end of the text, and apparently the end of the world, my perspective is an entire glance backward from beginning to end and my response to it. My rant is mostly about perspective, though it does ramble to adjacent subjects.

<<I personally find the Bible difficult to engage with. When I signed up for “Studies in Non-Dramatic Seventeenth Century Literature”, I did so at a glance, and didn’t even realize it was a Bible-centric course. I thought it would be the usual Miltons and Donnes (which we did touch upon) and not simply the King James Bible as is. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first but opted to give it a go, albeit hesitantly. Christian and Biblical imagery is scattered all over western literature, but studying the Bible and analyzing it as a text on its own is a different story.

<<To be blunt, I’m a gay woman who grew up in a very Christian environment and these two realities did not mesh together kindly at all. For a very long time, the Bible was nothing more than a traumatizing text that, in my eyes, was a barely coherent strung-together mess of ancient prejudices. It was a simple and stagnant text that had no place in the modern world, a text that only encouraged a single perspective and the cruelties that came with it. I did not always like returning to this text and these stories and words, and even considered dropping the class a couple times, but our approach to studying it kept me engaged in a way I did not expect. I did not anticipate finding anything new in a text I had already had hammered into me, sometimes in not so-great ways, for the first two decades of my life.

<<Reading the Bible as a piece of literature, as a narrative, as something with a beginning (or many beginnings) and something with an end – as a text that had been stitched together to form something of a literary tapestry to relate the mythos of a subjugated people – as a reflexive piece of literature that grows and builds upon its own narrative rather than stagnates – was a revolutionary perspective. Part of my mind is still in week one, learning about how the text has always existed as a translation, and what that means when it comes to interpretation – namely that our readings are always interpretive and not definitive.  Not only that, but it is a text that needs to be re-interpreted.  

<<I never noticed before how some stories repeat, how we have multiple beginnings and how they differ slightly – for example Adam and Eve being presented equally the first time but with Eve assuming a secondary role the second time. Learning these variations existed because they were particular selections taken from a larger collection of stories made me view them differently. The text was less stagnant. The different authors and different voices came through clearer. Still confusing at times, but not necessarily incoherent so much as just very busy, very active.

<<For further example, I’ve heard the gospels all my life. There is hardly a parable I don’t know. However, I always heard them out of order. I never even took careful note of who wrote each one. It seemed like the same stories repeating in a bland drone, but reading it in order revealed stark differences. Different perspectives, different voices, such as the (sometimes more colourful) stories in the Book of John compared to the first three gospels. I never noticed the little details in the stories. I was so taken with Mary and Jesus having their little back-and-forth in the story of the wedding at Cana that I actually went home and showed it to my sister. It was something neither of us had ever really noticed.

<<I liked some of the literary visuals and thought there were beautiful images. The Book of Exodus was exciting, and the story of Rahab had that lovely visual throwback with the red string in the window resembling the red blood of Passover. Her role in that story remained with me, the image of the red string a striking one. The story of Jael in the book of Judges, who kills a man by driving a tent stake through his head, and who is a heroine to the Jewish people, was a story I had never even heard before, and I thought that was too bad.

<<I said this rant was on perspective and it somewhat is, but I suppose if I really wanted to rant and be mad about something, it would be about how this text is often delivered. Because I am mad and upset. Upset that I was made to hate what is a colourful and diverse narrative. Upset that until recently I could not enjoy these details and these stories or appreciate any beautiful images thanks to the distorted simplification that was a single perspective, one that was used only to cause pain. I hope to go forward and rectify this, and expand my own perspective, one which until recently has been woefully narrow.>>

Author: JD Fleming

I am Professor of English Literature at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. My work is in the intellectual history of the early-modern period (1500-1700), with a special interest in epistemic issues around the emergence of modern natural science (the "Scientific Revolution"). Philosophically, for me, these issues are subsumed in hermeneutics.

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