Friday, February 11, 2011

Not Supposed to Say: "Christian"

I wrote a paper about resurrection last fall. I had never done that before. The paper came back with Professor Kadetsky's scribbles in the margins. They kept repeating the phrase "Stop throat clearing". I had no idea what this meant. I visited office hours to ask. My problem? That I kept trying to shuffle off the responsibility of bold statements with caveats, "In my opinions", side comments to add a touch of flippancy and non-committal language to get me out of saying exactly what I needed to say. I was, as I noted in a previous post, scared of using my own voice, because using my own voice would mean drawing on blatantly Christian voices. And that, I had somehow come to feel, was jepordizing what seemed a hard won battle to be a valued and respected student at a secular university. For example, I found early on that using "Well, the Bible says" as a rhetorical devise to be fairly useless in a classroom setting. Across coffee? Go for it. To your professors or classmates face when you are discussing how bizarre Byron actually was? Not the best idea.

But why have I felt this tension? Lived in this status of I can't say I'm Christian? Why do I feel that to claim that title would make it harder for me to be listened to or respected? While much of this can be traced to my own fears, I don't believe this can be traced only to imagined threats. Take, for example, what a poetry professor declared last week: "There is no place in poetry or the poet for religious convictions. No poet wants the hand of doctrine over their mouth...Existentialism is the true religious feeling of the intellectual." I couldn't disagree more. But I said nothing. For the moment, I had passed.

There are times, though, that I do not, and I wonder if it is a negative or a positive that for just a few moments, the core of my identity was revealed. In writing workshops it happens when someone picks out a theme in a poem or story that I didn't know was there but is clearly from religious experience. Often times, it gets noticed when I can pick up Biblical references or clarify half remembered Sunday School stories when studying a piece of literature. Or, as happened once, another student wrote a story full of religious imagery, knowing that I would be the only one to get it when the time came. I was, and emailed him later to ask more questions about the story. "I wrote it for you in a way. I knew you were a Christian," he noted. I was stunned. One moment that I did it on purpose was when I wrote the essay about resurrection. I couldn't write the essay honestly without "going there" as it were.

A rather difficult and negative part of all of this is my intense concern with how people will view Christianity because of me. Maybe "UnChristian" by Gabe Lyons had more of a  negative affect than a positive one for me. I hesitate to declare my commitment here until I knew that my work has won the approval of my professors or classmates. Yes, as I've said, part of that wants to preserve my own status. But another part wants to preserve my faith's status until I know that I've made a good showing for it.

Sounds like paralyzing fear, to me.


Scott Cairns said...

I'd like to know who your poetry professor is. I'm also a poetry professor, as it happens, and I have a keen sense that poets of religious sensibility pretty much rock; rather than spouting ideology, they press language for discovery.

dana said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dana said...

This comment came from a professor who was introducing a class I ended up being unable to take due to credit hours (sadly, because James Brasfield is an excellent poet and professor). To clarify his point further, he was making an argument for spirituality being the necessary, mysterious source of poetry, but he divorced that from religious belief.

I should also note that this is not necessarily the universally held view of Penn State Professors, but simply one that I have observed. For example, I have benefited greatly from the encouragement poet and essayist, Julia Kasdorf, has provided for me as my thesis adviser.

I also agree that poets of religious sensibility rock, as poets such as yourself continue to demonstrate. Thank you for your comment!

Robbie Parks said...

Dana, I enjoyed reading this post. I feel like I've had to confront this issue in my own writing, and wondered about it in regard to other aspects of life.

Your post inspired me to think about boldness, and some of the results of those thoughts have made it into a blog post:

Dan said...

"Take, for example, what a poetry professor declared last week: 'There is no place in poetry or the poet for religious convictions.'"

Hi Dana,

My comment on this is not meant to be arrogant or condescending, but it could sound that way when I say: I think that this poetry professor could use a lesson in simple logic.

Though it's not ideal for classroom discussion (because the man with the microphone always wins), one could ask: "Professor, is that your religious conviction? If yes, then why are you bringing it into the realm of poetry? If no, why are you bringing it up at all?" Point being, the prof's comment is a conviction about religion whether the prof admits it or not. This type of comment usually amounts to: "If religion, then shut up." It is an unfortunate anti-religion bias, which I think you have picked up on.

Again, this is not meant to be a smart-aleck response, but rather to show that the professor's reasoning fails miserably. Thoughts?

dana said...

Dan, thank you for your comment. I can't say I disagree with you, though my intention in mentioning the comment was to explore the growth of my disease with speaking about religion openly in the classroom over time (though extrapolating to an argument against the structures themselves is not hard to do!). I would also point you to my comment in response to Mr. Cairns, where I further articulate Professor Brasfield's point. I don't want to present him as an angry or unthoughtful man at all. He is none of those things and deeply committed to his craft in a way I can only hope to imitate someday. However, I appreciated your critique, though I would say that very few people imagine that their convictions could be called a religious conviction. Rather, the point was that religious doctrine (perhaps different than religious conviction/feeling) was impossible to maintain while a poet.

Dan said...

I get your drift, Dana. Didn't mean to take your comments out of context or your thread off course.

Actually, I didn't think of your professor in those terms at all. I was just engaging this commonplace--and I think difficult to justify--idea that some religious convictions (i.e. some sort of spirituality or religious feeling) can get a free pass as acceptable while any organized religion or religious conviction based on doctrine (yikes, doctrine!) is taboo.

More to your point (and related to my comments), it seems to me that "no religion" is just as much a view/conviction on religion as a particular religious viewpoint. So for example, you might feel less likely to discuss religion in your classes because "no religion" enjoys a sort of default setting. I see no reason why this should be the case.

Chelsea said...

I can certainly relate to the feeling of walking on eggshells, trying to walk the line between retreating into my safe little Christian circle and configuring my beliefs so they'll come across as "normal" and non-offensive to those who disagree. I've been thinking about this lately as I consider how to prepare students for life beyond Christian school, where inserting Bible verses into the conclusion of your research paper is likely to get some odd looks at the very least. How do I help them move into a wider world with both confidence and sensitivity to others' perspectives? I haven't figured it out yet, but reading your posts to them might be a first step. Thanks for the thoughtful introspection.