Poesis, Part One: Fiction and Alt-Texts

This year alone, the Craft of Teaching has featured several sessions on literature, the arts, and religious studies courses: “Teaching with Fiction” session led by Professors Lucy Pick and Noah Toly, in Autumn Quarter, and Mark Maxwell’s two-part workshop, “Cultivating Rigorous Creativity,” in Autumn and Winter Quarters. I was able to listen in, via Skype, to one of these sessions. This sustained interest identifies a common thread, for which I have used the Greek term, poesis – making. This term can embrace various purposes and practices, from including works of fiction or other arts in a syllabus, to assignments that invite students to link an artistic project to the course, to some verve in making inferences and arguments. I would like to engage this theme through a reflection on my own use of fiction, the arts, and creative projects. That will take several posts, with somewhat different emphases. The short version: yes, use poesis. Make stuff. Religious studies courses are not usually courses in the arts themselves. More typically, we guide students through a set of primary sources and some secondary methods for analyzing them. However, a careful reading of primary sources calls for empathy as much as for critique, and addressing questions of meaning needs intellect as much as intuition. Fiction can be one of the best routes to mediating both of these tasks, and also to moving from one to the other. I don’t have much to add to the discussion I heard in the “Teaching with Fiction” session (and I thank Brandon Cline and Aaron Hollander for setting up the Skype). The main theme was that fiction in religious studies syllabi can help students focus on individuals’ emotional connection to religious ideas or practices, can reduce cognitive dissonance by introducing questions at a distance from the students’ own contexts, and can cultivate empathy, which is called forth most strongly by specificity rather than abstraction (Media reports of studies on literature and empathy can be found here and here, and some skepticism and addtional links can be found here.) One work that I have used in different contexts is Robertson Davies’s novel Fifth Business. The narrator, Dunstan Ramsay, approximates Davies’ own religious stance of a non-doctrinal Jungianism. Through his encounters, we also meet the pragmatic pieties and prejudices of a small town in Ontario; traditional religious commitment in Ramsay’s colleagues, the Bollandist Jesuits; and the glib, modern-money-friendly packaging of Christianity that Boy Staunton finds appealing. While a Canadian student is rare in these parts, and one hundred years ago is very alien territory to my students, many come from small towns, and most have encountered the prosperity gospel. (That leaves the Bollandists as perhaps the most peculiar element.) However, the main driver of the novel isn’t anything most students would think to call “a religion.” Instead, we see lives animated by an emotional investment that is religion-like. Ramsay is on a quest to discover whether Mary Dempster is a fool saint, when neither he nor she is Catholic. Boy uses Prince Edward as a substrate for his own identity and ambitions. The three major male characters re-name themselves, with Paul Dempster creating a full new identity in adulthood. This is Yeats’ “rag and bone shop of the heart,” the stock from which lives and religions are made. Discussion of these characters and the odd narrative they jointly make can open up questions of what “religion” is on the scale of the individual and his or her intimates, and it will not look like public doctrines or abstract categories at all. The form of Fifth Business also works well. As a fictional autobiography, it easily lends itself to explorations of the fictiveness – the creation entailed in – identity. (This aspect can get complicated for me, since the novel’s sustained use of disability and monstrosity strikes close to my own identity formations.) However, the biggest and only challenge I have had with this novel is the occasional student who just doesn’t like Dunstan Ramsay. But one can’t please everyone. In any case, students can generate surprising riffs on fictiveness, truth, religiosity, identity, and memory, when they engage a text for which they have no prior positioning. They don’t have to watch what they say about Davies, his characters, or his narrative, and they unconsciously know this. Although fiction helps in many ways, I would like to suggest a broader category, that of the alternate text.* I mean texts that are not primary or secondary sources pertinent to the course topic, and may or many not be fictional, but that can achieve the goals of stimulating imagination, empathy, and ease of approach to difficult issues. Their connection to a syllabus lies in their ability to prompt lines of thought or feeling that will aid the students in addressing main matter. Thus “alternate“ is a relative term, defined in relation to the course topics. Fiction is a great source of alternate texts, and it has distinctive gifts, but there are further possibilities. For instance, I have occasionally assigned Plato’s Euthyphro in Hebrew Bible courses. (I do view it as fictive, but its conventional academic classification would be philosophy.) I typically assign it around the time when the class will read Genesis 22, since it overtly addresses concepts that would later be called divine command theory. However, it also opens up many questions about traditional of textual authority. Best of all, it serves as a representation of dialogue, of both intellectual quest and the refusal of it, both of which are likely to happen in the class. All that, and it’s short. Some of my other alternate texts are the myth of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia (vis-à-vis Gen 22), the discussion of Aristotelian textual authority in Galileo’s Dialogues** (vis-à-vis biblical authority), and the Star Trek canon (discovered by alien anthropologist in the far future, vis-à-vis historical methods of dating). Actually, we don’t view the Trek canon; it appears embedded in my own speculative narrative, so we’re back to fiction. One day, if I’m bold enough, I may include The Life of Brian in a New Testament syllabus. (Anyone who has done this, please tell me about it.) In his essay “Why Is Historical Jesus Research Necessary?”, John Dominic Crossan uses the talking animals in Aesop’s fables as an alternate text for thinking about basic principles of historical criticism.*** Bart Ehrman does the same with his digest of Philostratus’ The Life of Apollonius of Tyana in his New Testament: A Historical Introduction. The past, too, can function as an alternate text to the present. Here’s a fascinating recent example from Mark Cohen. Nothing new in the concept, but new teachers may be reluctant to include readings or tasks that are not directly relevant to a course topic. So this is a plea for a looser concept of relevance, among other things. I would encourage everyone to develop their own repertoire of alternate texts. What you’re looking for is something that can work on multiple levels, for the students you have, in dialogue with the courses you teach. Fiction probably is the best source of alternative texts, precisely because of its fictiveness – the right kind of distance, and the right kind of intimacy, are built into the form, and themselves can be examined. However, if we think in terms of pedagogical purpose, other possibilities will present themselves. Above all, remember that a course topic doesn’t mean that one can only select readings (viewings, listenings) from primary and secondary sources on the topic. It’s good to include a few items that address the address – that help students cultivate their ability to approach the topic, to put it together for themselves, and to learn something that will last.   *I have been stumped trying to coin a term for what I mean. The appropriate Greek prepositions (para-, peri-) are already taken by other meanings. ** If you would like to see a defense of Aristotelian authority, along with a critique of the devious means by which Aristotle’s commentators make him come out right, see Galileo Galilee, Dialogue Concerning The Two Chief World Systems, translated by Stillman Drake (New York: Modern Library, 2001), pp. 124-130. *** In Jesus Two Thousand Years Later, edited by James H. Charlesworth and Walter P. Weaver (TPI, 2000).

3 thoughts on “Poesis, Part One: Fiction and Alt-Texts

  1. Prof. Raphael, I haven’t assigned Life of Brian, but I’ve been assigned it. The class was at Swarthmore, called “Jesus in History, Literature, and Theology,” and its focus was the history of imaginative intensity around this one person, for a range of contrasting reasons. We read the gospel narratives and some Pauline epistles, dealt with the 4th-5th century christological controversy, looked at Islamic treatments of Isa, etc. Later, we were in the modern world with Prothero’s “American Jesus,” Panikkar’s “Unknown Christ of Hinduism,” and other things. But the whole way through the course we had a fictive counterpoint, through films that drew thematically or iconically on Jesus. Outside of class, we watched Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus of Montreal, Babette’s Feast, The Mission, The Matrix, Life of Brian….

    The class made a huge impact on me, and not least the way that Life of Brian really nails some of the contingencies and political shenanigans around the composition and reception of the biblical texts. I’d say: go for it!


    • Thanks, Aaron. That sounds like a great course design. So far, I’ve been unwilling to risk a disgruntled reactions, which snarky material often garners. Yet I still can’t think of anything better to explain briefly the political roilings of first century Judea than the “People’s Front of Judea” scene.


  2. Given your aim to stimulate and prompt, perhaps a term for what you called provisionally “alternate texts” is “trigger texts” or “trigger material.” This aligns it with a known genre that serves the same function, to stimulate and prompt thoughtful discussion of values, concepts and whatnot through the presentation of situations in short films and other means.


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