A freshman came to my office to discuss his first essay assignment in my lecture course on classics of Christian literature. We had been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters From Prison. The student wondered what the Lutheran pastor imprisoned and executed by the Nazis would have thought of the war in Iraq. Without wishing to rush in with what I considered a fairly clear answer, I asked the student to look at the way Bonhoeffer always went to the Gospels and Paul’s letters for guidance. The student seemed pleased with this advice and was about to leave when he paused. “Professor, do you mind if I ask you one more question?” He hesitated and then asked, “There are Christians and Catholics. They’re different, aren’t they? What exactly is the difference?”
I have been teaching for a long time, but this nearly knocked me off my chair. I usually tell the class that I am a believing Christian and leave it at that, in an effort to downplay denominational differences. It unnerved me to think that my freshman visitor might have been shocked to learn that I was also Catholic. And I had recommended Scripture, of all things! (Though most Catholic students had already figured it out, I did tell the rest of the class of my church affiliation in answer to a question in my last lecture of the semester.)
I tried not to be too defensive when I said, “But Catholics are Christians! They consider their church to be the ancient one, the mother church!”
The student looked a little puzzled. Before he left, I had to ask, “Where are you from?”
“Kansas,” he said.
Once again, Dorothy seemed to have landed in Oz, a colorful but strange place, sometimes known as Cambridge, full of wonderful and dangerous surprises.
I have been teaching classics of Christian literature for several years. The course is organized by literary genre rather than historically or according to theological or ecclesiastical categories. We begin with Augustine’s Confessions, Teresa of Avila’s Autobiography and Martin Luther’s Preface to Latin Writings, all as examples of Christian autobiography. Then we read letters of the early Christians, and move on to Gregory of Nyssa, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr. Benedict and Calvin are paired under the heading government of souls; Julian of Norwich and C. S. Lewis under pain and suffering; John Donne’s great sermons and sonnets and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems as samples of the metaphorical imagination; and finally, The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and selected short stories of Flannery O’Connor as examples of Christian narrative. I had long loved the texts and wished to help students consider their spiritual and ethical qualities by means of the complex beauty of their language and structure.
I am always fascinated by the students who take this course as an elective. There were 150 of them this fall. Though I do not ask, it is pretty obvious that along with a sprinkling of Jews, Muslims and atheists, the majority of students are Protestants or Catholics. The Protestant students usually know Scripture cold. If I toss out a verse, hands shoot up from familiar corners of the room. I once asked if anyone knew who Obadiah (a Flannery O’Connor character) was named after and, sure enough, a hand went up. The Catholic students know what the pope thinks about gay marriage, abortion and divorce. One day I asked if someone would define “sacrament” for me. It took a longer time than usual for one hand finally to be raised. The answer was fine, but the general reticence was troubling. I took it to be a sign of shyness rather than ignorance. But I’m not so sure.
As in all classrooms, the gaps in knowledge and understanding are sometimes more telling than the demonstrations of learning. Many Protestant students come in not knowing what a saint is, mistrusting the label anyway, and then discover that they find Augustine, Teresa and Francis oddly appealing. (One Baptist student told me that he began praying to St. Francis after reading The Little Flowers, but didn’t think he should mention it to his father in Texas.) Catholic students are surprised by how familiar and attractive Martin Luther’s ideas are. One was stunned to realize that The Freedom of a Christian had so much in common with the Declaration of Independence.
Not all the lapses are interdenominational. Presbyterians are often shocked by Calvin’s severity, Methodists disarmed by Wesley’s tolerance, graduates of Augustinian and Franciscan schools pleased, at last, to read Augustine and the legends about Francis to which they were never exposed in the course of their Catholic education. And where the gaps are interdenominational, students are usually curious and generous in their efforts to fill them in. Catholics are drawn to the intellectual rigor of Bonhoeffer and the ethical passion of Martin Luther King Jr. I find myself as pleased as my students with their ability to discover and appreciate the Gospel in unexpected places.
Once when I was invited to speak at a meeting of Christian Impact, an evangelical group on campus, I decided to talk about denominational diversity not simply as a sign of disunity and conflict, which it often has been, but also as an indication of the rich variety of Christian experience.
The meetings always begin with songs (with a country music swing) and spontaneous prayer and “witnessing.” I’m happy to join in, though I feel a bit awkward (more than when I go to Hillel and pray with my Jewish students). “O.K.,” I said at the end of my talk, “I’ve prayed with you. Would you like to pray with me?” The students instantly agreed when I suggested that we recite the office of Compline. They had never heard of it, but I explained how the prayers were drawn from Scripture. I passed out duplicated sheets, divided the group into a right and left choir, and I played the part of abbot. There was something refreshing—even exhilarating—about saying these ancient prayers, mostly psalms, with 50 Protestant undergraduates in a dormitory common room. They loved it, and so did I.
And why not? They knew that I was not trying to convert them, but rather was sharing one of the treasures of Christian worship with them. But the experience also made me a little sad. What Christians don’t know about one another is huge. And what Christians don’t know about their own heritage is even huger. By heritage I do not mean rules and regulations, dates in church history or doctrinal hair-splitting. I mean the witness of other Christians, past and present, expressed in language as powerful, consoling, disturbing and sublime as anything to be found in literature.
I am always amazed by how directly so many of the texts we read speak to contemporary students. Almost to a one, they love Augustine and respond with a shock of recognition to his passionate idealism, his unquenchable intelligence, his soaring rhetoric and sometimes neurotic self-involvement. The women in the class tend to respond with real compassion to the plight of medieval women and their tendency to eroticize their relationship with Jesus. Everyone soon realizes that a desire for reform has been with Christians from the beginning and that every saint and reformer had his or her favorite passage from Scripture. One student asked me whether I thought, like Luther, that the key to all Scripture was Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I remembered Francis opening the Bible to the Gospel of Matthew (“Take nothing for your journey, neither staff nor wallet,” 10:9) and Teresa falling on her knees before an image of Jesus in Gethsemane. “It was the key for Luther,” I said. “It was what he needed. But in the Gospels Jesus calls and touches different people in different ways. This still seems to be how he works.”
Doctrinal differences will, of course, crop up. At my last lecture a student asked whether I thought there would be more agreement or disagreement today, if we could assemble all the authors we had read into one room. A terrific question! First I thought of the reformers: Francis, Catherine, Teresa, Luther, Martin Luther King Jr. They probably would still have their differences, especially with regard to church organization; but that aside, all of them yearned for a poorer, simpler, more loving, more Christ-like Christianity. I thought Hildegard, Francis and Hopkins would enjoy nature walks together; Augustine and Donne could start a badly needed training school for preachers; Catherine and Luther could start an organization called Vatican-watch; O’Connor and Bunyan might co-direct a movie about deadbeats who find God in peculiar places. But I couldn’t pair up everyone harmoniously. Julian of Norwich and John Calvin would not see eye to eye. She thought that “there can be no anger in God” and that in the end, “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Calvin feared “the wrath of God” and was convinced that for the many “who have been rejected of God before the creation of the world,” things would definitely not end well.
My favorite moments in the term occured during a visit to small discussion sessions led by my teaching fellows. In one group the text of the week was Hopkins’s “Carrion Comfort,” a searingly personal poem of spiritual desolation, anguish and wrestling with God. With touching sensitivity and concentration, the 15 students bent over their books savoring each word and line like young rabbis in a Yeshiva. Allusions to Job, to Jacob, to David were noted. Rough, hard Anglo-Saxon words (“wring-world,” “lion-limb”) were handled with care. There was no pious or sentimental attempt to smooth over the poem’s confrontation with despair.
In another class a few weeks later, the text was the story of St. Francis taming the wolf of Gubbio. How is one to read these legends at once so fanciful and childlike and funny? Is there such a thing as Christian humor? “Yes,” said one student, “here’s this little skinny guy walking into the woods to tell off an irrational wolf for scaring and eating rational creatures. That’s funny.” “It’s also a parable,” suggested another. “The wolf is destructive because he’s hungry. Francis’s solution is to feed him. That sounds like Jesus.” One student still looked dissatisfied. “So we end up with a tame wolf. What’s so great about a tame wolf?” Silence. I thought of Francis’s “Canticle to Brother Sun” and the refrain in the Genesis creation narrative, “And God found it good.” The wolf is God’s creature. That seemed to be good enough for Francis. It also seemed good enough for the skeptical student and his classmates.
Not all discussions go so well. Varying attitudes toward obedience, humility, suffering, visions, miracles and even faith versus works still can cause tension and uncertainty. But in a world in which religion is often a source of prejudice, division and conflict, it is very good to see young Christians and non-Christians, Catholics and Protestants, believers and nonbelievers take such earnest and respectful pleasure in some of the great texts of our tradition and in the distinctive, intelligent and heartfelt responses of one another.Reading List
- Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
- Confessions, Saint Augustine, translated by Henry Chadwick
- The Life of Teresa of Jesus: The Autobiography of Teresa of Avila, Teresa of Avila, translated by E. Allison Peers
- The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, Saint Francis of Assisi, translated by Raphael Brown
- Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan
- The Rule of St. Benedict, St. Benedict
- Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich
- Selected Poems, T.S. Eliot
- Selected Poetry, Gerard Manley Hopkins
- The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor