Instructional Materials for Craig White's Literature Courses

Teaching Literature with Religion

(or religious texts as literary texts, etc.)

esp. in Public Schools

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930), The Pilgrims

Problems with discussing religion in a public school or university (or anywhere besides church or family)

Religion is so universal yet intimate that any conception or part of it touches all kinds of personal-to-cosmic subjects—politics, personal values, community relations, attitudes toward authority, ideas about family, the meaning of life and death.

Literature (or language) is also both intimate and universal: words or stories affirm, develop, or challenge our values and identities, enabling us to speak to and learn from an ever-larger world.

Like literature, most world religions start with a limited core of canonical  or authoritative texts ("the classics," the Bible, the Koran) but constantly produces fresh words and meanings about them, creating power, tradition, and change through literacy.

Literature and religion resemble each other also through their dependence on symbols and narratives.

Beyond these neutral resemblances, discussions of literature and religion are both productive and perilous. No matter what you say or how fairly or truly you speak about religion, there's always more to say. Any single statement or description concerning any religious subject is inadequate and therefore invite exceptions, counter-claims, and eternal refinement of differences.

More words!

Despite this shared sense that "we can never say it all" about religion or literature, even well-intentioned expressions may go wrong and cause hurt.

So the safe thing is not to get started unless you have a particular and limited learning goal.

Or if you do get started, accept the fact that no one ever gets the last word . . . .


> common sense: “Never talk about religion or politics.”

True enough, but with a cost: we may avoid discussing what gives meaning, purpose, or definition to many lives.

If literature can't discuss significant subjects, then discussion of literature becomes limited to formal discussions, which are worthy but not why most people read.

If you solve the problem by discussing such subjects only with people who already agree, you don’t learn as much as you reinforce pre-existing ideas and attitudes.

Literature may provide models of how to discuss such subjects in a society with free and diverse beliefs.


Legal issues:

First words of U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights (Amendment 1): "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ."

Flip-side of disestablishment: you cannot disrespect other people's religion, just as they cannot disrespect yours.

Working compromise in public schools: School authorities cannot lead prayers or make religious appeals to mixed student body; schools must accommodate voluntary religious expression.

You can't teach a particular religion as the only truth, but you can discuss the nature of religion generally or of particular religions or their texts / scriptures.


Historical consequences of Religious Freedom:

Religion, instead of being promoted by the state, enters the free market of ideas, which compete with each other for popular support.

United States = secular government + religious people (with implied converse: religious government = irreligious people)

If Americans hate government, associating religion with government may make them hate religion.


Resulting attitude for teachers and students?

Most "World Religions" (e.g., Christianity, Islam) require you to embrace their beliefs and reject the beliefs of other religions.

Public discussion of religion suspends endorsement or judgment in favor of empirical learning and critical thinking.

Study of religion or religious literature shifts to History of Ideas, History of Religion, Intellectual history, Cultural History, Cultural Studies

(Hidden risk: moral relativism--if religion has same status as other ideas or becomes only a part of culture, it loses some of its privileged or divine status.)

Particular Points of Conflict:

Evolution & Creationism
(Empiricism / Science & Revelation / Tradition / Authority)

Controversy over Founders as “Godly Men” or Religious Skeptics / Secularists

For “Secularists”: U.S. Constitution mentions religion only twice, in First Amendment against establishment and earlier provision against "religious tests" for office-holders. The only potentially offsetting provisions are the Declaration's references to “Creator” & “Nature’s God”

For “Godly Men”: private letters and comments, anecdotes, popular art + confusion of Founding Fathers with Pilgrim Fathers


More positively:

Religion as a way to make politics and history interesting; relates literary studies to subjects students are familiar with or think are important.

Study of religion resembles study of literature: both feature human figures, narratives, symbols, appeal to imagination.

People meet over books. When an illiterate person wants to learn to read, often it's from a desiire to read scripture. When a literate person gets religion, they often want to write a book or speak a testimony, putting their life into words related to scripture and shaping their lives via scripture.

Many good literature students have strong religious backgrounds and are thereby accustomed to discussing writing and using words to express meaning.

The "canon" of literary works is comparable to scripture as a collection of texts that a person should read.

 Both literature and religion are too enormous and complicated to allow for simple solutions (besides disregarding each other). Keep reading!