Friday, December 14, 2007

The Bible Swoops Out, the some Holidays Swoop In

I've just given the first of three final exams, this one for my "Bible as Literature" course. It's a course for which I'm pretty close to absolutely unqualified to teach, but which has also, probably because of my wonder and uncertainty, has been an absolute, consistent joy. On the first day, I gave my relevant background: raised a religious fundamentalist, went to church 3 times a week, knew a bit about medieval exegesis, and a decades-long atheism. A hand shot up: "Are you personally offended by having to teach this class?" Wonderful. Months later, I punctuated a point with "I swear to God," and my students, ever vigilant, swooped in on the emptiness of my vow, declaring it hypocritical and untrustworthy.

So it's been a delight. The class comprised Christians, one Muslim, probably some unbelievers, and, given that it's Brooklyn College, a surprising, and disappointing, absence of Jews. But my enemy in the class was not religious faith (or its doctrinaire absence) but rather bad hermeneutics derived from psychologically realist art. Students tried to find motives for Tobias's milquetoastery (was the problem his mother, perhaps?), wondered if Nebuchadnezzar was bipolar (given that his friendliness to Daniel alternates with froth-mouthed tyranny), suggested that Job suffered from PTSD, and proposed that maybe Paul wouldn't have been so ooged out by marriage if he had found a nice girl. I suppose my problem, unusual for a literature class, was the students' over-familiarity with the material combined with their certainty that these characters were all, in a way that Iago is not, real people. All I had to do, then, was to make it strange, and to argue, repeatedly, that whether or not these people had ever existed was beside the point for what these works were trying to do.

And to give a sense of what I thought they were doing, but also in a supreme act of self-indulgence, I present below the exam I just gave. I'm proud of my baby, the first exam for the first literature class I designed all by my lonesome. There's no other reason to share, except perhaps to receive a gift in return. Why not drop off some of your exams in the comments when it's safe to do so?

The Bible as Literature: Final Exam (25 points total + some extra credit opportunities). Open Book, Open Note. You have two hours.

Identification (6 points)
Answer six of the ten questions below. The first six correct answers are worth a point a piece. Extra Credit: each additional correct answer after the first 6 is worth a half point; thus 8 points in all are possible on this section. Your answers will generally be no longer than a sentence; often, a word or two will be sufficient to get the answer correct. Precision counts.

1) How does Sampson die?
2) I used the phrase “creedal history” several times during the semester (from, creedal: “any system, doctrine, or formula of religious belief, as of a denomination”). What did I mean? ALTERNATELY: define 'terrestrial eschatology.'
3) In what book does the odor of burning fish liver drive out a demon?
4) Judith's song of praise recalls the hymn of victory sung by which judge?
5) What does Joseph do with his father's body?
6) What does Rachel do with Laban's household gods?
7) Where was the statue dedicated to an unknown God?
8) Which disciple puts his hands in Jesus's wounds?
9) Who is “made to eat grass like oxen” and is “bathed with the dew of heaven”?
10) Why does Paul end up going to Rome?

Short Answers (9 points) and Short Essays (10 Points)
Please read the instructions carefully. From the ten questions below, you must answer a minimum of three questions as short answers of two or three sentences and two questions as long answers that will each make an argument over several paragraphs. Each of the short answers is worth three points and each of the long answers is worth five points. Extra Credit: You may also answer up to three additional questions as short answers. Extra credit answers are worth one point each.

1) 4 Maccabees concentrates on stories in which various Jews resist a Greek ruler's attempts to make them abandon the Jewish Law. We might think, then, that the book promotes Jewish over Greek thought. Yet the work justifies and explains the Jewish Law through categories of thought clearly borrowed from Greek philosophy (e.g., 4 Maccabees 1:34-35, “Therefore when we crave seafood and fowl and animals and all sorts of foods that are forbidden to us by the law, we abstain because of domination by reason. For the emotions of the appetites are restrained, checked by the temperate mind, and all the impulses of the body are bridled by reason”). Why do you suppose 4 Maccabees “packages” the Law in this manner?

2) In the first creation story in Genesis, God creates men and women at the same time, and only after he has created animals; in the second creation story, God creates man first, then animals, and then woman. Comment on the significance of the differences between these two stories.

3) Comment on two contrasting passages in Ecclesiastes, e.g., Ecclesiastes 7:11-12, “Wisdom is as good as an inheritance, / an advantage to those who see the sun. For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom gives life to the one who possesses it” and Ecclesiastes 3:18, “I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals, for all is vanity.”

4) In Job 6:21, Job replies to his three accusers, “You see my calamity, and are afraid.” If Job is correct, why do you suppose the accusers are frightened? Here you will want to consider the theme of the Book of Job as a whole.

5) First Samuel 16-17 introduce David three times. The first time, God sends the priest Samuel out to anoint a new King, and he anoints David, a shepherd; the second time, David, now described primarily as a warrior and musician, comes to Saul to help ease his bad moods; the third time (1 Samuel 17:12) introduces David yet again, and in this strain of the story, he seems to meet Saul by helping provision his brothers, who serve in Saul's army. Comment on the differences and their effect on some aspect or aspects of the story of these chapters, for example, how we understand the relationship between David and Saul.

6) The Book of Esther gives Esther a strong male associate, her uncle Mordecai, who warns her about Haman's threat against the Jews and who convinces her to risk her life by speaking to her husband. Judith, which is a revision of the Esther story, provides Uzziah, a figure who might have been a strong advisor like Mordecai. Instead, Judith dominates the story in her words, wisdom, and action. Why do you suppose Judith differs in this way from Esther?

7) In the Christian Bible, Ruth follows the Book of Judges; in the Jewish Bible, Ruth follows the Song of Solomon. What effect(s) does/do the different placement of the book have on its meaning?

8) Comment on the differing roles given to Mary and Joseph in each of the synoptic gospels: in Mark 6:3, Jesus is called the “Son of Mary” and Joseph never appears; in Luke, Mary and other women dominate the narrative of the opening chapters; and in Matthew, Joseph is the dominant figure (e.g., in 2:13, an angel appears to Joseph to warn him to take the family to Egypt).

9) Compare the genealogy of opening of Matthew to the genealogy in Luke 3:23-38 and comment on the significance of their differences.

10) Who do you suppose better honors the angels, Abraham or Lot? Make an argument to support your case.


Unknown said...

If I had more time I was going to try to answer them in the comments. As a pastor I was feeling pretty ashamed at how many were not coming to me. I taught an overview of Christian history and thought and failed the entire class miserably with my first exam and only slightly less miserably with the second.

The Spirit of Creative Writing said...

"...ooged out..."?

Karl Steel said...

ooged out

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Karl, you know you are in a good place in your classroom when your students trust you enough to both challenge and gently mock. Congrats on the class. Isn't it always the most fun to teach the materials you are least intimate with?

Anonymous said...

Can you tell me where the altar dedicated to the unknown god is? I'd like to see if it is a source for the brief episode of a philosopher worshipping an 'unknown god' in the "prehistory" part of the prose Tristan.

Karl Steel said...

Isn't it always the most fun to teach the materials you are least intimate with?

I might say that after 15 years (how long have you been at GW?) in the game. Right now, I'm just thinking about the two disastrous times I taught Wordsworth's Prelude. It's like being airdropped into Piers Plowman: similarly complex cultural contexts, frequent revisions, philosophical depth, opaque language, and authorial self-presentation, and, overall, student reluctance. With the Bible, the students already care, so the class easily becomes conversation (and conversation becomes the class). That said, I made a point of including two works on my Fall medieval syllabus--"Emaré" and "Sir Cleges"--that I'd never read before, and each was a hoot to teach (and it was simple in both cases to master the critical tradition). I think I'll make a point of doing this on each subsequent medieval syllabus: let the gods bless TEAMS.

Indiefaith: why not share one of those exams?

Sylvia: it's Acts 17:16-24. The situation you're thinking of might also recall something like the 4th Eclogue and the purported pagan awareness of Jesus. In teaching, I contrasted Acts 17 with Acts 14:8-19. Athens is of course the intellectual center of Paul's world, whereas Lystra is a center for rubes. This episode's a marvelous example of the "encounter with the primitive": we have the credulous belief in the literal presence of the old gods, the primitive (that is, the merely local) language, and the alimentary--rather than philosophical--appeal.

Anonymous said...

Yes, thanks, I should have noticed these passages, but I haven't read Acts in a long time. Both the prose Tristan and Perceforest are definitely drawing on these--Perceforest especially, where credulous pagans are quick to start worshipping any 'special' person as a god, and imaginary religious cults sprout up all over the place; meanwhile, those of better wisdom have figured out that the only god worth worshipping is the invisible, all-powerful, non-representable 'sovereign god'. Clearly the author was taking his cue from passages like these in trying to imagine what life was like before the advent of Christianity.

Karl Steel said...

Yes, exactly: that Perceforest passage was what came to mind when I ran my memory back through Acts.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Here is a related biblical passage, cut and pasted from my book Of Giants, where I was likewise interested in how a pagan past and its divinities were imagined. It's a question I'm still very much wrestling with. I'm especially interested in how Christian writers used this world without Christ to imagine contingency and possibility in their own worlds. Thoughts on that, anyone?

The linking of the deities of classical mythology to mortal or demonic impersonators is a commonplace in early theological writing. Justin Martyr in the Apologia and Augustine in De civitate dei were among the many patristic writers to reiterate the belief. Isidore of Seville summarized this exegetical tradition in his influential Etymologiae (VIII.xi), "De diis gentium":
Those whom the pagans worship as gods were once human and lived among men, such as Isis in Egypt, Jupiter in Crete, and Faunus in Rome … They were formerly mighty heroes [viri fortes ], founders of cities; when they died, images were erected to honor them … Persuaded by demons, posterity esteemed these men gods, and worshiped them.
These deceiving viri fortes were first described by the Church fathers as fallen angels, then with a shift in the exegesis they became powerful, evil men, often said to be descended from either fratricidal Cain or Noah's mocking son, Cham. In Anglo-Saxon England, the viri fortes became gigantes. Oliver Emerson argues that the early Christian writers enabled this myth by building on the conflation of the giants of Genesis with the classical stormers of Olympus by the Jewish historian Josephus ("Legends of Cain," 905). No doubt this conjoining was enabled through the moralizing of the biblical giants already well under way by the time of the Jewish apocrypha.

The Book of Wisdom characterizes these monsters as corporeal signifiers of overbearing pride, destroyed as a rebuke to that primal sin: "from the beginning when the proud giants perished, the hope of mankind escaped on a raft and .. bequeathed to the world a new breed of men" (14:6). The biblical passage underscores the giants' historicity: these monsters predate the flood, which was sent to cleanse the earth of the evils they embody. By simultaneously reading the body of the giants as allegory, however, the Book of Wisdom suggests a continuity with the giants of classical tradition, likewise condemned as monstrously prideful in their failed attempt to pile Ossa on Pelion in order to steal from the gods the immortal home of Olympus.

After describing the demise of the giants, the passage from Wisdom explains how later in world history "tyrants" devised idols in order to deny the fact of the body's mortality (Wisdom 14:15-21). The story entwines loss (a father mourns his dead son with an image that others worship as a god), pride (despots [tyranni] thinking themselves greater than human order their statues venerated), the alluring power of the visual (the idols elicit awe because of their "ideal form," an artistically induced numinousness), and the reifying power of the law (the longer the idol is worshiped the more natural such action appears, so that through repetition a reality is materialized for divinity).

Anonymous said...

"I'm especially interested in how Christian writers used this world without Christ to imagine contingency and possibility in their own worlds. Thoughts on that, anyone?"

In Perceforest, I got the feeling the author was implying that a world 'like his own', i.e. of chivalric orders and courtly behaviour codes, somehow could not exist without being underpinned by a monotheistic religion worshipping an invisible god. True, Alexander the Great himself was a pagan, but then he didn't really preside over a culture like that anyway; he just roamed around the world conquering anyone he could find, with impeccable manners to be sure, but not really focused on having an impact on local cultures (aside from Perceforest itself, of course). What seems most interesting about it to me is how the author imagines a kind of Christianity without Christ. It's not Judaism; it's Christianity without Christ. In fact, they are waiting for the advent of Christ (whom they know will be born of a virgin, though this mystifies them), without really understanding what it all means. So when Christ does turn up, the hard-core followers of the 'souverain dieu' won't need to be converted; they are already of that religion anyway, just waiting for revelation and instruction. Perhaps kind of like what the Jews "should have done", but didn't.

Giants: indeed fascinating that they can be the primal, unredeemable race destroyed by the flood in order to clear the way for proper, ethically-bound humans--yet also, somehow, NOT destroyed, so that they can pop up as the primal, unredeemable race needing to be cleared off of ANY tract of land that people are trying to colonise. I suppose it's just too good a story to have happened only once in history; it has to be part of any really important foundatin myth (and what's more important than the origins of Great Britain, for goodness sake). For that matter, we're kind of still telling it with the story of the Neanderthals who were overrun by 'our ancestors' yea all those eons ago in Europe, and we're very interested to know whether or not there were sexual relations across that divide, whether or not the Neanderthals are actually our ancestors too, whether or not we are in some sense them. (We're pretty sure they were physically a lot stronger than us too...)

Which leads me to a question for anyone reading this: Aside from Galeholt, and the stuff in the prose Tristan and Perceforest about his ancestry, does anyone know of other characters in medieval romance who are mixed-blood giant/human descent?

Aside from the above texts, are there ever giants who are Christians?

And, again aside from passages that pertain to Galeholt or his ancestry, does anyone know of episodes of giant-killing in medieval romance where the giant has relatives (especially female ones) who mourn his death--or rejoice at it, for that matter? The only example I can think of besides the Galeholt-related stuff is in the prose Tristan, at the very beginning, when the giant is killed and there is brief reference to the fact that his daughter mourns him. However, I haven't started looking yet in anything remotely like a systematic way, nor have I reread a lot of the texts (both primary and secondary) that might have examples--so they may be out there!

Unknown said...

Well Karl if you really are interested you can check out my exam over here. Unlike you I am not proud of it. I don't much like the format and can't imagine that the questions really helped to reflect the formation they did (or did not) receive. Prepping lectures for the first time however was a tremendous experience.