Friday, May 22, 2009

Just Call Me Poindexter

For fun, I've decided to take an online class. I have looked at free online classes before, and I usually find that they are just copies of the sylabi and, sometimes, notes on the homework assignments.What is unique about this class is that it is through Yale and, though I don't get any credit for it other than the joy that comes with learning, it comes with transcripts, videos, and mp3s of the lectures. I think I learn particularly well in a class setting, and so having the transcripts of the teacher going over the material is invaluable to me. It also doesn't hurt that the subject of this course is a passion of the professor's.

The course I have opted for is called "The American Novel Since 1945." If this one goes well, I may take others, but I opted for this one first because a) I love literature, b) there are several books on the reading list I have been meaning to read, and c) though I am rich in pens, I don't have a lot of extra money right now, and my assumption is that I can get all of the required books through the public library.

The first item on the reading list was selections from Richard Wright's Black Boy. Wright is slightly more famous for his novel Native Son, so I was intrigued by the professor's choice to include the former novel in the class reading (especially, as I came to find out, since Black Boy is actually autobiographical in nature). However, after doing the reading, I was very happy to have read what I did from Black Boy. It is a smart, engaging, and, at times, funny book, while also engaging serious cultural and political issues that are still being felt today. I suppose I can't speak for the whole book, but the selections I read were compelling in the way they illuminated aspects of a person's upbringing that are completely alien to my own (as he grew up as a black boy in the early twentieth century [even if Steve Martin, as he asserts in The Jerk, grew up as a poor black child]) while also illustrating the way that person grew into and became an artist.

The particular aspect of the story that I wanted to write about here is his grandmother. In the second chapter, Richard, as a child, meets his grandmother's servant, who is reading a book. As he is just barely literate at this point, he asks her what the book is about. She doesn't want to tell him, because she knows that she will get in trouble from the grandmother. He continues to ask, and the servant eventually wears down, and begins to read to him, telling him the story from her book called Bluebeard and his Seven Wives. As you might expect, the grandmother eventually discovers this. Here is a brief description of the following events from SPARKS NOTES:

"A strict Seventh-Day Adventist, Granny equates fiction with lies and sin, so she forbids such “Devil stuff” in her house. When Richard protests against his grandmother's restrictions, she slaps him and declares that he will burn in hell. Richard, however, is so enraptured by Ella's story that he becomes determined to read as many novels as he can, risk or no risk. He secretly borrows Ella's novels from her room and tries to read them, but cannot quite make sense of them because his vocabulary is too limited.

When Richard's mother falls ill, Granny assumes the task of bathing him and his brother. One particular night, while Granny is scrubbing his backside, Richard absentmindedly and uncomprehendingly tells her that when she is done she can kiss him “back there.” Convinced that Richard is a mouthpiece for the Devil, Granny becomes enraged and begins beating him with a wet towel. Richard flees. Upon learning of Richard's statement, his mother joins in the pursuit to punish him. Richard then crawls under a bed, where not even his grandfather can reach him. The boy remains there until hunger and thirst drive him out, at which point his mother beats him with a switch. To his mother's frustration, Richard is honestly unable to tell her where he learned the phrase he said. He is not even sure what the phrase means or why it constitutes such a grave insult. Granny, convinced that Richard has learned the phrase from Ella and her books, confronts the young schoolteacher, who decides to pack her things and move out."

If you're like me, all of the beatings in this book are pretty surprising from a twenty-first century perspective, but that's not necessarily what I want to discuss. I want to think about the idea that fiction is sinful.

Prior to reading this book, I have never heard the viewpoint that fiction is necessarily sinful. While the conservative Christian high school I went to tended to officially condemn aspects of sinful Hollywood or depraved scenes that occurred in movies, I never heard anyone specifically say that fiction was sinful. In fact, every year we studied literature, which, obviously, tends to be fictional.

With these things in mind, I felt that I wanted to evaluate the grandmother's position. The first thing I considered is that the grandmother is not really illustrated in a positive light. In writing about her the way he does, Wright is trying to show that the external, societal complications of being a poor, black southerner is compounded by the fact that he, as an artistically sensitive person, is even put upon from within his own family.

Another point to consider is that she doesn't give him a choice. She doesn't say that he should, instead, go read the Bible or go play with his brother. She just tells him not to read fiction. This emphasizes a lot of people's opinion on religion as just being a list of what one shouldn't do, which, to Wright, is another boundary that he had to break through in order to succeed artistically.

As I continued on this train of thought, I realized that it's not really the artistic merit of character that I wanted to consider. I wanted to see if Granny's position, even if it isn't espoused popularly today, was a reasonable position for a Christian to have.

I couldn't come to a conclusion. I ended up in a kind of infinite regression, but I was possibly not asking myself the correct questions. I asked, is it better to read the Bible or to read a novel? I asked, is it better to pray or to write a poem? I asked, is it better to go to church or to go to a movie? I, as a Christian, sided more frequently with the Christian "correct" answer, but I, as a human being, saw value in both, especially when I asked the adverb question of to what extent should I choose one over the other. Should I opt for the Bible 70 times out of every 100 times I read? 75? 90? 100? This led to the question of whether I should ever do something that is not explicitly "Christian." Obviously, nearly every Christian would say that being Christian isn't a matter of what you do, but they would also assert that it is by the fresh water flows from fresh water, so to speak. At what point does the rubber meet the road?

While growing up in America has taught me that every viewpoint is valuable, this one would be nearly impossible for me to value so much that I came to believe it. I think it could be defensible, but I would find that to be a sad, lonely existence.

What do you think?


Buttercup said...

Wow! this post gets a "10" from Buttercup! This is very thought provoking. I liked your question on whether you should ever do something that is not "explicitly Christian." I think the motives of the heart are more important than the action itself sometimes. One person could be reading a novel and delighting in the One who gifted the author with such talent, while someone else could be reading Scripture with a pious holier than thou Pharisee sort of attitude. Which is more abhorrent in God's eyes? The latter of course. This was an awesome post! I need to read it again later when I have more time. You gave me a lot to think about & that's always a good thing! :)

Analyst Catalyst said...

That is an excellent point. Intention is so, so key. I think I never really know what to think concerning this issue.

At my best, I think that the people we become is dependent upon the choices that we make. Who do I want to be?

Red Riding Hood said...

So I started 2 different comments but I erased them both cause I just didn't...I don't know. I guess what I mean to say is this has made me think a lot and I obviously don't have any type of answer. But it reminded me again of sometings been running through my mind for a while now,
Be careful little eyes what you see, be careful little ears what you hear, be careful little mouth what you say, be carefull little feet where you go...
Beause dirty things Hurt.
So yeah, who DO you want to be :)

Christie said...

I think there are different levels of conviction for each person. One person's conviction might not be the conviction of another person. I personally can't imagine a world without fiction and words, and finding the beauty in stories. But I have limits of what I will read (or watch) because I feel that some things will pull my heart away from where it knows it should be. That doesn't mean that anyone else's weaknesses or limits will be exactly the same as mine, but I believe that the heart that is listening to God, that is spending time with Him consistently, is free to live out those convictions without guilt. Obviously, that doesn't apply to things expressly forbidden in the Bible, but there is a lot of middle ground that's not either forbidden or permitted in so many words.

I think this is an interesting debate, and I will have to keep pondering. We had a similar debate over marrying more than one spouse the other day. It's not forbidden in Scripture, and many of the "Greats" had multiple wives. So what's best? I don't know. It's another debate for another day, I guess. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, AC!

Anonymous said...

I have asked myself this question in different ways over the years because I want to make sure that I am doing what is good by God's standards. The question I sometimes ask is "what is right, and what can I get away with." This poses an obvious issue right off the bat. Why would I want to try to get away with something from God? My conclusion to this issue, which I believe is similar to your dilemma is what is my heart's motivation for doing this action? Am I doing this out of love for my God, or am I doing it because I don't care what he thinks, I just want to?

Also, what is the grandmother's motivation for abusing her grandson for the sake of purity? It seems like she wants to have control over him, and force him to make specific choices that he wouldn't make on his own. To me, if she was a believer, she wasn't trusting that God was taking care of her grandson. At the same time perhaps she knew someone who had gone off the proverbial deep end because of fiction, and wanted to keep her beloved grandson from that fate.

But the motivation of the grandson is no better. It sounds like he was reading those books specifically to spite the demands of his family so that he could experience life in his own way. A rebellion of sorts. He was looking for knowledge, like Eve in the garden. I can't blame him for being curious and seeking knowledge.

If you are trying to find blame and figure out who was right and who was wrong, I think they are both right and wrong in their own respects.

Nice work AC, Pete

Cheryl said...

Jesus used fiction in his parables, and much of the Bible is told in story form, I think, because God created us to communicate through telling stories. Every day we tell stories, whether personal or about things that occur during the day.

In teaching, I have found some people learn better through fiction than teaching historical facts because it helps them to be able to put themselves in the story, to see things through another person's or character's perception. This is what Jesus wanted us to do in the parables, put ourselves in the stories and see how we are relating to others. It's one reason I write fiction, to use Jesus' model and learn to see things differently.