December 15, 2017

In the Classroom: Three Stories, Othello and A Christian Approach To Literature

othello.jpgIn my AP English IV class, one of my most difficult tasks is teaching students how to read, think and analyze literature as Christians. There are several reasons for the resistance. Laziness. A feeling that the classics are irrelevant. Senioritis. (A very real disease) And one that concerns me most of all: the belief that classical, secular literature is inappropriate for Christians in the first place.

I do an extensive introduction to Shakespeare in my class, usually taking most of a week to do a biography and introductory lectures. Today, Shakespeare scholars have reached an impressive consensus on many aspects of Shakespeare’s life, though the inmost personal world of the man himself is available to us only in his public work, particularly “The Sonnets.” When I concluded the introduction, my most outspoken Christian student said, “Shakespeare is a scumbag!” Her conclusion was based on the evidence that Shakespeare had been an absentee husband (though an excellent provider) who had certainly committed adultery with the “dark lady” of the Sonnets. She also heard my case that Shakespeare’s work was profoundly affected by the experience of being a member of an “underground” Catholic family in the age of the Elizabethan police state. She added “Catholicism” to “adulterer,” and made the judgment that Shakespeare’s work was anti-Christian, profane and titillating.

How can I bring students like this to an appreciation of Shakespeare? Particularly, a Christian appreciation? How can I relate Shakespeare to a life lived in commitment to Jesus Christ?

Here’s something like my class lecture today, as we attempted to use Othello as an example of a Christian approach to literature.

As we completed Othello (having already done 1 Henry IV and anticipating Hamlet), I turned to Peter Leithart’s Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays for lecture material that would address this issue.

So let’s go to class for a few moments.

[I’m writing three phrases on the board, one over the other. At the top, is the phrase “The Master Story.” Underneath this is the word “Literature.” Finally, at the bottom I write the words “My Story.” I draw “arc lines” so that each word is in the center of an arc. At the ends of the arc lines for “The Master Story,” I put the words “tragedy” and “redemption.” When you get that in your mind, move on to the lecture.]

“Now what I want to talk about for the rest of the hour is a Christian approach to literature, in particular Othello, and in general Shakespeare’s plays. I know that we have different attitudes in the class toward Christianity, and some of you might think the entire subject very strange. But as a teacher in a school that offers a “Christian education,” there needs to be some meaning to the literature we study that goes beyond what you might hear in a public school.”

“Let’s start with the literature itself, in this case, Othello. We’re looking at a story. A narrative. It’s driven, in this case, by characters. Shakespeare creates characters with motivations and choices hidden inside of themselves. He “lets them loose” in the plot, and as they interact with their various agendas and challenges, the story unfolds. Iago’s motives are stated several ways in the story, but we must conclude, I think, that’s he really an iceberg. We don’t know what truly, deeply motivates him. The evil he commits is out of proportion to the grievances he shares with the audience. In fact, though the story stresses Othello’s emotionalism and descent into jealous madness, it appears that Iago is much more far gone into jealousy, bitterness, madness and fantasies of revenge than even Othello himself. Othello’s violence is “hot” passion acting with comparatively little thought. Iago, on the other hand, boasts of how his his rationality can overcome his passions, and we can see that he’s descended into a kind of “mad sanity,” where there is little emotion, but only pure, unadorned evil.”

“Desdemona, in contrast to the men of the play, is purity itself. She not only cannot do evil, her conversation with Emilia shows she can’t even consider the possible worldly rewards of doing evil. She is honest, innocent, devoted, submissive and forgiving. As increasing evil is done to her, she responds with more good, and eventually complete forgiveness, even as she dies.”

“The story is a story of slow poisoning, but the poison is the lying of Iago. As lie is laid upon lie, Iago takes more and more control of the man others trust to be a warrior and a leader, Othello. Once a slave, Othello becomes a slave again, mastered by Iago. As Iago weaves other characters into the web of deceit, we can sympathize with Othello’s tortured mental state. We want him to believe his wife, but it’s clear that he has lost the capacity to understand what is real and what is illusion. By playing upon Othello’s life as a soldier and his latent fears of being an outsider, Iago turns Othello into the engine of violence and revenge, all directed toward an innocent and undeserving victim.”

“The story unfolds with these characters. There are a minimum of outside events (though Emilia finding Othello’s misplaced handkerchief is an essential coincidence.) We’ve both read and watched the play, and I believe you understand the story as literature enough to write the thematic essays I’ve assigned you.”

“But some of you will say none of this is really appropriate or important for Christians. Shakespeare’s story is full of sin. There’s no denying it. The men in the play talk about sex in rough terms. There’s murder, lust, swearing, lying. Desdemona appeals to her Christian faith on occasion, but it almost seems a Sunday Schoolish caricature. Many of you stated that you didn’t like the character of Desdemona, and I have a feeling her faith in God isn’t portrayed in a way that makes you want to imitate her way of responding to the crisis in her marriage.”

“God seems absent. Pagan Gods are mentioned. The characters act with little thought to the true, moral consequences of their actions on anyone other than themselves. Where such thought occurs, it is far out of the context of Christian ideas of what is right and wrong. Some characters even seem to be embracing the idea of going to hell with relish. Why would anyone want to recommend this to Christians as “great literature?”

“Now, if you look at the board, you will see the words “My Story,” and this represents the stories, or narratives of our own lives. This isn’t literature, but life. I could ask you to tell me about yourself, and you would almost certainly arrange your life into stories with characters, plot, setting and all the other elements of drama. (Sometimes too much drama!) When we think about our lives, we don’t think of a collection of facts, or interview questions. We think of narratives. Stories that somehow make sense or explain who we are. We usually think of the larger story of our life as a collection of smaller stories, not unlike the acts and scenes of the plays we’ve been reading.”

“What I want you to see is this: there is always some kind of conversation or similarity between our own experiences and great literature. The greatness of Shakespeare is the universal qualities of his stories, and their intersection with our own stories. So, let’s think for a moment. What are some ways that your lives might have contact points with the story of Othello?”

(Students mentioned….the experiences of jealousy and betrayal, making poor choices, the corrupting power of lies, true and false romance, regret, revenge fantasies, suicide, violence, being led astray, feeling like an outsider and other answers.)

“Those are good answers, and I think they show how, if we are willing to be open and honest with ourselves as we read a text, we discover that the author has drawn from our own humanity to create a story that touches us on a very personal level, even if we are far removed from the culture, place and setting, even the language of the author. The more we read and appreciate literature, we will see in these intersections with our stories the seeds for stories of our own. Those of you with the talent to write should consider what Shakespeare is doing. He’s listening to his own life. He’s amplifying the strengths and weaknesses of real people into dramatic material. He’s showing us things we all know or suspect about ourselves and those around us, and reflects these thing in characters that are like us, yet are very different from us at the same time.”

“In this conversation between ourselves and Shakespeare’s play, we really don’t require that the story be a “Christian story.” We accept that life, as it happens to us, is full of all kinds of events, good and bad, and all kinds of people, good and bad. “Stuff happens.” We simply want to know if the story is real. Does it tell us that we aren’t alone? Does it education or illuminate what it’s like to be a human being in this world. Religion, as much as it touches on the story of our lives, is really no more important than other factors at this level.”

“Now, I expect many of you have considered this level of appreciating literature. What we want to get at is how a Christian reads and appreciates Othello. What I want to talk about is this highest arc on the board, the level called “The Master Story,” which is, of course, the Bible.”

“What do we mean by a “Master Story?” I mean a large narrative that answers the big questions and gives meaning and significance to a particular person or group of persons. Religion and culture almost always has a “Master Story” of some kind, and the Bible is a perfect example. The Bible is a story. Not all of it, but certainly all of you who are familiar with the Bible from church or Bible class know that it is primarily a story made up of many smaller stories. There are characters, plots and sub-plots, conflicts, resolutions and all the rest. You need to learn to see the Bible this way for many reasons, but certainly to read it as literature and alongside of other literature.”

“A Master story works for a particular group like a native language works for those learning another language. When learning new words, you compare them to the words and meanings of your native language. So when we read literature, we look at how it “converses” with the “Master Story,” in this case, the Bible.”

“Right here I want to urge you to see how important it is that you learn as much as you can about the Bible as a story, and not just as a source of verses that prove this and that. Knowing, for example, the story of Abraham is just as important as knowing the lessons of the life of Abraham. This is especially true if we are going to be people who read literature, watch movies and use stories in communication and for significant appreciation.”

“You will notice I’ve written two words on the “Master Story” arc: tragedy and redemption. I could write a lot of other words, but let’s stay with these. The “Master Story” is a story of tragedy and redemption. Sin ruins, God rescues. Satan destroys, God remakes. Humans fall, God saves. And that pattern is everywhere in the Bible, but it’s not present in every smaller segment. In other words, the Bible shows a lot of tragedy. Story after story of tragedy, with little or no hope in the story at all. Sometimes tragedy seems to be all there is, and redemption is just a hope. Even the story of Jesus is a tragedy that becomes our redemption.”

What I want you to do is take a few moments and go back through what we’ve observed about Othello, and see where it corresponds to “The Biblical Master Story.” Particularly look for those themes of tragedy and redemption. Then I’d like to hear what you found.”

[Answers included Desdemona’s forgiveness resembling Jesus forgiving those who killed him. Iago resembling Satan in Genesis 3. Iago resembling Judas in the Gospels. Othello resembling Samson in his emotions. Othello resembling Moses. Othello as representing sinful humanity corrupted by Satan and murdering Jesus.]

“Those are really excellent answers, and I can tell you are following me. You can see that a Christian will see the Master Story in this story, and I think, his or her understanding of the Bible will be deepened and helped by seeing the story of Othello.”

“I think this will help you understand why Jesus is a story-teller. The people who listened to Jesus were familiar with the Biblical story that we call the Old Testament. They knew the stories of Genesis and Exodus, David, Solomon, Israel and the prophets. So when Jesus told, for example, the parable of the Vineyard in Mark 12, the Bible says the religious leaders were angry at Jesus for telling the story “against them,” even though he never mentioned them. The “Master Story” was working in the background, and Jesus knew how to use it. If you know the “Master Stories” of the people you are communicating to, you can do the very same thing with stories you create.”

“I’m not going to tell you that Shakespeare knew all the Biblical parallels you’ve mentioned in class, though I think some of them would be impossible to call coincidences. What I will tell you is that “The Master Story” provides the way we can listen to a story about lust, revenge and murder as Christians. We see the “true” story mirrored in the “fictional” story, and we read it exactly as Jesus would: as a play about the tragedy of life rebelling against God and the need for redemption through God.”

“One of the sad things about Othello is the lack of redemption. There is no redemption anywhere. The end is bleak and hopeless in many ways. Tragedy upon tragedy. There is some light in the darkness when people begin telling the truth, but the closest thing to redemption is Desdemona’s words of love and forgiveness for the man who loved her. It is, as you said, like Jesus’ forgiveness of his murderers, and I believe, of all of us.”

“We do see some false stories of redemption in Othello. Iago is hoping for redemption from humiliation, but his murderous plan is, of course, a lie itself. Othello seeks redemption through confession and suicide, but this is one of the most common false plans of redemption, and whatever nobility there is in Othello’s suicide, we can’t help but think of how different Christ’s suffering’s are from this, and how we are called to repentance, not suicide.”

“So let’s wrap this up. Can we do this with every kind of literature, drama or cinema? I think it’s a good approach, and if you’ve only thought of literature as either presenting “good” or “bad,” you might be able to look at literature or movies as showing a mixture of the two that we can evaluate in comparison to scripture. I’m going to tell you, however, that you have to use some discernment in placing literature or film into this way of thinking. For example, a meaningless teen sex comedy can be compared to scripture, but frankly, you could do the same comparison without seeing the movie. I believe the recommendations and reviews of discerning people are helpful in not wasting your time reading or viewing things that aren’t worthy of your time.”

“One of the things I want to constantly urge you to think about is the habit so many young people have of just viewing DVDs to pass the time, or reading silly literature- like Left Behind- instead of classic literature. I’m not trying to turn you into snobs, but there are a lot of wonderful things to read, and it doesn’t take long to find what’s worth your time. Ask serious readers what they recommend. Listen to the books that are quoted and discussed by intelligent people. Read book reviews online or in magazines that recommend books.”

“I think it’s good to warn Christians away from reading things that don’t have greatness or importance, but at the same time, I hope you will give great literature a chance to speak to your own life, and if you are a Christian, to speak to you on the level of the Biblical story. The “Great Conversation” of ideas in our world takes place as people read, reread, compare and listen to these classic stories for themselves. If you do so as a Christian as well as a good scholar, you’ll find yourself encountering God in all kinds of places and finding truth, beauty and the Gospel in these stories. If you are looking for ways to communicate as a Christian witness, knowing how to plug your stories and the stories in books and films into the discussions you have with others will serve you well. It doesn’t take away the use of scripture, but it gives you the opportunity to explain scripture in ways people can relate to more easily.”

*Bell rings* Class dismissed!

Comments

  1. Hurrah!! A Christian instructor teaching critical thinking!

    Why shouldn’t Christians study Shakespeare? The Bible is just as full of stories about adultery, murder, treachery, etc. It’s the overriding narrative that’s instructive in the Bible or the classics.

    I have a BA in Drama, and I studied Shakespeare at the Central School of Speech & Drama in London, and I have to say I have never read such an enlightening review of Othello.

    Well done Michael, and welcome back.

  2. I take it that your record of your teaching does not include things like:
    “Be quiet Joshua or I’ll send you to the principal”;
    “Stop looking at those older boys out the window, Megan”;
    “No you have to wait until the bell before you can go to the bathroom Jacob!”;
    “I do NOT smell like rotten fish Oliver!”

    Your next mission, if you are willing to accept it, is to show them “The Big Lebowski” (at your home, of course), and ask them the same questions which will, of course, be just as applicable.

    BTW – have you seen the movie “Saved” yet? It’s a good laugh, even if it is a parody of a stereotype.

  3. Let’s just at least state that the case for Shakespeare having been a Protestant or a Roman Catholic is famously inconclusive, but that a fair reading of the plays themselves edges speculation towards Protestant. Certainly it can be stated very stronlgy that the Calvinism that entered English life surprisingly early was as much a spark to the creativity and invention and discovery and general dynamic character of Elizabeth the I’s England as any other influence, and Shakespeare was not immune to that.

  4. Recent Biographies of Shakespeare- Woods and Rosenblatt particularly- have convinced me that the evidence for Shakespeare’s FAMILY’S Catholicism is unshakable. A testament of Catholic faith, distributed by Jesuit missionaries, was found in the Shakespeare home. For years, no one knew what it was, but now we know it was a vow to be a loyal Catholic, and it was apparently signed by John Shakespeare. We know Shakespeare’s daughter married a Puritan, but we also know she was prosecuted before her marrige for refusing to attend church on required feasts.

    WS’s mother’s family, the Arden’s, were imprisoned and suffered some executions as Catholic plotters. (Though they were probably innocent.) Shakespeare’s trail of Catholic patrons and friends is convincing, as is his purchase, in the last years of his life, of the largest Catholic “safehouse” in London in the district of the Blackfriar’s theater.

    I’m convinced that WS was reluctantly caught up in this, and it is one of the reasons he is such a low profile figure throughout his life. As to his own sympathies and beliefs? Who knows? Hamlet did study in Wittenberg 🙂 it is hard for me to see WS as a devout Christian. He appears to be greatly affected by the religious conflicts of his time, and what he had seen them do to his country, his family and his art.

    With Shakespeare, all is a mystery and we all get to play the game. It’s fun.

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, Michael. I attended a Baptist college where I minored in English and had the opportunity to take a Shakespeare class. None of my English professors brought this level of theological depth and clarity to the task of studying literature. Keep up the good work!

  6. Brian Pendell says:

    This Sunday in church I heard the following sermon illustration:

    “A woman planted a tree and watered it every day, but somehow it never grew.

    It turned out that what she thought was fertilizer was cement. No matter how much water she put in, the plant died.

    We’re like that. We put all kinds of bad stuff in our soil and we don’t read enough Bible. So you need to put away that worldly stuff and read the Bible.”

    Well, after a sermon like that, how can anyone have an excuse to read anything BUT the Bible?

    It’s a message I’ve been getting all my life in church sermons — that’s not what they say, but that is what I, in my head, hear. That I have to put away my Terry Pratchett and my Tolkien and just read the word.

    So I appreciate articles like this. It’s a much-needed counterbalance.

    Besides which — I find that reading other works helps me appreciate the Bible more, not less.

    Respectfully,

    Brian P.

  7. OSO,

    I love “Lebowski,” but I’ve had a difficult time marrying it and “The Master Story” successfully (short of an exhortation to “abide”). I’d be curious to hear where you’d go with The Dude and Jesus.

    Michael,

    Great post, as usual. I like discussions like this, but what films would you apply to this?

  8. Films?
    Oh my. Too many to list.

    A lot of them would be here.
    http://www.nationalreview.com/conservative_movies/conservative_movies.shtml

    But certainly not all.

    I use Contact in my classes to teach this.

  9. Heh. I remember as a kid, I was completely absorbed in Greek and Roman mythology. People worried about me reading about these pagan gods, but my wonderful mother politely told them that it was classic literature and that they should mind their own business.

    Those myths have stood me in good stead for many years, and allowed me to understand Plato, Ovid, and Shakespeare much better than I would have otherwise.

    Hooray for the classics!

  10. Michael..can you send me a quick email? I had a fairly substancial run in with James White and I wanted to discuss it. Mac@azotuscafe.com
    Thanks dude,
    Mac

  11. I’ve emailed you twice. I’ll try again. Or my correct email is posted on the BHT sidebar. Try that.

  12. What about any good love story (Pretty Woman, Cassablanca, The Princess Bride)?

    I mean, that is the cultural master story God himself chose to use when describing how the Church relates to God!

  13. I think we have to be careful about quick comparisons of romantic stories and the Love of God. (I’ve written on this in “In Love With Jesus.”) I’m concerned that the language of romance and the imagery of romance is really a mixed bag when it comes to correspondence with the love of God in scripture. I would suggest that married covenant love is the better example (even when it’s a mess, a la Hosea.)

  14. Michael,

    Thanks for the list.

    I actually used the scene from Casablanca where Rick fixes the roullete wheel for the Bulgarian couple to begin talking about grace with my confirmation class. Not a great fit, but it was a good starting place.

  15. I admit the language of “in love with Jesus” has been misused, but I still believe that all good love stories echo and immitate marriage and faithfullness, which is itself the primary image of God’s relationship with the Church. That’s what makes them good love stories.

    I suppose the best example would be Pretty Woman, but I feel that the love elements of Hollywood love stories always are reflections of God’s love. Even when they’re fragmented and shattered. Sometimes especially when they’re fragmented and shattered, because then it is easier to separate the truth from the feel-good happiness.

  16. Isaac,

    Consider the Dude. He is the laziest man alive. He does not choose to do anything – he only reacts when things interact with him.

    In that sense, the Dude is us. We have no freedom, we are slaves to sin. And no matter what adventures we go on, we still end up unchanged – except more people have died (Donny).

    Consider Mr. Lebowski. On the surface he is wonderful but scratch the surface and he is just masking his own sin.

    Consider the Nihilists. They do not change at all.

    In fact – no character undergoes change in the Big Lebowski.

    Well… it was a pretty darn good story though, don’t you think?

    (Post closes with rendition of “Tumbleweed” song)

  17. I really enjoy reading your site so I can understand just how negative and backward Christians are on so many different areas of life. I never realized before the many shortcomings of contemporary Christians and the feebleness of their sometimes silly culture. Thanks for providing such a valuable and illuminating service to your readers in this regard and doing it so much better than the New York Times ever could.

  18. As a future high school English teacher and someone very passionate about literature, I thank you for telling us your ideas on this subject. My appreciation of literature has augmented my Christianity for years and it strikes me to the core when fellow believers say something like “It’s so awful that they make students read such immoral books in school…” I think quite a lot about answers to these charges, and the answer in your essay more than assists mine.

  19. Aaron Bradley says:

    I had to wait for college to hear any fair treatment of the classics. My Christian high school approach was one of simply explaining how goddless the classics were, and why. Of course, they would never risk us actually reading them. They simply gave very brief synopses and then attacked the works. They did assign, “In His Steps” THREE times.

    Your students are lucky to be getting this kind of even handed exposure to the classics in high school.

    ABC

  20. I really don’t understand this approach where people think they need others teaching them the classics, when anybody can pick up a cheap edition of very good translations from any basic bookstore or library or internet venue. Not to mention secondary works that give background and insights and just about everything and anything someone who is self-motivated to seek and engage and learn from such influences would need.

  21. I just found your blog while surfing by during lunch, can’t even remember where I found it. But this evening, after I have prepared my plans for my sub, and previewed the horrible disney version of “A Wrinkle in Time” which I promised to show my eigth graders when they finished reading the book, I think I will come back and check out some of your other postings. I’m sticking in on my blog page as a link. I’ve been looking for a Christian Educator. I’ve been at it for 20 years, private and public schools in 3 states, am currently teaching Special Ed, Middle school, Language Arts, on the Navajo Reservation.
    lunch is over…time to fly
    Maryellen

  22. Thanks for writing this.

    I’ve been a Christian for about 2.5 years and haven’t written a word since then. I was having a hard time figuring out how I could keep writing the stories in my head and still meet the ‘requirement’ that they be ‘Christian’ stories (Christian meaning overtly evangelical). It’s bad enough struggling with a faint guilt that I’m reading things just for pleasure that aren’t overtly Christian, let alone spending gobs of time writing.

  23. Steve,
    I sympathize a bit–at least as I understand you to be advocating an individual passion for great works of literature. However, I hope you don’t mean that teaching the classics is somehow a waste of time. Teaching, as opposed to simple individual learning, is useful for at least a couple of reasons. 1) It forces–yes, forces–students to engage and grow intellectually where they otherwise would not and later, hopefully, develop that individual passion for learning. I hated brocolli and squash until college, but being forced to eat them eventually broadened by palate. 2) Group learning and instruction enables a proper grasp of the material that a mere individual attention can attain only with much greater difficulty. Thus, I know King Lear, which I studied in class, much better than The Merchant of Venice, which I read on my own.

    But then again, I’m probably biased. My mom’s an English teacher.

    Michael, incredible piece. Enough said.

    The Smith Abides

  24. I finished you Othello “lesson”. Great piece of teaching there. I especially liked the statement, “What I will tell you is that “The Master Story” provides the way we can listen to a story about lust, revenge and murder as Christians. We see the “true” story mirrored in the “fictional” story, and we read it exactly as Jesus would.” Some of my brothers and sisters in the LORD have questioned my taste in books and films. Yet there are some that I wish I could share with my students, because they need to “listen” to the story…even though it may seem harsh or worldly. I echo the first comment, how exciting to find a teacher, a Christian teacher, who teaches critical thinking. Glad I found your post, I’ll be back.

  25. Jeremiah Lawson says:

    My experience has been that a lot of students aren’t naturally self-motivated to learn about the classics of Western lit. A person can be taught what the classics say but it’s not quite the same thing as being taught “how” to read them. All the self-motivation in the world still only gets me so far.

    Learning from a teacher really cuts down on the learning curve. A person who is self taught at piano for eight years may still be a good pianist but not in the same way as a pianist who is taught through schooling over the same period of time. I.e. those other people are probably pros and I’m not. 🙂

  26. Wow. Teaching theological reflection in high school! Excellent. The closest my high school ever came to this was in making us find Chirst figures in virtually every piece of Western world lit. we read.

    I had always approached stories this way in some sense, but I never had the method laid out until I took EFM in my 30s. Now I attend a church where the pastor frequently uses a popular movie or book or tv show as a springboard for a sermon and ties the plot back to the ‘Master Story’. (But then, we’re ECUSA – you know, terrible wishy-washy liberals who are too involved in the world ::vbeg::)

  27. Random Question:

    Did you like Snow Falling on Cedars?

  28. My wife loved the book. We both thought the movie was terrible.

  29. Ah. I see. I thought the book was okay. When I first finished reading the book during my days in High School (not too long ago, actually… just about a semester away from the end of my college life as an undergradaute), I hated it. I thought the way the book ended was terrible and I just could not understand why anyone loved the book.

    I think I was driven by the desire to see a really tragic ending to the novel. I guess looking at that book again, it doesn’t look so bad and it’s kind of grown on me.

    And yes, the movie was terrible. The moment I noticed they changed the names, I didn’t expect anything from the movie any longer.

    Still, Catch-22 remains my favorite of the books I’ve read. 🙂

  30. Suffice it to say, I wish I’d had you as an English teacher back in the day. I might have found something else as fascinating as math. 😉