I read Stanley Fish’s New York Times blog from time to time, and one of his recent posts was sort of shocking to me. It was a lament of the decline of humanities departments and in particular the decision of SUNY Albany president George Phillip to cut their French, Russian, Italian, classics, and theater programs. Fish rightly points out that it’s silly to dream of the public being enriched by the humanities, to think that the man on the street should, as if by moral imperative, appreciate art, literature, language, and philosophy and especially appreciate it beyond it’s mere enjoyment and into the minutiae of academic study. In fact, Fish contends that the complaint on the part of scholars that the average person’s apathy toward the world of the intellectual, the world of French philosophy for example, is evidence that these endeavors are ultimately pointless is actually not directed at the right people. They shouldn’t worry about what the implications of French philosophy are for the average person because, in Fish’s view, there aren’t any. He writes:
“Don’t ask what does it do for the man in the street (precious little); ask if its insights and style of analysis can be applied to the history of science, to the puzzles of theoretical physics, to psychology’s analysis of the human subject. In short, justify yourselves to your colleagues, not to the hundreds of millions of Americans who know nothing of what you do and couldn’t care less and shouldn’t be expected to care; they have enough to worry about.”
In most cases, I think Dr. Fish is correct. Whenever a family member or friend not in school with me asks about what I’m studying, the second I start to get too technical, their eyes glaze over with apathy, they smile, nod, and say, “That sounds—interesting.”
Biblical hermeneutics, literary theory, French philosophy, and systematic theology are not for everyone, nor do they need to be. But I’d like to make a short case here for why the study of the humanities is important and why you can find it infiltrating both biblical and theological studies.
Prior to coming to Fuller, I was earning an MA in English language and literature from the University of Northern Colorado. I wrote my thesis on Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions arguing for a non-postmodern (but not necessarily post-postmodern/post-secular) reading of Vonnegut in which the word sacred in the novel becomes a moment of deconstructive differánce which prevents the narrator from continuing to see humans as mindless robots, hopelessly trying to change their circumstances.
Most people read Vonnegut as supporting the early postmodern belief that humans futilely attempt to change their circumstances, to find absolute truth, when neither is possible. I see Vonnegut differently. He was a man deeply troubled by the way he saw people treating each other. He did, after all, experience the bombing of Dresden, easily one of the most horrific events ever perpetrated by one human being against another. Reading his corpus, one can easily see that human ignorance and violence are upsetting to him. But there is another side, like the two sides of a sheet of paper—human beings are also sacred to Vonnegut. That’s the puzzling thing about Breakfast of Champions. At times, the narrator uses that word as parody, mocking people for their violence and callousness and also their stupidity at trying to make the profane into the sacred. At other times, however, a marked “genuineness” slips in (hence, my argument for differánce.) There are points in the novel (and in others for that matter) where an argument for a satiric use of the word just doesn’t make sense. There is an innate use of the word where rather than characters attempting to assign a category of sacredness to something as mundane as a crack in a ceiling, the narrator recognizes an inherent sacredness within all living things that is there outside of human language. A pure, Real, sacredness. An unwavering band of light, as one of the characters of the novel calls it.
The impression the reader is given is that the narrator is struggling mightily with the dual nature of anthropology—human beings are important, sacred, chosen, yet tainted and sinful. One of my favorite passages from Breakfast demonstrates this well. Here, the narrator (who is a quasi-God-like character who has “entered” his own writing) is describing one of his characters, Kilgore Trout, as he attempts to cross a polluted creek:
His situation, insofar as he was a machine, was complex, tragic, and laughable. But the sacred part of him, his awareness, remained an unwavering band of light.
And this book is being written by a meat machine in cooperation with a machine made of metal and plastic. The plastic, incidentally, is a close relative of the gunk in Sugar Creek. And at the core of the writing meat machine is something sacred, which is an unwavering band of light.
At the core of each person who reads this book is a band of unwavering light.
My doorbell has just rung in my New York apartment. And I know what I will find when I open my front door: an unwavering band of light.
God bless Rabo Karabekian!
There is a redemptive quality to the epiphany that the narrator experiences here. It is Trout’s awareness of his tragic situation as such that is sacred. In other words, we are consecrated when we become aware of our brokenness and choose to do something about it. Rather than attempt to figure out how the cold, mechanical nature of humanity can be conflated with the sacredness he senses is inherently there, the narrator comes to the conclusion that the two parts can be reconciled.
What drew me to literature initially is actually quite cliché, but I make no apologies for it. It was the way in which stories can force us to see things we thought were so simple, so easy before, in completely new ways. Literature has the ability to make the obvious suddenly foreign and unfamiliar. And what really sold me on literary studies is that it unapologetically utilizes whatever it can to understand a text. If a mode of thought or ideology or method of reading (Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, historicism, religion etc.) can be used as a tool to unpack a text, then it’s fair game. There have been times here at Fuller where I’ve been so immersed in a Biblical studies course that I forget for a moment that there’s this whole other world, which some seminarians at other institutions rarely have access to—a world of hermeneutical tools outside of redaction criticism.
The humanities has a wealth of tools to offer us as we try to come to a better understanding of the Bible. If you’re a Vonnegut fan, then you know how this post has to end. When we, as seminarians, as budding biblical/theological/religious scholars ignore the rest of the humanities, we miss out on an opportunity to see a broader picture. That’s a shame.
So it goes.
by Joel Harrison