Religion is boring

This semester I keep running into religious boredom from my students. At Religious College, the students are totally entranced by the text we’re reading except when I try to say something about the religious context of the author, whom they far prefer to judge according to the standards of their own beliefs. At Secular College, where I’ve been teaching a series of complexly Christian texts all semester, one young lady spends the entire class period staring at a spot on the wall because, as she informed me today, she is not religious and the very mention of anything related to Christianity makes her head hurt too much to think about it.

I don’t remember hearing much about religion in my own education. After a youth filled with church and Bible talk, it was a relief to spend four undergraduate years instructed by atheists who wouldn’t know a Beatitude from a Commandment. It made me feel special when, in my first graduate seminar, I pointed out an obvious Biblical quotation that my professor didn’t recognize. And then I was rather disappointed when I suggested some theological subtleties in the literary use of scripture and she didn’t seem to care.

It seemed odd to me that none of the academics I knew as a college student had any knowledge of what it would be like to grow up with scripture, or faith. The more historical types could, if asked, name differences between Calvinists and Baptists, or identify the holy books of various belief systems, but they didn’t seem to get how living within a particular faith system could scaffold one’s entire worldview—including not only ethics, but also aesthetic and rhetorical discourses. It seemed to me that they were missing something crucial about how scripture and religious practice work in the life of an author.

At Secular College, I’ve often told my students that British literature is pretty much about God, sex, and shit, and if you’re not interested in any of those three things, pick a different major, because you’re not interested in life. This semester, I seem not to have as much sex and shit in my classes to spice things up for those who roll their eyes at God.

Today I sang a hymn for one of my classes. The author we’re reading very subtly quotes lines from it throughout his book, so I thought they should hear it. It gave him a way to imagine Christianity for himself so that he could escape the cycles of trauma and self-doubt that his circumstances had trapped him in. It’s a beautiful song, and one I always loved as a child. I only know it because it also comforted me in times of trouble. All my spot-staring student heard was more boring shit about Jesus.

So I talk about pornography sometimes, and they rejoice, while the religious students groan about how English professors are always going on about sex because we’re such perverts. I look forward to seeing this batch of class evaluations.

10 responses to “Religion is boring”

  1. lane says:

    religion is at it’s heart about community building. the community activates some sentimental part of a human psyche and teaches that person to activate those emotions through prayer, meditation, reading byzantine stories, fasting, helping old ladies.

    if one has never had those sentimental feelings activated, if they remain latent, one can’t really understand religion’s appeal. those byzantine stories remain just that, stories. they won’t be seen as gateways to “innner peace.”

    writers, as artists, are probably too susceptible to these sentimental feelings, too dependent on them, so they get hung up on religion. academics are probably too much secular bureaucrats to waste time on their irritating subjectivity.

    in the end i think religion is pretty boring, not more or less boring than say, botany, but your students aren’t living in a culture where everyone is expected to care about plants.

    anyway, that’s my two cents.

  2. lane says:

    oh, i guess i would say that academics would rather just go to therapy than to church. it’s basically the same thing anyway.

  3. PB says:

    I think religion is only marginally about heart and community. I think religion is about reaching for something greater than yourself, becoming connected to or validated by or wrestling with the judgement of something seemingly more powerful than the mere mortal next to you. After spending the weekend in proximity with a 20 year old, I think that unless they have grown up with it, a young human is simply too self involved to care much about anyone else’s quest to understand their place in the universe. Or because the whole religious thing has been taken over by fanatics in the media (i.e. stupid Delaware woman), the conotations are more about dumbunking Eve/dinosaurs than staring into Sidhartha’s river. Personal belief is immaterial to the understanding and study of religious context and struggle in literature. It as much a way to uncover meaning as sex and shit. Like it or not, god in some form is at the center of most historical and much modern literature.

  4. A White Bear says:

    I seem to be pwned by this guy.

  5. lane says:

    “I think religion is about reaching for something greater than yourself, becoming connected to or validated by or wrestling with the judgement of something seemingly more powerful than the mere mortal next to you.”

    maybe, but wow, isn’t that kind of fucked up? that parents put that on their kids that that is SOMETHING out there judging you? making you feel inadequate about your existence?

    at least the mere mortal next to you can pass you the doughnuts after communion.

  6. lane says:

    that guy is interesting, and he’s not wrong. but maybe its good we are forgetting about religion, . . . but probably not. people will always come up with religion because they’re lonely.

    but when he gets to the part about teaching his kids about religion, as a non-believer, he should just say, “this is what people used to talk about before they had i phones.”

  7. PB says:

    fucked up or not Lane – I am just saying that human beings cannot quite quit their obssesion with religion. It is a hotter topic than ever. So you can choose not to participate or believe on a personal level – but you are going to seriously limit your connection with the rest of your co-earthlings if you at least don’t respect their belief. If your goal is to understand a text written by a person influenced by religion – you have to muster a degree of intellectual and, I would argue, spiritual empathy. if your goal is doughnuts – then you are good.

  8. PB says:

    by the way – this was a very interesting post.

  9. see i think this is like having to learn the score to enjoy the music. you don’t,

    art trancends the original source. sure in an academic way the artists back ground informs the work. but the work lives beyond the artists experience.

    i really will never feel anything for tibetian religion but i can still LOVE the art.

    that guy is right when it comes to international relations however. that shit must be addressed. and fine if white bear wants to introduce that into the class i’m cool with it. but the united states needs less religion, not more. it’s part of our problem. so i go back to sypathizing with the girl rolling her eyes saying christianity is really dull.

    but yeah yeah yeah, the bible as literary fountainhead, second only to shakespear, or even shakespear second to the bible.

    i know i know.

  10. Today’s post from Fred Clarke is an excellent illustration of one way Biblical learning can come in handy, it can help you recognize hypocritical misuses of religious texts.