In Dialog: Faculty Members Weigh in on Teaching Pagan Texts in the Classroom
In January 2007, a student at The Kingís College expressed some misgivings about the assigned reading of Voltaireís short novel Candide in a course on Western Civilization. The student wrote:
I struggle with how to mesh reading morally objectionable literature and Bible verses that talk about keeping a pure mind, such as Philippians 4:8. For by reading, willingly, unnecessary immoral content, am I not necessarily putting thoughts into my mind that are not "true, [...] noble, [...] right, [...] pure," (NIV, Philippians 4:8) etc.? I am honestly unsure of what to do in such a situation. The general opinion among professors seems to be that such literature has intellectual value, which it may, but how does the Christian read on in it and "get past" such verses as those noted above?
Professor of History, Harry Bleattler, passed along the studentís comment to Provost, Peter Wood, who then asked the faculty as a whole if any other professors had encountered similar concerns.
The exchange that followed deals with a theological issue that goes back to Paul and Augustine. Of course, in American higher education generally, the topic addressed here would seem quaint. Must students who seek a liberal education routinely read books by pagan authors, deists, atheists, and assorted anti- and post-Christian authors. There is nothing controversial about such assignments, and this is the prevailing practice in Christian as well as secular colleges and universities. So is there anything here to discuss?
Yes, if we take ideas seriously. And yes again if we take seriously students who have been raised in families that have striven to guard students from the breezy vulgarity of much of contemporary culture. Such students are often treated as naÔve, but that in itself is a breezy characterization. A student with the sensibility to recognize the implicit danger of powerful books understands a deeper truth than the student who regards all texts as more or less interchangeable.
In that spirit, the responses of members of The Kingís College faculty to this studentís question may be worth attention. They engage a question not usually asked; and they give a glimpse of how one scholarly community wrestles with the difficulty of maintaining a moral focus while asking students to give close readings and fair-minded attention to books that advocate views contrary to the Christian tradition.
A student objects to reading Candide
A professor of politics, David Innes, responds -- Thinking is dialogical.
A professor of philosophy, Peter Kreeft, responds -- Mistaking butterflies for bullets.
A professor of propaedeutics, Robert Jackson, responds -- Spiritually astute reading.
A professor of literature, Paula Thigpen, responds -- Battles royal.
A professor of theology, Robert Carle, responds -- A trip to the mosque.
A professor of history, Harry Bleattler, expands his point -- Little Miss Nietzschean Sunshine.
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