I recently tried to rewatch Dead Poets’ Society; after five years of teaching, I couldn’t make it past John Keating’s (played by Robin Williams) terrible classroom management. Instead of enjoying the revel of the rebellious romanticism DPS celebrates, I became fascinated by a single conversation between first-year teacher Keating and a veteran teacher of 20 years. The veteran questions why Williams is trying to inspire his students to become the new Shakespeare and asks if he is setting them up for disappointment. Part of me wants to side with Keating – every student should have the ability to write a timeless classic. Instead, my reading over the last year has helped me appreciate the different purposes for which people write. None of the books below is a timeless literary classic, but each represents a way the author is taking dominion of the world and stewarding it through literary means. The study of literature is not universal because everyone needs to be Dante or Chaucer, but because becoming skilled in the craft of narrative enables a certain kind of stewardship of oneself and of God’s world.
Sometimes, people discover that society has a systemic problem, and the desire to uncover and suggest a solution to that problem becomes the motivation for their writing. In the 1940s, University of Chicago rhetorician Richard Weaver wrote his Ideas Have Consequences in this vein; he wanted to discover how the West had devolved morally to the point where dropping the atomic bomb was deemed the moral option. His work brings together logic, literary study, historical consciousness, and ethical awareness to build a diagnosis for the modern world. Contemporary feminist Wendy McElroy also followed this “identify the problem” method in her Rape Culture Hysteria: Fixing the Damage Done to Men and Women. Here, McElroy brings together a survey of historical and contemporary feminist scholarship, an awareness of statistical research methods and the ability to evaluate them, and a journalistic style of writing combining exegesis, factual argumentation, and narratives to illuminate the problem she believes is causing substantial damage to the free world.
Greg Coles in his Single Gay Christian: A Personal Story of Faith and Sexual Identity takes a different path. As a lifelong student of literature and published author of fictional short stories, Coles brings his pen to the task of telling his own story. His journey involved discovering his homosexual desires, determining to discern what it means to be an obedient follower of Christ, and learning to love his calling to celibate singleness. In telling his story, Coles weaves together social commentary, biblical hermeneutics, and a passionate love for God which calls the reader to both compassion and self-evaluation. In writing this kind of spiritual autobiography, Coles locates himself within the tradition of St. Augustine’s Confessions and Rosaria Butterfield’s more recent autobiography The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith. Each of these works demonstrates the work of God calling the soul into faith and the difficult ways in which that call demands obedience.
In the midst of reading poetic works from millennia ago, I have also witnessed friends who have had their poetry published within the last two years. One friend from high school days initially drew on her childhood struggles and those of her family to create her poems; her pain and eventual healing could only be expressed poetically. A second friend turned to poetry to express her horror and sorrow at the rate of wives committing suicide each year in India. Poetry gave voice to pain, and allowed her to point towards the necessity for hope.
While most of the authors in this post had clear literary leanings (Coles is a PhD student in English, Butterfield was a Women’s Studies professor, both poetic friends have advanced degrees in English and Creative Writing), they illustrate the inability to predict where such interest will take the student. This year, I am teaching one section of 10th-grade literature. This class focuses on Roman, early Christian, Medieval, and Renaissance literature. Perhaps one of my students will go on to join the literati; all of them, however, through the study of literature, will be equipped to tell their own stories in prose or poetry, and will be able to identify problems and propose solution clearly. Through the study of literature they rise to a particular kind of stewardship through words. I have to side with the veteran teacher in Dead Poets’ Society: not every student will become a Milton or a Shakespeare. But every student can learn to be a better steward of God’s world through the study of literature.
Josh Herring is a Humanities Instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University’s Great Books program. He has written for Moral Apologetics, The Imaginative Conservative, Think Christian, and The Federalist; he loves studying the intersection of history, literature, theology, and ideas expressed in the complexities of human life.