Academics and Faith – Being a Christian on an English Course

As a Christian, I think about the world in a certain way. I have a certain view of what is right and wrong, of the existence of a spiritual realm and spiritual beings, and of the place of the human being in the cosmos. I make no apologies for these views. They’re a part of who I am. If someone wants to discuss them with me, then I will happily do so. But because these views are a part of me, because they help to define me, because they, by definition, shape the way I see the world, what I would take exception to is someone telling me to keep them out of my work.

Now, I’m only a first year undergraduate student, so I’m not going to be publishing in an academic journal any time soon, but I am being trained to write in an academic style. There is a certain way things are done in these circles. One issue that hasn’t really come up yet is how objective we are expected to be in our analysis of the texts that we study on this English course. To be fair, I don’t think the department expects objectivity. I want to make it clear now that I am not writing this in response to anything I’ve heard, I’m writing this because I think the issue of bias stops becoming such an issue if people talk about it openly.

We are all biased, one way or another, and it is impossible to keep that bias out of everyday life, even academic writing. To use an extreme, somewhat paradoxical example, even if you believe that all academic writing should be objective and value free, that opinion will bias your writing. To be biased is to favour a certain position, so in a weird way, it’s perfectly possible to be biased towards writing objectively (I hope I’m making sense).

As for me, how much should I allow my Christianity to affect the way I write about English? It’s a tough question, because there is a balance to be struck between expressing your views honestly and writing a good, academic essay. I believe that my Christianity will affect near enough everything I write, but that doesn’t mean that everything I write will be a sermon. I’ll use the example of Paradise Lost by John Milton, the text that we are studying in one of my modules at the moment. As a Christian, I am very aware of the Biblical echoes in the poem, and I am predisposed to dislike Satan and like God. On top of that, I know the story of the Fall of Man very well already, so I’m hardly reading the poem with ‘fresh eyes’. I’ve found that approaching Paradise Lost in this way inclines me towards certain arguments and makes me look for certain things. There is the popular argument that Satan is the true hero of the poem; I would take this argument, consider what I know of Satan in the Bible, consider what Milton would most likely have thought about Satan, and take the opposite position: that Satan is almost certainly not the hero in Paradise Lost, that there are no traditional ‘epic heroes’, and that the most likely candidate for a ‘tragic hero’ is Adam. If you haven’t read Paradise Lost that probably made no sense to you and you’ll just have to trust me that it illustrates my point.

A very different example would be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I studied at A Level. In this book, my Christianity did not bias me towards a side of a debate within the text, instead, it highlighted the issues that I found most important and most interesting. Thus, in the coursework essay I wrote on Frankenstein, my chosen topic was the relationship between creator and created, an interesting angle that ties in a lot with Biblical themes and ways of looking at human nature. I don’t know if this technically classes as bias, but it’s still a case of me using my Christian worldview as a way of finding what I think is important in a text; I am still using my previously held values to guide the way I approach the text.

A final point to make is to flag up the enjoyment I get from reading a book that challenges my worldview. I’m not talking about something like Dawkins’ God Delusion, I mean something like Transition by Iain Banks, or The Road by Cormac McCarthy – books that present the world differently. I am conscious of my beliefs when reading these books, but I am also conscious of the differences in the views of the world that are being presented. For me, that only increases my enjoyment of the books, because I feel that I can engage with them on a more fundamental level. If I tried to approach them without any obvious beliefs (something which I believe is impossible anyway), I don’t think I would enjoy them as much.

I appreciate that this has been a bit of a meandering blog post, but I wanted to skim over a few of the issues that I think are important to me when it comes to the collision of my faith and my study. There is no easy way to mesh the two together completely, but I don’t see the point of keeping your belief out of your study. Sure, the issue becomes very different when studying a science subject, but for English, surely having a variety of different beliefs and interpretations amongst the student and academic community enriches the subject, as opposed to depriving it of any creativity? These books were written by people with ideas and opinions on the world, so I believe we need to respond to them in kind.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. chicagoja says:

    Nice post. You are who you are and you believe in what you believe in. You don’t need to apologize for that or have to explain it. However, I believe that belief systems can inhibit our personal growth as you can’t see the world through all eyes. Belief systems, by and large, are a by-product of cultural indoctrination and only give one point of view.

    1. bengarry says:

      I wonder if anyone can actually appreciate something from a truly different point of view to their own belief. Being able to see another point of view is, of course, possible, and most of us can do it, but that’s not the same as being able to approach the whole subject from a different viewpoint or being able to use a view that you fundamentally disagree with to shape the way you think about a subject.

  2. Steve Diseb says:

    Interesting post! When I was going for my BA in English, I was still an atheist, so I wonder how I would’ve interacted differently with the texts we read.

    1. bengarry says:

      Thanks! That’s part of what I love about English: the fact that people can engage with one book in so many different ways. If everyone saw, or tried to see, texts in the same way, it would be a very boring subject.

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