Integration Questions for the Discipline of English
What fundamental questions does my discipline, language and literature, ask?
- What role should the study of language and literature have in a liberal education?
- In what ways does language and literature offer insights into the human condition?
- What is the value of literary forms (poetry, drama, prose, fiction and so on)?
- Does language have meaning beyond what each individual reader gives it?
- Can we really know "anything" via language?
How does being a Christian affect the way I answer these questions?I think I answer the first question (What role should the study of language and literature have in a liberal education?) in much the same way many non-Christian might. That is, in order to be broadly educated, student must be exposed to the best that has been thought, written, and produced in recorded history. Obviously this means a healthy exposure to great works of literature; ideally this would occur in the original language, but more realistically it happens in translation.
To answer the second question (In what ways does language and literature offer insights into the human condition?), I will have to try to limit myself since I could easily go on and on. In brief then, when we read literature we open ourselves to different ways of seeing the world, we admit ourselves to experiences other than our own, we broaden our intellectual and aesthetic horizons, we realize, even if momentarily, that there are other ways of understanding life, and perhaps we find ourselves confronted with truth in an unusual or shocking manner. As many have noted, reading literature can enlarge who we are and help us to see with other eyes, imagine with other imaginations, and to feel with other hearts. Reading literature can become a powerfully means of getting in touch with the lives and aspirations of those around us; of course reading literature won’t ensure happiness nor harmony, but it can offer a context for understanding the experiences of those we live and work with. Moreover, another value of reading literature is that it often comments upon the moral, political, social, and spiritual climate of the age in which it was produced. In effect, literature serves as a barometer of human thought and experience, whether we are considering the pre-Christian world of Sophocles and Virgil, the various Christian worlds of Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and Dostoyevsky, or the post-Christian worlds of Eliot, Joyce, and Faulkner.
The third question (What is the value of literary forms: poetry, drama, prose, fiction and so on?) takes us toward the realm of both mechanics and aesthetics. That is, as we consider the various literary genres, we understand that language can work in a certain way to bring about a desired effect. In a sonnet, the highly regulated matters of rhyme scheme, verse structure, and figurative language provide us a picture of man or woman as artist, using all the technical and creative devices germane to that form. In a novel, on the other hand, the fact it is more amorphous (lacking, for instance, strict rules regarding length, composition, narrative order, and so on) pushes us to consider it as a form that is less focused on external verities and instead more focused on the effort to provide readers "a full and authentic report of human experience." In either case, a Christian perspective recognizes behind both matters of mechanics and aesthetics the hand of a loving creator who knows all there is about form and beauty.
The last two questions can be handled together (Does language have meaning beyond what each individual reader gives it? Can we really know "anything" via language?). Of course these are post-modern challenges to any theological perspective, Christian or otherwise. Since I will be addressing these issues more broadly later on, suffice it here to offer the following. Language, or more properly logos, is the primary way in which God has revealed Himself, as both the beginning of Genesis and the Gospel of John reveal: "Then God said, 'Let there be light.'" (Gen. 1:3), and "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). In the Genesis passage we see God using logos or language to create the natural world. In a real sense God spoke into creation all that is. In the passage from John, a Christian sees an equally wonderful thing: that is, the Word, literally the Logos, Jesus Christ, is God’s word to us. Fundamentally, language does have meaning and connects us to the very Being who created language.
These realizations had profound implications for me as I sought to integrate faith and learning in my academic discipline. Among these was the bedrock truth that human language itself is a reflection of our divine connectedness, the imago dei; put another way, that we have language and use language and enjoy language intimately and irrevocably link us to God. On the one hand, God used language or logos to create the natural world, and on the other hand he sent his Logos, his Word, his Son to us. One part of my task, then, is to explore and discover with my students how language and by extension literature participates in the revelation of God's natural creation as well as His revelation of his own character as portrayed in the life of Christ.
Dr. Don King