Thursday, January 31, 2008

Literacy, Allegory and Exempla

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In a discussion at a GREAT educational ning community (Fireside Learning), the question came up that has a real bearing on what we are talking about when we talk about cultural literacy in general, and Bible literacy in particular.

In Stephen Prothero's book Religious Literacy, just as in E.D. Hirsch's New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (which is available online), there is a whole panoply of Bible characters and stories that are included in a "list" approach to cultural literacy. If you are curious, here is what made Hirsch's list for the Bible.

The question that came up in the discussion was about what to call these things that appear on such lists. It's actually not easy to say what they are. People assume it's good to know these things because they make it possible to identify allusions. So, if high school students are reading Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom, they need to know that Absalom is the son of King David who rebelled against his father, etc. Faulkner, in the title of his book, is alluding to the story of David and Absalom. But what do we call "Absalom" here, the thing alluded to? It's actually a bit hard to come up with a good word for that in English!

Someone in the discussion at FiresideLearning referred to them as "allegories" but that is definitely a term that will not work, and actually has a very unfortunate connotation when it comes to material from the Hebrew Bible.

In an allegory, something, call it "The Thing," is interpreted as a symbol of something else, call it "The Meaning." The problem with allegory is that The Thing is usually considered to have no meaning or value in and of itself. Instead, the only thing that matters is The Meaning. In extreme cases (and allegory does tend to extremes!), The Meaning actually anhilates The Thing. Allegory has thus traditionally been used to contain awkward or uncomfortable aspects of culture, which cannot be simply deleted from the cultural tradition. The ancient Greeks used it to deal with embarrassing behavior on the part of their gods, for example, converting Homer's myths into an allegory of Platonic philosophy; you can read a great account of that in Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition by Robert Lamberton. Homer was not a Platonic philosopher by any means, but the device of allegory is able to empty out Homer's epic and fill it with new Platonic meaning.

This style of allegory had a great influence on both Jewish and Christian tradition. The middle Platonic philosopher and great Jewish theologian Philo used allegory in order to turn the stories of the Hebrew Bible into a Platonic allegory of the soul. The erotic love songs of the "Song of Songs" have been interpreted by both Jewish and Christian scholars as an allegory of the soul; it is not about carnal love between man and woman, but the spiritual love between the soul and God. You can't get rid of the book, but at least you can insist that it is not about what it is about. It is about something else.

It is with Paul, however, that the decisive step is taken for allegory. In his interpretation of the story of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4, Paul decides that the story of Sarah and Hagar is not about the historical persons Sarah and Hagar at all, but about the Jews of Jerusalem (Hagar) and the children of a heavenly Jerusalem (Sarah) who are the followers of Jesus. In their triumphalist narrative, the Christians were definitely in trouble with a text, the Hebrew Bible, which presented a triumphalist narrative of the Jews, God's chosen people. So Paul uses allegory to make the Hebrew Bible mean something quite the opposite of what its literal meaning tells us: the children of Abraham through Isaac are not the Jews, but rather than Christians (the free children of the promise), while it is the children of Abraham through Ishmael who are the Jews (the slave children of the covenant God made on Sinai).

Beginning with Paul, allegory has played an enormous role in the Christian tradition, assimilating the Jewish text of the Hebrew Bible and turning it into a crypto-Christian text, filled with prefigurations of the coming of Christ, created by the allegorical style of interpretation. Joseph sold into slavery by his brothers: allegory for Jesus. Jonah in the belly of the whale: allegory for Jesus. And so on.

It is for that reason that we need to hesitate about saying Bible stories should be taught as part of general cultural literacy because they are allegories.

There are some other terms, however, which can convey the cultural assumption that there is a value in studying the stories and characters from the Bible as a contribution to cultural literacy. The term I would propose is "example" or the Latin word "exemplum" (many words in our vocabulary of rhetorical terms come directly from Latin or Greek). I am not 100% happy with this term, but it is the best I can come up with. (Better ideas, anybody...?)

The idea with "example" is that characters from the Bible and the famous stories in which they are engaged serve as examples of some kind, examples of a general type of story or some general message. By studying these examples (Latin plural, exempla) from the past, we can build up a storehouse of knowledge to help us in interpreting the events we participate in ourselves today.

There used to be a whole genre of "exemplum" literature, in both the ancient and medieval worlds. The study of exempla was an important part of the educational process. The reason this term is especially appealing to me for educational purposes is that it saves us from the rote memorization of the "facts" and instead insists that these examples be understood in terms of their meaning. Instead of just "background information," these items are being included for their meaning, not just for the information they contain.

Let me take an example from Hirch's list of Biblical items to show what I mean. Absalom, interestingly enough, did not make the list. Poor Faulkner! I think that alone points to the pernicious danger of making such lists; I hope that nobody assumes reading this post that I am in favor of such lists - I am not.

Anyway, here's an item that did make the list: Cain and Abel. Since I recently posted about that story here in the blog, let's see what Hirsch says about them: The first children of Adam and Eve, born after the Fall of Man. Once, when they were grown men, both Cain and Abel offered sacrifices to God. When Cain saw that Abel’s pleased God whereas his did not, Cain murdered his brother out of jealousy. For his crime, Cain was exiled by God to a life of wandering in a distant land. God “set a mark upon Cain” to protect him in his wanderings. The “mark of Cain” now refers to an individual’s or humankind’s sinful nature.

Great! That is exactly what I mean by an exemplum. You would want to talk about Cain as an example of sinful nature. Of course, you can also use Cain as an example of rivalry and jealousy, and as an example of homicide (this was the first homicide in the Biblical history of the world, after all). You can also use Cain as an example of strife among brothers, or as an example of a condemned criminal living abroad (you can find at least one of those in the pages of the New York Times any day, I would guess!). If you read the Biblical story, you will find out that Cain went to dwell "east of Eden," giving you a very nice exemplum to go with a reading of Steinbeck's novel of the same name, which features a bitter rivalry between two brothers for their father's affection.

Let's try Elijah, whom Hirsch also includes: A prophet of the Old Testament, who opposed the worship of idols and incurred the wrath of Jezebel, the queen of Israel, who tried to kill him. He was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire.

This is more disappointing. What would a student make of this entry? It does give the student something to memorize which you can ask on a multiple choice test (so beloved by so many so-called reformers of education). Yet it does not tell a student what is meaningful about Elijah, why out of the thousands of individuals mentioned in the Bible, Elijah has made his way onto this list. The pieces of the story told here do not fit together to tell a meaningful story.

Now, the "chariot of fire" shows up as a movie title, indeed. It also appears in the hymn Jerusalem, originally written by William Blake, which has become an important part of the British tradition (more on that here).

So do we say people should memorize a few sentences about Elijah because there is a movie with the title "Chariots of Fire"...? Do we include Elijah so that students can understand what it means to leave a seat "for Elijah" at a Jewish Passover seder? Or simply because Elijah is still a pretty commonly found name in America? In other words: why Elijah? Hirsch's presentation of Elijah's story does not make that clear - it is hard to tell what Elijah is meant to be an example of, and why he would be used by others - great writers, painters, poets, ourselves - to convey a particular meaning.

I would argue that unless Elijah himself is able to convey some meaning, unless we say that Elijah is an example of something, it is going to be very hard to teach Elijah's story to students in a meaningful way. Without some meaning, without being an example of something, Elijah will not be someone students remember as being really important, as more than just a "factoid" on a list.

Okay, that's surely enough for now. I hadn't realized what a can of worms I had opened in asking myself this question. Definitely worth pondering some more. I do care about cultural literacy very much, and I wonder if the absence of a way to even really talk about it is part of the reason why we are having such a crisis about it in our schools, eh? Hmmmm....

Meanwhile, I cannot resist including an image of that chariot of fire! It comes from the Nuremberg Chronicle (you can read more about this amazing book at wikipedia).


Blogger Ed said...

Laura, Can you solve a Schroedinger equation? 'Cause it seems like my getting a definition of a couple simple words is turning out to be about that level of difficulty.

Perhaps "word-pictures" is good enough. But I'll give this a try again tomorrow when I'm fresh!

January 31, 2008 8:14 PM  
Blogger Laura Gibbs said...

Hi Ed, I think that's the ONLY conclusion I have come to after this recent back-and-forth - cultural literacy is not simple.

There are no easy solutions here.

Solving Schroedinger might be easier!

Or maybe cultural literacy is just as elusive (allusive, ha ha) as that cat of his.

Anyway, now I am starting to see why people write whole books about this. It is not easy at all... yet we end up having to take it almost for granted somehow.

Anyway, I will continue to ponder - but I don't think word-pictures will get you very far. That sounds a lot like emblems... which is yet another long topic.

Culture is just so darn BIG.

January 31, 2008 8:26 PM  
Blogger Laura Gibbs said...

P.S. Ed, what do you think about Elijah - he made it onto Hirsch's list, and I know you have lists -

so... is Elijah on your list? Why, or why not?


January 31, 2008 8:29 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Morning Laura! I remember a comment I think from something on PBS not that long ago. Basically it was about education among the early Hebrews, and how we don't know that much about their education as it was done at home, by mothers, and they just didn't write much about it. Yet, some of them must not have done too bad.

I asked about Schroedinger equations because quantum physics is hard. (At least it was for my poor 19-year-old brain.) I don't believe educating most K-12 students has to be that hard. Unless we want to make it so.

I think you may have something here worth pursuing for publication. Just remember me for the well-edited paper, not the book! :-)

February 1, 2008 9:25 AM  
Blogger Laura Gibbs said...

Hi Ed, if high school teaching is not that hard, please send some of your students my way! I regularly get college seniors who can barely write, who haven't read anything at all that they remember, and whose command of the world of knowledge is scarily low (any kind of blooper you want, I can guarantee you I have seen it in this class: Nicaragua is a country in Africa, etc.) - so I'm glad that you can proceed with absolute confidence in your teaching. From my vantage point, it looks like things are going very wrong, and I'm honestly not sure what I think needs to be done to fix it. I do what I can teaching my students how to blog and publish webpages, I am confident that this is useful, but in terms of what would be called cultural literacy, I am not confident at all. It feels like just putting on band-aids when some pretty major surgery is required, I'm afraid. And I'm not sure how to proceed really. Plus, a more basic question, if the students don't feel challenged by this lack of cultural literacy, how do I really expect to make real progress? Much to ponder here. I'm not interested in publishing any of this, but it is stuff I think about a lot.

February 1, 2008 10:31 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

Elijah -
Is one of those things completely left out of my education that got me so incensed at the amalgam we call the teaching profession, the education establishment, the Ohio public schools system.

Why should we have a clue about Elijah? Well, I knew of him mostly because he appeared with Moses and Jesus on the Mount. From a literary point of view, this meeting ties the old and new testaments, the age of the Jews and the age of Christianity. For it to make any sense, we ought to have some small idea of why Elijah and not anyone else in the entire Hebrew experience. Not Abraham, not David, not Ezekiel. Why?

That's religious awareness and literature. What about History? Obviously, this event requires some amount of faith. So, first, are Jesus, Moses, or Elijah real people at all? For me on graduation, and for a huge number of American students, there was History (real stuff) and Religion (stuff of faith, stories, myths). There was for me and many, many students zero intersection between these two realms of study. In my case, 12 years of weekly religious studies and twenty years of formal education-no common ground. As far as History, Elijah and Icarus had about the same status. In fact, in my formal education, the entire Hebrew experience had no more status (actually less) than Bullfinch' mythology.

So - "lists": If we are going to make the generic college prep student culturally aware, ought we not give him the ability to have some small insights into the history and traditions of the most common faiths in his own country (the US in our case)? Not to mention some understanding of what was knowledge for much of European history? And Islamic traditions?

For the average student, what we need are a few touch points. Make sure you have these, or a good substitute, covered. Think concentric circles. Lets put 7 in the inner circle or list. Seven was thought to be the limit of short term memory, our data buffer. And its a lucky number.

So: Hebrews. Abraham. Gotta have him. Moses. Of course. David. He's got a nice statue and that thing with the slingshot and giant. Plus, he built Jerusalem as a Hebrew capital, worth remembering. Ooh. only 3 left. Well, I'll leave it to you, but recall how Luke felt.

February 1, 2008 10:33 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

Oh! I did not mean to say that teaching was easy! To the contrary!

My point was simply that there are many people who want to take the focus away from the students and their needs, and make it about tenure and power and academic credentials and window offices and whatever else.

Talk to DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee. She'll find you plenty of examples!

February 1, 2008 10:42 AM  
Blogger Laura Gibbs said...


I think you are exactly right that he is an incredibly important intersection between Judaism and Christianity, in terms of real history. And I also suspect that part of the problem is the COMPETITION between Judaism and Christianity here - which only makes it the more interesting, but would make me hesitant to talk openly about how I see this in a regular classroom (teaching the history of Christianity without making Christian students feel threatened can get tricky). It seems to me that Elijah is a key figure within the cultural context of Judaism - and that Jesus is playing very much the role of returned Elijah within Christianity, although Jesus is certainly not recognized as Elijah returned in the Jewish tradition (that is even a matter of scoffing remark in the gospel depiction in both Matthew and Mark of Jesus's crucifixion).

Anyway, THANK YOU. This discussion the past few days has been extremely useful to me, challenging and frustrating (because I feel I should be more clear in my own mind about this), but very productive. I really appreciate having my brain jiggled!

February 1, 2008 11:02 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

Laura, Thank YOU! Every time I get to refine my thinking and writing on this, its a big help.

By the way, I agree that Hirsch confused things a bit with his dictionaries. His original paper was great. His book cleared up the idea with the prototypical list. But the dictionaries...well, they kind of removed from the entries the very rich stories that in the first place gave meaning worth remembering!

What to you is the most memorable image/scene Elijah?

February 4, 2008 3:27 PM  
Blogger Laura Gibbs said...

Ha ha, it's actually a personal story - I was a friend's Passover seder, and their daughter's boyfriend (whom I had not met) showed up after dinner had started. They all laughed and said, "It's Elijah, perfect!" and he sat down at Elijah's place. They called him Elijah all evening, and I thought that he REALLY was named Elijah, and what a great coincidence it was that someone named Elijah really had arrived for the seder. I called him Elijah for months after that whenever I ran into him on campus. Finally he said to me, "You know, my name's not really Elijah." It was hilarious. I still think of him as being Elijah. :-)

February 4, 2008 4:04 PM  

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