Saturday, February 3, 2007

Response to Rhiannon + My Complicated Relationship with Chris Anderson

“It hurts me as an English major to see how quick we all are to reject anything we disagree with! That's not what getting a university education is about. If you can't see past the cultural biases, what's the point of spending $300 on a class about a famous religious allegory?” Who said anything about rejecting Dante? I’m just trying to process him and I don’t believe I’ve said that I hate Dante, or dislike his poetry, or anything of that nature. I’m engaging in conversation with Dante, trying my damnedest to see past my own cultural biases through to what he’s trying to say and how he’s trying to say it. I think it’s rude and naïve of you to assume that the rest of us are incapable of seeing past these cultural biases, or of being as enlightened and in touch with Dante as you seem to think you are.

“Everyone has the right to their own opinion but you obviously don’t understand the difference between religion and faith.” Actually Rhiannon, I do. I wrote a lot of stuff that I didn’t end up including in that last blog post about how religion and spirituality are two wildly different things for me. For me, religion is associated with manmade institutions, excessive rituals, hate, exclusion, and discrimination. Spirituality, on the other hand, I understand as a personal relationship with a god, or higher power, or deeper connection to the universe in some way, personally, not through the conduit of a church or clergy.

“I find it kind of offensive to slam on religion in general as if it’s all crap just because you disagree with Dante.” Whoa. Thanks for assuming that my disenchantment with religious institutions stems from my “disagreeing with Dante.” Actually, if you must know, my distaste for religion predates this class by a few years. Assuming that I would get such strong convictions from reading an antiquated POEM is giving me way too little credit and Dante way too much. And if I am disagreeing with Dante, it’s not so much with him as with the cultural machine he is writing from. Obviously his views are not entirely his own, but belong to his era, his peers, his country, his culture as well. And if you’re getting offended by my posts, which have been my own processing of Dante and what he can mean to me in my life, that’s your prerogative. Maybe you should stop taking my posts (and yourself) so seriously.

My last post was a lot of me trying to personally process Dante in the context of my own experiences and values. Dante is writing from a very different space and time from me, and it has been difficult to figure out how to read and appreciate him. I TOTALLY agree with the point Prof. Anderson was making on Wednesday when he was comparing Dante to the comedic brilliance of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Dante is poking fun at religion and certain individuals at the same time that he is honoring and paying tribute to his religion and his god. He’s taking a critical look at Catholicism and inserting some of his own interpretations, vividly painting grotesque pictures to shock and amuse us, and hopefully ultimately inspiring us to critically examine how we live our own lives. It’s a complex relationship he has with the church and religion and spirituality; pretty much the furthest thing from “black-and-white.” It’s kind of like my relationship to Prof. Anderson: sometimes he’s pompous, arrogant, and downright rude (*cough! Monday’s “grafters” comment, cough!*), but other times he actually has insightful and thought-provoking things to say. I don’t loath him with every fiber in my being, but I’m also not about to sing his praises in a blog post encouraging my fellow bloggers to “listen as much as you can to what Dante and Professor Anderson are trying to convey,” as if he were some sort of deity himself.

I agree with Prof. Anderson in his blackboard comments, where he talks about how this poem is about freedom and part of Dante’s purpose here was to inspire us to exercise our free wills. I grew up in a Christianity where I was taught about Satan and the force of evil in our lives. Sin was always talked about in terms of temptation, and succumbing to temptation. The very nature of human nature, and the strength and persuasion and craftiness of the devil were always referenced as contributing factors to sin. It’s interesting to think about how even though you were strongly encouraged to take personal responsibility for sins so that you could repent and be forgiven, there was always some other factor that watered this down. Dante, on the other hand, is saying that it’s all you. Your sins are your choices. Dante’s devil is not around every corner, trying to tempt you from leading the good life. It is your own human failing, your own action of turning your eyes from what is good that is to blame. But, just as you decide what to fill your life with, so too you have the power to choose Christ and choose where you will be eternally. In this I think Dante is being a little progressive and forward. We are not timid creatures, tossed about by the gods and the demons, the forces of nature and good and evil, with absolutely no power or say in our lives. We are strong, intelligent, free-willed individuals, made in the image of God, with the freedom and ability to choose him or not. We are awesome! The characters we encounter in the Inferno have taken that free will and ran with it, in the opposite direction of God, and so they’re burning, gnawing each other’s necks, freezing, running around, being pursued and hacked apart and clawed by demons. This IS scary to us, because, in the words of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Is complete freedom, complete control of our situation, really what we want? Isn’t it easier to show up in church every Sunday morning, robotically nodding your head as you’re told what to do and what not to do, as opposed to getting out there in the real world and making up your own mind about things?


RachelP said...

I pretty much love you right now. There have been a ridiculous amount of assumptions made recently that are not at all constructive to our learning. Your comment, "I think Dante is being a little progressive and forward" goes right along with what I wrote about in my first post and how Dante was really quite ahead of his time and more accepting of other beliefs than many of his peers. That post of mine, and other comments of yours, seem, however, to have been ignored by Rhiannon when she decided that we "disagree with" Dante and "can't get past the cultural biases."

Betsy Strobel said...

I agree, Annette. I think that Dante was really progressive for his time, and he was all about questioning human institutions. I think he would want us to debate the questions he raises in us instead of just accepting what he says. I think it's valuable to recognize where we differ and acknowledge that we think differently than him. By doing this, we're not saying that we're better than him, or he's better than us. I think we've all done really well with recognizing how our biases are different than Dante's and acknowledging them. It's too bad Rhiannon doesn't agree.

Hell's Belle said...

Actually I do agree and I'm quite pleased to see that we're actually interacting in this blog. It's fine to disagree with Dante, I just felt like all the posts were about how wrong he is. Of course he's wrong, but it's a lovely story and it has a lot of our history in it. Sometimes the criticism gets overwhelmingly negative. I don't think Prof. Andersen is a deity, by the way, I guess I'm just one of those people that thinks it's more useful to listen to a teacher than not- Confucius said that learning is superior to thinking, because one can think all day without getting anywhere, but learning (i.e., listening) leads to educated and productive thinking. I learned this lesson when I had Kerry Ahern. Man, he drove me crazy for like, three weeks, then I thought, maybe it's me... maybe I need to stop and listen to what he's saying. We are all reactive, and it's natural to want to respond asap (it shows you're awake) but when a teacher only has 50 minutes to explain a whole lot of stuff, it makes sense to give him the floor. I'm sorry if you took this personally; I was responding to all the blogs that say crazy things.

Deacon Chris said...

Two problems with this. Well, three.

(1) This is exactly the kind of argumentative stuff I want to get away from. See my "Community of Truth" handout.

(2) Please don't call me "pompous and arrogant"--or praise me either. Again, that's not the point, about me personally. There's an intellectual method here, one that can lead to a lot of precision and insight, that I'm trying to get across, and it involves getting away from judgment altogether and instead focusing on description of the text.

It also involves the acknowledgment of point of view, moving from "this is bad" to "I resist this" or "I didn't follow this," because that's more accurate. It may not be true that it's bad. It may be great. But it's certainly true that you found it bad. Or whatever.

(3) You say you were brought up in "Christianity" as if Christianity is just one thing, one set of monolithic beliefs, when it should be obvious by now that there are many, many different versions of Christian thought and that Dante's understanding of Christianity, which is the orthodox, medieval understanding, is radically different in many, many ways from what many contemporary Christians believe. In fact, your quick statement about Satan as you were taught about him is simply not in sync with Dante's view at all. Doesn't mean yours is wrong. It means it's yours, not Dante's.

I guess I'm inviting you to think in detail about the details.