(Note to my mother-in-law, Cheryl: If you read this post, do not be alarmed. I am merely reflecting on my experiences. Be assured I am very well and happy).
I am reading Jane Eyre for the first time. I’m a quarter of the way through and I’m struck by two things: Jane’s extensive knowledge of Bible stories and the fact that I still possess the ability to enjoy fiction.
Does that sound odd? It feels odd to say. I’m in a masters program which focuses on theology and the arts and I feel rather starved for both. I have found little opportunity to encounter the arts since I arrived and, except for two pieces of creative writing I read for a class (thank heaven for those life-giving morsels!), I’ve not had much art to fill me. As for theology – I am not so much starved for it as much as I am annoyed at it. I am annoyed because of how infrequently theologians seem to pay attention to the biblical text. This is a pet peeve of mine because I am both a creative writer (and thus value verbal details) and because my undergraduate degree was biblical studies. I’m very text-oriented. In addition to this, while I do believe theology is important, it is important to remember that the Bible is largely a narrative text. Its theology is embedded in a story and it is our duty first to read it and pay attention to it before we extract theologies from it. It is first an inspired work of art to be approached with reverence, not a frog on a dissection table to be picked apart.
It has also been emotionally taxing to read academic texts in general because I am continually reminded that Western scholarship assumes that religion is a silly affair or, at best, a personal emotional experience which has little to do with public life. Oh, certainly, scholars are permitted to talk about God or gods of any kind. But we must couch our conversation in a guise of cold objectivity, as if we wished it did not influence our thinking or affect our emotions. We must not appear to be carried away by such flights of fancy. In the West, the burden of proof is on the theist to make an argument for God. The atheist is not required to give an account for his belief. (And to think that it is the religious that are accused of being biased!) The West has ignored the fact that the majority of the world believes in god(s) and that the earliest civilizations all believed in a divine realm.
And so I am tired. Tired of being in a place where art and God seem to be kept at a distance. I am tired of being in an atmosphere where it is difficult to approach anything in I-Thou relation. We talk and talk and do not meet anyone in our language. We keep God at an arm’s length, hoping he will not arrive and show us who we really are. We gaze at a painting, trying to slap on the ‘ right meaning’ so our professor won’t think we’re idiots and slap a bad grade onto us. We forsake reading poetry and instead probe it with needles to see with literary features we can tease out so we can write a paper to look smart. And then we go to church, hoping for a beautiful liturgy that will revive us; a prophetic word to forthtell Light in the darkness. But the place is empty; filled with bodies, filled with words. The sermonist sermonizes blandly. The organist is unfervid. And you can’t help feeling that the priest administering the sacrament would rather be home eating dinner.
Classes have ended. I have two more exams and then I’ll be done. Oh, Miss Eyre. I am going on long walks now. I am reading your story and enjoying it very much. It is good to know that I can still enjoy art.