"Kissing the Bricks" and Fly-Fishing for God: Teaching Literature as Spiritual Discipline

By Bush, Harold K., Jr. | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview
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"Kissing the Bricks" and Fly-Fishing for God: Teaching Literature as Spiritual Discipline


Bush, Harold K., Jr., Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


THE first question my title might suggest is, Why use the term "spiritual to describe the teaching of literature? Raymond Williams once famously said that culture was one of the hardest words in English to define. Nowadays, "spirituality" is similarly difficult to describe. Thus, when I've taught these kinds of courses, not surprisingly, a major challenge comes early, as the students struggle to define "spiritual" or "spirituality" for themselves, usually in the form of a first-week, 300-word assignment. These are notoriously fuzzy concepts, but, at its simplest level, if "religion is orientation to ultimate reality," then spirituality is broader in scope: "[it is] orientation to a higher, but not necessarily ultimate, reality" (Deming 14-15). Or, as another scholar writes, spirituality "consists of all the beliefs and activities by which individuals attempt to relate their lives to God of to a divine being of some other conception of a transcendent reality" (Wuthnow viii). These brief descriptions show how fluid and open are our conceptions of the spiritual; it might include both an orientation or desire for and commitment to worldwide socialism, or to the Baptist Church. These definitions might even include an obsession with woodwinds, surfing, Jack Kerouac, The Beatles, or the Dallas Cowboys as "higher realities" (though not necessarily ultimate). According to such a paradigm, our spirituality also includes the habits and practices by which we engage our desire for whatever we hold to be our sacred, or higher, realities.

During and after these opening discussions about the meanings of "spirituality," students usually notice and admit the murkiness of their own understanding of the concept. As one wrote, "I was so surprised to discover at the beginning of the course how imprecise my definition of spirituality was. I struggled to define it in several of the first few papers but while my core ideas about what spirituality means did not change significantly, the way in which I define it is much clearer and more developed." Some admit to their own cynical view of spirituality, believing it to be a shallow concept: "I found [spirituality] to be something too New Agey and ridiculous, a pop sensation that would be considered lame by next season." Obviously, the task of definition is complicated by our culture's discomfort with and skepticism about vague versions of spirituality, the kind often presented by various talk shows and self-help gurus. For these reasons, I always begin with this problem of definition.

A second problem of definition suggested by my title is the concept of discipline, a term by now needing rescue from all of its more sinister, Foucauldian connotations. In the context of our sustained activities, including those found in the literature classroom, our disciplines are the practices by which we embody our values and beliefs--and thus, our spirituality. As one of the definitions above states, a spirituality consists of "beliefs and activities" (italics mine); but the activities part is commonly ignored by students' first-week responses. Nevertheless, discipline is required to become an expert at anything, including the spiritual. As Malcolm Gladwell famously notes in his recent book, Outliers, 10,000 hours of practice at almost anything will lead to great proficiency. Most literary instruction involves real, incarnate habits, of course--the time we devote consistently to hone our skills and improve our interpretation and analysis of texts requires discipline. These habits become spiritual by turning the reader's attention and focus more regularly to the spiritual content and meaning of those same texts. Here the practices of lectio divina (a task normally devoted to the study of Scripture) are a handy model, although many students already recognize the inherently spiritual aspect of their reading lives. Furthermore, there is much evidence now that students commonly view the humanities classroom as a place for spiritual discovery: a UCLA study on "The Spiritual Life of College Students" showed that nearly half of undergraduates want universities to "encourage their personal expression of spirituality" (Schmalzbauer and Maloney 26).

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