Thursday, January 28, 2010

In Richmond at ESR... with Jane Austen and literature

Here I am at Earlham School of Religion and ...

I'm fascinated and somewhat amazed--though not entirely surprised--at the extent to which literary approaches and literary theory are currently permeating religious studies. Given the view of Bible as narrative and all of us as part of a larger story or discourse, this makes sense--but I didn't fully realize the impact until I got here. For me, this merging of literary approach, literature and religion is more than a touch of miracle, as it connects my passions ... leaving me in a state of near swooning euphoria--and I can, in a sense, pick up my graduate studies in English from the 1980s where they left off.

Every Tuesday, the school has a community lunch with a speaker. This week, I had the good fortune to hear Emily Townes, who teaches at Yale Divinity school. She was questioned about evil and suffering--two subjects she's written about--and she talked about the relationship between imagination and evil. I was thrilled. She discussed how cultures can create fictions that become so widely repeated they are accepted as facts--and that these fictions can obscure evil. She used as her example "Aunt Jemima" and "Mammy," cultural icons of the fat, jolly slave woman. There was no real Aunt Jemima--I knew this--(she first emerged as a former slave hired by owners of a pancake mix to make pancakes during the Chicago World's Fair in the 1890s and became wildly popular). Also, while female slaves cared for white children, the Mammy figure is another fiction. Townes pointed out that slaves were underfed (thin), and that none were truly happy with their lots. In fact, most "house slaves," contrary to our pictures of them, were likely to be the products of interracial "pairings". From what Townes said, I picture the real slaves as skinny, light-skinned, harried, overworked and unhappy rather than brilliantly brown or black, fat, cheerful, jolly and laughingly contented.

Of course--and while Townes did not say this I can imagine--cultural icons or stereotypes such as the cheery Aunt Jemima flipping buckwheat cakes in the kitchen or Mammy happily bustling around organizing the children speak to our deep desire to believe that the people who do the dirty work in our culture actually enjoy the task. And I imagine it's probable that some slaves would pretend to cheerfulness, as we all need to survive.

I also have been pursuing--of course--Jane Austen at ESR. I mentioned being a Jane Austen fan in my introduction of myself to my on-line Old Testament class and am thrilled to have fellow fans among my classmates. Naturally, Townes's talk of imagination and evil immediately made me think of Jane Austen--Austen was a woman who didn't gloss over the everyday horrors of middle-class life, the petty cruelties which she understood were worse for defenseless lower class people. Also, a book I am reading introduced me to a British Quaker author--her name evades me right now-- who wrote a children's book about Jane Austen in 1977.

I'm settled into my apartment in Richmond as I deliberately travelled light--and Roger, of course, is a wonderful moving companion.

Internet access has been a problem all week, hence my "silence." I am now--at last-- part of the Earlham College system, so I can access the Internet on my laptop, a huge boon. I still can't pick up the wireless system in my apartment, however, although I am right across the street from the campus--Roger says an enhancer of some sort might help. It isn't ALL terrible to be denied 24/7 Internet access however--it forces me to do other things. But it does impede blogging.

Otherwise, all is fine. I had to switch my schedule so now I will be in Richmond Tuesday afternoon through Friday morning. I will taking Old Testament, New Testament, Quaker History and Literature, and a class on Bonhoeffer.

I ran into a genuinely cheerful Clare Gamble, an Olney graduate and now student at Earlham College.

I hope everyone is well.

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