Today's 9th grade lesson: a little bit of literary theory for the 9th graders. I created this handout (mostly transcribed, paragraph for paragraph, from Foster's great little text linked below, with my own paragraphs about "The Scarlet Ibis" weaved in there too). Students then completed a graphic organizer, and a discussion, about how Gaines creates Jefferson as a Christ Figure. I'm working out what I want them to finish with - I'm thinking of a "poster essay" assignment for over the weekend. We'll see.
Yes, She’s a Christ Figure, Too
Adapted from Thomas Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor (2003)
This may surprise some of you, but we live in a Christian culture. This does not mean that everyone is Christian, or even most people, but it does mean that knowing something about the Old and New Testaments is essential to understanding some key components of literature. Similarly, if you undertake to read literature from an Islamic or a Buddhist or a Hindu culture, you’re going to need knowledge of other religious traditions. Culture is so influenced by its dominant religious system that whether a writer adheres to the beliefs or not, the values and principles of those religions will inevitably inform the literary work. Often those values will not be religious in nature but may show themselves in connection with the individual’s role within society, or humankind’s relation to nature, or the involvement of women in public life, for example.
Okay, so not everyone is Christian around these parts, nor do those who would say they are necessarily have more than a nodding familiarity with the New Testament, aside from John 3:16, which is always beside the goalposts at football games. But in all probability they do know one thing: they know why it’s called Christianity… While we may not be well-versed in types and archetypes from the Bible, we generally recognize, whatever our religious affiliation, some of the features that make Christ who he is.
Whether you do or not, this list may be helpful:
1) crucified, wounds in the hands, feet, side, and head
2) in agony
4) good with children
5) good with loaves, fishes, water, wine
6) thirty-three years of age when last seen
7) employed as a carpenter
8) known to use humble modes of transportation, like donkeys or feet
9) believed to have walked on water
10) often portrayed with arms outstretched
11) known to have spent time alone in the wilderness
12) believed to have had a confrontation with the devil, possibly tempted
13) last seen in the company of thieves
14) creator of many aphorisms and parables
15) buried, but arose on the third day
16) had disciples, twelve at first, although not all equally devoted
17) very forgiving
18) came to redeem an unworthy
19) unmarried, preferably celibate
20) Christian holidays are important to the character
You may not subscribe to this list, may find it too glib, but if you want to reed literature well, you need to put aside your belief system, at least for the period during which you read, so you can see what the writer is trying to say.
Say we’re reading a book, a short story. And let’s say this short story has a boy (not a man) in it. Let’s say the boy lives his life in pain from an illness he has had since his birth, and, when he was born, he still had the caul (or amniotic sac, sometimes called Jesus’ nightgown) wrapped around his body. Throughout his life, he feels at home in the in the woods, even spending a great deal of time on the water in a canoe. He is good with animals and outcasts, particularly an exiled red bird that ends up in his yard. The character – named Doodle, I hope you now recognize - meets his end when someone who is meant to be closest to him turns against him. When dead, he bleeds a lot, and the narrator shelters his body from the “heresy of rain.” Afterwards, the character provides an opportunity for the Brother to learn and exercise the virtues of unconditional love and compassion. Though Brother fails to absorb this lesson while Doodle is alive, his reflections elsewhere in the story on the dangers of pride show that he has learned at last, albeit at the cost of Doodle's life. In other words, Doodle has to die so that those left alive could learn the gospel of love and compassion.
Yup, you guessed it: Doodle is a Christ figure!
So must all Christ figures be this obvious? No, they don’t have to hit as many marks as Doodle does. They don’t have to be male. They don’t have to be Christian. They don’t even have to be good. There, however, we’re starting to get into irony, and that’s a whole different area where I don’t want to go just yet. Yet. But if a character is a certain age (or not), exhibits certain behaviors, provides for certain outcomes, or suffers in certain ways, your literary antennae should begin to twitch. How should we know? Use the list above.
Are there things you don’t have to do? Certainly. Consider Doodle again. Wait, you say, shouldn’t he be thirty-three, or around that age? And the answer is, sometimes that’s good. But a Christ figure doesn’t need to resemble Christ in every way; otherwise he wouldn’t be a Christ figure, he’d be, well, Christ. If there are several good comparisons, you can probably make an argument that a character is a Christ figure.
Here, as elsewhere, we must remember that writing literature is an exercise of the imagination. And so is reading it. We have to bring our imagination to bear on a story if we are to see all possibilities; otherwise it’s just about somebody who did something. Whatever we take away from stories in the way of significance, symbolism, theme, meaning, pretty much anything except character and plot, we discover because our imagination engages with that of the author. Pretty amazing when you consider that the author may have been dead for a thousand years, yet we can still have this kind of exchange, this dialogue, with her. At the same time, this doesn’t indicate the story can mean anything we want it to, since that would be a case of our imagination not bothering with that of the author and just inventing whatever it wants to see in the text. That’s not reading, that’s writing.
On the flip side, if someone in class asks if it’s possible that the character under discussion might be a Christ figure, citing three or four similarities, I’d say something like, “Works for me.” The bottom line is that a Christ figures are where you find them, and as you find them. If the indicators are there, then there is some basis for drawing the conclusion.
Why, you might ask, are there Christ figures? It’s because the author wants to make a certain point. Perhaps the parallel deepens our sense of the character’s sacrifice if we see it as somehow similar to the greatest sacrifice Christians know of. Maybe it has to do with redemption, or hope, or miracle. Or maybe it is all being treated ironically, to make the character look smaller rather than greater. But count on it, the writer is up to something. How do we know what he’s up to? That’s another job for the imagination.
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