Beauty in the Midst of Struggle

Seeing as finals are in full swing, I figured what was a better use of my time than to post a reflection blog on my most thought-provoking class this semester.  (Mom and Dad, I had it written way earlier, I’m just posting it now. Pinky promise.)

My life this past week preparing for finals and writing final papers.  P.S. I love that my Bible is required to do some of my homework.
My life this past week preparing for finals and writing final papers. P.S. I love that my Bible is required to do some of my homework.

History and Literature of the New Testament is one of my most challenging classes this semester.  Not because I don’t understand the material and do poorly on the tests, on the contrary I understand the material quite well and have done very well on the papers and exams.  The struggle I have is that being the naïve freshman who I am, when I was searching for classes in August, I saw this class about the New Testament and thought, “How cool is that? We will read the entire New Testament and it will be a great way to encourage me to be diligent about spending time in the word daily!”  Without hesitation, I signed up.

On the first day, the professor asked us, “What is the difference between the Old and New Testaments?” I thought, “Oh goodie, I know the answer to this question.”  I waited for other people to respond for a little and then raised my hand and said something to the effect of, “The Old Testament is the time leading up to Jesus’ birth, in which many prophecies and promises were made, and the New Testament is after Jesus’ birth, and it documents his ministry and the effects of it, as well as the promises and prophecies made in the Old Testament coming true in the New Testament.”  My professor responded and said, “Well some people believe that, but it is a very theological view of it…When answering in this class it is important to avoid speaking with theologically based answers”  She went on to tell us the right answer, which was pretty darn close to what I had said.  After that class, I was in a quandary. How was I going to answer questions with the answer she was looking for, when I only knew one answer, which apparently was too steeped in Christian theology?  How could I disassociate what I had learned and believe to be true from how I answer questions on the New Testament?  Was I going to be graded down if I accidentally said something that was too theological?

She assigned a twelve page self inventory on the first day of class due in a week; by next class four people had dropped, leaving twelve students in the class. I seriously debated dropping it as well.  Subsequently I talked to some of the people who dropped, and they said it was just going to be too hard for them to not speak theologically, plus the twelve page paper did not motivate them to stay in the class either. So one week in, I wasn’t alone in my doubt.

While I was completing the paper, I happened to google my professor, as I wanted to see if she was a contributor to the textbook we were using.  What I found was overwhelming at first.  My professor had been an Episcopalian priest who was defrocked in 2009, for becoming a Muslim in 2006.  Reading on, I found an interview in which she stated, “I am both Muslim and Christian, just like I’m both an American of African descent and a woman. I’m 100 percent both.”  I was so surprised.  My first thought was, “How does that even work? The two religions are fundamentally different.”  My thoughts then progressed to “Oh my goodness, I’m taking a New Testament class from someone who is both Muslim and Christian.  We are very possibly going to have differing opinions on many topics. Should I drop it?”  Farther down in the article it mentions that, “She calls Christianity the ‘world religion of privilege.’”  After reading that, I was so bummed.  Here I am, a white, female, Christian, from Southern California, going to a prestigious private school in Washington, with a professor who believes that Christianity is the religion of privilege.  Based off of my appearance and my much too theologically based answer on the first day, I was sure she had a great opinion of me.

I debated about dropping the class for two weeks.  I dreaded going to class and having to monitor how I participated in class for theological biases, when all I know is theologically based.  I felt that it was slightly ironic, being at a liberal arts college that strives to be inclusive of all people and beliefs, that I had to make sure to not over share what I knew and believed to be true about the New Testament.  The only nice thing was that I knew to take whatever she said, and for that matter, whatever was in the textbook, with a grain of salt, because the class wasn’t taught from a theological background, as I had naïvely expected it to be.

In the end, I decided to not drop the class.  I felt like God led me to be in that class for some reason, whether to strengthen my own faith, or be a witness to others, or something completely different, I felt called to stay.  I have no idea whether I will get graded down for my Christian upbringing coming out in my opinions in my papers, since we haven’t gotten any back yet.  Who knows?  All I know is that it will all work out somehow.

It has taken me almost an entire semester to realize the beauty of this class being taught on my campus.  I don’t go to a Christian school, in fact, 4 years ago, it was almost the opposite.  Four years ago, there was a group of about ten believers that met on campus for fellowship.  There might have been more who didn’t show up, but then in a student body of 2,500 is a small minority.  Now there are about 200 believers that meet regularly between the three Christian clubs on campus.  God is moving on this campus, and I’m so glad to be up here and be a part of it.

Anyway, when talking with my mom about this class, she said, “Linds, this might be a challenging class for you, but think about it. There are people in your class that are reading the New Testament for the first time.  God’s word is present in your class and you have no idea how He will use this opportunity to impact lives.”  She helped me see the beauty in the class, even though it might be a trial for me.  There are twelve people who meet twice a week for an hour and a half to discuss the history of the New Testament, all while reading the entire New Testament as required reading.  We all come different faiths and walks of life, but each of us is reading the Bible.  Going to class is so much more joyful and exciting once I put my perspective in line with God’s greater plan.

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Lost: The Simple Joy of Reading

Guess what happened last night?
I read a book. For fun.  Not a fun school related book, but a plain, unassigned, free reading book. For some reason, I had this urge to read a nice carefree book in bed.  As I was walking to the library to obtain said books, I couldn’t even recall the last time I had read a book for pleasure.  Where had my love of reading gone?

As a child, I was the kid at the library with a stack of books two feet tall, counting them to see if I had reached the checkout limit.  I was addicted to reading.  In the summer, my parents would have to limit the amount of time I spent reading so that I would go outside to play and be social.  I loved that i could be transported to a whole new world and take on a whole new persona with the turn of a page, wherever I was.

My mom read to me almost every night until I was in high school and had to do homework  until bedtime.  Together we ventured to Narnia, became family to Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy, roamed the apple orchards with Anne, and lived on the prairie with Laura, Ma, and Pa, just to name a few of our endeavors. She would read from eight to eight thirty every night; we took turns on who would occasionally fall asleep halfway through; that’s when we knew it had been a long day.  I loved that time. It was mommy and me time, our own special treat at the end of the day after my younger sister went to bed.  Promptly at 8:30 she would stop reading and say, “Alright time for bed Linds.” And I would beg for just one more chapter, just one teeny, tiny chapter.  She would look how long it was, and if it was short enough she would say, “If we read this, you will have to have no troubles getting up on time in the morning.” Of course I would readily agree; I would do anything for just one more chapter.  Together we read over seven thousand pages, and I am eternally grateful to my mom for investing that time in me and helping me cultivate my love of reading.

Between reading at night with my mom, and reading by myself, I logged many hours as a bookworm during my childhood. Like I said I was addicted. But once I got into high school, assigned reading came like a thief in the night and stole my free reading time.  Even on breaks, I either had assigned reading to do, or I was so burnt out from doing the readings before the break, I didn’t even want to think about reading more.  And it got worse and worse every year.  As more and more reading was forced upon me, the passion I had for reading faded dimmer and dimmer.

Not to say there wasn’t ever light in the dark tunnel of assigned reading.  My initial love of reading helped keep a light burning, even when the material was thick and I didn’t understand it all.  I still remember sophomore year reading A Tale of Two Cities, and learning about diction, syntax, tone, and all the usually boring parts of literary analysis.  It clicked for me, and my inner book-lover and nerd came out.  I loved thinking about why Dickens wrote the way he did, because as anyone who has ever read Dickens’ work knows; he has a very distinct voice.  To this day, that is one of my favorite books.  It was a light in my tunnel of literary analysis of assigned reading, a reminder of what I used to love.  But alas, all good things must come to an end, and assigned reading became like a chore again.

Just like reading Tale of Two Cities reignited my love for the written word, summertime also was a time of relaxing with good books.  Granted, most of the time I still had assigned reading to do, but at least for a couple of weeks I got to experience reading for the sheer fact of wanting to read once more.  In the years before my grandma died, she began a quest to read the entire classics section. It was awesome when she was reading a book that I was reading for school, because we could discuss it and read it together.  She made it through the entire classics section at the library, and inspired me to read more classics.  Thus every summer, before our annual long camping trip I would go to the library, and pick up a stack of around seven classics to read that trip.  During the course of these trips, I noticed that I always gravitated towards the classics that were not commonly read in school.  I couldn’t bring myself to read a book leisurely that was a “school book” no matter how great it was. I wanted to read a book that was clearly distinct from any book that had been or would eventually be a graded assignment.

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Assigned reading didn’t make me stop reading forever. It also didn’t make me hate reading.  But even for an avid reader, assigned reading slowly tortured my inner book-worm.  I don’t know how it got that way.  How did reading go from something I loved to a chore, as soon as it became associated with a grade or a homework assignment? Where was the point when reading became a monster?
I see it happening in my sister, as she is reading To Kill A Mockingbird, which if I might add, is an exceptional book, that I would read over and over, but she isn’t reading it because she wants to, she is reading it to answer questions to get a grade.  Naturally when reading something to answer questions, regardless the subject, one will skim to find the information that pertains to the question and then move on.  By doing so, one usually misses key information that makes the story enjoyable to read and less like homework. My sister likes to read, but not nearly as much as I did my freshman year, and I can see the enjoyment fading away as the books take on more weight than they were meant to hold.

I can’t imagine how it is for students who don’t like to read in the first place.  Actually I can; those are the students that don’t even bother opening the book and if the teacher is lucky the student will Sparknote it to at least make it appear like they are reading.  In doing so, they miss out on finding a favorite book or author, which might have led them to find a type of writing they enjoy reading.

It is not to say that assigned reading should be abolished.  What I am trying to suggest is actually very far from that.  Assigned reading exposes students to many different time periods, ways of life, styles of writing, etc. and provides great examples of how to write.  But we aren’t all going to be novelists. Maybe we should add a little more article and essay reading into the curriculum, because in this digital age, isn’t that what the majority of what our students will be dealing with in their workplace, or even in their daily lives?

Will adding articles help students enjoy assigned reading more? Possibly, maybe it will help the slower readers have confidence, because it is a shorter piece of work. Will letting students read what they want to read help them like assigned reading better? Maybe.  It might make it less of a drag and give each student the freedom to read material on what they are passionate about, or even find something they are passionate about.  But then what does one do about grading? How does one grade an enthusiastic student who only likes to read, say cookbooks and travel guides?  How does one encourage, if not require, the reading level to be grade appropriate?  How can one tell if students are actually reading the books?

I don’t have a solution, I really don’t even have suggestions on how to attempt to fix this issue, but I do know that somewhere between freshman year of high school and freshman year of college, my love of reading was vastly diminished as a result of reading wonderful novels knowing that my future would be partially determined on how well I understood and could analyze the book.  My understanding of the book led contributed to my grade in the class, which then played a huge factor in what colleges I got in to.  Reading somehow got reduced to a means to an end, and because of this many have lost sight, at least temporarily, of what the simple joy of reading is, myself included.

To conclude, I have one question that must be addressed; how do we reclaim reading from being a means to the end, and return it to the simple joy that it brings?