From Literary Theory to Grace Before Meals

February 05, 2002

This morning I found myself leading a discussion on whether contemporary Christianity has anything in common with the progressive traditions of humanism and tolerance.

None of my classmates from my elite, East Coast Ph.D. program would admit that they had applied to the college that eventually offered me my current job as an assistant professor of English. Every one of them said something like "the job description looked OK, but their request for a statement of faith was a red flag." The implication was that serious teaching and scholarship could not be done at a place that integrates faith with the search for truth and social progress.

I am an ex-urban, ethnic, working-class Roman Catholic who had more than a few scrapes with nuns and priests during my parochial-school education. I thought of myself as a rebel in high school. I had bleached, spiked hair, and wore fingerless leather gloves. I tried to look like Billy Idol in a blue blazer. I asked hard questions (often in disrespectful tones) about the subordination of women, papal infallibility, the ban on contraception, and liberation theology. By the time I finished graduate school, I was still a practicing Catholic, but I had developed a sense of fellowship with other faiths. On any given Sunday, you'd be as likely to find me at a Quaker meeting as at a Catholic mass.

I was worried when I sent in my application that my statement of faith would not pass muster with my current employer. A medium-sized, Midwestern, liberal-arts college, it is affiliated with a moderately conservative Protestant denomination. It is also situated in one of the most ethnically homogeneous parts of the United States. I was surprised that I was interviewed, much less offered a job. I didn't know how I could possibly fit in to the college or the community.

But tenure-track jobs are hard to get, and I thought it was worth the risk.

In my first class -- a survey of 19th-century literature -- two students walked out during a discussion of realism and Darwin's The Origin of Species. I was dumbfounded. For months I worried that I'd be called into the dean's office to learn why my contract was not being renewed.

During my first year at the college, my wife and I attended several dinners with our new neighbors (who were very welcoming). Again and again, the same conversation invariably ensued. The hostess would ask matter-of-factly, "So, what church do you belong to?"

There would be a pause. My wife and I would look at each other, and she would say, "Our Lady of the Lake, but we're also considering Saint Francis." The couple would look confused for a moment. Then I'd say, "We're Roman Catholics."

Another pause. Our hostess would say, "Oh ... that's all right. Would you care for some more cornbread?"

Later, I'd say to my wife, sotto voce, you'd think we belonged to the Cult of Kali and attended the Temple of Doom.

Meanwhile, the talk of the town was whether a local school district should ban the Harry Potter books. I regarded all inquiries about my opinion as a cultural litmus test. My sullen silence on Harry Potter must have made me unpleasant company at times, even among these taciturn Midwesterners.

A little more than a year later, I realize that I saw what I expected to see -- or, rather, had been conditioned by my graduate education to see.

Graduate school taught me to regard all Christians as responsible for the worst legacies of Western culture: racism, sexism, and homophobia. My education encouraged a heightened, self-congratulatory sensitivity to issues of gender and race coupled with smug ignorance of class and religion -- a desire to appear fashionably agnostic and socially superior. Even as a critic of Catholicism (who fought publicly with the Church on some issues), I had a feeling of stifled anger when I heard it attacked, as if it were a monolith, by "tolerant" individuals who didn't understand (or want to understand) how complicated the culture of religion is -- how every thinking person of faith struggles to integrate belief and practice.

It only occurs to me now that much of graduate education was an effort to inculcate a modernized version of the old-style, country-club bigotry against déclassé versions of Christianity: Catholics ("shanty Irish") and evangelical Christians ("trailer trash"). In any graduate seminar, I would rather admit that I had done time for murder than that I was a practicing Catholic, however complicated my views about religion. I wonder how many others were passing in shamefaced silence? I wonder how many departments make a point of not hiring people who are too open about their religious beliefs?

Now I live in what seems like the antimatter universe. Almost everyone here is openly, even evangelically, Christian. Secularism is nowhere to be found. And there are times when I don't know how to act or what to say. I'm not sure whether I need to be deprogrammed or reprogrammed?

Urban graduate students are supposed to be outraged and embittered. In my new job I often felt buffeted about by the glowing auras of evangelical Christians. I used to find their apparent happiness completely inexplicable -- and a little scary. Part of me wanted to burst their bubbles with profane, psycho-historicist speculations about the origins of their denominations. Before long, another part of me began to like and admire them. Is it a bad thing to be happy, even if the world isn't perfect?

Can you imagine a literary theorist saying grace before meals? I went to a Catholic undergraduate college, and this was common at ceremonial events; usually a priest would do the honors. In my new position, however, individual faculty members are called upon at every meal, no matter how small, to offer an extemporaneous prayer. This is true even in faculty members' homes (although there are some confusing variations on this), and it produces some moments of social awkwardness for newcomers.

Now, don't get me wrong. I think praying before meals is a wonderful custom. It usually serves as a way of expressing gratitude for the presence of guests, ("Lord, we thank you that Thomas and Maria are here to share this meal with us ..."). My family prayed before meals, but only on ceremonial occasions like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now I am regularly faced with the dilemma of not praying and possibly offending my guests or praying somewhat clumsily ("O Heavenly Father, we're real happy to have these nice folks with us ..."). I generally opt for the latter, and hope that I will get better at it.

I now think that what I presumed was bigotry was actually the awkwardness of people, like myself, who want to do the right thing, but are often unsure of the social expectations of strangers. ("What DO Catholics eat on Fridays? "What kind of books do college professors read?")

By the way, it turned out that Harry Potter wasn't banned after all, and nearly everyone here thinks this is a good thing.

I recently learned that the students who walked out of my talk on Darwin did so because they had to catch a bus for a band trip. I was too ready to believe that they had walked out because of religious closed-mindedness. Now I ask students to let me know in advance if they have to leave early, and I have never had a student leave out of moral outrage -- even when I play the village atheist with the intensity of a ham actor portraying Hamlet.

I have since found that students here are extraordinarily tolerant of different views, however strongly they hold their own. Most are willing to talk about anything with civility and intelligence, but they will not tolerate condescension or unthinking dismissal of their views by people who do not understand them. And they are right not to. I only wish more of them would go to graduate school and give better testimony than I did.

Maybe I'm getting a bit of the evangelical glow myself these days.

Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of English at a Midwestern liberal-arts college. He will write occasionally about academic culture and the tenure track and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at