Monday, May 24, 2010

Builders In Ministry

I've just become a contributor to Southwestern College's Builders In Ministry blog--a blog that celebrates and discusses the ministries of friends of Southwestern.

Feel free to pop over just to view my post, or to see what various ministries Builders are involved in!

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Anorexia and Autonomy

Rudolph Bell's book Holy Anorexia is an important example of the fruitfulness of cross-disciplinary study in religion.

His study probes the theological, historical, and psychological meaning of extreme fasting behaviors in medieval women whose asceticism was usually seen as evidence of holiness. Avoiding the facile ascription of mental illness to these women ("Oh, they must've been, like, anorexic or something!"), he nonetheless takes his cue from current psychiatric evaluations and treatments of (modern) anorexia nervosa.

Anorectic behavior comes about in response to an intricate yet convoluted web of signals a modern girl (anorexia generally arises in females and during adolescence) receives in regard to her appearance. Thinness (and physical beauty more broadly) is one of a few traits consistently approved and rewarded in young females, yet the steps that a girl might take to achieve those rewards may prompt correction, disapproval, or intervention from parents or such other authorities as educators or medical caregivers. The twin incentives of societal approval and parental opposition feed the anorexic girl’s choice to control her own body through self-starvation—all the more so as her successes in weight loss and self-assertion mount.

Analogously, a medieval woman had fewer avenues of expressing or embodying holiness than were available to men, and the ascetic practices which might identify a woman as holy could just as easily have been viewed as evidence of heresy or demon possession as of beatitude. The “holy anorexic” is confirmed in her path of self-starvation both by the ascription of holiness conferred on account of her suffering and by the suspicion aroused by her extreme practices of asceticism, especially where that suspicion is allayed or countered through divine intervention.

The struggle for autonomy looms large in Bell’s renarration of these saints’ vitae. While his efforts to offer a psychoanalytic reading of these women are unimpressive—particularly in the absence of any serious or consistent engagement with the problem of collaborative authorship present in virtually all of these texts—his identification of the persistence of themes of self-assertion in the face of parental, religious, or social conflict is helpful.

When one is obliged to suffer the removal of one’s autonomy—whether in the form of a forced marriage, opposition to taking religious orders, or physical or sexual abuse—choosing another form of suffering—starvation, disfigurement, isolation—functions as a reassertion of one’s autonomy. The relationship between suffering and consent is inverted, transforming utterly the meaning and experience of them both. In the first case, the injury is all but identical with the removal of choice; in the second, the retrieval of autonomy is identical with the (chosen) injury. That the chosen suffering is further rewarded by its association with otherworldliness, whether of the divine or demonic sort, only amplifies the sense of transformation.

Despite his misstep in attempting to psychoanalyze historical figures with fragmentary, consciously scripted, and/or heavily edited literary works as his only evidence, Bell's work is enormously important for his having probed this intersection of autonomy and suffering. Many modern discussions of suffering (and its relief) are dependent on inchoate assumptions about exactly this relationship, and any work that prompts a more intentional examination of the topic is worth a read.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

A College Instructor's Advice To Parents of Middle and High Schoolers




That's the one thing my kids just don't do. (My college kids. Not MY kids. I punish MY kids by taking away their books. And it, like, works.) Undergrads just don't read.

And it's the one thing that covers over a multitude of intellectual gaps.

They may hate history, but if they read historical novels, they'll pick up a little of it. They may hate Shakespeare, but if they read history, they can get a sense of who he was and how he was important. They may hate philosophy or ethics, but if they read Sci-Fi, they'll get a little taste of political and social theory. They may hate grammar, but if they read, they'll see it in action and they'll absorb some of it. They may hate doing science experiments, but if they read about science, they'll at least keep up with scientific advances and they'll know what a scientific argument sounds like.

Reading, reading, reading.

Are you worried about preparing your kids for college? What classes they take matters, yes. Extra-curricular activities aren't a bad idea. Test prep matters more than it should. But the most effective preparation is reading.

Let them read. Make them read. Pay them to read. (I'm serious. It appears to work.) Fiction. History. Sci Fi. The newspaper. Time, or the Economist. Just. read. something.

Thinking about what they read is the other thing my students don't do. They don't know how, because they don't even know how to summarize what they've read. And summarizing is the first step to analyzing. Having to organize your thoughts enough to tell someone else about it (verbally or in writing) is the first step to thinking, really thinking, about it.

So make your kids write about what they read. Pay them for their reading, only after they've written for you a basic summary of the book. Have them start a blog expressly for writing about their reading. Or have a family blog where you all talk about what you read!

Teach them the difference between formal and informal writing, if you have time. The blog format is good for that, too. You can make them use correct grammar, even in an informal style. And then whenever they're writing a formal assignment, you can say, "Well, that would be perfect on your blog, but in formal writing, you should . . . "

Honestly, if you do those two things, reading and writing, you are setting them up for permanent, lifelong success, no matter what your scope and sequence look like, no matter what high school they go to, no matter what their test scores are.

They will not fail to get into a good college if they are widely read and if they can construct sentences with basic grammar and if they can chain sentences together into coherent thoughts.

And even if they don't go to college, they'll be better at EVERYTHING they do than people who don't read. They'll read their mortgage contracts with more intelligence. They'll recognize specious political arguments (unless all they read is specious political theory). They'll persuade their bosses and co-workers more effectively. They'll sound more intelligent in interviews.

They won't be able NOT to.

Trust me. I'm seeing what your kids do when they leave your house.

I can tell the readers. I really can.

(I can also tell the ones that had to do chores when they were growing up. But that's a matter for another blog entry.)