The Way of Distortion
"'Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water,
but thick and dark like blood'" (50).
C. S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces (1956)
Points of Reflection
The Bible: Mark 12:1-12
1. the ill-behaved tenants must be assuming what about the nature and power of the vineyard's owner?
2. would this parable work just as well if the business in question, wine-making, were replaced with a business venture like shepherding or fishing?
3. some of those listening to the parable believe that Jesus is obliquely commenting on them (v.12). For what might he be implicating them?
4. does the owner's response seem extreme, or justified? Does your response to the previous question alter if you assume the vineyard owner represents God?
5. let's assume for the moment that Jesus is employing "the way of distortion." Can you identify in the tale both the violent and comic elements which O'Connor claims are inevitable in such "wild" tales (O'Connor 816)?
Jørgen Leth’s 13-minute film The Perfect Human (1967)
1. having finished the film, does this short film's title strike you as ironic or as quite accurate?
2. which everyday activities does the Danish filmmaker, Jørgen Leth, decide to include in his portrait of the perfect human? Do you believe he has omitted anything important?
3. recall the film terms handout; upon what types of framing does the film rely most heavily?
4. does Jørgen Leth gender the idea of perfection?
5. why might Leth have used a white background throughout this film?
6. the man falls, whereas the woman lies down (3:19-4:30. What does this difference suggest about the respective natures of the two sexes?
7. the perfect male moves about "with no boundaries, and with nothing" (5:10-5:12). Does he appear trapped, or free?
8. is the robing and disrobing of the characters in any way sexual, or does it feel perfunctory?
9. the narrator refers to the "perfect human" as it towards the opening. Does the film render the characters in a way that strips them of their humanity, or in a manner that frames and accentuates their individuality?
10. the narrator describes the perfect humans as making love, and we get to see them cuddle a bit--nothing salacious (7:18-8:03). What does the way they cuddle suggest about their sexual roles?
11. consider the vision wrestled with by the perfect male. Is it possible to interpret this enigma, or does it strike you as a meaningless mystery? "Around my left hand was shining a ring of hazy white flames. I considered carefully the left side of my own dark coat. In the middle of my heart there was a small white spot" (8:40-9:00).
12. the narrator, no omniscient narrator, wonders what the perfect human is thinking while he eats dinner—whether it concerns the room he’s inhabiting, the food he’s consuming, happiness, love, or death (10:40-55). What answer does the perfect human provide himself as he proceeds to eat, interrupting a bite here and there to tunefully articulate a few deep questions (11:39-12:17)?
13. does the perfect male’s hand talk at the end suggest hope or despair—possible rapprochement with the now-absent woman, or the renewal of mere meaningless banter? Or do you read this moment as having nothing to do with the woman?
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Lord Walter's Wife" (1862), 285-89
1. as the Broadview editors explain, the author of Vanity Fair (a novel) and editor of the Cornhill Magazine declined to publish this poem by Barrett Browning, having categorized it as an “account of unlawful passion” inappropriate for readers of all ages. What about this poem might have earned it such an assessment from William Makepeace Thackeray?
2. at what point does the poem turn and begin to reveal the speaker’s true endgame?
3. should we take the suitor’s desire to go, in order to save himself, at face value?
4. why might Barrett Browning compare the lady’s eyes to the Kraken (l.2)? In your answer, consider Tennyson’s short poem “The Kraken” (183).
5. is this woman actively encouraging her companion to utter his provocative observations about her attractions? Is she toying with or testing him?
6. is the poem’s female speaker an adulterous flirt, or is she a faithful wife determined to defend her marriage?
7. what precipitates the male speaker’s anger and conclusion that his companion has suddenly lost her beauty (ll.19-20)?
8. is the disdain she shows in response to his own anger earned (ll.21-22)?
9. why might the wife have broken the fan her companion once kissed (l.36)?
10. what might it mean that her companion was once “‘moved at [her] side now and then / In the senses,’” and why consider this an “‘honor’” (ll.37-38)?
11. is she celebrating illicit love, or marital fidelity, in lines 39-40?
12. does the narrator appear to have invited her companion to “‘falter’” for a week (ll.41-42)?
13. what truth has she determined to show her auditor (ll.45-46)?
14. is she calling herself clean, or unclean, by comparing her eyes to a man’s palm (ll.47-48)?
15. explain the vertiginous, contradictory movement of the narrator’s words in the concluding couplet (ll.53-54).
Robert Browning's "Porphyria's Lover" (1834; 1836, 1842), 101-103
1. should the reader attribute the personification of lines 1-4 to the narrator or to the author?
2. what rhyme scheme does Browning follow in this poem? Why might Browning hide the poem's structure (it contains twelve five-line stanzas) by eliminating the traditional lines of space between each stanza?
3. consider the significance of Browning's interrupting (with a period) the enjambment implied by the grammatical unity of lines 5-6.
4. what does Porphyria do, while kneeling, that warms the cottage (ll.6-7)?
5. which character appears to be in control in lines ll.15-20?
6. what struggle does Porphyria relay to the narrator (ll.21-30)?
7. is the narrator correct to interpret Porphyria's "passion" (l.26) as "worship" (l.33)?
8. do you consider the narrator's assessment of Porphyria as "perfectly pure and good" to be a function of her actual character or his current emotional state?
9. what does the narrator's perspective on his shocking actions reveal about the workings of his mind (l.41-55)? Do you consider his actions those of a criminal or a madman? Does the poem's final line inform your response at all?
10. does it change your understanding of the poem to learn that Browning first published it as "Porphyria" in 1836, then paired it with "Johannes Agricola in Meditation" under the title "Madhouse Cells" in 1842, and finally separated it out again in 1863 under its current title?
C. S. Lewis' "Transposition" (1940) / PDF
1. what is Lewis's own view of "speaking in tongues"? Excitement, disdain, ambivalence, or something else?
2. which three different explanations does Lewis give for glossolalia (93)?
3. recall that Dalí, in his "Mystical Manifesto" (1951), declares that mystical ecstasy and erotic pleasure may overlap. He uses orgasmic language to describe unification with God. Does Lewis reject such an association (93-94)?
4. Lewis notes that unbelievers and cynics look at Christian talk of "spiritual" matters and find only that which can be explained by science, and that believers themselves describe the spiritual/unknown in terms of the material and known (94-95). What various examples does Lewis provide of this?
5. Lewis observes that joy and anguish can prompt the very same displeasing, physical response, but that one knows with certainty that the cause is quite different (95-98). Can you think of other, similar examples of this phenomenon beyond the one he provides?
6. our philosopher argues, still further, that a richer, more varied system can only be represented in a poorer system by an algebraical (not arithmetical) transposition, by a kind of interpretation of the higher thing into the terminology of the lower in which something is lost in translation (98-99). This apparently happens when a complex emotion is transposed into a relatively simple physical sensation that can itself, signify a few different things (i.e. joy, anguish, queasiness, sickness, etc.) What linguistic, musical, and artistic examples does Lewis provide to enumerate his point (99-100)?
7. under what conditions can an individual conversant in the lower medium/system understand correctly interpret and decipher a lower image/example that points to a higher idea/principle (100-101)?
8. though symbolism can explain transposition when it comes to the way written and spoken language transpose or signify one another, a picture is not a mere symbol of the visible world, but something more than a mere sign. Lewis calls the relation between the two sacramental (102-103). He uses it to describe the relation between mind and body (103-104) and also between the spiritual and the natural (104). Why, according to Lewis, do some people remain unable to recognize the spiritual within the material (104-105)?
Recall the categories of literature we discussed earlier this quarter (realism, romanticism, naturalism, sentimentalism, and the grotesque). Do some of the Bible stories assigned for today fit relatively neatly into any of these categories?
The Bible: Genesis 4:1-16
1. does God appear to be privileging one form of husbandry over the other--shepherding animals over raising crops, or is there another explanation for why He is more pleased with Abel's sacrifice than with Cain's (v.1-5)?
2. verses 6-7 of chapter four anthropomorphize sin as a creature/being that/who crouches at the door of the individual's heart when the individual has not done what is right (a sin of "omission"). What does this scenario suggest about the nature of morality?
3. when asked where his brother is by a God who obviously knows the answer, Cain responds, "I don't know [. . .] Am I my brother's keeper?" What seems to be the answer to this question? Does The Bible as a whole appear to hold humans accountable only for themselves, or for others too?
4. was the punishment inflicted on Cain by God merciful (4:8-16)?
The Bible: 2 Samuel 11:1-12:25
1. why does David ask Uriah to return to his home and "wash his feet" (1:8), and why does Uriah refuse the king's request (1:11)?
2. what lies behind David's successful attempt to get Uriah drunk (1:13)?
3. how subtle is David's strategy to get rid of Uriah (1:14-25)? Do you think anyone other than Joab and the messenger will be able to figure out what David is doing? If so, might anyone guess why he's doing it?
4. does the narrative contained within chapter eleven of 2 Samuel lack details of character, setting, and psychology necessary to make sense of it? Does it include any extraneous details?
5. why does Nathan, the prophet, tell a parable to David (12: 2-4) before delivering his pointed accusation?
6. is Nathan overstating things when he accuses David of striking down Uriah himself (12:9)?
7. what array of events will occur as a consequence of David's sin (12:10, 11-12, 14)? Does the punishment seem equal to the crime?
8. why does David fast (refrain from eating) and lie on the ground in sackcloth prior to the death of his young son, but not following the death itself (12:14-23)? Does his behavior seem logical or illogical? Upon what premise does his behavior rest?
9. does God appear to forgive David (12:13, 24-25)?
10. do you think the obvious moral embedded in this tale should be applied only to cases of murder and adultery?
The Bible: Job 23, 24, & 31:1-22
1. Job, described only as a man living in the land of Uz who fears God, shuns evil, and does his best to sacrifice offerings for his children to counter their sins, suffers the loss of his wealth and family because, apparently, Satan asks God for permission to test Job's faith (Job 1:1-19). Most of the Book of Job is about Job's grieving process, his questioning of God, and his friends' attempts to help him understand why he is suffering. In all of this, we are told, "Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing" (1:22 NIV). Do you agree, or do find in chapters 23, 24, or 31 anything that sounds like sin?
2. for what array of reasons does Job wish that God were more like a human judge (23:1-7)?
3. what consequence does Job anticipate if he holds fast to his belief and devotion (23:10)?
4. can 23:12 be reconciled with Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs?
5. track the conjunctions used at the beginning of new statements as we move through verses 10-17, from "But" (v.10) to "But" (v.13) to "For" (v.14) to "Therefore" (v.15) to "Yet" (v.17). Is the train of Job's thoughts about God best described as confused, confrontational, or complex?
6. does Job imply in 24:1 that knowledge requires sight? Can knowledge comfortably do without sight?
7. while enumerating the apparent injustice of a world in which the impoverished receive little outside assistance, Job notes that the poor must glean (i.e. pick up post-harvest leftovers) "the vineyard of the wicked man" (24:6) and make oil "among the olive rows of the wicked" (24:11). How is "wicked" implicitly defined in these passages?
8. does Job 24:12B ("yet God charges no one with wrong," ESV) sound like matter-of-fact recognition of an uncomfortable truth, or an accusation?
9. in what way are metaphorical and literal conceptions of light related here (24:13-17)?
10. notice the shift in voice signaled by single quotation marks in verses 24:18-20, during which time Job ventriloquizes the voice/perspective of his friends who are trying to explain why he is suffering. What is Job's point? What idea have his friends asserted, a notion which Job is intent on refuting?
11. Bible translators differ on whether the subject of 24:22, the Hebrew for "he," should here be interpreted as "God" (as in the ESV) or as a reference to a ruler whose wicked behavior places him alongside those whose selfish actions were just detailed in verses 18-21. How do these two different interpretive options alter the meaning of the verses which follow (24:23-24)? Are these different interpretations mutually exclusive, or can they coexist?
12. what multifarious consequences does Job enumerate as possible results of failing to control the heterosexual male gaze (31:1-10)? What do you think Job means when he claims to have "made a covenant with [his] eyes" (31:1, ESV)?
13. does Job live according to an egalitarian ethos, or does he reinscribe the dominant social hierarchy which considers servants as lesser than their masters (Job 31:13:-15)?
14. are those who are most vulnerable in ancient Hebrew society (21:16-21) akin to the vulnerable and disenfranchised in our own time & clime?
15. what punishment does Job prescribe for himself if his friends' accusations against his virtue are accurate (31:21-22)?
The Bible: Song of Songs 1, 3, 4, 5, 6:8-9, 7:1-8:4 [a couple of the questions that follow concern passages not assigned: #7, #14]
1. is the woman in this romance as relationally proactive as her male lover?
2. what about the woman's appearance earns the stares of her female peers?
3. does either the man or the woman control the discourse of desire? What similes and metaphors do they each use to describe one another, and what do these comparisons suggest about the nature of their relationship?
4. do we fault the male lover for telling his beloved "there is no flaw in you" (4:7), for claiming that she is physically perfect?
5. why does the man compare his lover to a "garden locked up" and "a spring enclosed" (4.12), and what is his beloved's response to these metaphors?
6. assuming that only one male lover is present in this poem (some scholars suggest two), does the realization that the male lover has access to sixty queens, eighty concubines, and "virgins beyond number" (6:8), disrupt the romantic atmosphere of this poem?
7. is it inappropriate to string together the lover's disappearance in 5:6, his being discovered among the lilies (6:2-3), and his wandering about the vines and pomegranates in 5:11-12? Do these feel like "events" in a narrative, or loosely interrelated vignettes?
8. do the sexual double entendres of 5:2-5 seem inappropriate for a book of The Bible?
9. in 1 Peter 3:1-6 (located in the New Testament), Peter discourages Christian women from wearing jewelry, arguing that inner beauty of character should radiate outwards, making such artificial adornments unnecessary. What is this poem's attitude towards jewelry?
10. why might the poet identify such seemingly inconsequential details as the type of woods out of which the lovers' house is made (1:17), and the season in which these events occur (2:11-13)?
11. do these lovers extol one another's beauty, in part, by comparing their beloved's appearance to that of others of the same sex?
12. why might the female narrator repeatedly warn her friends, "Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires" (2:7, 3:5, 8:4), and what does she mean by these words?
13. why does the woman briefly wish her lover were "like a brother, who was nursed at my mother's breasts" (8:1)?
14. why do these lovers, in the midst of their verbal lovemaking, keep on mentioning their parents? The woman wants to bring her lover to her mother's house, to the room where she was herself conceived (3:4), she at one points wishes he were related to her--that they shared a mother (8:1), and later says that she "roused" her lover under the very apple tree where her lover was conceived (8:5)
15. is there a clear, traceable chronological structure that binds together the events of this book?
16. which metaphors and similes used to describe male and female beauty seem most effective? Could any of them be used today too?
The Bible: Lamentations 3:16-40
1. the Book of Lamentations expresses deep sorrow at the recent destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans (586 B.C.), and identifies God as an active, not passive, agent in the suffering of the grieving Israelites. Does the Lord God appear as a villain, disciplining parent, puppeteer, gamemaster, or something else?
2. in what ways does the speaker feel he has been permanently changed by his suffering (3:17-18)?
3. is the speaker gaming his own mind by expressing grief and hope virtually simultaneously (3:16-17, 21-23), or is it actually possible to hold onto sustaining hope while still in the depths of despair?
4. the speaker notes it is "good that one should wait quietly / for the salvation of the Lord" (v.26; see also 3:28-29). Is he himself incapable of what he is recommending, or does the genre itself require that he express what should not, apparently, be expressed?
5. what about God's character and mode of discipline brings the writer hope (3:22-23, 31-33)?
6. does the writer appear convinced that the suffering of his people is undeserved (3.38-40)?
"Study for the Jewel, 'Chalice of Life'" (1954)
Dr. Paul Marchbanks