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3 Questions Every Lit Teacher Needs

The good literature teacher knows what questions to ask, and when to ask them. However, in the same way that there are only a few original plots, there are only a few original questions. These questions are protean, assume different incarnations, although I believe most of the great questions a lit teacher needs emerge from a rather simple catechism:

1. What does the author want me to feel?

2. How does the author actually make me feel?

3. Why am I failing to feel the way the author wants me to feel?

This is the pattern of inquiry which the Cruciform lectern invariably follows. The “feelings” described in each question are not chaotic, nor are they necessarily good. By “feelings,” I refer to the posture of the soul against the shape of the cosmos. Has the soul born witness to tragedy? Then the soul’s posture is prostrate, anguished. Has the soul born witness to just one sinner turning from his wickedness? Then the soul’s posture is dancing, jubilant. “Feelings” have been denigrated in the modern lexicon as the arbitrary, unpredictable, uncontrollable fluctuations of the soul. Such a concept of “feelings” is actually closer to demonic possession than the longing of the soul. A man’s feelings might now throw him in the fire, now throw him in the water (Matthew 17:15).

The feelings of a man are truly the longing, the direction, the trajectory of his spirit, and feelings may be “right” if they lead a man to God. God is in the stomach of the starving man; the feelings of a righteous man direct him to that stomach with a gift, and so the righteous man finds Christ in the stomach of another.

What does the author want me to feel? Assuming that a classical text is on the line, we assume the author wants to see God in His beauty, truth, or goodness, and that the author has obtained the longed for vision. The author might have seen the beauty of God in the suffering of an innocent man, or a guilty man. The author might have seen the goodness of God in his own personal condemnation of his lust or gluttony. While a discussion of “feelings” could be endless, let us at least say that the fruits of the Spirit are proper feelings. A man may feel love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, prudence. Every good writer wants to lead his readers to these feelings, to train the spirit of the reader to respond to the cosmos in a way which is sympathetic to the nature of God.

How does the author actually make me feel? It is here that the teacher and the student acknowledge the difficulty of responding to the call to see God rightly. It is here that the teacher confesses he does not feel love for the dead Roland, but indifference, sentimental sloth and moral acedia. It is here that the teacher proclaims the shortcomings of his soul, the way his own spirit fights the Spirit in the text and His work to realign the wandering soul of the reader. The knowledge of God which comes from discerning the right directions of the author also leads to self-knowledge, a knowledge of the insufficiency of the reader to do right by the revelations the text offers.

Why am I failing to feel the way the author wants me to feel? This self-knowledge is pressed to the point of repentance. After recognizing his failure to properly respond to God with virtue, the reader begins looking for whatever is holding him back. Is he held back because of laziness? Because of unsound theology? Because of distraction? With this question, the teacher and student begin forming a plan to realign the soul such that the student can do and feel what the text requests.

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