Religious Expression in the Classroom

Many years ago, in response to a request by the faculty, I created an assignment series that worked on helping the students express their beliefs without relying on jargon. A recent article in The Chronicle by Stephen T. Asma on “Soul Talk” made me remember that experience.

But the sentences “James Brown has soul” and “My soul is anchored in the Lord” rely on a very different system of meaning—they don’t correspond to anything particularly. Instead they take their meaning from a coherence they have with other terms, concepts, values, connotations, and associations. “This song has soul” means: This music restores us, this music has integrity, there’s something authentic and natural in its style, this music contains strong emotion, the repetition is hypnotic or ecstatic, there are elements of the African-American experience in this music and these lyrics, this song draws on gospel and R&B genres, this song is so funky you can smell it, and so on. That is the matrix of connotations that make up the context of soul talk—and the soul talk is coherent to the extent that it coheres in some way with all these other experiences and meanings. In that sense, the soul is meaningful to many of us without any scientific verification of its existence.

I personally believe that it is a legitimate rhetorical exercise, though I can see why a philosopher might wish to avoid the whole question.

What did I do?

I asked the students to write down ten things they believed.

I then asked them to choose one. They did a freewriting exercise on that belief. What did it mean? Why did they believe it? When did they come to believe it? On what is the belief based?

Then I asked them to discuss that belief without jargon. I included the idea that they could explain the history of their coming to that belief.

I received some amazing papers.

I also received some not so amazing ones.

But then I moved on and the exercise has never been repeated. I wonder if something like this would work in Dr. Asma’s classes.

One thought on “Religious Expression in the Classroom”

  1. I do a similar assignment based on NPR’s “This I Believe” website (they even offer curriculum ideas): http://thisibelieve.org/educators/

    In a system that constantly calls ideologies into question, I think it’s important for students to interrogate their beliefs and be able to support them. An overabundance of jargon and cliches do seem to creep in to students’ narratives, however, and always need culling back out.

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