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Teaching Fiction and the Old Verities of the Heart

"What would make class memorable for me would be to get a vision for why you think fiction is an important part of understanding and facing our world." Ryan wrote that sentence (plus three more paragraphs) on the mid-term course evaluation my last semester in the university classroom.

Ryan was a bright, thoughtful student with double majors and double minors: biology and international agriculture, missiology and English.

The previous year we�d read together British fiction: James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf. Here, now, the Americans: Hawthorne, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Toni Morrison. Ryan's query brought us together for a three-hour lunch. Reading good literature is a pleasure. Enjoy the reading of a story wrought in a well-honed language as a pleasure in and of itself.

Additionally, if it touches on the human predicament, fine, even if that is not its first mission. Yet, I cannot imagine any great literature not grounded in morality. Further, I noted Bach's motet with its lines by Franck: "Jesus, priceless treasure, source of purest pleasure" One doesnt need to attempt a Greek syllogism to meld these three entities into one experience: Logos, Pleasure, and Fiction.

If we do not nurture this God-given capacity for pleasant aesthetics with the good, we will turn too easily for leisure to the vacuous, the frivolous, and the spiritually injurious. The technological wasteland is filled with another kind of pleasure: salacious MTV, passive sports, movies violent and sexual, contemporary Christian music with its mushy melodic line, and the narcissistic blather of telly evangelists.

Do not ask that the disguise of literature be laid aside so one can talk about urban renewal or about one's self. Set aside all the psychological chatter about self-enhancement, self-fulfillment, self-empowerment. Allow the literature to be a mask, behind from which characters contemporary and from across the centuries speak to you of their experiencing the human predicament.

This fictive mask is important. I cannot ; indeed, will not preach in my classroom. That would be poor biblical teaching, poor moral teaching, a poor sociology of peace and justice. Even worse, a poor teaching of literature. So my classroom is not a pulpit.

I learned early in the college classroom that I needed to become the best possible teacher I could be- that was my calling, my mission. Only then did I earn the right to give a Christian apology. I was not called to apologetics. If I attempted that, students would yawn; they'd heard it all before, from youth pastors and Sunday school teachers. Boring, boring, boring.

Only when I was first the best possible literature teacher I could be and one with humility, who took pleasure in youth and their muddle of ideas; only then could I give witness to the eternal "verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths: love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice" (lines from Faulkner's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1950) and the transcendent Christ. But this witness was a whisper or a metaphor or in a parenthetical aside, from behind the mask of great literature. Only then did a few students sit up, lean in, to hear of matters more significant and eternal than Faulkner's novel Absalom! Absalom!.

I told Ryan of a pre-med senior, in his last semester, who risked ignoring his advisor and opted for Continental Fiction, team-taught by Carroll Yoder and me, instead of one more course in human anatomy. On the standard form for course evaluations he wrote: "Long after I have forgotten the names of my classmates I shall remember Dimitri, Ivan, and Alexy of Dostoyevsky's novel, The Brothers Karamazov, so deeply have they spoken to me this semester."

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So from behind the mask of good fiction I tried to demonstrate psychic poise while living with moral ambiguity. Additionally, to witness to the hieratic transubstantiation of a writer's art, to sustain balance in the socio-ecological system, to keep breathing while squeezed by an institution's matrix, to join the community's quest for shalom, to know grace when the transcendent Christ is silent. But first to be an impassioned teacher, transparent before students. Listening to their youthful groanings of visions which could hardly be uttered. Helping them "to speak themselves into existence" (Frederick Buechner). Catching there again a reminder of once when I was young.

Now in retirement I'm remembering those good years - when I was privileged to attend that movable academic literary feast. And I'm also discovering how rich is the life beyond an EMU classroom.

A grandchild with "Goodnight, Moon" stands waiting for an empty lap.

Omar Eby taught literature and writing at EMU for 27 years, before retiring in 1999.