Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Religion, Emotion, and Sex

It's the end of a rather long day. Mostly good, but long. And I ended my workday about ten minutes ago* by anonymously editing a student essay. I work as an online tutor, helping kids with their essays. It's all legit, we don't edit for them, we just offer suggestions and draw examples from their work to illustrate it. We try to make them better writers, rather than to improve their one specific paper.

But anyhow, I sometimes get personal response narratives that are very, well, personal. And for me, the most freaky kind is when they write about a personal religious experience. I was trying to put my finger on why while responding to this student, trying to come up with a reason to tread more lightly when talking about the personal salvation offered to him/her by Jiminy Cricket**, when it hit me:

Writing about personal religious experience is like writing about sex.

The reason it makes me uncomfortable isn't because I study the devil all the time and have begun to sympathise; it isn't because of the rampant hypocrisy inherent in so many iterations of the religion that always go unmentioned and uninterrogated in these types of narratives; it's that they're so. damned. intimate.

Learning about someone's faith is like learning what they look like naked. For some people, profoundly good, intelligent people who nonetheless are still strong believers, it can be like seeing a classical nude. For people who are major religious figures it can be like seeing the pin-up performativity of a porn-star. For raging hypocrites like the TV televangelists it's like looking at a nude by Lucien Freud.*** But for people who obviously haven't given it a lot of thought, but who nevertheless feel like sharing their profound truths, it's like catching some poor unsuspecting sod with his pants down. It can be a little embarrassing.

The challenge with writing about personal religious experience is the same as with writing about sex. If you're going to be earnest and truthful, it's going to be like sex between two normal, non-moviestar people. It's not a bad thing,**** but to the outside observer it's going to be very intimate, and probably more than a little too much information. The challenge is to provide enough information for your readers to follow along, even to emotionally engage, without strapping them down six inches from the action and forcing them to watch.

So, next time you feel like writing about your Road To Damascus moment, just try to use a bit of perspective, a bit of tact, and a whole lot of circumspection. Otherwise we're going to have to start an award ceremony for you, too.

*9:35pm - don't let anybody tell you students don't work hard, I've been up since 6:00am and working since 7:30am.

**Not his real name.

***To me, anyway. I really hate his paintings. He really knows how to make naked people look ugly.

****Indeed, I do believe sex between non-moviestars to be a Very Good Thing.


Anonymous said...

Yes, this! Coming at it from the other side, when I used to have and cultivate personal religious convictions, I neverthless found people asking me me about what I may or may not be doing in private with my deity of choice to be incredibly presumptuous and invasive, unless we were in a forum specifically set up for the discussion of one's personal religious experience.

In fact, I can categorically state that I was happier discussing my personal sex life with casual acquaintances than my personal religious life, make of that what you will.

Why on earth are students writing about this for uni courses, though?

Vellum said...

I think part of the mission of Gothic Revival U is to force undergraduates to learn to think critically about their own lives, rather than just about specific source material. It's a good idea in principle, but it does lead to stuff like this at times. Especially in America, where you run into a lot of people who just... really like "sharing".