Reconsidering relatability

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

Bethany Keeley-Jonker
August 5, 2014

Debating the importance of the "relatability" of literature is a hot topic. What happens when you ask this question in regard to the Bible?

August 5, 2014

Fascinating reflection.

I have a bit of a love affair with Habakkuk, too. I love how it mirrors my own experience in trying to "explain away" the aspects of God's providence that I simply can't understand through simple moral arguments. As you said, it opens with the grand question of why so much evil--a perennial favorite in apologetics circles. But then before the doxology you mention comes that point when God reveals that he intends to make right on the injustice and evil by sending the Babylonians...which the prophet finds even more abhorrent than the injustice already happening. In other words...when the answer comes, it turns out to be even more baffling and disconcerting than the original issue that prompted the question...which forces the prophet into a position of humble doxology.

Very Job-like.

I actually prefer to send my agnostic friends to Habakkuk when they have moral challenges to Christianity. I find that it's a much more beautiful exposition of the problem of evil (and the appropriate Christian response) than Job is for most. Like the Creator it reveals, it's both relatable and awesome...infinite and immanent.

Thanks for sharing.

Tim Hendrickson
August 6, 2014

I wonder whether we are unfairly presenting relatability as a limiting characteristic. When I teach literature, I challenge my students to see how older works reflect contemporary concerns, and we often find, together, that we can "see ourselves" in far more literature than we expected before the term began, as long as we "see ourselves" collectively and culturally. In that way, relating to a work broadens the discussion of literature and history, not the opposite.

August 6, 2014

Thanks both of you for responding. JKana, I'm glad you expanded more than I was able to on Habakkuk. The most recent time I read it I was impressed that Habakkuk's complaint is included as part of the prophesy, not separate from it. It's still working on me in different ways.

Tim, I hadn't thought about that angle, but now that you bring it up, that's often why we revere classic works of literature (like Shakespeare, although Ira Glass apparently disagrees) -- while some elements are quite foreign to us, other parts capture timeless elements of humanity. The complaints I've seen implied that students will declare a work "relateable" or not and then not be really willing to discuss why or what about it. Perhaps that's not your experience?

Karen Swallow Prior
August 7, 2014

This is such an excellent post, Bethany. I love your idea of balance. On the one hand, I think what Ira Glass said off the cuff is a real shame. On the other hand, I wrote an entire book about the project of relating books to my life, so I'm sympathetic. I agree that the key is balance (in all things, really). This is exactly what C. S. Lewis was getting at when he famously said, "It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones."

Tim Hendrickson
August 8, 2014

I find that Trinity students are generally open to discussing why they feel a certain way about a work, whether or not they see a connection to contemporary culture. Not all student populations are the same, though, as you well know. The hesitancy of some literary professionals to deal with works the way I do is that my approach focuses on something close to universality, which is quite the dirty word on some campuses.

One of my most successful past courses is an Intro to Fiction I taught at NIU while doing my Ph.D., in which I paired well-known recent fiction with older works that students may not have ever heard of. For example, I taught Dr. Faustus alongside Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince because both works deal with taboo, particularly the search for, and attainment of, forbidden knowledge. I could have made them read Paradise Lost, but I am not that mean.

I completely agree regarding Shakespeare (King Lear almost seems more a part of our world than that of the early 1600s).

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