A recent post by the superlative Twisty discusses, among other things, various aspects of religion & Famous Fighters of the Black Thing  set forth in Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.   Reading her comments on the various religious allusions in the book reminded me of something I first noticed way back in college when taking a Survery of English Literature, which is that not having been raised in any religious tradition, the vast majority of religious allusions, metaphors and other literary devices went completely over my head.

This lack of cultural  commonality meant that my tenure as an English major was short-lived. (Also, the professor of the survey course was uninspiring unlike my poli-sci profs).   English lit, and a good portion of American lit is frequently suffused with religious allusions that, to those with understanding of those symbols, greatly shapes the way they interpret the book.   To people such as myself with no religious background, I miss and have missed the significance of various metaphors and events.

For example, I have a vague memory of my 9th grade English teacher (who rocked) explaining that in the Old Man and Sea, the number of times the old man stumbles on his way home corresponds with the number of times Jesus, as described in the Bible, stumbled with the cross on the way to his crucifixion.  When she described this, I remember being completely non-plussed.  Was this supposed to make the old man more mythic?  What was the point?  Would students with a Christian upbringing have picked up on this, even subconciously?

The lack of such exposure or understanding on my part limited my understanding of certain material in that I didn’t “catch” the references.  I’m sure in many ways I lost out on valuable understanding.  On the other hand, I think it allowed me to view the material more independently, unfettered by assumptions of the significance of a metaphor.  The logic of the metaphor, or the impact of the events (such as the old man falling) had to stand on their own without the support of religious allusion.

When I was in college there were rabid debates (I’m sure there still are) about the utility/necessity of Western Civ classes in ensuring that students were armed with enough understanding of the dominant culture to be able to appreciate/understand the various literary, philosophical, etc. canons.  I am only beginning to understand the magnitude of connections, etc., I missed out on (and that other non-religious, or non-Christian raised students missed out on) because I simply had no background.  I’m sure this is only one facet in how persons not raised in the dominant culture in this country (religion being only one aspect) fail to “catch” things that are assumed to be common knowledge.

At times, I have wanted to read the Bible (or at least read that series in Slate that summarizes it) just to have some better background for the vast majority of literature I read.  But then I think that I should also read the Koran, and similar central tomes for the other literature I read and the project becomes too overwhelming.  Which is why the only sections of the Bible I have actually read are a section of Genesis that was required in college, and the Book of Matthew, which I read in third grade because I had a crush on a boy named Matthew (no, I don’t get the logic either, but it made sense at the time).

But here is a question, how do readers/students who want to study literature or better appreciate it, but do not have knowledge of the dominant Christian paradigm that enfuses so much of Western lit learn this stuff?  Are there primers out there that give enough background that these connections & metaphors can be appreciated?  Are there similar things for people who want a better understanding of other cultures and religious backgrounds to better understand literature steeped in those traditions?

Also, how do we balance the need to convey this information with avoiding it making the dominant approach even more dominant?