I often assign a paper during the Romanticism segment of the survey course that has students thinking about notions of the sublime. They read excerpts of Kant and Burke, and in class we look at these notions in Shelley, Blake, and Wordsworth. This is hardly an innovative concept in the pedagogy of Romanticism, but I find it works pretty well for a period in which I've done very little advanced reading.
For this assignment specifically, I get a lot of students who reference both the language of, and often the fact of, their personal relationship with their lord and savior Jesus Christ.
I can't help but roll my eyes when Blake and his visionary cosmology, or Wordsworth and his "semi-atheism," or heaven forfend, the outspoken atheist Shelley, are revealed to be Christians along the line Joel Osteen and Jerry Falwell.
Now I know that my own personal history with Christianity (my folks are evangelicals, and until about 18, I was too) conditions this response, but I am hardly closed off to the possibility of my students' faith. I just hate it when their papers become a venue for their personal witness.
Three papers in a row this evening found references to poets' beliefs that were both counter to all evidence in their biographies, to what was discussed in class, and which are completely ahistorical: the kind of personal teddy-bear god that has inf(l)ected a lot of popular American religious discourse--especially for teens. I learned that when Wordsworth speaks about nature in Tintern Abbey, he really means "Jesus," that the Tyger solves the problem of evil because it shows us that all of creation is part of God's Work, God's Plan and God's Love. The third paper references the author's desire to find "the presence of God in Blake's writing," but then finally acknowledges that this isn't an appropriate strategy. I'm not entirely sure why the author felt the need to signpost a rejected interpretive strategy, but I wish more students understood this.
I understand that many students with an evangelical upbringing will naturally transpose the ineffable and infinite of the sublime into the vocabulary of "my god is an awesome god," and I tend to understand this issue a bit more, often with a simple comment like "take care not to transpose your 21st century beliefs onto 200-year-old texts." But the papers where students spend the whole essay arguing that a poem about nature is really about Jesus? They unnerve me.
Are they witnessing to me? Do they believe that they are taking a stand? Are they so deeply immersed in a kind of totalizing theology that they can imagine no other way through which to view experience?
So I've got to write end comments on these papers, and since all three invoke a literalist Christian God, but take different tacks in doing so, I can't even cop-and-paste a response for their end comments.