Satan is Not A Literary Character:
Teaching Early Modern Literature to Religiously Committed Students

Carrie Hintz

In my first year at Queens College/CUNY, a public institution serving a culturally diverse borough of New York City, I taught two courses: Milton and women’s writing.  Of the two, women’s writing should have been the more controversial.  In the class, we had delved into a number of ‘hot button’ topics, including feminism, domestic violence, lesbianism, and race.  When I held special office hours at the end of term to address continued concerns, a few students dropped by not to express consternation or confusion, but simply to say hello.

When I held similar hours for my Milton class, I expected that no one would show up with burning issues related to course content.  My expectations were challenged when a student burst into my office to say, ‘I have a real problem with the way you taught Paradise Lost.  I don’t think it’s right to describe Satan as a literary character when he is a real being, with us every day.’  She went on to describe her difficulty in reconciling her faith with the classroom study of Milton’s work, where competing interpretations of religion had been voiced, including purely secular points of view.  She knew I wanted the class to take an ‘objective’ stance, but she did not want to be forced to do so.  We talked for quite a while about the purpose of the literary classroom and the beneficial aspects of thinking through other perspectives, but I suspect she remained unconvinced.

After speaking with more of my students about such issues over the past two years, and collecting surveys of their opinions, I am becoming increasingly aware that many of them are approaching early modern texts from a religiously committed subject position—albeit from a number of faith traditions (among them Islam, Christianity and Judaism).  This paper describes some of the teaching and grading situations that might befall an instructor of early modern literary religious literature where a number of students have an explicit religious commitment.  I conclude with a consideration of some writing exercises and pedagogical techniques a teacher might develop to encourage students to embed their ideas about religious literature within a wider perspective that takes pluralism into account.

There are several important studies of the effect of race, class and gender on our experiences as readers and within pedagogy.[1] It is rare, however, to encounter explicit analyses of religious difference in the public classroom.  As instructors, we never discuss what happens when we encounter religious commitment in our classroom.  How should we react when confronted with students who do not wish to put aside their own awareness of the sacred nature of a piece of writing that we would expect to treat as a literary text without applying the doctrinal or theological content of the work to lived experience?  Many instructors assume that the place for faith is solely in personal life; in contrast, university-level education demands the ability to sift through as many points of view as can be explored in the given time.  However, although many instructors assume that their students are capable of stepping outside their belief systems, students may not be thinking along the same lines.  Part of an instructor’s task in teaching religious material to religiously committed students involves making the ground rules of the classroom explicit—albeit subtly—when a student loses sight of the purpose of the literary classroom, and its literary and historical focus.  Yet I would argue that the instructor’s task is also to listen to his or her students and acknowledge their committed stance.  We need both to help students articulate their experiences of religious material and to step back from it.   The process of sensitizing students to the width, depth and breadth of other perspectives is our job.   In the case of religiously committed students, however, a student’s belief system needs to be acknowledged first before this work can begin.

Queens College/CUNY is a public institution and as such is not affiliated with any religious group or organization.  The students can be characterized as diverse in religious background and in geographical place of origin.  My impression of my students, however, is that most of them tend to adhere to some kind of religious practice.  The fact that my Milton and seventeenth-century literature classes are filled with religious intensities of various kinds is in many ways pedagogically beneficial.  It charges the atmosphere. When I taught more secularized students, I found I had to convince them that Milton’s war in heaven was exciting and suspenseful—or had been in the early modern period. Poets like Donne, Vaughan, Bradstreet, Trehearne and Herbert were alien not only because of their historical distance and their unfamiliar language but also due to their immersion in religious structures.   When I began teaching at Queens, I expected to convey to my students that the theological concerns of an early period might seem irrelevant, but were live issues in the early modern period.  Persuasion was unnecessary.  The fall of mankind, as one example, was not only a live issue: it was a live wire issue.   That created some problems as well, as students lost interest in the historical valences of this religious material and focused on their personal experience of these religious ideas; their own commitment often made a considered look at changes in the philosophy and language of religious poetry hard to achieve.  It was, however, undeniably energizing and inspiring to watch students tuck into the texts with such verve and to offer intelligent, acute readings inspired by their emotional closeness to the text.

An obvious boon to teaching religiously committed students is that they are sometimes versed in the religious allusions that may elude students who come out of a secular perspective.  Reading early modern religious poetry, it has been thrilling to have students who know about Boaz and Ruth, or the Holy Trinity.  It has also been incredibly stimulating to have students who, through their knowledge of Hebrew in Jewish worship and study, can hear traces of Hebrew etymologies in Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Religiously committed students have sometimes undergone the study of their holy texts, or even read commentary on these texts, and hence are attuned to the importance of close reading; they take close reading skills into their classroom literary study.  On the other hand, as my colleague Diane Menna points out, some religiously committed students might ‘bring extraneous religious teachings into the discussion (ideas they had been taught in religious training) and must be reminded that these ideas are not in the text.’   She notes, however, that discussions about the status of religious teaching can help an instructor illustrate what is required when supporting an academic argument: ‘This brings up the whole issue of supporting your interpretations with the text vs. placing interpretation into larger contexts of culture and religion and tradition.’ [2]

Students are already empowered to read from their subject positions of race, gender, sexual orientation and class, rather than aspiring to achieve an objectivity they have been taught to consider illusory, or fraught with its own ideological and methodological biases.  Why, then, is religion necessarily the category that cannot be spoken of in the classroom, or included within a student’s scholarly work?

First of all, there is a politeness or unease around the issue of religion in the public classroom that is not operative when we speak of other categories of difference.  Although she is speaking about scholarship rather than teaching, Anne Ruggles Gores describes the difficulty of writing about religious material: ‘those who wish to write about religion not only lack the highly complex and compelling language of, say, queer theory, but they confront an implacable secularism.’ [3]  Gore is undoubtedly correct about the assumption of secularism and the dearth of meaningful analytical frameworks to speak about religious commitment and religious difference.  In my classroom, I had one student who told me she read John Donne to her boyfriend in kittenish moods.  This was definitely too much information, but for some reason I found her less difficult to understand than the student who declared that he had incorporated George Herbert’s poetry into his religious practice.  I also had a student who told me privately that he had incorporated Paradise Lost into his Seder celebration, and another who found in Milton’s Samson Agonistes a personal model of Christian stoic grace.   In response to my survey about religious poetry, one student wrote: ‘Milton seems to reinforce many of the beliefs, fears, and values I was taught as a child.  I think his message to me was a reminder of what God expects from me as a Christian.’ [4]  Once in a while I will have a student who affirms that the study of seventeenth-century literature strengthened his or her religious faith, particularly Christian faith.[5] Students also describe how their study is compromised when they experience a poem too deeply (or not deeply enough) based on their religious background.   Religious commitment other than the Christian content of the poems can also leave a student cold, as when a Yoruba student expressed her sorrow that there was nothing in the religious poetry of the seventeenth century that spoke to her in any way. Ilana Teitelbaum, when asked to write about her reactions to Christian poetry, offers this very precise reading of her impressions as a believing Jew:

I am probably unable to be objective about religious (Christian) poetry. It does not offend me per se, but the clashing of belief systems makes it difficult for me to take the Christian concepts expressed in the poems seriously.  Symbolism directly related to Christianity, such as the Trinity and the cross, leaves me cold and unable to relate.[6]

The mixture of faiths of all kinds and of believers and non-believers is a fascinating element of my classroom.  Problems begin mainly when there is no consensus about one’s ability to put aside faith to discuss a literary work from different points of view.  At first I thought that the way to address religious commitment in the classroom was to ask for an explicit separation between the students’s private experiences as readers and their classroom work.  Now my impulse is to allow those experiences into the classroom, but also to affirm that literary texts do not exist purely as support for their life choices and ideas.  This is not to say that I discourage them from using the texts when they are thinking about their own lives, but rather that I encourage them to do more with the texts than to think about them as ammunition for their personal struggles, questions, aspirations and beliefs. Furthermore, I can—and do—model this distance in my own consideration of the text by emphasizing historical content and literary structure.  However, to speak of a clear-cut division between private experience of a text and public analysis is to assume that there is a space apart from the personal where we can talk about important matters unmoored by personal commitments.[7]  One student, a believer, describes the process of working with critical visions of religious poetry as follows: ‘though modern ways of thinking we create a distance between ourselves and works of religious faith.’ [8] Valerie Colon, a student in my current seventeenth-century class, articulates the balancing act a religious believer in the university classroom might require when encountering religious poetry:

as an intelligent person who wants to be educated . . . you listen to and observe other ways of looking at religious works, and they are thought-provoking (and perhaps disturbing!) but your responses to religious poetry—ESPECIALLY religious poetry—are never objective.[9]

Valerie acknowledges the difficulty of ‘observing other ways’ of looking at religious works, but she seems predisposed to undertake that sometimes painful process.  By its very nature, faith isn’t the most promising starting-point for objectivity—but if we think of faith as something which does not need to be suppressed but put in concert with other subject positions, it may be possible to expand the range of analysis and critical thinking the student has available to him or her.

A religiously committed student might fear that some literary and cultural material might corrupt or destabilize his or her faith.  Some students deliberately choose not to be exposed to certain material, whether heretical or sexually explicit.[10]  As I experienced it, higher education was quite personally destabilizing—or at least temporarily so—as you were forced to challenge everything you ever believed.  University was a wonderful time to read Nietzsche or Sartre, or writers from other cultural or faith traditions, and experience seismic changes in one’s worldview.   I tend not to associate this kind of personal destabilization with the study of early modern religious poetry, but this is not to say that such provocative readings do not appear in the early modern classroom.  There are glimpses of such moments when we explore Blake’s vision of Milton, or the idea that Milton’s Paradise Lost may be a purely aesthetic achievement (unlikely, but it needs to be entertained). My class proceeds through discussion, and students are more than capable of challenging each other to great effect.  This open, lively atmosphere sometimes helps religious students to open up their readings of a text to other points of view.  Sometimes, however, it adds to the general sense of tension.  Temperament and class dynamic play a role here, and every group to whom I have taught early modern poetry has coped with differences in religious background and adherence differently.

Some students seem to want to defend themselves against disturbing content. Marissa Ahamad, a keen and capable student of Renaissance poetry and a fan of Donne, nevertheless notes: ‘I think that Milton wants to rewrite the story of creation in the reader’s mind and because I am very familiar with Scripture I am able to defend myself against his subtle changes in the narrative.’ [11]  Her reading process, then, is at least somewhat engrossed with Milton’s modifications to what she considers a ‘true’ narrative.  Certainly this is textual work of a kind: her knowledge of these ‘subtle changes’ helps us consider how Milton molds, shapes, and plays with Scripture.  Given the prevalence of attitudes like Marissa’s, I usually remark that Milton’s use of scripture is of interest to us in the classroom mainly due to its literary effect rather than its manipulation of a narrative that some consider to be true.

Part of an instructor’s job is to try and gauge how students are interpreting the texts they are studying; a religiously committed student will likely be mounting different kinds of interpretations.  My colleague David Richter offers this taxonomy of the textual ‘adjustments’ religiously committed students make in his Bible-as-literature course:

it’s clear from the conversation that EVERYONE who has previously read the Bible through one confessional religion or another starts out reading it through that filter and has at least some adjustment to make when reading through any other sort of filter.  Sometimes it takes the form of discovering that when you read a narrative as a whole it makes a very different sort of sense than when you read it in short chunks used as the basis for moral sermons.  Sometimes it takes the form of noticing the absence of narratives and narrative elements that one is certain are in the Biblical text but which aren’t.[12]

This kind of textual work could be very fruitful for the early modern classroom as well.  Students and instructors might discuss how it is that we get many of our ideas about the story of Adam and Eve from Milton rather than scripture, for example.

It is important to accord dignity and seriousness to the beliefs of our students.  At times, students have expressed to me a distress that their (apparently more secularized) instructors are expressing contempt or scorn for their religion, such as when they flippantly dismiss doctrine as pure myth.   When I asked students in surveys how they felt about being exposed to other points of view, they were vehement on the subject of mutual respect.  As one notes:

What I’d object to in general is being informed that my way of looking at the Bible is incorrect, even invalid, with the accompanying implication that of course traditional explanations are merely so many fairy tales, and that to be academic requires rejecting them in favor of the truthful—invariably secular (if not outright antireligious)—explanation.  I don’t believe professors generally intend to imply that, but I do think they sometimes neglect to consider that viewpoints they casually brush away may well be beliefs held by some of their students.[13]

The student’s use of the term ‘casual’ here is telling.  The task is not to be ‘casual’ : to acknowledge a student’s beliefs while making it clear that nothing can be accepted uncritically in a university classroom without being subject to rigorous, energetic discussion.  I have also found it useful to offer some concrete definitions of words like ‘belief,’ ‘myth,’ ‘ideology’ and ‘religion’ so that the student know what I mean when I talk about any of these things.  Students respond more positively when common terms are clearly defined, and when I am being careful about using words like ‘myth’ or ‘ideology’ (although I certainly continue to invoke such terms when they are relevant).  I would avoid a remark such as ‘of course Satan is a fictional character’ but would not hesitate to describe scholarship that focuses on historical change in the personification of evil.  I might even choose to state explicitly: ‘some people think Satan is real, and some do not.’

At times, I might ask the class to comment directly on the way in which we are considering early modern poetry. Have we looked at the text from all possible angles?  What have we ignored?  How are our various subject positions affecting our readings of these texts? From being confronted with unexpected and passionate religious commitment from my students, I have become a more precise teacher and thinker.  I am more motivated to think carefully about my prejudices and preconceived notions about literary texts and the study of early modern religious poetry.  

In my first year, one of my colleagues observed me teaching a class on John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X (‘Batter My Heart’ ) where I made some reference to Psalm 51 (‘create in me a clean heart, O God’ ).  In our post-observation discussion, my colleague suggested that I might need to be a bit cautious about using the scriptural text as just ‘another intertext or piece of poetry’ when it had sacred status for some people in the room.  I was startled by this advice, since I was convinced that private belief and public study must be completely separated.  To my mind, it was possible and even desirable to look at a variety of materials as if they were texts, and that was the end of the story.  My solution for this was only partial: now I continue teaching as before, with the same reference to the imagery of Psalm 51, but I take care to mention in the classroom that some people consider the Psalm a sacred text.  The positive benefit of this is that now I am able to talk not only about the imagery and sentiments of Donne’s sonnet but also the way they compare to a text which some people accord holy status.

In pausing to think about my assumptions of secularism, and in realizing that there are other ways of looking at things, I hope I am modeling the idea of thinking about audience when discussing religious texts.  My students are asked to acknowledge other ways of looking at things.   As well, any attempt to proselytize without reference to the text itself cannot find any space in my classroom.  In such a moment of ‘testimony,’ I have generally dealt with it through subtle signals, speaking to the student afterward if necessary. 

Ideally, we would seek to demonstrate to our students that they might find delight, pleasure and knowledge in encountering ideas that challenge or puzzle them.   Some students come to this exhilaration quite naturally; they extend such receptivity to all subjects, not just the early modern classroom.   Michael Carney, writing of an Islamic philosophy class notes: ‘it is interesting to learn about other beliefs rather than just Catholic beliefs.’ [14]  Lamique Maloney notes, ‘it hurts me to see and hear that people can be offended by differences in opinion.  That should be looked at positively for its ability to cause a good discussion.’ [15]  One of my most devout Protestant students was a vocal admirer of another student’s presentation on Milton’s talmudic sources.   In an e-mail message to me, Shmuel Ross commented that his Jewish faith was in no way an impediment to his thoughtful and energetic consideration of all points of view.  Asked how he would react if a classmate claimed that the Song of Solomon was about Jesus’s relationship with humanity, or even specifically with Christians, he noted: ‘I think I’d be fine with that, provided I wasn’t called upon to agree with it.’ [16] 

One of the advantages of a classroom where religious concerns are always present is the way in which this energy might help along an analysis of the importance of faith for the writers themselves.   Can Paradise Lost be disentangled from the faith of the writer?  Can we discern Milton’s beliefs or intentions in the first place?  Can we read Satan as just a literary character?  Asking the students this question directly may be the best way of dealing with whatever classroom situations arise.  By predisposing the students to the possibility that there are dissenting views, a space is cleared where these views can be considered. 

Here is an example of a writing assignment that emerges from my experience with a student who had objected to John Donne’s ‘Batter My Heart’ on religious grounds.  As a believing Christian, she argued, he should not have displayed so much agitation—any true believer would rest in the security of God’s love, much as George Herbert ultimately does in ‘Love (3).’ I asked the student to write a one-page position paper making her case; this was a good exercise in argumentative writing.  I then asked her to write a page analyzing the poem from a technical standpoint alone.  How did Donne manage to convey fear, agitation, dismay and longing using language?  How did he speak to God using poetic figures?  Finally, I asked her to consider Donne’s reasons for speaking in this manner, and what he achieved.  After this consideration, she produced a paper that incorporated both her original point of view and a consideration of Donne’s poetic aims and effects.  She ultimately concluded that Donne had reasons to speak to God in a combative tone, and that this combativeness had its own roots in faith.   If I had indicated to her that she should simply suppress her faith-based objections, she might not have been willing to delve so deeply into the poetry or to consider another side of the poetry.

Questions of audience and reception are explored when students are asked to write about their beliefs and ideas for an audience that may not share them. My colleague Phil Mirabelli notes that, although his course deals with potentially disturbing issues of sexuality that ‘may step on some toes,’ students ‘know that they are free to voice religious perspectives in class and in their papers, as long as they take into account that they are addressing people who may well have other religious beliefs or none at all.’ [17]  Making students aware that other people might feel differently—just as they have made me aware of the way they differ from me—is a great education, and excellent training for a 21st century pluralistic society, where students will required both to hear other points of view and to confidently express their own.


1. See, for example, Jyostna G. Singh, ‘Racial Dissonance/Canonical Texts: Teaching Early Modern Literary Texts in the Late Twentieth Century.’ Shakespeare Studies 26 (1998): 70-80. [back]

2. Diane Menna, E-mail communication to the ‘engdept’ discussion list [English Department of Queens College/CUNY], 9 December 2001. [back]

3. Anne Ruggles Gore, ‘Articles of Faith’ in ‘The Politics of the Personal: Storying our Lives Against the Grain,’ College English 64.1 (September 2001): 41-63. [back]

4. Sherry Hughes, student response paper, 29 November 2001. [back]

5. Carol Russo, student response paper, 29 November 2001. [back]

6. Ilana Teitelbaum, student response paper, 29 November 2001. [back]

7. ‘Forum: Twenty-six letters on the personal in scholarship.’ PMLA 111.5 (Oct. 1996): 1146-69. [back]

8. Debra Lockwood, student response paper 29 November 2001. [back]

9. Valerie Colon, student response paper, 29 November 2001. [back]

10. Ann Davison recounts a story where six Orthodox Jewish students objected to the public viewing of the film Dangerous Liasons, but agreed to privately screen the film and fast-forward through any portions they found unacceptable.  E-mail communication to the ‘engdept’ discussion list [English Department of Queens College/CUNY], 28 November 2001.  Talia Schaffer likewise remarks that one of her students asked to be spared ‘provocative’ material due to his Orthodox faith.  Private e-mail communication, 23 November 2001. Robert Kole notes that several of his religiously committed students were uncomfortable with what he felt to be standard discussions of cross-dressing and gender play in Shakespeare’s dramatic works.  Private letter, 5 December 2001. [back

11. Marissa Ahamad, student response paper, 29 November  2001. [back]

12. David Richter, E- mail communication to the ‘engdept’ discussion list [English Department of Queens College/CUNY], 8 December 2001. [back]

13. Shmuel Ross, e-mail communication to the author, 5 May 2000. [back]

14. Michael Carney, student response paper, 5 April 2000. [back]

15. Lamique Maloney, student response paper, 7 April 2000. [back]

16. Shmuel Ross, E-mail communication to the author, 5 May 2000. [back]

17. Phil Mirabelli, E- mail communication to the ‘engdept’ discussion list [English Department of Queens College/CUNY], 10 December 2001. [back]