Saturday 12 January 2019

The Professor and the Book

Even more updates at the end.

I was sorry to discover last night that Professor Stephen Lewis of the Franciscan University of Steubenville is no longer the Chair of the English Department, thanks to the scandal that erupted this week.

If you don't know the story, last spring Professor Lewis assigned the translation of a critically acclaimed French novel that was all the rage in French and then English literary circles to a class of five senior students. The author, Emmanuel Carrère, is an ex-Catholic atheist who--as many writers do--turned to the New Testament for inspiration and rewriting after getting some other novels under his belt.

"Under his belt" is apropos, for Carrère included in his novel a lot of pornographic salacious trash about holy people---including Our Lady. If you've ever read Saint Thomas Aquinas on blasphemy, you might recall that he thought the correct response to it was to have the writer executed by the state. I found this out when I was at grad school thinking hard about the Mohammed Cartoon Crisis, thirteen years ago.

Someone at Franciscan U tipped off Church Militant this week about the controversial course material, and Christine Niles had the unhappy task of reading and reproducing one of the worst passages, which I have carefully avoided reading. It is ironic that CM introduced to the general public what Professor Lewis introduced to five senior literature students, but let's not get into that. I'm just happy LSN didn't go that route. Meanwhile, CM did due diligence by asking FUS about the story, and here is what their PR man said:

"Franciscan University challenges students intellectually, helps form them professionally, and engages them spiritually. This includes arming our students with the knowledge and wisdom to confront the challenges of a coarse modern culture, which often runs contrary to Catholic teaching. Heresy, and sinful acts such as murder and adultery that go against Catholic teaching, are addressed at Franciscan to help to strengthen students’ faith and prepare them to engage with today’s culture. While this happens through the study of literature by authors such as Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare who portray many sinful acts, it can also happen when they grapple with significant challenges to Catholic faith by contemporary writers. Franciscan students learn through critical comparison to consider multiple sides of an issue or argument, led by professors who always promote Catholic spiritual and moral perspectives. Thus, our students graduate better prepared to solve problems and engage with integrity in a world that desperately needs to hear the truth. Where would we be, for example, if Catholics were unable or unwilling to engage with and push back against calumny such as The Da Vinci Code or against worse heresies and dangerous heterodoxies? Franciscan University promotes an authentic and vibrant Catholic faith—inside and outside the classroom—that helps students succeed spiritually, morally, and intellectually. We remain firm in providing the integration of faith and reason that will give them the best chance at lifelong success."

I've spent two days asking myself on-and-off if I buy that. My initial response, which I tweeted to Christine Niles, was that in "real life" nobody makes you read pornographic blasphemy. I added that I got two degrees in English Literature from a "world-class secular university" without having to read pornographic blasphemy. Only later did it occur to me that as a student I read very few novels written after 1950 and that I got my MA in 1997. For all I know secular university literature departments are awash in blasphemous pornography these days.

The biggest insult to Our Lady I came across as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto was a photograph of a statue of Our Lady with a banana balanced on its head. It was published on the front page of a tabloid-style student newspaper--probably The Gargoyle---and I was absolutely furious.

I was so angry, I scooped up as many copies of the newspaper as I could find when I was alone and threw them into the trash. When I told my father, a professor of English Literature, he mildly observed that this was both stealing and censorship.

"What about the Index?" I asked, thinking of the handy Church blacklist done away with by V2.

"The Index was wrong," quoth Dad, or words to that effect. (It was almost thirty years ago, people.)

My father, incidentally, never misses Sunday Mass and was the parent who dragged us kids off to Confession periodically.  Thus I was forced to think seriously for the first time about the best way to respond to blasphemy. Apparently throwing things in the trash or setting them on fire is not universally held to be the contemporary solution.

And that, readers, was over just a puerile black-and-white photograph of a statue with a banana on its head, not a disgusting novel by a fashionable French atheist.

To return to 2019, after the CM story broke Steubenville was inundated with angry messages by CM readers, including tuition-paying parents and donors, according to CM's next report. FUS responded within 24 hours with a massive apology and, within 48, by demoting Lewis as department chair--unless he resigned, of course.  That bit of the story I discovered on social media very late last night.

As I've said, I've been thinking about the scandal for two days, and I did some digging. There are so many questions. Who at Franciscan U. contacted CM over a book read last year by five students,  and why now, not then? Why did Lewis assign that particular anti-christian "new New Testament" novel, not another? Why did the Chair of the English Department assign the translation of a French book?  What is Lewis' specialty? Do Franciscan U grads actually get into PhD programs in English Lit? Should Franciscan U grads spend 5+ years of their lives in PhD programs in English Lit?

I found out that the dirty book is/was indeed considered very "important" and "brilliant" (etc.) by literary critics. I learned too that Lewis is the English-language translator of an important French Catholic philosopher, a phenomenologist named Jean-Luc Marion who was a student of Jacques Derrida of all people. I did not know Steubenville reached such academic heights: ortho-Catholic gossip characterizes Steubie as the Hufflepuff of the new, sound Catholic universities.

I also found out that while many of his colleagues were willing to go on record to CM and/or LSN to condemn the book Lewis assigned, they won't go on record to condemn him. And through social media I heard the same story several times from Steubie grads and people involved in American Catholic academia: Professor Lewis is a serious scholar and a good Catholic who would never introduce a dirty book to students to corrupt or amaze them (unlike Somebody Else).

That's what I would have written had I been assigned the story. I wasn't, so instead I made the following comment in the LSN combox when a commentator misread something in the LSN article:

Putting on my English Lit hat here to make a small but important point: the professor has an interest in "the erotic" not "erotica." Professor Lewis is the English translator of an important French Catholic philosopher, and in a philosophical and theological context "eros" is the inner impulse to reach outside oneself to something or someone else. It can be good, like falling deeply in love, or it can be bad, like succumbing to the lure of internet porn or high-stakes gambling. 
Did the professor ask his five senior students to examine critically a dirty (if fashionable, highly-acclaimed-by-literary-critics) novel? Yes. Is the professor a dirty person? His colleagues and Steubenville alumni rushing to defend him in social media say No. Did the professor make an error in judgement? His colleagues and Steubenville administration say Yes. Were his motives base? His colleagues and Steubenville administration say No. 
The most charitable but still intellectually honest assumption, given all this data, is that the professor simply wished to assist his students in confronting and effectively critiquing anti-Christian novels, so that as future Catholic scholars they could themselves combat the disgusting trends in contemporary literature. 
As Professor Hahn noted, however, there is a line that cannot be crossed. The novel's author treated our blessed Mother in a disgusting fashion, and no-one should ever be expected to read or discuss a work that contains pornographic trash about one's own mother, let alone the Mother of God.

I'm writing about the scandal here, too, because I'm sorry I got caught up in disgust and doubt when the CM piece first came out and tweeted without considering all the facts. Blasphemy (and porn, for that matter) whips past reason, straight to the passions. I think when Muslims say they love Mohammed more than their own mothers, I will pay more attention from now on.

My conclusions are that it is possible to hate the book and to believe that Professor Lewis made a mistake in judging it worthy of attention without needing also to believe that he had base motives in introducing the text to his five senior students. That is FUS's revised position, and I see no reason to doubt that.

As for forces of evil and secularism trying to turn FUS into the next CINO college, I am not qualified to comment or judge. But I do know something about poisonous academic politics, and if at the bottom of all this is an envious colleague trying to take down a more talented man, I hope Lewis is offered a tenure track position at Columbia with a massive increase in salary.
Update: By the way, sorry I've been late in okaying comments. I'm so busy these days, I forget to check.

Update 2 (Jan 13): It is becoming clearer that the book may not be dirty throughout although it has disgusting passages. As I should have done much earlier, I have been reading reader reviews. I was startled this morning to discover, via JDFlynn on Twitter, that the work was reviewed by First Things:

Update 3 (Jan 13): It is also becoming clearer that the book and the author really are important enough not to be ignored by a literature department: see this New York Times Magazine piece. And this brings me to another point of interest: what is Franciscan University of Steubenville for?

Does FUS want to create a new generation of Catholic scholars, or does it want to avoid that and merely equip generations of American Catholic youngsters with the minimum education they need to be employable nurses, computer engineers, and other useful occupations?

I'm treading carefully here because a man's livelihood is on the line, but if FUS does not want to produce Catholic scholars who have read influential works (like, for example, Lolita) and therefore will be able to contribute to their fields of study, then maybe it is not the place for a serious scholar.

But that could lead to a problem. Unless we are all going to retreat from society, Catholics need intellectual leaders who will fight for Catholic philosophical positions in places of influence, and the Academy is quite obviously a place of influence, as millions of young people pass through it every year.

Update 4 (January 14): As more and more people chime in, I begin to see why FUS professors may be freaking out out over FUS professors. Nobody forced me to read Rabelais in the University of Toronto English Department, and when I left the University of Toronto, I didn't thing reading sexually explicit, anti-Catholic texts was a mark of sophistication, a necessary rite of human passage.

For more insight into the FUS story, better see this. I'm afraid it's a bit of an own-goal for the author because I was shocked. I had been wondering what other texts the FUS profs had been worried about, and now I know. There are good ways to present these texts, and there are bullying ways to present these texts. I was saddened by the girl crying over Aristophanes, not because she was such an innocent, but because losing one's innocence is  sad.


  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I first heard of the scandal from an irate writer and FUS grad, who basically attacked CM as doing the devil's work at all times, not merely in this piece. I felt that she was going much too far in saying that, but like you, when I saw that First Things had reviewed the book, I began to rethink my initial response. I wish that CM had not whipped up the mob like it did. We all need to beware of the temptation to rash judgment, and I hope the professor does not suffer unduly from this.

    1. I had an online conversation with Christine Niles, the CM reporter who wrote the story, and her sources were FUS faculty members. FUS faculty spoke with LSN too when LSN followed up the story, ones who used their names to say they thought the use of the book was a mistake, and the one
      who didn't supply a name who attacked Lewis more directly.

      Unfortunately, important details have not been revealed, like the name of the course, and important voices have not been heard, like those of the students.

      I'm also troubled by this statement: "Upperclassmen in the literature department might be better off with exposure to Dante or modern Catholic writers, rather than questionable literature that advances the LGBTQ agenda, suggested the professors"---not in the least being that Carrere is (or was) a Catholic writer. (He's a post-Catholic writer, I guess). A leading Catholic contemporary writer is Piers Paul Read, and he certainly writes erotic scenes. So did Graham Greene. Evelyn Waugh very likely "advanced the LGBT agenda" with his highly sympathetic portrayals of SSA men. It would be terrific if FUS English profs read and taught more novels by Catholics--even comparing the great with the merely good--but not at the expense of sending its best students into intellectual battle unarmed.

      Another detail I'd like to have are the names of other books on the course, or what the other books are that are troubling to FUS faculty who don't like Professor Lewis. There are important reasons to present certain works troubling to Catholic sensibilities to college students. Plato's "Symposium" includes a same-sex couple and homoerotic flirting, but it is an important and influential work. Joyce's "Ulysses" is anti-Catholic and has (at very least) a blasphemous poem, but some familiarity with it is necessary if you want to be considered knowledgable about early 20th century world literature.

      It is not surprising--and it is heartening too--that Catholics' first reaction to an insult to the honour of the Mother of God is righteous anger. However, the professor didn't make the insult: the author did. One of the professor's colleagues, Professor Bob Rice, has posted this online:

      "Even more troubling was a recent article because it directly involved a colleague of mine in the English department, a man who I know to have a sincere faith and love for the Church. In an upperclass elective (with five students in it) that examined the difference in approach between Catholics and non-Catholics in literature, he included a blasphemous and arguably pornographic book as an example of the kind of “bad” literature that was out there. It was a poor choice (that he did once)."

      Like other upset FUS grads, Rice blames the media, but neither LSN nor CM was in Ohio, rootling around by the FUS paper shredder. If Lewis' defenders want his side of the story more explicitly presented in LSN or CM, either he or they should contact LSN or CM. Niles told me she received no response from Lewis when she contacted him. That was a mistake, I think. The PR man made a pretty speech, but a course description might have been more helpful.

  2. Speaking as a Catholic who struggles with sexual addictions, I find the descriptions of the reading material mentioned at the various FUS classes horrifying. How many students and alumni may have secretly been aroused at least once during their studies, maybe even opening the door to getting hooked on unchaste things, or relapsing to behavior they had tried to leave behind? I'm glad I never attended there now.

    I know that not everyone struggles to the same extent that I do, (some even worse than me,) and the professors probably have good intentions. I can't help but be disturbed though.

  3. I agree, having the course syllabus to put this book in its proper context would be helpful. What was the title of the course? An upper level elective in modern literature, presumably...

    1. I wish I knew. Christine Niles asked at FUS, but FUS wouldn't tell her. That was stupid. If FUS were smarter, it have done some research on its base--crucially, what news FUS parents and donors watch and what blogs FUS parents and donors read. Moral of story: if your money and clients/students come from Church Militant fans, answer Christine Niles' questions.