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Spring 2008 | Volume 31, Number 1 | Features

Signs and Stories

By Lisa Lister
Photo by James Kegley

Lisa Lister
Lisa Lister, one of two Response Essay Competition 2008 winners.
My mind is a jumble of thoughts about Gideon, Moses, and Jonah asking for signs and obeying God’s commands. It is the start of my second year as an English professor and, along with my regular prayer for guidance and words, I ask for assurance that I’m serving his purpose — a sign that I’m in the right place.

As I enter my last class, a general education literature course, my morning prayer is far from my mind, however. It’s been a good day, albeit without wet fleeces or burning bushes, and my focus is on setting the right tone and completing the first day. As part of the standard syllabus and introductions, I give them the university’s goals for the course, the English Department goals for the course, and my goals. “By the end of the semester,” I tell them, “I want you to see how literature by or about people, places, cultures, or times very different from your own still relates to you. I want you to value what each person brings to the class and how it can enhance all of our understanding. I hope you’ll be a deeper reader and thinker. I want your world to be both bigger and smaller by the time you are done with this class.” I also want them to understand what my last statement means, but I don’t say that.

I then ask them to spend a few minutes writing about their favorite book and why they like it. “I want honesty in this class,” I warn. “No drivel about loving War and Peace. It’s perfectly OK to say that you haven’t read or enjoyed a full book.” A few faces look relieved, as if they hope this class might let them be real.

Each student offers a response. Midway through, I call on an apathetic-looking kid with a mop of bangs. He tosses his hair back and partially unslouches. “My favorite book is the book of Romans from the Holy Bible,” he says. The air shifts; it feels as if the entire class has taken a deep breath and is unwilling to exhale until they judge my reaction. I make eye contact and nod. “Why?” I ask the same question, in the same tone, that I’ve asked of every other student. The air loses its tautness. He explains that it’s Paul’s message about Christ and how salvation only comes through loving Christ. He talks about the message of living a life full of love and righteousness. I admire his courage.

A black woman a few rows back raises her hand. “I wrote about Romans, too,” she says and explains her reasons. A few students later, a shy, pale girl in the back row says that her favorite books are the Left Behind series. “They aren’t great writing, but they have a good message.” A young man says his favorite book is the Quran. “It’s my holy book and it teaches us how we should live.” He and the Romans duo exchange glances. I’m not sure if they’re wary or respectful. I’m not sure that it matters. I still don’t quite know God’s plan, but the discussion is my sign. For today it is enough.


Weeks later, we read The Kite Runner and discuss how symbolism and metaphor elucidate literature’s themes. We brainstorm a list of symbols and themes. The class pairs the lamb with sacrifice. We discuss the scenes in which the main character, Amir, compares his friend and servant, Hassan, to the lamb sacrificed on Eid-e-Qorban to commemorate Ibrahim’s near-slaughter of his son Isaac as a sacrifice to the Lord.

I know there is a lot that I can add to the discussion. I know that it makes sense to talk about the lamb and blood buying redemption, including how that applies to Christianity. But can I? The politics of academia, my own fears, my knowledge that my job in this class is to teach literature all weigh on me. But how can I tell my students to be honest and speak freely if I won’t do the same?

I take a deep breath. Here goes. No giant fish belly for me. I note that the lamb and sacrifice also pair with redemption. I explain that the story of Ibrahim, or Abraham as I know it, is shared by Muslims, Christians, and Jews. I explain that in Christianity the story of Abraham and Isaac is often read as a foreshadowing of God’s sacrifice of his son, which redeems mankind. We discuss whether the ending of the book indicates that Amir is redeemed. A Muslim student explains that in his religion, Isaac knew that his father was going to sacrifice him and still went willingly, as did Hassan. For him, it’s a story about filial obedience, and we discuss how this plays out in the novel in light of Amir sacrificing Hassan to win his father’s approval. A Jewish student adds that neither of these readings quite match her take on the story of Abraham and Isaac. We discuss how different interpretations of this symbol enrich our understanding of the novel’s themes and how our individual interpretation is altered by what we bring to our reading. They are eager, engaged, and class ends all too soon.

As I gather my notes, many students trickle out, continuing the discussion. They seem genuinely interested in understanding each other’s faiths. They see the shared histories and the differences. They are talking and listening. Respectfully. It is more than the U.N. accomplishes most days. And for today, it is enough.

It is a lot.


Lisa Lister has been a term assistant professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, for the past three years. She received an M.F.A. from American University in Washington, D.C., in 2005. Originally from Portland, Oregon, Lister now lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. She first read Response at a writing conference and says she "was struck by the importance of a publication that allows us to reflect on issues from a faith-based perspective."

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