Because I was so interested in some of the concepts discussed at the AWP panel I attended about writing the self in the transcendental experience, I decided to immediately incorporate the ideas into my classroom. Much of what I did on Monday was based on the information that writer Jeremy Jones presented during the panel.

I currently teach a course called Appreciation of the Writing Craft. This mutli-genre course introduces creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and drama to students ranging from English majors to those just trying to get a writing intensive credit in order to graduate. We are currently nearing the end of our fiction unit. Based on Jones’s suggestion that people of faith tend to lack the language necessary to communicate transcendent experiences and therefore cannot fully understand their experiences, and based on the prevalence of coded, cliche language, I put together the following class.

Note: This lesson would need to be adapted somewhat significantly for a class that isn’t offered by a Christian university. I don’t teach my class with the assumption that all of my students are believers, but I do function on the understanding that they are all somewhat versed in the Christian dialect and basic spiritual concepts of Christianity.

I started by borrowing some definitions from Wikipedia and drew a big circle on the board. In the circle, I wrote: SELF-5 SENSES-FAMILY-THE UNIVERSE-EVERYTHING.

Then, outside the circle, I wrote GOD. “Of course,” I said, “we don’t necessarily have to call this God. We can call it shared human experience, or a higher power, or whatever we want to call it. We’re making a literary argument, not a theological one.”

transcend.3

“Transcendence is crossing out of the circle from what we know based on our bodies’ experiences in the world and meeting God in some way.”

After a brief discussion of the concept, we watched three video clips.

Three AWESOME video clips.

None of which my students had ever seen before. Sometimes I wish my job could be to just introduce college students to good movies. “Okay, folks, now we’re going to meet this guy named the Dude…”

Anyway, these are the clips we watched and discussed as examples of transcendence or failed attempts at transcendence or, in the case of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, confused transcendence.

Following our discussion, we talked about the language issue.

How do you communicate something that is cloaked in euphemism and metaphor? How do you convey something that happens beyond our five immediate senses? Why is it that we get so trapped in words that don’t really carry much meaning?

Based on an idea from the panel, we next typed up a list of commonly used words to describe religious truths or experiences. We put everything from “bought by blood” to “karma.” The list was impressive and funny.

  • redeemed
  • saved
  • walk by faith, not by sight
  • broken
  • armor of God
  • spiritual warfare
  • nirvana
  • and many more

We concluded by spending some time attempting to write about a transcendent moment without using those words or any words like them. They had the option of writing about their conversion to Christianity (itself a euphemism shrouded in cliche), a moment in the life of a fictional character, or a poem based on some moment where they felt they had moved outside of the circle and into the presence of a higher power.

It was a great class period. My students were invested and interested in what we were doing. They shared opinions and made each other laugh. Some of them might go watch There Will Be Blood. What I hope is that we move forward with the semester, I can use this language we’ve developed about the topic of transcendence to respond in a more effective way to their writing.

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