I taught at a Catholic women’s college in Minnesota for 15 years. Half of my courseload was an interdisciplinary seminar in writing and critical thinking.
Teaching critical thinking at a Catholic college is strange, but only half as strange as it seems. Every official college document, from the Mission Statement to the Catholic Identity Statement, trumpeted the vital importance of critical thinking, open intellectual inquiry, the vigorous exchange of opposing views, etc. So critical thinking was alive and well in writing. Just not in practice. Issues of religion, race, and gender, among many others, had accepted, unchallenged orthodoxies. Unorthodoxy was killed off in one way or another, usually with suffocating silence.
My head eventually began to hurt from the dissonance. To relieve the pressure, I turned to humor, writing the satirical novel Calling Bernadette’s Bluff, the utterly fictional story of a secular humanist male faculty member at the utterly fictional College of St. Bernadette, a Catholic women’s college in Minnesota. It’s still selling the occasional copy after five years, which is nice, and reviews were good. Most of all, it saved me a blown cerebral artery by allowing me to get some things said. And by doing so humorously, I got the same reprieve as Erasmus from the (direct) wrath of the Powers that Were. For a while.
A few months after publication, a couple of students asked if I would like to form a student humanist group on campus, “like the one in your book.”
Like the one in the book? I thought. Surely not.
I reminded them that things in the book went seriously unwell for the group in question, and for the college itself. They shrugged. So we did it. And things went badly.
How they went badly is a good story in itself, eventually involving locked doors, bad press for the college, the first student protest in the school’s history (against the censorious college president), hate mail for me, equal measures of faculty courage and cowardice, and a tenure standoff with the college deans. But that’s another story. This series is about humor and critical thinking.
My tenure committee
In the service of my children’s addictions to food and clothing, I hung around for as long as I could, then gave notice in May ’05 that I would leave in May ’06. My resignation was gratefully accepted by the president. Many faculty colleagues expressed genuine and eloquent grief over my decision, something that warms me to this day.
I had to decide how to disengage with the place I’d worked most of my adult life. I felt tremendous bitterness at the hypocrisy and cowardice at several levels. But instead of giving in to that, I decided to say goodbye with a humor.
I approached the editors of the faculty e-newsletter with the idea of a mock advice column called “Ask the Bible Gal.” After some knee-clacking, they consented to run it. I decided to use it to gently skewer hypocrisies on campus and in religion generally.
You may recognize the influence of a famous Internet satire in the first installment:
ASK THE BIBLE GAL
A Lighthouse in the Wilderness
Dear Bible Gal:
I have a colleague who teaches a Weekend College class on Sunday, thereby working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states that she must be put to death — but am I morally obligated to do it myself?
Mystified in Minneapolis
Excellent question! If the college administration doesn’t take care of it, then yes, I guess it’s up to you to lend a hand. Just don’t do it on the Sabbath, or you’d be working too! Thanks for writing, and be sure to let me know how it goes!
The next week had this follow-up:
Dear Bible Gal:
Longtime reader, first-time correspondent. I’m writing on behalf of “Mystified in Minneapolis,” a colleague of mine who wrote recently for advice on dealing with a Sabbath-breaker. She took your advice, and – well, let’s just say there’s one less Sabbath-breaker this Sunday, praise God!
“Mystified” would have written to you herself, but at the post-retribution party (you’ll get a kick out of this), somebody pointed out that she had in turn violated the Sixth Commandment against killing! Oh, you should have seen her face, she turned as red as a tomato! We all had a good laugh, then killed her, of course (Leviticus 24:17, “If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death”) – and boy then did we have a problem, since we had to kill the killers…
We want to do this “by the Book,” so here’s the question: what should the last person do? – Stumped in St. Paul
There’s a scriptural solution to every problem. In this case, WWSD: what would Saul do? (1 Sam 31:4). Problem solved! Let me know how it…oops. Never mind :-)! BG
(Saul kills himself.) A dozen faculty members whispered their approval of the satires in passing on campus. Others glared. I felt a little less pressure in my head each week:
Dear Bible Gal:
Each August, I am appalled anew by a festival of sin at the Minnesota State Fair. In case you don’t know about it, images are graven into blocks of butter, a clear violation of the Second Commandment and an encouragement to every type of unholy transgression. I’ve enclosed photos of this past year’s outrage. Can’t these people read?? It’s further proof that we need the Commandments posted in public schools for easy reference. – No Margarine for Error
May I gently suggest that you read the Commandment before casting stones about unholy oleo! The Second Commandment forbids not just graven images but the making of “any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above or in the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth.” Any likeness, dear, which means your little snapshot constitutes a first-class ticket to the Ninth Circle! Why, the film The Ten Commandments was itself one gigantic violation! Cecil B. DeMille’s skull is surely the drinking-gourd of Lucifer even as we speak.
As for me, I pray to see the Second Commandment posted in art classes, for the much-needed boost it would give to Abstract Expressionism. – BG
Dear Bible Gal:
I am a Bible-believing high school senior and feminist, in search of a Bible-believing feminist college. How thrilled I was to hear about the College of St. Catherine, a place that knows the greatest source of empowerment for women is the truth of Scripture!
At least that’s what I thought St. Kate’s was. My faith in that school crumbled on a recent campus visit, when I learned that women actually teach there, despite the admonition of 1 Timothy 2:12 (“Do not permit a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence”). How on earth can a college claim to empower women if it doesn’t even follow the Holy Word of God?! – Real Feminists Aren’t Timothy-Leery
Dear Real Feminist:
You truly dodged a bullet, dear! That darned place has a long history of disregarding all of the powerful feminist Scriptures. I’ve heard they don’t even require women to be silent in church – as if the Apostle Paul didn’t know what was best for women’s empowerment! You want real scriptural feminism? Go to St. Thomas, girlfriend! – BG
Dear Bible Gal:
At last, after eleven years, our church expansion is completed! Last week the Building Committee voted to inscribe the last words of Christ over the entrance to our new educational wing and coffee shop. But at the meeting, someone pointed out that the Gospels – well, I wouldn’t say they contradict each other, of course, since that’s not possible, but they seem to render the true words in three different ways – in Matthew (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”), Luke (“Father, unto thy hands I commend my spirit”), and John (“It is finished”). Is one of these truths more, you know, true than the others? – Stumped by a Cross Word Puzzle
Dear Cross Word:
Eleven years for one building project! I’d suggest you go with John! – BG
Dear Bible Gal:
Last Easter weekend my husband and I stayed in the basement suites at the Days Inn in Charleston, South Carolina as part of their WWJD Easter package – “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt 12:40), just like our Lord! We checked in on Good Friday and “arose” on Easter Sunday. Get it?
My husband – apparently using secular math – blasphemously suggested at the front desk that we should have been charged for only two nights! Obviously he was wrong: Friday afternoon through Sunday morning must equal “three days and three nights” – or else Christ Himself misspoke in the Scriptures! Aack!
Easter’s approaching again, and we’re Carolina-bound. I don’t want him to embarrass me again. Please help me to help him see his error! – Counting the Days Inn
Your husband is getting caught in that literalist trap! When the Lord said “three days and three nights,” He was speaking of a metaphorical three days and three nights. I hope that clears things up, and further hope you were charged in allegorical dollars. – BG
And on it went, for a year. By the time I left, I felt fine.
Many on the faculty apparently had the least desirable reaction of all, the same one they had to all controversy—they wished all the icky conflicting views would just go away, wished for the return to the silent, smiling denial of dissonance that had driven me first crazy, then away.
Perhaps that silent, uncommented dissonance returned after I left, I dunno. But I can’t help hoping that the genie, once out of her bottle, has continued flying around that place, knocking things over and crapping on the carpets.