Tag Archives: religion

“They tried to force the ‘savages’ to convert to Christianity by…”

My student is writing about the missionaries that tried to take what they considered the Word of God to Native American tribes. He’s using the term “savages” because that’s the term frequently used in the Christian literature, especially the Puritan literature, that discusses the indigenous peoples of New England. In American Literature I, we have read a lot of this literature, and also some of the eloquent testimony and commentary of Indian leaders. My favorite is the reply of Red Jacket, an orator and negotiator of the Seneca people, to the Massachusetts missionary Joseph Cram in 1805: “BROTHER: We do not wish to destroy your religion, or take it from you. We only want to enjoy our own.” If only people in the 21st century could think like that!

It is perhaps unfair to take a sentence from a midterm exam for discussion here, but what interests me is not the relatively minor writing error, which should probably be excused on a test; it is the shining evidence of a tin ear (or a blind mind’s-eye), the kind that afflicts people writing under pressure.

Here’s the full sentence, the completion of what I’ve teased you with above:

“They tried to force the ‘savages’ to convert to Christianity by throwing the Christian bible in their face.”

We’re not talking friendly persuasion!

The actual error is the number disagreement between “savages”/”their” and “face.” Attending to the plural might have made my writer pause and rethink his cliché. But he did not notice the mistake, and so he gave me a moment of hilarity in the midst of my midterm tears.

“Don’t throw that in my face,” we say, when someone we’re arguing with refers to a past gaffe or stupidity and thereby scores a point. I think that’s the principal usage for this phrase, isn’t it? If so, it’s not the cliché my student should have chosen (as long as he was determined to choose a cliché at all). Still, any reader knows he wasn’t speaking literally: we have no record of someone actually throwing Bibles at Indians, nor would my student have tried to claim anyone actually did. He just meant, I’m sure, that missionaries and others pushed the Christian message again and again, unremittingly, brooking no protest and engaging in no debate—for the “savages'” own good, assuredly, the missionaries must have believed.

Still, I did laugh at the ridiculous image, the cartoon that flitted across my mind’s eye, Chingachgook throwing up his hands to protect himself from the barrage of airborne Bibles being flung by the hot-eyed, high-collared holy.

Well, we would all have been better off if the only ammunition had been Bibles. Still a spiritual assault, true, but causing much less bodily harm, and less permanent harm, than the bullets from the muskets of settlers and the rifles of soldiers.

“Since the time of Jesus, when the only two known religions were Christianity and Judaism…”

Here’s another student’s compulsive history sketch-in. Why do they insist on doing this? Is it an effort to add a scholarly dimension to their comments, or some gravitas, or an air of authority? They just about never get the history right, undermining not only those hopes but also the credibility of whatever is going to come next.

Surely there were more than two “known” religions in “the time of Jesus.” What about those Romans, for a start, bosses in the same neighborhood?

We might even pick a nit or two and suggest that in the time of Jesus “Christianity” wasn’t a religion at all; Jesus claimed he was trying to purify or clarify the religion of the Hebrews, and most of his followers were Jews. Christianity as a cult, and then as a religion per se, developed after his death and resurrection.

But that was just the preparation for the rest of her sentence:

“Since the time of Jesus, when the only two known religions were Christianity and Judaism, the human race has come a long way and developed many other religions in which various people follow.”

Is it just a function of my place in the history of the world that when I hear “come a long way” I think of Virginia Slims, those elegant cigarettes designed to grace a woman’s hand (and bring the lung cancer statistics into gender balance)? Oh, sorry, be that as it may….

My student is somehow implying that having only two “known” religions is rather primitive: we’ve “come a long way” by developing a lot more religions. But what then of all those religions the Old-Testament Hebrews were trying so hard to stamp out? Did the world go backwards in getting down to two? What does she mean?

You’ll also notice the “in which” witch. Somewhere in the more recent past there must have been one hell of a teacher, pounding into thousands of student brains the notion that “which” cannot stand alone but always must be preceded by “in.” Even the Beatles had the notion “in this ever-changing world in which we live in.” I’m sure teachers were trying to teach no such thing: they wanted their students to stop ending sentences with prepositions, and so began conscientiously moving the “in” to stand before the “which” that usually lurked elsewhere in the sentence. But the students’ desire to put that beloved preposition at the end resulted in doubling it, putting one in front of the “which” and one at the end of the sentence. Now I even get sentences, like today’s, that require no preposition at all but throw “in” in front of “which” just the same. I also get sentences that use different prepositions but yet retain the “in”: “The college in which I went to,” for example. Maybe we need some ancient Hebrews to stamp that quasi-religious practice out!

My student does seem to have no doubt as to where religions come from: the human race “develops” them. So much for divine visitations. Well, we’ve done a great job, and now we’ve developed a lot of them, a veritable holy smorgasbord for “various” people to choose from. Or from which various people can choose.

I wish I had noted the actual subject of the essay from which this sentence came, because I can’t now imagine what point she might have been headed for.

But I must I say I like her suggestion that the more religions, the better off the human race is, and her evident belief that there’s no problem which religion “various” people choose to follow. If only we could all be so broad-minded.