Biblical Illiteracy and the Modern Reader

Teaching Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” to Biblically illiterate college students reminded me of the great extent to which Western literature assumes familiarity with the Bible.

I’VE HAD PARABLES ON THE BRAIN the last few days. Of course, the Gospel readings that the Church’s lectionary provides at this green time of the year are full of parables, and Mark Shea’s recent feature article on InsideCatholic.com, “The Parable of the Dishonest Steward,” [link no longer available] is a good exploration of why Christ so often taught in parables and, also, why he had to explain them, even though on the face of it they are quite simple moral tales. As Shea points out, what’s obvious to a Christian may not be obvious to others, who have not “eyes to see nor ears to hear”; these only faith can provide.

However, one of the reasons I’ve been thinking about parables lately really has nothing to do with the liturgical lectionary or even the Gospels per se. In the literature class I’m currently teaching (an introduction to the basics of literary interpretation), we’ve been studying short stories and how they work. This means we’ve been reading selections that provide good illustrations of the various techniques we’re discussing (plot, setting, point of view, character, etc.).

Most recently, we’ve been examining Katherine Anne Porter’s frequently-anthologized short story, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall”—a real literary gem. I don’t know much about Porter, other than the fact that she was a native Texan, at one time writing for a Fort Worth newspaper, and a convert to Catholicism (although during a long period of her life she was apparently disaffected from religion in general). I haven’t read a lot of her work, but “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” makes me want to read more.

“The Jilting of Granny Weatherall”

The story is a told in a narrative voice that literary types would classify as “third person, limited omniscient.” This simply means that the voice telling the story does not belong to any of the characters in the story, and it allows us to know things that an ordinary objective observer could not know—in this case, the reader hears the rambling thoughts of elderly, dying Granny Weatherall during the last hours of her life.

As the reader discovers fairly early on, it’s not easy to figure out what, objectively, is happening in Granny’s sick room, since the events come to us filtered, for the most part, through the old woman’s groggy, feeble, and wandering consciousness. Therefore, the narration is more complex that it appears at first, and not only because Granny’s idea of what is happening to and around her is not always accurate.

Porter’s authorial intention penetrates below the surface level of objective reality, beneath even the subjective level of Granny’s mental meanderings, down to the moral level of Granny’s spiritual state—something which even Granny herself seems determined to ignore, and which many readers will miss altogether. This complexity is one of the things that interests me most about the story. In fact, this moral level of significance, in which the author explores and comments on Granny’s spiritual condition, is the real focus of the story, but, sadly, many readers won’t ever realize this.

Porter alludes to this level through oblique use of Biblical motifs taken from Christ’s parables about death and judgment, but the effect these allusions is gradual and cumulative. Nonetheless, the insistence of these parabolic images grows in intensity until their presence finally bursts into plain view in the final paragraph or two. In the end, they are hard to overlook, at least for anyone equipped to recognize them at all. But to miss them is to miss the meaning of the story, whose central theme is Granny’s spiritual unreadiness to meet her death.

Blinded to Biblical Allusion

When Katherine Anne Porter first published this story in 1930, she could reasonably expect that many, if not most, of her readers would be familiar with the stories of the Bible, particularly the parables Jesus tells. For centuries, literary authors had alluded to the Bible to illuminate their own works of fiction. But, alas, the great stories of the Bible are no longer part of the warp and woof of Western culture, and otherwise literate Americans who read this story today may easily miss the main point Porter is trying to make.

A casual cruise of the internet on the subject of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” will discover not only dozens of predictably awful essays and summaries written by and for students, but also offerings by “professionals” who either deliberately ignore or unwittingly overlook the ample Biblical allusions that point to thematic heart of this story. I even found one academic essay by a certain scholar of the University of Miami which insists on interpreting the story from a feminist perspective and therefore misses the point altogether. Ironically, our modern scholar, thinking herself very clever, winds up, like Granny Weatherall, missing the real thing while looking for something that will never appear.

Given this general cultural blindness, I could hardly blame my students for having no idea that the story alludes to the parable of the wise and the foolish virgins. And, when I point it out to them, they are still not much wiser, because they don’t know what the parable means, much less how it relates to Granny Weatherall. If I belabor the point and explain the significance of the final lines that point to Granny being one of the foolish, rather than the wise, virgins, their eyes begin to glaze over and I can almost hear them thinking: “Literature can mean anything you want it to mean. What a bunch of hooey.”

If we don’t know the Bible, we are, in effect, culturally illiterate.

Here’s why the sad effects of Biblical illiteracy in the general culture which should concern anyone with an ounce of cultural sensibility: many of our great works of literature are now largely incomprehensible even to “sophisticated” and highly-educated readers, simply because virtually all literature written before the mid-twentieth century makes use of allusions to a treasure-chest of meaning that has been banished to the cultural outhouse. The Bible has been banned in the public sphere, and its cultural influence is ignored or denied.

In the case of the Porter story, failing to recognize Biblical references and their significance will force an otherwise-astute reader to arrive at exactly the wrong conclusion regarding the meaning of the story. How many other, even greater, cultural treasures are, in effect, being distorted and defaced by this cultural blind spot? Loss of familiarity with the great stories of the Bible produces a great loss not only for those who are at least nominally Christian, but for our culture as a whole. This argument has been made with greater eloquence by others before me, but it is one that has been borne in upon me with renewed force this week as my students and I have been analyzing this widely-read work by one of America’s great short story writers.

One reply on “Biblical Illiteracy and the Modern Reader”

Who said you can't teach an old dog new tricks? I find your blog most interesting and educational. Thanks Teacher!

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