Going Deeper with Our English Redesign
By Megan Bridgwater
What strikes me about Christ’s call to Peter to “go out into deep water” in chapter five of Luke’s gospel is that Peter didn’t really want to do it. In fact, Jesus’ command comes in the context of Peter’s exhaustion from having worked all night with no success. Jesus gives the order and Peter begs off, trying to convey to Jesus that he’s not looking for advice, he’s looking for rest. “Master,” he says, “we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing.” In some translations, after the word “nothing,” there is a comma and when I imagine this scene, I read that comma as a long pause accompanied by a heavy sigh. In this pregnant pause where the comma is, I think Peter is hoping that Jesus will relent. That he will say, “Gosh, Peter, you do seem tired. Why don’t I rustle up some fish and you take a break?” But Jesus doesn’t take the hint, and Peter, exhausted but faithful, obeys. And then something strange happens. I don’t mean the reward of suddenly catching a lot of fish. I mean that when Peter catches all those fish, the situation is perilous for him. The net becomes too heavy, it starts to tear with the weight of the fish, and, as Peter strains to handle it, his boat begins to sink. As someone who has felt my own “net” weighing me down and threatening to capsize me in these years of teaching through a pandemic, I sympathize with Peter here. Why does Jesus respond to Peter’s fatigue by upping the stakes and making the work even more challenging?
Over the past few years, the Marin Catholic English Department has been undertaking a curriculum redesign, the audacious goal of which is to provide a program of study that forms our students as not just college-ready readers, writers, and critical thinkers, but calls them higher—to become poets, philosophers, and saints. Charged with this aspirational vision and convinced of our students’ potential and ability to grow more deeply through their study of literature, we got to work. As part of this transformational change, the English teachers, ourselves, went into the depths, to contemplate our deepest core beliefs about the value of studying literature at a Catholic school. The fruit of this contemplative work was the creation of a set of departmental “root beliefs.” I will share just two of them here. The Marin Catholic English Department believes that our shared human experience is best revealed through story and that literature challenges, transforms, and delights. Given these beliefs, we asked ourselves: what, then, should our students study and contemplate?
To answer this question, we looked to the model provided by Jesus himself. We thought about the stories that Jesus told. Throughout his ministry, when Jesus really wanted to make a point, he did so through parables. He told stories that made common things strange. He unsettled his listeners, prompting them to consider more deeply what he was trying to help them understand and, in doing so, invited them to allow their own life stories to take new directions. Jesus’ parables encourage us to seek beauty, truth, and goodness at all cost and so they became for us the guiding framework through which we began to consider our selection of literary texts. We asked, will reading this text cause students to not only be able to attend to the disciplinary skills of English, but call them to the adventure of discovering something deeper about God, themselves, and the world?
The result of these considerations is that each of the four years of English at Marin Catholic are now anchored by a biblical parable that prompts students to greater reflection on our shared human experience and provides them with opportunities to be challenged, transformed, and, we hope, delighted by what they read. Our freshmen read their course texts through the thematic lens of the parable of “The Good Samaritan” and are charged to consider questions about the obligation we have to be just and merciful to our neighbors. Our sophomores, in contemplating the parable of “The Talents” (a challenging text in its own right!) are prompted to reflect on how recognizing their gifts is essential to understanding their calling and purpose in life. This year our juniors will begin studying the parable of “The Sower” as we seek to form them into people who know and seek truth and who are discerning consumers of the various texts they encounter in everyday life. And our seniors reflect on what it means to be truly free as they enter into the redemptive story of “The Prodigal Son.” If a meaningful life is built upon love of God and love of neighbor, then the stories we read ought to inspire us to know better how to do these things. This is one way in which we have “gone deeper” in our English curriculum.
But to bring this back to the fisherman…
Going deeper means answering a call to adventure that is both harder and more rewarding than we bargained for. Peter thought he deserved a rest, maybe a little comfort. Instead he got a haul of fish so heavy he was in danger. That experience was probably initially really scary and, ultimately, really rewarding for Peter. He worked harder and got a bigger reward for his efforts. But Luke doesn’t end the story there. The great haul of fish, as it turns out, wasn’t really about fish at all. Jesus didn’t call Peter to the deep to make him the most successful fisherman in Galilee, but rather, to make him a fisher of men. The real call was for Peter to root himself deeply in Christ himself, so deeply that he would be transformed into the deep foundation on which Christ built his Church, something he could not have anticipated when he humbly, exhaustedly, assented to Jesus’ call.
When we answer a call to adventure, we do not often get the comfort we are seeking; in fact, we are almost immediately met with greater challenges and difficulties. This is what our seniors who are taking the Imaginative Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien seminar recognize when they read The Fellowship of the Ring. Bilbo Baggins warns his nephew, Frodo, “It’s a dangerous business, […] going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” But Frodo steps out anyway because he knows that though there is great risk, there is also great hope in discovering that there is a wider world out there, one in which he has a key role to play. It is our hope that our students are made uncomfortable by what they read with us. We hope to see them struggle and rise up amidst the strain in order that they might be transformed into something greater: poets, philosophers, and saints who follow Peter (and Frodo) in bringing light and hope to the world.