by G. Jack Urso
Some years ago, one of my students submitted a draft of a comparison and contrast essay whose thesis was that Evangelical Christians were the only real Christians and Catholics, who were not really Christians, would be going to hell. I should note that this was a two-year public community college, not a religious school, so I thought it an odd choice.
Actually, I thought why in the name of God would this kid think the topic was a good choice, particularly considering he knew nothing about me. However, having been both Catholic and Evangelical in my increasingly distant past, he was walking into a trap of his own making. The line from Hamlet about someone getting “hoist by their own petard” came to mind.
I was familiar with this type of behavior having seen it throughout the churches I attended. This arrogance was a sort of sociopathic narcissism. His need to proclaim his faith was greater than his desire to actually practice it. It reminded me about how some Plains Indians would “count coup” by getting close enough to the enemy to hit them with a stick and then ride away without fighting. Kid Christian wasn’t interested in debating his ideas. He just wanted a religious hit-and-run so he could go back to his tribe and show what a great man of faith he is.
I have had many students of many faiths in my classes who wrote about their religions, but never one who asserted people of another religion were going to hell. The assignment was a comparison and contrast essay and I told the students they could compare apples and oranges or cats and dogs. I didn’t care. I just need to see how they write and can provide documentation for their ideas.
In reviewing his rough draft with him, I noted the assignment required two sources for support for his ideas, and he provided none, so I asked him where he got this information. He said a teacher at his small Evangelical high school taught a class on comparative religion, though it seemed to consist primarily of who would be going to hell and why. Other than that, he had no other sources, and at least two were required.
His reasoning was that since he knew what he believed he didn’t need to find any sources. I reminded him that it was not an option he could disregard because he found it inconvenient. The sources could be books, magazines, journal articles, etc. In fact, he didn’t even quote the bible. The essay was just a list of “stuff he heard from his high school teacher.”
I asked him to tell me more about the school he attended and I knew it. My small Evangelical high school played his small Evangelical high school in soccer — and regularly beat them — oh, so many years ago. Rural and in the middle of nowhere, there was little diversity of religion or race in the area.
I seldom mention my personal opinions on politics or religion in class, so the student really had no idea what was coming. When I revealed that not only was I raised Catholic and received four of the sacraments, but I also attended Evangelical churches in my youth and graduated from an Evangelical high school and college, the look on his face, which until then had been quite confident, suddenly dropped. He realized I was the absolute last person he could try and run this essay by.
Much to his surprise and consternation, he discovered I could quote the bible as extensively as he could as I proceeded to trade him scripture for scripture. Not only had I been Catholic and Evangelical, but I was now agnostic. I was pretty much this student's nightmare.
Now, I don’t mind being told to go to hell — there’s a long waiting list — but telling me I’m going there in the context of a comparison and contrast paper in a public community college seems a little off-topic.
I gave him the benefit of the doubt it wasn’t his intention to insult me, entirely, but something about the road to hell being paved with good intentions comes to mind. As he mulled over what I said, I could tell that the lesson was sinking in. Don't go into someone's house and tell them they're going to hell, especially if they know the bible better than you.
Nevertheless, the primary issue was that he essentially wrote an argumentation and persuasion essay, not a comparison and contrast essay. We don’t do argumentation until Comp II, and I told him if he handed it in as is the essay would be graded by criteria we haven’t covered, so combined with the lack of sources if he handed in the paper as is it would likely get an “F.”
However, it’s a free country and he’s paying the tuition, though I suggested if he wants to tell me I’m going to hell he better have some very good sources because, frankly, I was predisposed not to believe his thesis.
He got the message and decided to rewrite the final draft as a straight comparison and contrast paper between Catholicism and Evangelicalism and avoided the discussion of hell except how each defines it. He dug up some sources and got a B-.
It was a reluctant change of course for him, but he did it and that was perhaps the best lesson he could have learned through the whole experience.
That and never telling your teacher he is going to hell.
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