Tuesday, August 5, 2008


Over the past few weeks I've been re-reading Helen Keller's The Story of My Life as a way to further wrestle with how we appropriate language--particularly religious language (see Chapter Seven "The Art of Immersion" in The God-Hungry Imagination). Postliberal theologian George Lindbeck refers to Keller in The Nature of Doctrine, noting how language doesn't merely define our experience but in many ways creates it. So I was curious to see if his assessment of Keller holds up when reading her autobiography.

For the uninitiated, her story goes like this: Helen was rendered blind and deaf at the age of 18 months and was thus robbed of language and speech. Until her teacher, Anne Sullivan, came along when Helen was seven, Helen had no way of connecting the world of sensory perception (taste, smell, and touch) to any sense of meaning in the world. She was, as a friend of mine described it, "raw data," all impulse and emotion. Then one day Anne took her out to a water pump, and while the cold water was pouring into Helen's hand, Anne signed the word for w-a-t-e-r over and over again. Helen suddenly understood. She now wanted to know the name of everything she touched. Suddenly her world held meaning. It wasn't (as so many people seem to think of language) that the world had held meaning before and Helen simply needed language to express it; it's that without language she was unable to experience the meaningfulness of the world at all.

Sociologist Christian Smith speaks of language in a similar way in his book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2005). His concern is that today's teenagers are "incredibly inarticulate" about the religious beliefs they claim to hold--despite their ability to articulate all kinds of other important information. They haven't been taught religious language and belief, and thus, it's not surprising that religion plays only a small role in their everyday lives. It holds little meaning beyond their immediate impulses and needs. He contends that religious beliefs can be "no more vaguely real" for people if they can't articulate them--indeed, that "Articulation fosters reality."

I expected Helen Keller's experience to play this out on the level of basic language, but I didn't expect it to speak so eloquently to issues of moral agency or even faith. She writes, of her water-pump experience, that earlier in the day she had deliberately shattered a porcelain doll which Anne had given her. At the time she felt no remorse. But when they returned from the pump, after she had learned the names of more than a dozen things, she went to the broken doll on the floor and wept. The doll now had a name. It was no longer an arbitrary object in the universe. It was connected to other objects and to people she loved, and she now knew what she had done. Articulation fostered a new kind of reality for Helen that hadn't existed before.

But that's not all I discovered in The Story of My Life. The edition I read included letters from Anne Sullivan about her work with Helen, which highlighted both Anne's giftedness as a teacher but also her strange ineptitude in answering Helen's questions about God. She (as well as Helen's parents) seemed to think that religion is a set of beliefs (as opposed to a way of life that has its own grammar and narratives and practices). The assumption was that teaching Helen abstract beliefs about God would be difficult and could only lead to error--but Anne has no trouble defending Helen's ability to grasp other abstract ideas. I can only assume that Anne's own religious faith was impoverished to the point that she could not imagine how a small child who was blind, deaf, and mute could understand what Anne herself did not. However, Anne demonstrates her wisdom as a teacher when she directed Helen to interacting with a minister who helped Helen understand "the Fatherhood of God." Intriguing stuff!

More later.

Amazon Reviews

Anyone up for posting a review of The God-Hungry Imagination on Amazon.com? So far this book takes the record for the longest-running un-reviewed book among all my titles. Very strange. So if you're feeling inclined to comment, question, gush, snark, or complain about this book in a public manner, feel free! I'm game.