Critical Critiques: How Literary Analysis Changes Lives

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Julia M. O’Brien is Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, PA.  She is the author of Challenging Prophetic Metaphor:  Theology and Ideology in the Prophets and several commentaries on the prophetic books.  This entry is adapted from her on-line project, Reading the Bible as an Adult, a guide for book clubs, Bible studies, and anyone else who wants to read the Bible like a grown-up, found at her website:


Great writing can guide souls.  Many voices over the centuries have advocated the ennobling power of the well-told tale.


Theirs is a soapbox on which I can stand. Having taught Bible to undergraduates and now to seminary students, I’m convinced that teaching students to read Bible as literature helps it become more, not less, relevant to their lives. 


Reading the Bible purely as an instruction book gets in the way of the reading process. While of course the Bible does offer some explicit rules, most of it, especially the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, is narrative and poetry. Reading a story or a poem only for its moral bottom-line not only leads to odd doctrine but also but makes readers to miss what stories and poems do best:  incite the imagination and let people lose (and find) themselves within the worlds they create.


And yet, I’m equally convinced that the critique of great literature can change lives.  I can affirm that multicultural interpretation and ideology criticism also touch people’s deepest concerns.


David Clemens, author of “Great Books 2.0” sharply contrasts a curriculum focused on “fine literature” with “militant multicultural and squash-you-all-flat postmodernism.” He defines his mission as “to save students who want to study only pop culture from teachers who want to teach only pop culture and administrators who want only packed classes.” 


In his moral universe, the choices are stark:  either lift students up to the mountaintop of meaning by nourishing them on the great Western classics or throw them into murky, meaningless swamp of postmodernism.  Suddenly, I hear echoes of Harold Bloom’s 1994 manifesto The Western Canon and Frank Lentricchia’s announcement several years ago that he was tired of theory and just wanted to read literature.


I’ve witnessed too much to the contrary to believe Clemens, and I can tell stories that challenge his own. 


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‘Dead by 25, So Who Cares?’ Anticipated Early Death and Youth Crime

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Timothy Brezina is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Georgia State University.  He has published numerous studies on the causes and correlates of youth violence and delinquency.  This post summarizes his latest research study, titled “Might Not Be a Tomorrow: Anticipated Early Death and Youth Crime”, co-authored with Volkan Topalli and Erdal Tekin, and forthcoming in the journal Criminology.


“I saw my first dead body when I was five, man.  It was my uncle.  Some crackhead stabbed him straight in the eye.  Blood all over,” recalled a young offender of his earliest childhood memories.

Many people would have difficulty comprehending the pervasive violence that young people confront in our nation’s economically-deprived, inner-city communities.  A survey of school children in inner-city Chicago revealed that nearly one-quarter had witnessed someone being killed.  In a similar survey of public high school students in inner-city Cleveland, one-third reported that they had been shot or shot at.


How do these experiences with violence affect the social, emotional, and educational development of young people?  What does it mean to witness killings at an early age and to attend the funerals of other young people?  What impact does it have on their sense of a future, and on their willingness to engage in risky behavior, including crime?


To gain answers to these questions, I teamed up with key research colleagues at Georgia State University, including Drs. Volkan Topalli and Erdal Tekin.  A portion of our research involved in-depth interviews with “hardcore” offenders from the streets of Atlanta.  We wanted to learn, as best we could, how the world looks through their eyes, and how their perceptions and beliefs affect their decisions to pursue crime.  For the purposes of our research, we regarded our offender intervieweesdrug dealers, robbers, and carjackersas the “experts” on criminal decision-making.


Our interviewees typically reported long and early histories of violence.  Many had been shot or stabbed and bore visible scars of physical trauma.  They also expressed what criminologists refer to as a “coercive” worldview; in their eyes, they occupy a dog-eat-dog world where it is acceptable if not necessary to use force to intimidate others and to prevent victimization.


In the words of one offender: “In my neighborhood, it’s rob or be robbed.  I prefer to be on the robbing end.”  He explained to us how he had learned to rob people effectively (e.g., how to immobilize victims and catch them off guard) from the experience of being robbed himself.

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Illness in the System

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Benjamin Fleury-Steiner is Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware.  His most recent book is Dying Inside: The HIV/AIDS Ward at Limestone Prison.


The overwhelming majority of two-million plus offenders locked away in the nation’s jails and prisons are poor, non-violent drug offenders.  Indeed, only a fraction represents America’s so called “worst of the worst” violent offenders. This observation is not controversial and has been well documented in an imposing empirical literature.

Another observation, however, of what exactly locking up so many  human beings means is rarely addressed by academics and the public alike:  Most of the people swept up in the prison boom of the last three-plus decades lack health insurance and disproportionately suffer from a host of serious-if-untreated illnesses such as Diabetes, HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C.  

When we consider gross carceral overcrowding and dwindling budgets for medical resources, it is not surprising that the federal government and the states have been forced to contract out health services with a focus on cost-cutting.   In this way, even the most well intentioned health care workers and wardens simply cannot address and therefore must learn to live with increasing numbers of sick prisoners that needlessly die in their midst.

It is very easy place blame on politicians, prison officials, or doctors for this disturbing state of affairs.  But playing such a blame game is counter-productive. The bottom line is this:  Nearly four decades of locking up an unprecedented number of the chronically ill uninsured poor is institutionally unsustainable and, most importantly, inhumane and immoral.  


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Rethinking the Role of Gangs

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John Hagedorn is Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Illinois-Chicago. His most recent book is A World of Gangs: Armed Young Men and Gangsta Culture.

We read every day about the arrest of gang members or statements by police that some bust “crippled” the local gang.  Zero tolerance policies in schools and communities have as a goal the complete elimination of gangs.  In several Central American countries, a policy of “mano dura” or the iron fist, aims to smash gangs.

But despite these policies, filled jails, and one police campaign after another, gangs haven’t gone away. In fact, a quick glance at press reports from around the world finds gangs everywhere. What’s up with this? Do the failure of “hard line” policies mean that we should ignore gangs or treat them nicely and they will go away? What should we do?

Here’s what I think: Gangs aren’t going away no matter what we do. In other words, no matter if we crack down or lighten up, gangs are with us to stay. Let’s examine first why I’d say something outrageous like this and then think about what it means for what we should do.

There are six billion people in the world today and half are under the age of 24. More than a billion are between 18-24, prime gang age. In a world that has 1.2 billion people living on less than a dollar a day, the UN’s standard for extreme poverty, there are a lot of poor, and understandably angry, young people. The sad truth is the 21st century is not so much a century of hope but one of shattered dreams. It’s not that individually, you or your friend can’t make it — hard work, determination, and getting a few breaks can give even the most “down and outs” a way up and out. But looking at the big picture, for the one billion plus people living in extreme poverty, the good life will remain out of reach for this lifetime, at least.

That’s really where gangs come in. Gangs are destructive and violent, alienated and armed young men and sometimes women. But they are also rebels in the face of a world that is even more violent, unforgiving, and cold.  Unfortunately the response gangs most often choose is one that only makes things worse.

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Cheap Justice

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Maeve Hickok is a writer and the managing editor at, an online scientific and environmental journal, supporting the Global Earth Observation System of Systems.

Imagine President Obama holding a news conference to announce a federal buyout that would actually save taxpayers billions instead of costing taxpayers billions. And this buyout would not only save taxpayers money, he would say, but improve the quality of millions of American lives as well.


Wouldn’t that be something?


Well he could do that if the states—we, the voters and taxpayers—adopted the recommendations of the Pew Center for the States and redesigned the criminal justice system, which costs taxpayers $68 billion annually. We need to put more emphasis and financial support into “inexpensive” community-based intervention and remediation, and less into building more “expensive” prisons, and legislating stiffer penalties for non-violent offenders. 


So why haven’t we done this already—don’t we see this as just common sense?  Apparently not, explains the Pew Center, which points to dramatic increases over the last twenty years in prison population and construction, and in widely divergent judicial and corrections policies. State-by-state analyses show our corrections systems are our second largest expense after Medicaid.


Changing Lives through Literature is one of those “inexpensive,” community-based programs that should be part of the President’s plan, but more on that later.


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