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Read all of the discussion prompts below, and then briefly (with at least 200 words) respond to at least one (or more) of them by Sunday, 1 October. Come back to this discussion in week 8 and review some of your classmates’ posts, which may be valuable to you as you consider writing about one of these selections.
1. Consider the four texts with a religious significance we’ve read over the last few weeks: the Bhagavad-Gita (a central text in Hinduism; part of the Mahabharata, composed over a long period between the 4th century B.C.E. and the 4th century C.E.), Augustine’s Confessions (the late 4th century C.E.), the Qur’an (the 7th century), and Dante’s Inferno (early 14th century). Did reading any of these texts have an influence on your own religious or spiritual beliefs? If so, how? Please be sure to offer a quote from the text (or texts) you discuss, to help your fellow classmates follow your discussion.
Also, please be respectful of your classmates religious views and opinions! This is not the place for polemics or hostility. We will refrain from making any antagonistic comments, and we’ll avoid commenting directly on other students’ beliefs – though commenting on their readings of texts is entirely appropriate.
2. Augustine (or St. Augustine, in the Christian tradition) is the first writer to foreground his own life in a book and widely regarded as an inventor of autobiography as a genre (though biography was a long-established genre, usually reserved for the lives of military and political figures). What does Augustine’s use of biography do to develop his religious views? How does it shift a reader’s thinking about his place in the world? his place in God’s creation? How does the form of Augustine’s book help advance his ideas?
3. As Augustine discusses his early views about biblical scripture, especially its truth value, he compares it to children’s literature (56), and there is an implicit connection to the “empty unrealities” of the classics, especially the Aeneid, that he loved when he was a child. Later, Augustine would become the first major Christian figure to suggest that the Torah be read literally, as an account of actual fact, rather than allegorically, as it had been read and regarded since its composition by the ancient Hebrews. Discuss the value of book-learning in Augustin’s version of Christianity, and try to pin down Augustine’s own relationship to writing as an instrument of spirituality. In what ways does Augustine help create religion as a sort of academic discipline? In what ways does he emphasize the value of texts in religious life?
4. Compare Augustine’s theory of “concupiscence” – developed at length in the Confessions (see especially pp. 51-54 and 62) – with Dante’s depiction of sin in the Inferno. What does concupiscence mean to Augustine? (Augustine was one of the first Christian thinkers to give us the notion of “original sin,” deriving from Adam and Eve. You may do some light research on this, but be sure to mention and credit sources in any response you make.) Likewise, Augustine says that “every disorder of the soul is its own punishment” (50). Compare this with Dante’s depiction of sin – heavily influenced by Augustine’s work nearly a thousand years earlier. Do both writers have exactly the same view of sin, or is there some difference? If so, what?
5. Pick an episode of Augustine’s Confessions and compare it to some passage in the bible. Does Augustine mean for his readers to make this comparison? How can you tell? What meaning does Augustine mean to add to the biblical text with the account from his personal life? What clear message(s) does Augustine give about how to practice being a Christian? And how does the intertextuality of Augustine’s autobiography and the bible add meaning to either or both texts? (I.e. how does a strong knowledge of the bible help a reader draw more meaning from Augustine’s account? Does this implicit communication with a certain group of readers help us to read “between the lines,” so to speak? Does it tell us something about Augustine’s purpose for writing?)
6. Assuming that many students have not previously read any of the Qur’an, what were your reactions to the text? Did it surprise you? If so, in what ways? What in the content, the themes, the organization, or word choice (and remember that this is a translation, and that, according to Muslims, the only real way to experience the Qur’an is through a recitation in Arabic) was interesting to you, and why? In reading the Qur’anic version of stories you may be familiar with from the Hebrew Torah or the Gospels of Jesus, what omissions or reinterpretations seemed especially noteworthy to you, and why?
7. Writing in the very early 1300s, Dante Alighieri is usually seen as a late medieval writer, but he is often cited also as an early renaissance writer. Do a little online research into the Medieval Era and The Renaissance in Europe (and especially in Italy), then, being sure to site sources correctly, write a brief argument in which you argue whether Dante’s Divine Comedy, especially the Inferno, should be regarded more as an example of the Medieval Era or the Rennaissance era. Be sure to use references and, if necessary, quotes, from the Inferno to support your argument.
8. Do some online research into the concepts of “metaphor,” “symbol,” and “allegory,” enough so that you have a clear sense of what each term means and how each concept differs from the others. Discuss some one particular feature of Dante’s Inferno in terms of one of these concepts. Is the reader meant to see the details of the Inferno, as presented by Dante, as figurative or literal? (You may want to look up these terms also, if you’re unfamiliar with them.) Alternatively, research the idea of “poetic justice” and discuss one instance of poetic justice in Dante’s Inferno. Describe the instant from the text and explain why it represents poetic justice. And as always, be sure to cite and quote correctly from both the Inferno and any other sources – or others of the assigned texts – you might use.
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