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Three fortunate students take month-long religion and literature class  

BILLINGS, July 9, 2014 – No one can cram the themes of religion and literature into a month, but with radical openness and acceptance, three young Rocky Mountain College students took the summer session opportunity to study with Wilbur Wood, a poet, writer, and gardener who has taught part-time at RMC for 20 years.  

Summer classes at RMC offer incredible opportunities to take a science, math, or liberal arts class such as the 300-level religion and literature course, co-listed in English and Philosophy & Religious Thought. Community members may also register for these RMC courses.

Wood lives where he grew up, in a stone house in Roundup, Mont., which his grandfather built in 1911. At intervals, Wood was city editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian during the Vietnam War, earned a master’s degree in creative writing at San Francisco State, and gave commentary on National Public Radio. He has taught all levels of writing at RMC and serves on the Montana Arts Council.

His three students had what Wood called “considerably different experience with religion.” One student was a committed Christian, a “straight-out Lutheran,” Wood said, with six years of military service, much of it overseas, as a linguist.

The second, Alice-Marie Brady (’15) of Wray, Colo., wrote how her dogmatic Sunday school teacher had frustrated her Presbyterian heritage. The teacher argued in anger when Alice proposed, like Nikos Kazantzakis, that the Devil is God’s brother. Brady now hopes to be a screenwriter. 

A third student, Danielle Wilcox (’14) of Livermore, Calif., described herself as “not a religious person,” but Wood called her “spiritual, yes.” Wilcox said the course “made me look into myself, trust ourselves a little more.”

Wood’s first assignment asked students to explain the difference between religion and spirituality, then discuss a spiritual experience of their own. Those papers began as what Wood called “a good first paragraph,” and went through three rewrites during the course. The military veteran explained, “I was surprised by how much freedom we had in writing. It was hard to narrow to a specific topic. ‘How long?’ we asked. ‘As long as it needs to be,’ he replied.” 

For group poetry, written the last two weeks line by line onto the blackboard, Wilcox said, “I surprised myself. I went up and put up what I was feeling. We talk about anything in this class. We all have our own input. It’s never utterly wrong, which is nice,” she said.

All learning is self-learning, because all of our understanding goes through the filter of our own perspective. The gift of self-exploration precedes learning about the “outside” world. Yet philosophy is only useful as it applies beyond us. We come round, with enough insight or experience, to accepting our common understanding in each other’s voices. Wood said, “My role is to help, in whatever way I can, people to articulate their own perspectives.”

He likes to teach seminar-style as much as he can.

St. Teresa of Avila said, “All the way to Heaven is Heaven,” Wood reminded the class. The journey of inquiry is its own reward, and the trials of life become its joys. The class studied a few persecuted mystics from varied traditions, whose words ring true to later generations. “It’s a real gift to have these three students and their different lives,” he said.

Four writing assignments in the month-long course each required multiple revisions in the evenings. Readings included The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, which uses a bus ride as an allegory of our journey from purgatory, The Distracted Preacher by Thomas Hardy, which examines issues of morality versus legality, and millennia of poetry from Robert Bly’s anthology The Soul Is Here for its Own Joy, which Bly almost titled Baskets to Hold God.

Wood meant to read Levels of Life by Julian Barnes, which explores ballooning as an allegory for love in its risk and alteration of perspective and dissects the reality of our mourning for the inevitable loss that follows love. This year, Wood’s month-long class did not have time. Jay Cassel, professor of religious thought since 1983, teaches the same course at RMC in the fall with his own rich perspective, choice of authors, and dedication to a liberal education.