Based on "Jesus Shaves" by David Sedaris, what two (or more) modes of knowledge inform the characters' thinking and behavior, and how so? In what ways is each character trapped and in what ways...

Based on "Jesus Shaves" by David Sedaris, what two (or more) modes of knowledge inform the characters' thinking and behavior, and how so? In what ways is each character trapped and in what ways liberated or even empowered by that situation?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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David Sedaris's essay "Jesus Shaves" is from his larger work Me Talk Pretty One Day, a collection of essays detailing his own move to Normandy, France, and taking French classes. In his essay, all characters' knowledge is influenced by their cultures and beliefs, yet knowledge is also incompletely articulated due to language barriers. Hence, characters such as Sedaris and the French teacher are influenced by two modes of knowledge concerning cultural beliefs and grammar.

Due to the students' insufficient knowledge of French grammar, the students are unable to explain to the Muslim woman from Morocco the meaning of Easter. Yet, as Sedaris points out, only part of the problem was lack of French grammar and vocabulary. By the end of the story, he wonders "if, without the language barrier, my classmates and I could have done a better job making sense of Christianity, an idea that sounds pretty far-fetched to begin with." Just as the students are unable to explain Christianity due to lack of grammar, the teacher is limited to explaining the French myth concerning the Easter Bell in simple terms the students can grasp. More specifically, she only explains that "here in France the chocolate is brought by the big bell that flies in from Rome," when actually, the myth states that all the bells of France fly to the Vatican in Rome, where they greet the bells of the Vatican and gather chocolate; then, they fly back to France, dropping chocolate over the French homes as they return to their churches. Hence, the characters' knowledge mode of grammar, which is insufficient in the students, prevents aspects of cultural beliefs that are complex in nature to be fully explained and understood. For that reason, the students remain trapped in their own limited knowledge.

Sedaris further points out that, for those students who believed in Christianity, their beliefs rested on faith, which can't thoroughly be explained, regardless of grammar. Since religion is culturally based, we can call a second mode of knowledge the characters possess cultural knowledge. Plus, due to the characters' lack of cultural knowledge, the characters remain trapped in their own cultural understandings. For example, Sedaris states that if he can find enough faith within himself to believe he can learn French, then other beliefs such as the existence of God and the Easter story suddenly don't seem so impossible. As he phrased it, "The virgin birth, the resurrection, and the countless miracles--my heart expanded to encompass all the wonders and possibilities of the universe." Yet, his faith only permitted him to accept beliefs pertaining to his own culture. He still concluded that the belief in the Easter Bell was ridiculous.

Yet, what he fails to see is that it is his lack of cultural knowledge that prevents him from seeing the merits of the Easter Bell myth. Had he had enough cultural knowledge, he might have seen the story of the Easter Bell as being just as symbolic as the story of the Easter Bunny, a myth first developed by pagans and later linked to Christianity. The sound of ringing bells is a form of worship, and traveling from France to the Vatican would be a way for the Roman Catholics of France to symbolically reunite with and worship with the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Vatican. Likewise, the story of the Easter Bunny is a way to symbolize life and rebirth, and when linked to Christianity, a way of symbolizing Christ's resurrection.

Hence, the characters also remain trapped due to their mode of cultural knowledge, which like their mode of grammar knowledge, is insufficient.

To hear more about David Sedaris' life and writing, check out this interview: 

Sources:

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