Call me a snowflake, but students of Christianity really do need a trigger warning

Cardinal Angelo Comastri, archpriest of St Peter's Basilica, and a recently restored wooden crucifix from the 14th century (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

This morning, I was alerted – thanks, Twitter – to the Daily Mail’s political-correctness-gone-mad outcry du jour. Theology students at the University of Glasgow, it reports, are “being warned in advance that they may see distressing images while studying the Crucifixion of Jesus, giving them a chance to leave if they fear being upset”.

The wider context here, as you might know, is the (apparently) growing trend of students being issued “trigger warnings” lest they encounter ideas, images, or now-offensive phrases which they might find disturbing. This bowdlerisation of literature and history, it is alleged, is creating a new generation of ‘snowflake’ students, unable to cope with reality outside an ivory tower which has been liberally (in both senses) provided with safe spaces and puppy rooms, where they need never fear someone presuming their preferred gender pronoun.

Now, as I think my own students might assure you, I am not exactly the most “right-on” of professors. My rare attempts at relevance – an Adele-inspired “Sometimes it lasts in East-West ecumenical relations, but sometimes it hurts instead” comment on the Great Schism, anyone? – are met with pitying smirks.

But when it comes to this particular topic… I was totes issuing theological trigger warnings before they were cool.

First of all, a great deal of Christian history is genuinely, horrifically distressing. If colleagues at Glasgow are teaching Christ’s crucifixion in a way that makes that most familiar of images genuinely disturbing, then they must be doing something right. Not for nothing did Josephus call crucifixion “the most pitiable of deaths”. Cicero, no snowflake he, even issued his own trigger warnings: “The very name ‘cross’ should not only be far from the body of a Roman citizen, but also from his thoughts, his eyes, and his ears.”

Surely, it’s not unreasonable to think that, say, a graphically realistic depiction of it – as, for example, from Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ flay-fest – ought not to be thrust on a room of 18-year-olds with no prior warning at 9am on a Monday morning. Just so long, that is, that they’re also taught that the whole point of Christianity is that the Lord of Glory himself underwent all this for you and because of you.

In my own lectures to first-year St Mary’s theologians, one of the topics is, naturally enough, persecution and martyrdom. Since the first time I taught it, in 2010, I have asked my charges to read and discuss The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity, an account of the torture and murder-as-entertainment of two young women – both newly mothers – in Carthage around AD 208. The past two years, I’ve also had them read a similar account, from Lyons and Vienne in 168, focusing on the slave girl Blandina.

I dare say that I’m not the most sensitively attuned of teachers. But even I, long before I ever heard the phrase “trigger warning”, have felt it perfectly natural to alert my students to the kinds of things they will encounter therein. This is as much to do with my vulnerability and insecurities, as it is about any (patronising) presumption about their abilities to handle difficult material.

Call me a snowflake, but I just don’t personally feel comfortable telling a group of people I haven’t yet gotten to know to ponder upon the gory details of brutal assaults (in some cases, with a clear sexual implication) and murders of people they might, for all I know, find themselves identifying with. In the case of Perpetua and Felicity, for instance, even the crowd who had gathered to see Christians killed for sport “shuddered as they saw one young woman of delicate frame and another with breasts still dropping from her recent childbirth” entering the arena.

So I let them know up front. I inform them that our chosen sources contain details that I find very hard to read and dwell upon. I tell them that, even though I’ve no doubt they are more mature and robust than me, it is possible that – for a whole variety of perhaps very personal reasons – they might prefer not to sit in a room of people openly discussing such things. And if that is the case, they are welcome either to talk to me in private or quietly absent themselves from that portion of the session.

So far, no one has ever come to speak to me about it. And I am not aware (which is rather the point) of anyone who has chosen to miss that bit on such grounds. But as I’ve gotten to know the students better over their time at St Mary’s, I’ve occasionally come to hear certain things they have had to deal with, which have made me quite glad that I’d given them that option.