As a young man in Sheboygan, Wis., Steve Van Der Weele never pictured himself as an English professor. "I had taken mostly commercial courses in high school," he said. Upon his arrival at Calvin in 1946, following 40 months of service in the Air Force and Military Government during World War II, Van Der Weele read an editorial in a denominational publication pleading for more teachers in the Christian schools.
"[Professor] Henry Zylstra really liked my papers, and he kept on me about teaching," he said. "After that I didn't dare not to."
Zylstra's prodding led to a long and enjoyable career in teaching at Calvin College for Van Der Weele-34 years in all.
"'It was a joy not promised in my birth,'" said Van Der Weele, quoting William Wordsworth.
Van Der Weele had great scope in his responsibilities, teaching 11 different courses in literature and writing, including "Shakespeare," "18th Century Literature," "Contemporary Poetry" and "Advanced Composition." He also taught on C.S. Lewis' writings and a variety of other courses during interim and helped design a concentration in journalism.
He derives much satisfaction from introducing the "World Literature" course to the English curriculum at Calvin, he said.
"We were cutting ourselves off from some of the major cultural activity and products from around the world," he said. "The literary achievements of the world are not exhausted by American and English literature. Don Quixote, Augustine's Confessions, Dr. Faust, The Divine Comedy -these are all works of great literature that needed to be a part of literary studies at Calvin."
"World Literature" is now a required course for English majors and among the most popular courses in the department.
Great literature and all of writing is a gift from God, said Van Der Weele. "As C.S. Lewis said, 'God left a lot of good stories around for our enjoyment and profit.'
"Christian themes abound in much of literature," he said. "Take Don Quixote, for example. On a first reading, one takes him for an enchanted fool. But on a closer look, he emerges as a suffering servant, a type of Christ himself.
"There is also a short story by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Matryona's Home, in which this peasant woman is exploited by everyone, and in the end she gets killed in an act of self-sacrifice. And only then do people realize that no village or nation can survive without such servant-like attitudes."
Examples such as these are the types that linger in the minds of former students, one of whom wrote in honor of Van Der Weele: "He is responsible for making the writing of Hopkins, Yeats, Eliot and Auden formative in our lives. He brought great discipline to the study of literature. He emphasized the need to understand the cultural and literary context in which the works studied were created. He also required us to read and write extensively and strengthened our capacity for critical thinking. He helped us understand how to appreciate literature in a Christian perspective."
To his writing classes, Van Der Weele also brought a Christian perspective.
"Teaching writing goes beyond correcting it's with an apostrophe when it shouldn't have one," he said. "Language is a gift, and I taught about the stewardship of language, urging students to respect words and sentences, from the smallest prefixes on to complete sentences-utilitarian sentences, but also the greater effectiveness of sentences with aesthetic properties."
Though retired from Calvin in 1986, Van Der Weele continues to teach in informal settings-in the Calvin Academy for Lifelong Learning (CALL) program, in presentations and through writing, including more than 200 pieces for Christian Reformed denominational publications and essays and reviews for other journals.
"I love to teach," said Van Der Weele, "especially about literature. Teaching has truly been my passion.
"When we teach literature, we enlarge the world that the student is able to bring into captivity to Christ-to use biblical phrasing. Literature gives the student more to be Christian with. Our own experiences are limited-even people who travel and do big stuff. Literature gives us vicarious experiences and makes our world bigger; it increases our awareness and refines our attitudes, insights and principles."
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