Faith & Learning Award • Steve Van Der Weele

After receiving the Faith & Learning Award at a Homecoming luncheon, Dr. Van Der Weele shared these thoughts:

Thank you for coming to this event. You do me great honor by your presence. I thank the committee that chose me for the Faith & Learning award this year, and all you loyal alumni, colleagues, students, board members, and friends for your presence in recognition of this award.

Steve Van Der Weele

I am much moved by this designation. In the nature of the case, teachers receive many affirmations. Everyone needs teachers. Last December a former student of several decades ago, when we were still on the Franklin campus, visited my church with his wife, where they had attended as students. During our conversation he said, "Your students were always amazed at the energy with which you came bouncing into the classroom at 7:50 on Saturday mornings to tell us about the perils of the passive voice and why the semi-colon is such an exquisite punctuation mark and what constitutes a master sentence." I said, "Of course, that was because I knew how much it would hurt you people not to know those things." "I agree," he said. "Now my computer tells me when my rhetoric goes astray, but I needed the course to make sense of all of that."

I received an unusual affirmation not so long ago when I heard from Frank Sawyer, who works for World Missions in Hungary, at the Saraspatok Academy. I had given a modest donation to his cause, and he wrote me his thanks with a gratifying comment. I must tell you first that my wife and I spent six months in Hungary in 1993-1994, as volunteers with World Missions, to help get the new Reformed University under way. During February of 1994 Prof. Sawyer invited me to come from Budapest to Saraspatok to give a lecture on C. S. Lewis-about whom, not surprisingly, neither the college nor the seminary students had any knowledge.

Well, now it's 2005, and Prof. Sawyer wrote, "You will be interested to know that one of the students in your audience that day in 1994 recently gave a two-day workshop on C. S. Lewis." One can only sing the doxology when those things happen, right? Other affirmations are more ambiguous. A teacher who took an evening course in Dante with me told me-we got along very well-that when he was a Calvin student his friends told him not to take my classes. Now, he said, I regret taking their advice.

Steve Van Der Weele receives his award from Wayne Joosse

Yes, we receive affirmations. But this award carries a special significance. It is the reward that acknowledges what you send us to do-to engage in faith-based learning, learning which works out the implications of our faith. I would tell you students-do you remember-that you came to Calvin to become learned saints, and saintly sages. That was news to some of them, of course, but I like to think that though they initially may have had other reasons for enrolling here, they stayed for the full ride and achieved their proper goals.

I have a few stories to tell. Nothing of this will be on the test next Tuesday, but I would like to have you use these stories as dots which you may connect to help you see what English Departments do. Just this past summer I did one of my Benjamin Franklin impersonations for a senior group in a neighboring church. As I was being led to the podium, a gentleman ambushed me and said, "What is it you guys really teach in the English Department"? He was a good man, salt of the earth, a tradesman, and he was probably asking the question for many others. Well, his timing was off...but then life consists of interruptions and ambushes. There I was, 25 feet and 25 seconds away from the lectern, and I was being called on to make in twenty-five words or less a meaningful statement about my career.

"When we teach literature we enlarge the world that we can bring into captivity to Jesus Christ. … The right literature gives students more to be Christian with."

I did stop. And I did not patronize him. I said this, "Don't you think Christians, of all people, as stewards of language, should be able to express themselves competently and gracefully in writing and speaking"? "Well, yes," he said, "but why all those stories and poems"? "Well," I said-the audience was getting restless at this side show-"when we teach literature we enlarge the world that we can bring into captivity to Jesus Christ. Stories and poems and plays are gifts which God left lying around, as C. S. Lewis put it. The right literature gives students more to be Christian with. Teaching such literature gives students opportunities to inherit this legacy more meaningfully. Our own lives are limited by time and geography and circumstance-even those who do big stuff. Literature, I said, helps us to gain vicarious experience, and provides ethical exercise for our minds." That seemed to satisfy him-though I had to keep him from falling over a chair while he was trying to take that all in.

There you have it. What I tried to do was to teach the students to take a second look at the materials we were studying-to probe for deeper meanings. (What is so enjoyable about teaching English is that we always have a good text to work with.) I coaxed them to achieve a secondary simplicity, a simplicity achieved by working through the complexities.

Let me give you a few examples. At one of the Michigan Academy sessions, we were invited to an evening performance of T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. You remember that, at the end, each of the Four Knights who killed Thomas Beckett at the behest of the king makes a speech, defending his participation in the ugly affair. Their words are superficially convincing, but, in fact, are cliché-ridden, evasive-the language of bureaucracy. I complimented one of the actors on how well he had conveyed the irony of those speeches. He stopped dead in his tracks. Irony? Were those speeches ironical? He had until then at least missed the whole point, not only of the speeches, but of Eliot's purpose with the play-to expose the secular mind and vindicate the authority of the Church over that of the temporal authorities. My students knew better. Blessed Thomas, pray for us.

Jonathan Swift is one of my heroes. It is easy to dismiss him as a misanthrope, as a curmudgeon, a vengeful satirist. But take another look. Few can match his moral passion and indignation. He was a tragic figure whose writing expresses suffering that pierces even the lethargy of suffering. Falstaff? The town drunk? A symbol of disorder? A perfect foil for the rising Henry V? A student said, my uncle is an alcoholic and I don't think Falstaff is funny at all. But, again, one needs to take a second look. One has to affirm every careless vitality Falstaff exhibits-especially his wit, his lightning-swift mind, which lets him make the right comment at the moment that we more conventional people arrive at only the next morning. The Divine Comedy-three parts, right? Well, we Protestants will surely go from the Inferno to the Paradiso, vaulting over the Purgatory section. Even the Vatican isn't so sure about purgatory any more. Well, no, not so fast. The Purgatory section is the most tender and, in fact, the most practical of the three parts. It diagnoses the seven deadly sins and prescribes strategies to overcome them.

Steve Van Der Weele talks with a guest

And take Shakespeare. The program notes to the play that you attend in your community theater will probably not tell you much about the sources of the play. But when we study Shakespeare's plays, we are able to show how Shakespeare invariably enhanced the ethical level of his source-and that is what made him popular in his day and relevant still. And what enjoyment it was to show how the Renaissance poets-Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, finally got it right. Got what right? A definition of love. The highest form of love, they said, is not fashionable gallantry, or membership in religious orders, or serenading a lovely woman whom one could never expect to marry. No, the highest form of love is domestic, wedded love, "that blessed bond of board and bed," as Shakespeare put it-loyalty to spouse in a family and, yes, a religious setting.

Will you hear me out yet for two more stories? Stories are in, you know. We used to tell them only to our wives. But President Byker opened the school year with a convocation address reminding the students that they would be weaving stories during their college careers and that these stories will be woven into the fabric of the college's history and, ultimately, as narratives in the history of the Kingdom of God.

Number 1. When I was a graduate student one summer in Madison, I was taking courses in my cognate-Comparative Literature. These were the courses that helped me launch the program in World Literature in the early 1970s. I was reading night and day-big books, hundreds of pages. A student down the hall from me-a geology student, I think, would leave his room early in the afternoon for the student union to enjoy the breezes off Lake Mendota. He would harass me, taunting me. What kind of profession was I getting into anyway involving all that reading? He was like a mosquito. He offered to teach me how to sail; he invited me to a movie. Come and meet my friends. He used all the wiles of a tempter. I could only mumble something about having to pass prelims and a language exam by the end of the summer.

But towards the end of the session he came into my room, plopped down on a chair and said, "I've been giving you a hard time this summer, I know. But now I have a confession to make. I'm in a class with 15 other students, and we have to take our turns giving reports to the class. We aren't very good at it. We bore each other painfully. But one of us has a minor in English. When he gives his paper we really sit up and take notice. He organizes his material well. He can make the dullest subject interesting. He uses-what do you call them-metaphors? And it is a pleasure to hear him talk." Well, I felt temporarily vindicated. But then he spoiled it all. He said, almost furtively, "Can you give me the title of a book or two that will help me become like this student?" I said, "Well, that will take more than a book or even two books. What you really need is an education." I saw no more of him that summer.

And one more. The occasion is the Modern Language Association convention in New York, Sheraton Hotel. One hundred people are gathered in one of the large halls to hear a panel discussion about contemporary fiction-especially to hear William Gass, himself a novelist. Panelists are at a table, pitchers of water, microphones properly tested, and so on. William Gass is a post-modernist writer. He writes anti-novels, meta-novels, novels that defy the traditional assumptions about fiction. He plays word games, destroys plot, simply lumps a lot of stuff together in a kind of run-on catalog of experience. His talk was a defense of his aesthetic theories and an attack against earlier ones. He reduced writing to entertainment; he undercut the significance of literature and of the humanities generally. "Everyone," he said, "improvises on life. Don't count on us novelists to give you any help to do that."

Well, he had thrown down the gauntlet. Now it's question time. Who will challenge this man? If literature has no serious claim on us, then we ought to go and find some honest work, right? Our discipline was at stake. Who will go first? Not all at once, now. The Harvard folk? Stanford? U of Michigan ? Oberlin? The room was silent. I couldn't believe it. The tension increased. I wondered: Do they lack academic freedom? Do they really believe him? Are they afraid of their colleagues? Is no one going to take this fellow on? He began to roll up his notes.

Now I had two advantages going into that room. I had read recently a much-publicized debate between this novelist and a Christian novelist, John Gardner, about these matters, so this was not the first time Gass had ruffled my feathers. And I had recently re-read C. S. Lewis's novel Perelandra, that wonderful novel in which C. S. Lewis imagines a paradise undergoing a siege by a perfidious pseudo-scientist, Weston, who is determined to undo the innocence of this planet. Ransom, you remember, had been sent there by space ship to thwart Weston's plans. But he starts off only as an observer, appalled at the damage Weston is wreaking on the environment and at his unrelenting assault on the woman, by tempting her to remain on the Fixed Island against the king's decrees. Ransom looks around and asks, Lord are you really going to let this happen? If you don't send someone soon, your work will be undone. It gradually dawns on him that he has been appointed to take Weston on. In a symbolic 3-day physical encounter, he finally subdues Weston and saves the planet.

Now I tell the rest of the story not for my own enhancement but to make it your story as well-one of the vines and the branches which unite us in a common effort to bring shalom to our world. I finally stood up. You would have, too. I told Mr. Gass I was disappointed in his presentation. I regretted his break with a fine tradition about the uses of literature. Of entertainment, I said, we have enough. We are amusing ourselves to death. What we need, I said, is to take seriously C. S. Lewis's statement about the purpose of literature. Literature, said Lewis, is for mirth, for wonder, and for wisdom. Well, I received a polite applause. I didn't save the planet, but at least he no longer had the field to himself. As I passed his table I said I hoped I hadn't misrepresented him. "No," he said, "and I am sure most of the people agree with you. Gardner will prevail." It was entertaining to have people craning their necks to read my name and institution.

I loved in my later years to introduce my students to these fine lines by W. H. Auden at the end of his A Christmas Oratorio. Do you know them? They read,

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

My dear friends, that has been my experience during my career, as I have tried to do the work the Calvin community commissioned me to do. I trust your odysseys are, and have been, as rewarding.