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Reading A Different Story: A Christian Scholar’s Journey from America to Africa

Susan VanZanten
Published by Baker Academic in 2014

Reviewed by Donald L. Cassell, Jr., Senior Fellow, Africa Portfolio, Sagamore Institute

Susan VanZanten is a literary scholar and professor at Seattle Pacific University. She has written an autobiography that reads like a bildungsroman, a story of formation and growth. Here the growth is not necessarily psychological and moral, but intellectual and unexpectedly emotional. There is a feeling of an increasing intellectual trajectory until we arrive at a global Christian Church and an internationalized Western literary canon. Her focus is mostly on the intellectual life, which seems incomplete, for it divides her as a person and so diminishes a full picture of her life. This is the limitation of an intellectual autobiography. It does not deal with the whole person, their relationships and spirituality. But this may be her purpose, showing us how she lived so much in the head, and gradually in the course of life came to be more emotionally sensitive, appreciating the power of relationships and spirituality.

In her youth, VanZanten was restless with the rigidity and insularity of her Dutch-American and Christian Reformed tradition, but she grew to appreciate its value while continuing to insist on openness to the larger human community. Her Christian Reformed tradition’s clear confessional structure afforded her a great advantage in navigating the world. The Dutch Reformed family structure with its dynastic-like linkages can be attractive and is vaguely reminiscent of the Confucian ideal, where the family is the center of culture, and a repository of the deepest value of a people. Dynasties can be built around a family heritage that is chiefly spiritual and intellectual where the focus is on holiness. The writer Edith Wharton hinted at such a family structure in her novel The House of Mirth. VanZanten’s experience was a reduced variant of this theme.

The text begins in a cerebral huff and is rather flat, but becomes more reflective, and subtle, reflecting a growth in knowledge and grace. VanZanten comes to see that faith is more than an ascent to theological propositions as orthodox as these may be. She discovers that faith consumes the whole person including will and emotions. The best of the Christian tradition has insisted on the intellectual and the spiritual as two sides of one coin that help guide against error or imbalance.

VanZanten discusses how and why she decided on the thinkers most influential to her work and life. Interestingly, all of them are white and male, despite her feminist concerns about their exaggerated importance. Though she never explicitly lists him as a major influence on work and thought, it is clear that she holds Nicholas Wolterstorff in very high esteem. On the other hand, she is insufficiently appreciative of Francis Schaeffer. Of the two literary theorists, Michel Foucault and Mikhail Bakhtin, she decides in favor of Bakhtin. She is drawn to Bakhtin’s Christian concern for the other, his conciliatory tone, his profound interest in the dynamic interaction between the individual and the group, and the infinite worth of men and women.

Her decision for a career in literary scholarship was rather bold and courageous, or alternatively idealistic and naïve given her job prospects and the monetary rewards, but she has no regrets. She is happy with her life in literature, as she should be, considering her impressive literary interests. She seeks to expand the Western literary canon and to highlight the great importance of the arts and humanities to national development and nation building. The latter developed from her ancestral Dutch linkage to South Africa’s struggle to be rid of apartheid. In international development the focus has mostly been on scientific-technical and professional subject matter like economics and law. Development and nation building are ultimately about an inspiring and compelling idea, something transcendent, a high purpose, a profound reason for being, the cultivation of a disposition of excellence and love. At a fundamental level an inspiring and compelling idea is the reason for human development and growth individually and communally. It is in this space that the arts and humanities may play a major role. She notes the importance of literature to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) process. VanZanten has an expansive view of literature. She thinks that a text of literature should not be limited to works of fiction or poetry, but should include speeches by statesmen such as Abraham Lincoln or Nelson Mandela, and autobiographies such as St. Augustine’s Confessions, along with great works of history and philosophy.

VanZanten has a deep appreciation of the reader’s encounter with a text and its potential for meaning. Readers do not only make progress in self-knowledge but come to know the other, and may even grow to delight in that knowledge of the other. Reading is a social practice. It fits within the Christian spiritual discipline of study, and is one of the few disciplines Christians still share with the secular world. Harold Bloom’s book on How to Read and Why is a point in fact. The discipline of reading is encouraged as a great good, but the reason for the discipline could not be more different. For Bloom, reading is not dialogic and social, but individual, solitary and restorative. VanZanten thinks reading, though a vocation, is not salvific, but a way for Christians to explore, love, and delight in God’s world.

VanZanten is concerned that the people in the West, Christian and non-Christian, should appreciate the great importance of the expansion of the Church in the global South. It is important that the largely secular West not underestimate the enormity of this fact, and its consequence. African literature, she rightly thinks, is a testimony to the “power, compassion and necessity” (86) of communal relationships. While allowing for the very real value of the individual, the place of the community must not thereby be made secondary. The image of God is revealed in the human capacity for relationships. It is important to understand this reality in the African context, because it can be an obstacle to a simple replication of a Western model. Africa’s embrace of Christianity has further layered its understanding of community and individuality.

VanZanten’s reference to the Nigerian Catholic writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie resonates with such great meaning of how Christian Africa has become. A Nigerian Catholic writer is a challenge to the paradigm of both the African nationalist and Western anthropologist. Cultures are malleable. VanZanten engages the great African writer Chinua Achibe, who saw these changes coming to Africa and appreciated both the strength and weaknesses of traditional African culture, and the West’s offerings in the Christian Church. He anticipated the triumph of Christianity in Africa, which was an insightful observation for the time given the heated spirit of nationalism and anti-colonialism. VanZanten has taken account of the West in Africa, not glossing over its excesses, but also recognizing the value on offer in the Church. The legacy of that value is the growth of the Church today in Africa, and this notwithstanding the exponential growth of the Church in the post-colonial era. The Gospels, the fundamental religious text in the West, would not countenance the weltanschauung of caste and racism. In the Gospels human beings are important because they bear the image of God and not because they can master the likes of Aristotle’s metaphysics.

Her call for an inclusive Western canon is admired, though I am still not certain how richly she has interacted with the Western canon or that she sufficiently grasps Alan Bloom’s critical concerns. But while it may be wise to add this caution, that the new is not always valuable, her insistence on an expanded Western canon in the context of the global village is very well placed because of its humanity and love. It is a call to all in the Western world, Christian as well as non-Christian, for a broad vision of how humanity may be celebrated in diverse ways. It is an appeal against the arrogance that any one group has a claim to the status of a superior race. We are all in need of grace and mercy. It is a call for them to come and appreciate very human but very different stories. Her aspiration is noble, for the quest is the embrace and affirmation of humanity in variety and multiplicity.

Yet in all of this, VanZanten would not have Christians abandon their Christian conception of the world. It is the sun with which they must see everything else. Nor would she have them do violence to their particular cultural experience of being Christian. For these experiences do in fact vary greatly even within a historic orthodox narrative structure. A joint African Catholic-Anglican worship service may prove a challenge to a Westerner of similar persuasion. Psalm singing in Southern Sudan sounds nearly alien to the brethren in America. She wants to understand the shared social space of our new global humanity from the standpoint of the Christian revelation on the worth of people, and not merely an abstract reference to our common humanity, as this has proven historically an insufficient defense against the violent passions of men and women.

VanZanten concludes with a growing understanding that Christian education is not only about the development of the mind. It is also just as importantly about spiritual disciplines, the liturgy, and the sacraments. The heart and head are central to knowledge and life. The concern is that a Christian worldview is developed through practices as well as ideas. It is about knowing and doing. Great practices can be as consequential as a great text, and thus we may recognize the importance of liturgies, hymns, sermons, prayer books, spiritual biographies, devotional practices, and spiritual exercises. The formation of the will plays a crucial role in the Christian identity. In the end, a substantial Christian worldview is narrative, the product of the head and the heart, practice and thought. Faith without works is dead. This is excellent education. VanZanten’s growth should be an encouragement to all of us in our spiritual and intellectual journey.

Cite this article
Donald L. Cassell, Jr., “Reading A Different Story: A Christian Scholar’s Journey from America to Africa”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:2 , 183-185

Donald L. Cassell, Jr.

Sagamore Institute
Donald L. Cassell, Jr. is Senior Fellow of the Sagamore Institute and Director of the African Initiatives.