In August, we bring a set of new full-time writers to the blog. Covering the 24th of each month, please welcome Joshua Polanski (’20). Joshua graduated from Calvin in 2020 with a degree in strategic communication and religion. He now lives in Boston, MA and is pursuing a masters in theological studies at Boston University. One day he hopes to write about religion and get paid for it.

Joshua graduated from Calvin in 2020 with a degree in strategic communication and religion. He now lives in Boston, MA and is pursuing a Masters in Theological Studies at Boston University.

Yann Martel, the author of Life of Pi, sent Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper a book every other week with a note explaining why he chose this particular book. Having a hunch that Harper wasn’t a reader, Martel regarded reading as the dominant way humans adopt the perspective of another. 

Martel might need to send me some books. During my undergraduate religion degree at Calvin University, I didn’t really read female and marginal voices. And although Martel was concerned with fiction, the lack of voices of people who don’t look like me in nonfiction constricts the same perspective opening opportunities.

After wrapping up my degree in the spring of 2020, perhaps catalysed by the craziness of 2020, I’ve encountered lists of book recommendations, including on the post calvin, for usually but not exclusively white people to “unlearn” their harmful biases. These lists often include the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a variety of Toni Morrison books, and a James Baldwin title or two. 

These lists inspired me to put together an inventory of required reading for my undergraduate B.A. in Religion at Calvin. I only included readings required for the class, so anything I read for a research paper didn’t make the cut. The list came out to twenty-nine non-primary text course readers. Only three were primarily written by women. An additional three, mostly edited collections, featured contributions from women. 

Of the three wholly female authored texts, one is a comic book that my class discussed for a single evening. Another was a feminist approach to the Gospel of John. This commentary represents a trend in the required reading in my major: when religion majors read female authors, they read their thoughts related to being a woman. This trend was shared in the edited collections that featured works by women. On their own, feminist perspective contributions are noteworthy, respectable, and even indelible required reading. But collectively, they communicate that women are only worth reading when they write explicitly concerning gender. 

The only complete book I read that didn’t directly concern feminism and was written by a woman was By the Renewing of Your Minds by Ellen T. Charry. Probably not coincidentally, the class it was taught in was the only religion class I took with a female professor. Charry’s book represents what a revised reading list could entail—women not being confined extensively to the realm of gender. I read Charry, a theologian who happens to be a woman, for a class on the first half of the history of Christan theology that happened to be taught by a woman. Each chapter presents a pastoral and virtue-based approach of a major theologian in the history of theology. Only one chapter, shared with Thomas Aquinas, concerns a female theologian, Julian of Norwich. 

Similarly, only eight of these twenty-nine works featured writings from non-European descent. Of these eight, four came from a class on Islam, where having non-European authors is a simple necessity. These authors skew the numbers and make it look like non-white books were a larger experience of my undergraduate experience than they actually were. 

Of the remaining four, all works of Christian theology, only one was a significant work in terms of length and it’s from a fourth century author: Augustine of Hippo, a Berber from North Africa. Another was a contribution to a larger work, and the other two are the works of Delores Williams and Gustavo Gutiérrez, parts of a course reader. Sadly, these last two works, although meaningful, were just small selections and we didn’t read entire works; worst of all, they were for my last course in theology, one that I didn’t need to take. If I opted for the easier semester, the list would be shortened by two more ethnic/racial minority writers and an additional female voice.

It’s safe to say that the reading for religion majors lacks the representation of the diversity of the religious world. Africa has more Christians than anywhere else in the world, and the only African I read was born in 354 C.E. There are more than 600 million Christians in Latin America, and I spent about a week reading one of them.

Some of this is unavoidable. On the one hand, as in any field, appropriate study requires engaging the great minds and canonized works of the field’s past. Figures like Aquinas, Calvin, and Barth become non-negotiables. On the other hand, there is no excuse for secondary sources. 

Now, I have to actively seek non-male, non-white/European voices within religion because my Calvin education failed to give me those voices.

5 Comments

  1. Josh Parks

    This is fascinating, partly because I had a fairly different experience as an English (literature) major. There’s a global literature course requirement, but I also read fairly diversely in other courses (Frantz Fanon and Homi Bhabha in lit theory; Ta-Nahisi Coates and Michelle Kuo in senior seminar; W.E.B. Du Bois and Marianne Moore in American lit, etc.). That’s not to say there isn’t work to be done: certainly there could’ve been better representation of indigenous and queer writers, for example, as well as minority scholars and critics. Overall, though, reading diverse texts seemed to be a goal of the department. I wonder if this is a disciplinary difference?

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Josh Polanski, my experience as a Religion major was very similar to yours (class of ‘17). As much as I loved my time at Calvin and particularly in the Religion department, the race and gender of authors were overwhelmingly white men. I think this has to do with a myriad of factors; however, I think Josh Parks touches on a primary reason why this may be so: departmental realities. I loved my Religion professors, but it was harder to love them together. Departmental unity and vision were not only merely lacking, but at times it felt like there was no majority consensus – or even significant minority consensus – on what the basics of the Religion major should be. Hence, curriculum wasn’t “crafted” to the point that Josh Parks seems to be detailing the English department does. I hope something like the English department’s intentionality starts to take place in the Religion department. My guess is that graduates would be willing to give input. ‍♂️

      Thanks for writing this. Looking forward to more content from you.

      Reply
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      I agree that my experience as an English major was quite rich, and intentionally so—something I must confess I often took for granted. Now, looking back, I realise how special it was. I was in the same religion class that studied Gutierrez and Williams and, my fascinations with modern postcolonial theory aside, I found them to be the most personally impactful and relevant to the time and place I myself occupy. So I guess I’m trying to say that Joshua is right and that there are many important secondary-waning-primary theologians that get overlooked in favour of the canonical white male figures.

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    Joshua, thank you for writing this piece. As a religion major (’18), I had a similar experience, and spent most of my self guided papers diving into womanist theology and liberation theology as a way of making up for this gap in my education. I came away frustrated that after spending weeks researching the womanist theology of Dolores Williams, my professor’s comments on my paper were “Thank you for this paper, I learned a lot.” This isn’t a knock at any particular professor, but I think it points to many of the issues with the college and denomination as a whole. While I loved the individual faculty members, our faculty was overwhelmingly white and male. I value a lot of the foundation my religion degree brought me– I have a robust understanding of the trinity that many of my peers in graduate school never received– but I also lament that the “standard,” authoritative voice in the religion department is that of celebrated white men.

    Reply
  3. Kyric Koning

    While I do sympathize with your lament over how the department may have failed to represent all voices, I do not think that you should see this as a tragedy. Because of your experiences (or lack thereof) you intentionally sought out those other voices. That is what is most important here and it makes me glad to see that.

    Reply

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