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Want Real Diversity in Your Reading List? Try These Christian Classics

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Philip Jenkins - published on 05/05/15

The Church's greats are nearly as diverse as humanity--just look

In the Washington Post recently, Australian writer Sunili Govinnage made an interesting suggestion with quite profound religious implications, which I don’t think she entirely grasps.

Here is her argument. Growing up in Australia, her literary education had overwhelmingly been confined to the English classics, leavened by more modern novels from Britain, Australia and North America. In protest, she had decided for a year to read only non-White authors, and her project had taught her some worrying lessons. Yes indeed, she discovered, you can find some authors from India, Africa, and the Arab world, or Aboriginal Australia, but once you get beyond the obvious top tier, such books are hard to find. Her conclusion: “It showed me just how white our reading world is…. We no longer live in a time when marginalized people are voiceless. Instead, we have the opportunity to ensure that those voices are amplified. People of all cultures and backgrounds have valuable experiences and universal ideas to share, and we all stand to gain when those voices are heard.”

I have no quarrel with her basic theme, and I appreciate the valuable list of suggested readings she offers. But surely, she is missing a rather large point. She is using the categories of White and non-White, which are historically quite recent, and often subjective in nature. But let’s suppose we use a definition that is geographical rather than definition. Is there any way we can easily read thinkers who do not represent the White world of Euro-America? How do we rediscover the voiceless?

Let’s start with some African writers who escape her attention. Tunisia-born St. Augustine comes quickly to mind, the author of a critical literary classic in the Confessions, quite apart from his incredibly extensive theological works.

Tertullian was also very prolific, as were Egyptian Fathers like Origen and Clement of Alexandria. You might quibble that Egypt is not commonly counted as part of “African” culture, but it certainly stands on that continent.

By Ms. Govinnage’s standards, moreover, Middle Eastern writers count as “diverse” and non-White. That would open the door to the full range of early and medieval Fathers from the countries we now call Syria, Iraq and Turkey, whether they wrote in Greek or Syriac. John of Damascus is one I especially admire, but really, anyone based on Antioch or Jerusalem would certainly count. Were they “White”? What an absurd question. So read the Desert Fathers and the Philokalia!

You could, I suppose, do quite a thorough reading course in Patristics without using any European-born authors whatever.

I am not suggesting that she should confine herself to ancient classics, but I do note the absence of some much more recent Christian books from the Global South. Where on her list, for Heaven’s sake, is legendary Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo?

Thinking of such writers, I suppose I took rather different lessons than Ms. Govinnage. She suggests that the standard default position of Euro-American culture is the preference for Dead White European males, but historically, that is the reverse of the truth. Once upon a time, educated people in the Christian West were expected to know a very wide and diverse range of authors and thinkers from multiple continents, cultures and ethnicities. Modernity, though, scorned those writers and the polyphonic pasts they represented. The result was the monochrome White contemporary reading world lamented by Ms. Govinnage. She does not in fact need to search as widely and desperately as she describes in order to recover those multiform voices.

To Ms. Govinnage, then, I say: get thee to a Great Books course.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.

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