I was beginning to approach the question during the summer Olympics in Barcelona when I was 11. Could a girl like me move like that? I wondered. Certainly not—I’d never been able to do so much as a cartwheel—but there must be, I thought, little girls out there with Olympic potential who’d never seen a balance beam, much less been trained by a Béla Károlyi. Little girls who made it to the Olympics had coaches and tutors and supportive families. My mind kept wandering back to that conditional tense, to all the little girls who might have been even better gymnasts if only they’d had the opportunity to train and all the girls who never even had the chance to know if they were any good at gymnastics.
Years later as a college student, I learned of Virginia Woolf’s feminist critique of the Western canon. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf develops her argument from the fiction that Shakespeare had a sister, Judith, with every bit as much potential as he but who was denied an education. Instead of encouraging her curiosity, her parents chastise her for her interest in books. In Woolf’s ending, Judith Shakespeare takes her own life, her genius undeveloped and unknown. It’s a made-up story that gets at an uncomfortable truth: For centuries, for millennia, women’s circumstances have effectively silenced them. Whether because of illiteracy or inferior education, domestic obligations, or the apathy (or antipathy) of their culture to a “scribbling woman,” the canon of English literature, as traditionally understood, has been made up mostly of texts written by men who were mostly white and wealthy, to boot. I used to think that being bothered by this made me a “liberal,” but I’ve come to recognize it as a conviction that isn’t (or shouldn’t be) confined to “liberals” or “conservatives” but rather one that grows out of my Christianity—Protestant Christianity, in particular—and the gospel itself.
My high school students seem to understand the concept of the literary canon before they have a name for it. “Do you think, Mrs. Stone,” a student recently asked, “that in 400 years, high school students will be reading Harry Potter in English class?” Our school teaches a traditional curriculum, comprising comfortably canonical works. This opened a discussion of why we read the books we read. Is it because these books are the most artistically perfect? Is it because they are, in the Victorian critic Matthew Arnold’s phrase, “the best which has been thought and said in the world”? Is it because their cultural and historical influence has been so great that they cannot be ignored? Is it because we are out to prove Mark Twain wrong that “classics” are books people “praise and don’t read”?
I was a student at a very conservative Christian college when I first heard of literary theory—a term that encompasses a diverse yet related set of approaches to literature that, in the past 50 years, have strongly criticized the works of the Western canon for their racism, sexism, and other biases. The theory was presented to me as a nihilistic enterprise bent on destroying all meaning, and while later sojourns in graduate English programs did not entirely refute this characterization, I did sense a palpable disdain for the idea of considering the voices that were missing from the usual list of “great authors.” I remember a professor sniffing scornfully at the very idea that other professors and critics might “read Hamlet as if it’s actually all about Ophelia.”
At the time, I was bristly and defensive at the idea that my notion of “classic” and “best” needed any shaking up. I assumed the suggestion that we ought to attend to “gaps” and “silences” in the canon was a mess of liberal silliness. Not until I began reading the contemporary novelist Marilynne Robinson and the mid-20th-century writer Tillie Olsen did I make the connection: that shaking up the canon might be a fundamentally Protestant idea.
In her essay “Reformation,” Robinson remarks that the history of the Reformation is “very largely a history of books and publication.” In particular, it is the history of very learned people (yes, men) working tremendously hard to make the Bible available in the vernacular. “It is hard now to imagine a world in which virtually everything of importance—law, humane learning, science, and religion—was carried on in a language known only by an educated minority,” she writes. And yet this educated minority included translators like William Tyndale and others who steadily and generously worked to share their intellectual privilege. Robinson identifies the movement known as Lollardy—associated with John Wycliffe—as a forerunner to the Reformation. In the 14th century, Wycliffe made a Middle English translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible which so-called “poor priests” carried (illegally) through the countryside, preaching the gospel to peasants: “Blessid be ye, that now hungren, for ye shulen be fulfillid. Blessid be ye, that now wepen, for ye shulen leiye.”
Foundational to the gospel, is, of course, the radical and extraordinary notion that every human being is an image of God and therefore crowned with glory and honor. Pervasive in Reformation thought, according to Robinson, is “this sense that revelation, scriptural and natural, was essentially available to everyone.” This is why scholars labored under persecution to give the Bible to people in their own languages; why New England Puritans emphasized literacy, why 19th- and 20th-century Protestant missionaries taught women and other marginalized groups to read; and why Christians thought it important to educate working factory children: Because every human being, however humble in birth or ability or appearance, is an image of the Creator. Every human being is potentially receptive to revelation and potentially reflective of what John Calvin called “certain proofs of divinity in man”—“imagination,” “ingenuity,” and “agility of soul.”
“Genius of a sort must have existed among [women],” writes Woolf, “but it certainly never got onto paper.” Perhaps “genius” here may be understood as a gift of perception and expression potentially available to all people—not only women but also people of color and people living in poverty—which sometimes emerges as extraordinary in a few. In the many and the few, this gift has been silenced: by the material conditions of poverty (necessitating manual and other kinds of labor other than writing) and by prejudice of the kind that assumes women and other marginalized people can have nothing to say of value to the world—and the ages. I thought about this when, while working as a missionary in Malawi, I asked my class of Malawian seminary students to write personal essays. How many pilgrims never get to write of their progress? How many stories like these will never be told?
Our Bibles are full of stories of God choosing people from the margins: Ruth, a member of a hated foreign group, becomes one of the grandmothers of the Messiah. God chooses David, the smallest and youngest—the one they didn’t even bother calling away from his shepherding work—to be the king. The Messiah himself is born in a backwater, from which place nothing of note could be expected, and selects as his closest earthly companions the sorts of characters that Shakespeare would have called “rustics.” And women hear and proclaim the news of the Resurrection first.
Church history, too, offers examples. I am touched and not quite surprised that Martin Luther had his beloved wife, Katharina, handle his business dealings with publishers and made her his sole heir—highly unlikely for a woman at the time, and perhaps not incidental to his Reformed thought.
Far from an exercise in political correctness, reading beyond the margins of what privileged, white, Western culture has considered “best” is an act of faith, a test of belief in that ancient Near Eastern idea that in the image of God he created them, and us, too.
Rachel Marie Stone teaches high school English in New York and is the author of the fully revised 40th Anniversary Edition of the More-With-Less cookbook, Eat With Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food, which won the Christianity Today Book Award for Christian Living, and The Unexpected Way (Olive Branch Books), a book about the Gospels for children.