Monthly Archives: August 2013

Writing for Life

by Jeffry C. Davis ’83

I am composing these words at an altitude of 31,000 feet. After attending a four-day conference on teaching writing to undergraduates, I’m flying home. My mind feels like a suitcase packed full of new clothes; many fresh and colorful ideas are returning with me as a result of my participation in various lectures, workshops, and discussions.

Of all the subjects in English that I teach at Wheaton, courses in writing thrill me most. Yet, I must admit that my calling to the composition classroom exhibits a bit of God’s ironic humor: when I was an undergraduate, I loathed writing papers. Breaking a bone or catching a virus seemed like more tolerable experiences at the time. The task of putting words onto a page usually filled me with intense anxiety.

My frustration had little to do with the fact that I lacked a computer with a spell-checker; somehow I managed to type all of my college papers on a manual Smith-Corona, with a well-worn edition of Webster’s dictionary nearby (though I’m certainly grateful for my PC today). Nor did my travail result from a lack of scholastic interest or effort; as a new convert to Christ, I truly believed that the world–in all of its sadness and splendor–should he seriously studied because God made it.

My struggle, I now realize, came from my incomplete understanding of the purpose and practice of writing. As I then perceived it, the main reason I wrote papers was to show my professors two things: first, that I understood the subject matter of their courses, and second, that I understood how to craft my thoughts into grammatical sentences. Consequently, I tended to see writing as a skill primarily concerned with correctness. With each sentence, typically written at a snail’s pace, I asked myself, “Is this right?” And often, a voice inside my head would shout back, “No!” So, I would scratch out the sentence I had just written, and try to write a new one. My preoccupation with correctness paralyzed me.

In her essay, “The Watcher at the Gate,” Gail Godwin explains that most writers have an internal critic, an unrestrained negative voice committed to one goal: “rejecting too soon and discriminating too severely.” In describing her own Watcher, Godwin reveals one of her characteristic messages: “‘What’s the good of writing out a whole page,’ he whispers begrudgingly, ‘if you just have to write it over again later? Get it perfect the first time!'”

Now, as I teach my students how to write, I try to disabuse them of the myth that good writers get it perfect the first time. A great writer becomes great not because of inspiration, but because of dedication and perspiration. For example, I remind them that Thomas Jefferson carefully drafted the Declaration of Independence several times before it was finished, an accomplishment which he was prouder of than being the third President of the United States. Jefferson didn’t get his writing perfect the first time.

Instead of primarily focusing on the product of writing, I encourage students to consider the process of writing. Serious writers, more often than not, develop good habits that naturally foster good writing. They learn to observe, and to wait, and to receive; this approach requires a certain degree of humility.

Serious writers learn how to write when they don’t feel like writing, becoming obedient to the task at hand. They care about words as they think in ink. The novelist E.M. Forster explains, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” And after they have written something, they let other—those whom they trust—examine their work, and they actually welcome constructive criticism.

What’s more, they learn how to revise, which literally means to see again with new eyes; they accept the necessity of change.

In a real sense, the process of writing is analogous to the process of spiritual growth. Working with words demands discipline, which paradoxically sets us free to write well. So, too, living for the Word requires us to let go of our inclination to strive for our own perfection, which inevitably brings paralysis. We are asked, instead, to develop a habit of the heart, wherein we welcome the Word to dwell more fully in us. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God In Him was life, and that life was the light of men.”


Twenty years ago, the Wheaton Alumni magazine began a series of articles, titled “On My Mind”, in which Wheaton faculty told about their thinking, their research, or their favorite books and people. Current Associate Professor of English, Jeffry Davis (on faculty since 1990) was featured in the Spring 1997 issue.

The following statement was included at the time of publication:

Dr. Jeffry C. Davis ’83 (Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Writing Center) has taught writing at Wheaton for more than a decade. He earned his M.A. in English from Northern Illinois University. Presently he is working to complete his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His dissertation focuses on Quintilian, a first-century teacher of writing. In his spare time he gardens and listens to country music.

The Cross of Gold and the Trumpet of Distraction

It isn’t often that a professor of history is allowed to participate in history, if only fleetingly, but Dr. S. Richey Kamm, Professor of History, Political Science and Social Science at Wheaton College, sat very close to William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic candidate for President of the United States and one of most flamboyant and influential figures of the day.

Bryan, “The Great Commoner,” championed causes like prohibition and women’s suffrage. In 1921 he visited Wheaton College, lecturing forcefully to faculty and students against the theory of evolution, later using those very arguments in his seminal debate with attorney Clarence Darrow during the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. Ironically, theistic evolution eventually won the day at Wheaton College. Bryan was famous for his “Cross of Gold” speech, which responded to those demanding a currency based upon a gold standard. He shouted, “We will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

In 1924 young Kamm heard Bryan speak in Greenville, Illinois. He writes on the back of the photo:

You will find me seated on the table at the left of the picture. This shows only a part of the crowd. It stretched out for a long way on each side. They had quite a time with the old fellow with the ear trumpet. He got up on the platform and got his trumpet so close to Bryan’s mouth that Bryan had to stop and get the old fellow a chair.

A Third Testament, available on DVD

Malcolm Muggeridge (SC-04), British journalist, responded with keen sensitivity to pious thought couched in beautiful language, especially as he embraced the Christian faith in his later years. In 1974 he hosted a documentary series highlighting the spiritual contributions of six world-class authors: St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal, William Blake, Soren Kierkegaard, Leo Tolstoy and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Describing their work as a “third testament” (after the Old and New Testaments) testifying to the reality of God and the resurrected Christ, Muggeridge visited their countries, homes and haunts, attempting to capture something of the environment in which they flourished. Two years later he adapted the series into a book, each chapter profiling one of the featured authors.

Unavailable for many years, A Third Testament, a two-disc DVD containing six 55-minute episodes, is now available from Ignatius Press, or 1-800-651-1531.

The Prohibition Club

The matter of casual consumption of alcohol is increasingly accepted among Christians, but in previous generations “the drink” was considered an insufferable evil — a quick, sure agent for destroying the family and the community. One tract from 1922 notes, “The children of this generation must be taught that alcohol is present in beer, wine and home-brew, and that alcohol, wherever found, is a poison.” Evangelists such as Billy Sunday continuously railed against the dangers of booze, preaching with such aggression that saloons and bootleg operations shut down all across the country.

Assisting in the battle for temperence, Wheaton College established the Prohibition Club, which eventually aligned itself with the Intercollegiate Prohibition Association. Students, traveling to schools and churches, performed oratories and wrote contest essays with such themes as “The World Movement Against Alcoholism. Charles Blanchard, second president of Wheaton College, delivered the keynote address for the third annual convention of the Intercollegiate Prohibition Association of Illinois in 1895, hosted at Wheaton College.

Modern sensibilities might disagree, but voices from the past proclaim their opposition with conviction.

Nuturing a Passion for Justice

by Helene Slessarev

Scripture speaks so eloquently of God’s passion for the poor and the outcast. Throughout my adulthood, I too have had a passion for seeking justice for the poor. Prior to coming to Wheaton, I had worked as a community organizer in an all-black neighborhood in Chicago, as an advocate for stronger civil rights legislation and job training programs for the poor, and as an organizer for several local reform politicians. I saw coming to Wheaton as a continuation of my calling to a ministry of justice because it was my hope that through teaching and writing I would be able to impart those passions to my students.

Every year I have new students in my classes who have been inspired by a church missions trip or an urban immersion experience and are now eager to learn more. They understand that Christian leadership means service, and they want to know how they can best live that out in what they choose to do as adults.

A growing number of Wheaton students are wrestling with a sense of calling to some form of urban ministry as they prepare for adulthood. For them, urban studies can serve as a window into what in most cases is a very different environment, while also serving as a window into their own souls.

As director of urban studies, I see it as my calling to broaden and deepen my students’ thinking about poverty so they can clearly see the impact of societal evils in creating and perpetuating poverty and hunger in the world. Unlike the students I taught at the University of Chicago when I was in graduate school, Wheaton students’ faith serves as a common foundation. They come into the classroom knowing that God expects them to serve the hungry, the homeless, the sick, and the needy, because “when you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me” (Matt. 25:40). I seek to present them new perspectives on Scripture, often drawing on the prophets of the Old Testament such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, as well as Jesus’s own ministry among the outcasts of Jewish society.

I seek to challenge many of my students’ assumptions about the life conditions and hardships that confront people who live in the poorer communities of our nation’s big cities. They are accustomed to thinking about poverty as an individual problem, yet the growth of large poor neighborhoods in central cities is also the legacy of housing and school segregation, the loss of industrial employment, and flight of financial capital.

For young Christians to seriously engage in ministry among the poor, they have to recognize that there can be no genuine solution to poverty in America unless those most hurt by it become actively engaged in the search for solutions.

Young Christians trained in Christian colleges like Wheaton who are seeking to do urban ministry will have to form partnerships and share skills and experiences with Christians who have grown up in these communities. For many students, their urban experience will be life-transforming because they learn that to be a light in this world requires that they give of themselves. They have to empty themselves in order to serve others. They learn that there are no easy solutions to renewing poor communities and that any change requires great love, hard work, and deep commitments.


Twenty years ago, the Wheaton Alumni magazine began a series of articles, titled “On My Mind”, in which Wheaton faculty told about their thinking, their research, or their favorite books and people. Former Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Urban Studies Program, Helene Slessarev (who taught at Wheaton from 1991-2006) was featured in the Summer 1999 issue.