Dordt College News

Dengler chosen for 2013 John Calvin Award

December 2, 2013

Dr. Mary Dengler entered college confident that she wanted to be a medical doctor. Then she took a required literature class.

“It was like taking in oxygen,” she says. “I was so excited and stimulated that I remember thinking, ‘This is what I really want to do with my life.’” And she did. She began to fill her class schedule with literature classes and, after graduating, began teaching English and literature. She still finds it exciting and stimulating 39 years later.

Dengler has taught in three Christian high schools, a public university, and two Christian colleges. She has enjoyed the Christian college experience most because she is free to openly talk about how her view of life shapes how she understands literature and language.

“In college, I came to see that teaching is responsible Christian service,” she says. She is passing that insight on to her students today.

Dengler adopted a Reformed way of thinking as an undergraduate at Calvin College. With a father she describes as a “traditional Baptist minister” and a mother who was the daughter of a Reformed Presbyterian missionary, she recalls disagreements over topics like freewill and covenant. It was in college, when she began asking questions like “What does a Christian do?” and “What are we saved for?” that she embraced the Reformed conviction that God is sovereign over all of life, that calling applies to every part of one’s life, and that people are created to worship and serve as they promote and live out biblical principles.

“We’re redeemed and called to reconcile our living in this world to biblical principles, and that includes language and literature,” she says. “Language can be used obediently and disobediently. It can be honest, clear, peacemaking—a powerful tool to help people and institutions flourish. Or it can be used to deceive, to destroy people for one’s own benefit.”

Grammar takes on a new meaning, she believes, when you understand that proper use of language helps you construct ideas in an honest and clear rather than manipulative way. Literature can teach people about the human condition, give a glimpse of how they fail and why, see examples of purpose and fulfillment in characters’ lives, deal with failure and guilt and the desire for transcendence, appreciate creation and its creator, and so much more.

A big challenge for Dengler is deciding what to teach. She wants her students to read current literature and classics. Both help them understand their culture and who they are as products of that culture, to learn from failures, to become critical thinkers, to get a sense of what is important and what is trivial in life.

“The gods of our culture quickly absorb us,” she says, listing fashion and materialism. “Teaching great ideas can help us avoid worshiping false gods.”

Dengler admits that most teachers have a love/hate relationship with their work. Whether she’s teaching the upper level literature/composition courses or the Kuyper Scholars Program rhetoric classes, her students always amaze her with their questions and insights.

“During the school year it’s like being on a moving train,” she says, then adds, “but it’s when you’re working your hardest that you’re most fully alive.”

The John Calvin Award is presented annually to a faculty member who demonstates a commitment to teaching from a Calvinistic perspective and for developing and transmitting reformational insight in a discipine.


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