Westmont College‘s popular English professor is more of a modern Renaissance man than a typical academic. With a blue-eyed twinkle and a sparkling turn of phrase, this Grand Rapids, Michigan, native who’s been at Westmont since 1990 can engage you in intellectual conversations about art, poetry and religion as fluidly and captivatingly as he can turn the dialogue toward the joys of getting down on the floor to play blocks with his 2-year-old granddaughter, Jasmine Marie.
Despite his many literary accomplishments–he’s written eight books, published short fiction, nonfiction and poetry, and produced three plays–VanderMey is really a teacher at heart, who describes the Christian liberal arts college as having “an atmosphere that’s really quite filled with trust and joy.”
It wasn’t always that way. “When I came to Westmont 16 years ago, I would say that, at best, the spiritual climate was sketchy,” says VanderMey, who credits the leadership of former President Stan Gaede (who left in 2005) for much of the turnaround.
These days, “People’s politics differ and religiously differ, maybe academic politics differ. But still my colleagues are people I could have lunch with, talk with, respect.”
A highlight of VanderMey’s professional and personal life was escorting 43 students through a semester in Europe in 2003, where they spent four months traveling through 23 cities in 12 countries. One of the best parts of the trip was spending a week each in four different religious communities: the abbey on the Isle of Iona in Scotland, where Celtic monks are believed to have produced the Book of Kells, a marvelous example of medieval illumination; Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in the United Kingdom; a Catholic monastery in Teze, France; and the Schloss Mittersill Study Centre in Austria, which VanderMey describes as a castle housing a Protestant evangelical community.
As a professor, VanderMey prizes and encourages independent thought. “I guess I have a model in my mind of what kind of student I want to produce–a student who’s a little bit contrary. They should be willing to stand up for themselves against what they read, not to be hostile to it, but to think for themselves,” says VanderMey. This idea, he acknowledges, “might surprise people who think of a Christian college as a place where students are taught to think in lock step. But that’s not how Westmont is and that’s not how I am at Westmont. I want to make them better critical thinkers and open-minded. I mean, if the Christian faith can’t stand up to critical thinking, why embrace it?”
That critical examination of faith is a recurring theme in VanderMey’s work. “I’m writing out of my core convictions, which is why things germinate for 10 years before I write them,” he says, over lattes at downtown’s Finestra cafe. While certainly heartfelt, his work is also a bit irreverent. For example, his 1993 book, God Talk, is a critical look at “the triteness and truth in Christian cliches,” taking on routine phrases such as, “God wants you to succeed,” “Act of God,” and “There must be a reason,” and examining what people really mean when they use them. Writes VanderMey: “The habit of using stock phrases can sometimes be not only a symptom, but also a cause of spiritual paralysis.”
Language, both spiritual and otherwise, is a topic close to VanderMey’s heart. He’s the author of The College Writer: A Guide to Thinking, Writing and Researching, which is now in its second edition. And locals may know VanderMey’s work from the 2004 production Kenosis, a theatrical staging of his spiritual poetry set to contemporary music, which played at the Center Stage Theater. He has also taught poetry writing classes (partnering with Peri Longo) at Hospice of Santa Barbara and is currently at work on another textbook, with the working title of The Contrary Reader.
He writes and teaches with the same zest for life he embraces with his family. VanderMey–who loves golfing and bowling–is an enthusiastic grandpa and 54-year-old father and stepfather to four grown children (Gabrielle VanderMey, Julia and Jason Clark, and Mike Sakkers), as well as the self-proclaimed “biggest fan” of his wife Dana VanderMey, who is the supervisor of volunteers for Hospice of Santa Barbara.
There’s never a dull moment at home, says VanderMey, whose daughter Gabrielle and stepdaughter Julia were both married in Santa Barbara this summer, coincidentally to two young men named Matt.
VanderMey, who once considered writing a book about marriage communication, chuckles at what kind of advice he might offer the newlyweds. An editor discouraged him from writing the book, asking why– with so many experts–they would want a marriage book from him.
There’s that twinkle in VanderMey’s eyes again. “I’m thinking about making it a humor book,” he says. “My wife (who can sometimes be found doing stand up comedy at Soho) is a very funny lady.”