By Ann Boyd

It's Not That Simple: An Interview with Christine Colón

What can we learn about Christian community from detective novels? Dr. Christine Colón responds to this question in her latest book — Choosing Community: Action, Faith, and Joy in the Works of Dorothy L. Sayers — in which she takes a look at Dorothy Sayers and the ways her faith informs her writing. Join us for a conversation with Christine as we talk about literature, community, and singleness in the church.

Tell us a little bit about you and what your journey has been like into academia.

I grew up as one of those nerdy little kids who like school. I like to read and I always thought that I would go into teaching somehow. So I went to college and I thought I was going to teach high school — and I actually did teach high school for a couple years — but then for a number of reasons I began to feel like maybe I should go to grad school. Part of it was that one of my professors in college had actually mentioned the fact that I might do well in grad school. That was kind of in the back of my mind.

So where did you grow up and where did you go to college?

I grew up in California. I went to college at Biola and then I stayed in Southern California and taught there for a couple of years. And then I wasn't entirely sure if I was going to go to grad school, so I went and did my Masters at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo because that was close to where I had grown up. So I went back home, did my masters, and got into the first semester of my masters program and realized that this is what I wanted to do — I loved it. And at that point, I applied to University of California at Davis and got my degree there. Then I went directly to the job at Wheaton College. So I was incredibly blessed, because the job market is really bad in English. It's pretty much always been bad in English — which was something that I just had to reconcile myself to in grad school. I realized that I needed to do this because I loved it and I felt that this is what God was calling me to do and not set my hopes on getting some particular job. So the fact that I was actually blessed with a job at the end was pretty amazing.

I'm interested in hearing more about the way you sensed God's call into academia. I think a lot of our readers struggle with that process. How did you specifically sense God's call in your life?

My experience has really been about opening myself up to hear from the wise people in my life. Part of my journey has been accepting who I feel God created me to be. There is something important about recognizing that I enjoy reading and that I actually love to teach — and if God has given me those desires, then I'd like to see what I can do with them. It was also important to hear from people like my professor in college or others who agreed that academia would be a good fit for me. That's been my journey: figuring out where I feel God is leading, acknowledging who has he created me to be, and listening to what other people see as my strengths.

I will say though, I did something when I applied to the Masters program that I would never encourage any of my students to do. I literally said to God, “I'm applying to one school. If you want me to do this, you will get me into the school.” And I remember thinking, okay, I'm Gideon. Here's my fleece. Let's see what happens. I wouldn't advise it, but that has been part of my journey.

You have written about Jane Austen, and the Brontë sisters, and Dorothy Sayers. What common threads do you see between the authors you studied?

Well, they are all women. I do write on men occasionally, like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins and some other male writers. But actually, in grad school, I was really drawn to women writers. And particularly women writers who I felt weren't part of the conversation we were having about literature. Interestingly, many of them were Christian women writers. What I discovered is that there are a lot of scholars who were talking about secular women writers and trying to bring them into the conversation — but the assumption was that if a woman writer identified as Christian, she was automatically perceived to be conservative and not very interesting. So I actually did my grad work on writers who identified as Christian and who had radical things they were doing with their works. I was really trying to say, “Don't sell Christian women short. They, too, can notice problems in society and recognize things that need to change.” So that's been kind of a thread that runs through a lot of the research that I've done.

Let's talk about your most recent book, Choosing Community: Action, Faith, and Joy in the Works of Dorothy L. Sayers. How did this book come about?

I have to go back to actually starting to teach at Wheaton College. I hadn’t really read any Dorothy Sayers until I started there. I had read one mystery — her first mystery, Whose Body? And I have to confess I didn't actually like it that much. But once I got to Wheaton, I revisited her work. Dorothy Sayers is one of the authors that we have in our Wade Center — our special collections — so we've got a great collection of her works, her letters, lots of things you can work on. She's the only woman we have in the Wade Center, so I knew that would be interesting. 

So I started to read more of her works. I realized that I did like her as a writer. When the Wade Center started the Hansen Lecture Series, they asked various faculty members to speak on particular authors and the series often ends up turning into a book. I was asked to do this on Sayers. 

I started to realize that community just comes up over and over and over again in her works. So I thought, okay, I didn't talk about community in my other book on Sayers, I think there's enough to go on for these lectures. So I went in that direction.

It's such a brilliant idea. I'm a fan of mystery novels, and I love the way you looked at the element of community and her mysteries in particular. What about mystery novels makes them especially good for a conversation about community? And do they lend themselves to an exploration of other topics as well?

I love mystery novels. I've always loved them since the time I was a kid. But they're easy to dismiss. They are popular fiction, and so it's easy to think there is nothing to really say about them. But I think particularly with the topic of community, there's quite a lot to say about them because the whole premise of the mystery novel is that something has happened in the community. The detective comes in, and is trying to purge that evil from the community. So it really does raise all of these questions about how that happens and how do we think about community once the detective has solved the crime.

As I started to think about it and as I started to think about a lot of the research that has been done on detective fiction, I realized that much of it focuses on what do we do with the community in trouble? And how do we perceive that? and what does it mean? The few scholars who do talk about detective fiction often disparage it because it perpetuates a vision of society in which once you get rid of the one murderer in the community, the community is perfectly fine — which isn't realistic. But I think Sayers is playing with that idea as well, and saying no, that's not quite what's going on in a detective novel.

How has the study of Dorothy Sayers life and work impacted you personally?

One of the things I really respect about Sayers is that whatever she chose to do, she threw herself into it — she educated herself, she became an expert, and then she moved forward. I find that inspirational. I also love the fact that she was never intimidated by being a woman. She just knew she could do it. It's as if she said, “I am capable, I can learn what I need to learn, and I can do it.” So I find that exciting, especially remembering that she's writing in the mid-20th century. She decides that she is just going to craft a position for herself in the writing world. I love that about her.

It’s funny — she was a very blunt personality and was always willing to state what she thought was her truth and hold to that. I always joke that I'm not entirely sure we would actually have been friends if we were able to know each other. She probably would've intimidated me.

I dipped into your work from a few years ago on celibacy and I’d like to ask you some questions about that. What encouragement might you offer women who are single?

I think for encouragement: singleness is great! It can really be a blessing from God to be able to navigate the world in ways where you can say, “I am just going to focus on what God has called me to do.” I think that the church can do a better job at supporting single women and single men. It seems like for a long time there was such a push in the church to get everybody married — If we get everybody married, we won't have to deal with sexuality. Let's just be sure that they're all happily married and then we don't have to talk about this. Well, the world doesn't work that way, particularly for women, and it can be hard to find someone who is going to work as a marriage partner. Yet it seems like the church is unsure what to do with unmarried people once they reach a certain age. 

I do think the church could do a better job supporting singles — talking about celibacy as a spiritual discipline, that it's not impossible. Spiritual disciplines: we practice them and they draw us closer to God. We could talk about celibacy in that way. And I think we need to talk about it in order to support those who are single and want to be celibate, to say, “Yes, this is something that can be done and we support you in that.”

Do you have a sense of what Dorothy Sayers might say regarding our current discussions around sexuality?

She wrote an interesting essay called The Other Six Deadly Sins because she felt her society just focused on sex and ignored absolutely everything else. And there is a certain extent to which we are still like that in the church sometimes, and so I think she could still critique us for that. 

I do think it would be interesting to see how she would respond to the increased opportunities for women and the different ways that women can go out into the world. 

You wrote a book on singleness, and you are now married. Tell us how that happened?

So I made it through most of my forties single, wrote the book with my friend Bonnie after years of complaining to each other on the phone about being single and all the problems with that. I published Singled Out and had moved on with my life and was fine being single — and then met a guy at church. I sang in the church choir and he was friends with the choir director. He saw me one Sunday and he asked the choir director if I was single.

Was he new?

He was newer to the church. He kept wanting the choir director to introduce us but he could never get us both in the same place at the same time so he ended up emailing me with the subject line “friend of Brad Jones” — Brad was the choir director — so that I wouldn't think that he was a crazy person. So he emailed me and asked me out and I immediately googled him to find his picture and noticed that I had seen them at church. So we went out, and we were talking, and after dinner, he asked me, “So, you have written this book on singleness. Are you totally committed to this?”

So he had done his research.

Yes, he had. He got the book and had started to read it. We started dating and we were married about 7 1/2 years ago.

How was your transition between a full adult identification with singleness and celibacy into being married — what were the challenges around that?

It's interesting because a lot of people kept saying, “You're so set in your ways being single, it will be so difficult getting married because of that,” but it actually wasn't, because I'm old enough not to sweat the small stuff. It was fine. But I was still doing a lot of talking about singleness for my book, and I didn't want to not mention that I had gotten married, but at the same time if I led with that, the conversation would always lean into that direction. So I usually tried to not mention it until the end, because the one thing I really wanted to avoid was what people immediately went to saying, “Isn't that nice, you wrote the book on singleness and God rewarded you with a husband.” And I'm like, “Thank you for absolutely discounting everything I say in my book.”

Yes, it's like when people struggle with infertility and then they get pregnant. It's too simplistic.

I also find that it's offensive toward my co-writer, Bonnie, who is still single. So it's like, somehow I was the better Christian than she was? I don't think that's the way we need to think about things. I've had to do some interesting maneuvering around that to get people to acknowledge that the real story isn't that I got married — can we just focus on the things I was talking about in the book?

And what a gift for you and Bob to be influential in the church so that you can invite the culture to remember single people. You are an advocate for single people and you will be for the rest of your life.

That was one thing I was really conscious of. I was not going to be one of those people that, as soon as I get married, I though, what, singleness? I don't remember that at all. In fact, I am part of the team leading a Sunday school class on community at my church — and the topic came from meetings with singles in the church. The demographic of our church is shifting and getting a lot more singles. We're thinking about how do we train everyone in the church — not just singles — in community values so we can all really come together as a community in really productive ways. So we're working through that in the Sunday school class and it's actually been really exciting. I looked around this last week on Sunday, and I thought wow, you've got everyone from freshmen in college to retired people, married, single, lots of differences in ethnicity — this is exciting. I’m really wanting to stay committed to drawing everybody in — even people who are having difficulty being drawn in —  and lots of times those are the singles, unfortunately.

Is your husband in academia?

He is not. He was trained as an engineer, and now he works in a men’s ministry called The Crucible Project.

One of the things we hear often is that it can be a challenge for couples when one person is invested in academia and one person is mine outside of it, because the job of being a professor takes a huge number of hours. Has that been an issue at all?

It's funny. Not being an academic, once he married me, he has said, “Wow, there is a lot more strife and controversy in academia than I expected! I thought it was so placid! You're a college professor!”

We started dating in May after the semester was over, so he got to know me in the summer. So he will joke that he got to know Christine, and then as soon as September kicked in he was introduced to Dr. Colón, who is not as fun as Christine. So he does recognize that particularly because I teach English, I'm always reading things, grading papers and all of that. But at the same time, his men's ministry takes them out of the town about two weekends a month because he is doing men's weekends in different places, and that rhythm has actually worked out okay for us. We entered into the marriage knowing that we each were committed to supporting each other's ministries and not feeling that we needed to become totally enmeshed in the other person's ministry. And that's been good.

It's nice, actually, to be married to somebody who isn't wrapped up in academia because we can talk about other things. It's funny, even with my friends who are colleagues, we will be out at dinner and every time the conversation goes back to work stuff. And we think, “Oh wait, we have lives outside of work. Or do we?” So it's nice to be married to somebody who isn't completely enmeshed in academia.

Do you have a favorite Dorothy Sayers book or two?

One of the things I love about Sayers is that as she goes through her mysteries, there is a turning point where she starts shifting to more of a novel rather than a mystery. So one of my favorites is the last mystery that she writes — the one that is almost a novel but still more of a mystery: The Nine Tailors. This often makes it into the list of best detective novels. I think it is interesting, it is complex, it is fascinating, in fact it is too complex for some people. It is all about bell-ringing and so there are a number of formulas about the bell-ringing process which can drive people crazy. But I love it because among people who love detective fiction, this is what they like: going through all the complexities and trying to figure out where the clue is going to be. So that is my favorite of her detective novels. The next novel she writes is Gaudy Night. There is still a mystery there, but there is much more character development. If pushed, that is probably my favorite because I definitely love character development and the novelistic aspects of that. I also like Gaudy Night because it takes place at a women's college, and addresses women's roles and all that. It is right in my wheelhouse.

Thanks so much for this interview, Christine! It's great to hear your story and how God is using you in a variety of ways.
About the Interviewee

Christine A. Colón (PhD, University of California at Davis) is professor of English at Wheaton College. She is the author of Joanna Baillie and the Art of Moral Influence and Writing for the Masses: Dorothy L. Sayers and the Victorian Literary Tradition. She is also the coauthor of Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today's Church.

About the Interviewer

Ann has worked for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship since 1997, exploring her interests and gifts in music, teaching, and spiritual formation. She received her bachelor’s in music education from Northwestern University in 1997 and keeps on singing, even if it is just for joy at home. Ann spends free moments working on knitting projects, making homemade ice cream, and going on tandem-bike dates with her husband, Jon. Together, they homeschool their two daughters and write up as much as they can at their blog. Ann is the managing editor of The Well.

COMMENT VIA FACEBOOK