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Tulip Time & God

Is no theology preferable to bad theology?

In my town, Pella, Iowa, Tulip Time was almost three weeks ago. The tulips weren’t quite ready, but the crowds were still huge. Orange City, up in the northwest part of the state, just finished theirs. Holland, Michigan has a big one. And there are many other tulip festivals of various names and sizes across North America—Ottawa, Ontario; Albany, New York; Lehi, Utah; Lynden, Washington. Each, I assume, has its own flavor and feel.

I know only my experience here in Pella. It is basically a three day street fest. Parades, a 5K run, fried food sold from booths, kids roaming everywhere, dutiful Pella folk scurrying from one volunteer responsibility to the next. All sorts of churches, clubs, and teams survive for another year on the proceeds from their food booths. While there are plenty of tourists in town, Tulip Time also functions as a giant reunion. The aunt and uncle who moved to Minneapolis come back. Grown children return home, many with their first child, eager to fulfill a lifetime dream–to walk with their infant in the “Baby Parade.” 

I think sociologists would tell us that Pella’s Tulip Time is an incredible builder of social capital. People are having fun together and are united around a common purpose. Oh yes, there is some of the expected hand-wringing about “Will young people step up when their turn comes to lead?” Or as the Dutch presence in town decreases, “Will the new faces of Pella buy into Tulip Time?” 

Most people in Pella seem to have no problem viewing Tulip Time’s purposes as money-making, fun, community-building, fun, money-making, and fun. Maybe it’s a sign of increased secularity, but no one seems to think much about Tulip Time and God. I’m pretty much okay with that. While I profess that God is in everything and theology matters to everything, I don’t know what to theologize about Tulip Time—other than, as I’ve opined before, God likes fun.

But there has been a lot weird and awkward Tulip Time theology in the past. Even this year I heard an elderly gentleman pray, “As our annual festival approaches, it is our desire, O Lord, that you would receive much glory and praise through it; that the crowds who come would see the many blessings and favor your generous hand has bestowed upon us. May our witness for you in this festival be strong.”

You used to hear more talk like this. Fortunately, it seems to be going away. It feels akin to the worst of civil religion. God is on our side! Aren’t we grand! If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much! Certain that our achievements are a sign of God’s favor. Certain that others are envious of what we have. Spread a lot of gooey piety and God-blather on our own agenda. Make it sound like the primary purpose of Tulip Time is to win lost souls for Christ—because having fun and making money are not lofty enough purposes.

That weird, old Tulip Time theology is waning. I don’t grieve it. I do wonder, however, should I mourn the loss of the impulse behind it? Is no theology preferable to bad theology? Is the prayer of that older gentlemen a genuine desire to connect all things with God?  Might it even be a version of that tattered Kuyperian meme: Jesus calling “Mine” to every square inch of creation—including Tulip Time? Honestly, I just don’t know what that would look like for Tulip Time.

For now, agnostic reticence, and lots of fun, seems like a better route.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.

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