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Essay

Rev. Robert Schuller, 1926-2015

By April 17, 2015 4 Comments
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When Fred Manfred’s Gerrit Engleking, the raw-boned protagonist of The Secret Place, left northwest Iowa (under a cloud) and went to live in California like so many others in the dirty thirties, he didn’t do all that well. However, many who left Dutch Siouxland did very well despite whatever dark clouds they may have left behind because they carried with them a Calvinist work ethic which not only allowed them take on the jobs others would not have, but also because they perceived those jobs–picking up garbage or milking cows or lugging bricks–as a calling. When that gargantuan work ethic put down roots in southern California, it pulled them and their families out of poverty by nothing less than elbow grease.  And, oh yeah, prayer.


The Rev. Robert Schuller, an icon of American Protestantism, was just such a Siouxlander, even if he didn’t milk cows or pour cement when he got to California. No matter. He worked just as hard as any blame fool from some farm just outside of Doon or Lebanon. Reverend Robert Schuller worked hard because work was a divine thing. Work was what real church people he knew did, and even many who weren’t real church people. 


When Schuller got to Orange County, Disneyland was just going up. Soon enough, by sheer industry and commitment to mission he created a booming ministry fit for Southern Cal. He was to Protestant Christianity what Ronald Reagan was to politics, and Reagan’s people loved him. 


He was a kind of Reformed Walt Disney, emphasis on Disney. When the only venue he could find locally was a drive-in theater, he innovated, carting his pulpit and the organ his wife played to that theater come Sunday, to preach to people who didn’t feel like wearing the Sunday clothes Schuller’s kin would have in Newkirk or Orange City. You could wear pajamas to the drive-in church or come in your underwear or even less. You didn’t have to leave the car. You didn’t have to do much of anything.  Just park it.


He may have molded the theology of his youth to fit California beach culture, but he really never changed much himself. In seminary, he studied the Institutes of John Calvin, but was more definitively shaped in theology by Norman Vincent Peale, the father of “possibility thinking,” than he was by any of the stalwarts of the Reformation. Schuller’s Self-Esteem: The New Reformation suggests altogether too baldly, perhaps, that his new gospel made him a “new reformer,” which he was, after a fashion.


For a time, he was an American prophet. That book and others, best-sellers, undoubtedly sold hundreds of thousands; but today the Crystal Cathedral Schuller built just down the road from Disneyland no longer belongs to him, his family, or his theology. The whole enterprise went belly-up and, ironically, was sold to the Roman Catholics. So much for the “Hour of Power” Reformation.  


I think it’s fair to say that you can take preacher out of the Siouxland of his birth, but you can’t take Siouxland out of the preacher; and I’m convinced that Schuller made it big in California out of same sweat others poured into callings widely different. He was willing to work like a nailer, and he did. 


He was a counselor to Presidents, a spiritual mentor to the rich and famous. To read through a list of those who came to him for answers to humanity’s persistently unanswerable questions would be amazing, I’m sure. 


He was, some say, the first Protestant preacher to be “seeker-sensitive.” For a time, he was, some say, the foremost expert on “church growth.” He built one of the nation’s first mega-churches. He was an innovator, a visionary, a kind of prophet–all of those. But he always wore a clerical robe, and his liturgies, no matter what Hollywood star did the special music, always resembled the way he’d worshiped right here as a boy–just vastly more spectacular, more Hollywood.


He was, without a doubt, the most highly decorated Siouxlander and its most prolific writer. Among the hundreds of theologians who’ve grown up here, the Reverend Robert Schuller towers, in Crystal Cathedral fashion, over any and all. He lunched with kings. 


And all of it started in a house he and his father relocated to the home place after a tornado wiped out everything on the acreage where they lived, just a few miles up the Floyd from where I’m sitting. Tim Stafford, in Christianity Today, begins his memorial piece on Reverend Robert Schuller with that story–how everything blew away in that tornado, and how Bob and his dad went to town, bought a tiny Orange City bungalow, took it apart piece by piece, and reassembled it where the home place once stood.


That nailed-together bungalow is gone now, but it stood for years in what amounted to something of easy-to-forget corner of rich Iowa soil, a half-dozen miles east of Orange City. To say that Robert Schuller grew up out of the way is understatement because he grew up in an out-of-the-way home place in an out-of-the way corner of an out-of-the way state. I still think that house should have been a memorial, open to visitors come Tulip Time because Schuller is heritage here. Some may not like me saying that, but it’s true. Today the house is gone now, and the Crystal Cathedral is Roman Catholic. Maybe I ought to put some Ozymandius image just off the gravel road out there, something with a smile, not a “sneer of cold command.”


Schuller probably isn’t the area’s favorite son, even if he should be. I don’t know if anyone mentioned him in church on Easter, just four days after he died, and his death is no longer news.  


Some people claim his mother wore the kind of dark face that is caricature Calvinist. Some claim she may have smiled once, but probably not more. Maybe that helps us understand where her son discovered the importance of optimism. He was Protestant Christianity’s first and most successful smiley face. He was always chipper.


The testimonials at the funeral, I’m sure, were sensational, probably a succession of celebrity plaudits. I just hope there was someone there from northwest Iowa, because even though he is buried in Southern Cal with his beloved Arvella, and even though where he went with Christian doctrine seems a stretch from what he knew as a boy and seminarian, Robert Schuller never quite left that nailed-together replacement home a hundred yards from the Floyd River, and no one was more proud of saying exactly that than he was.


Someone here would note his passing. Some say, not incorrectly, that when the ministry was floundering he was little more than a Christian jewelry salesman. But the whole region has not produced anyone close to him in populist strength and power. He was sincere and loving, of moral stature well beyond scandal, and an international figure. For a time, he stood on the world stage and preached God’s love.


We should be proud.

The Schuller home, rural Newkirk, Iowa

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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