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Fathomless mysteries all

By September 18, 2015 4 Comments

The title and not the author first caught my eye–Prairie, by someone named Muilenburg, not an unfamiliar name in the neighborhood. I found a copy (they’re rare), bought it, read it, and was greatly moved, not by the power of the novel but by what it suggests about the author. And about us in the neighborhood. 

The novel’s roots are here. Walter J. Muilenburg was born on a farm just outside of Orange City, Iowa, and his Prairie is definitely local, its characters pioneers not unlike Walter J’s own parents, who homesteaded a couple miles north of town (before there was one) after taking the overland trip from the Pella area in 1872, by wagon of course. 

Now get this. In the early decades of the 20th century, this particular pioneer, immigrant family, rural folks ala early Van Gogh, have three sons. None stay on the farm, but one of them becomes a novelist, and the other two earn Ph.D.s. in theology.  Not bad for boers.

But the novel suggests Walter J likely had little confidence in “the faith of our fathers,” or at least the faith of his brothers. A couple of minutes of googling turns up all kinds of information about the novelist’s brother James, a distinguished professor at Union Theological Seminary, New York City, a colleague, in fact, of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, both of whom had prominent national reputations. But it has precious little about brother Walter, whose literary output doesn’t require much more than an afternoon to conquer.

When, sadly enough, some of the trails leading to Walter J disappeared in a fog, I wondered whether getting to know his famous brother the theologian better might just teach me a little bit more about Walter J.  After all, Professor James left a legacy wide enough to shelve. I don’t know the record well, but my guess is that Prof. James Muilenburg has to rank among Northwestern Academy’s most distinguished early graduates. 

A Northwestern archivist alerted me to the fact that James Muilenburg was the subject of a loving profile penned by Frederick Buechner, one of America’s finest religious writers. “But for me, as for most of us studying there [Union Seminary] in those days,” Buechner writes in his memoir Now and Then, “there was no one on the faculty who left so powerful and lasting an impression as James Muilenburg.”

Maybe if I get to know brother James a bit, I thought, something in him may throw some light on his novelist brother–and what his novelist brother believed or didn’t.

“He was a fool, I suppose in the sense that he was an intimate of the dark,” Buechner says of brother James, “yet held fast to the light as if it were something you could hold fast to.” Buechner goes on to open that metaphor as wide as he can. “[He was a fool] . . .in the sense that he wore his heart on his sleeve even though it was in some ways a broken heart; in the sense that he was as absurdly himself before the packed lecture hall as he was alone in his office; a fool in the sense that he was a child in his terrible candor. A fool in other words, for Christ.”

Buechner quotes him:

“Every morning when you wake up,” [Prof. Muilenburg] used to say, “before you reaffirm your faith in the majesty of a loving God, before you say I believe for another day, read the Daily News with its record of the latest crimes and tragedies of mankind and then see if you can honestly say it again.”

A fool, Buechner says, a man who likely was because he wouldn’t be.

On the paperback cover of Buechner’s Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation, the editors inscribed a line from the goods inside, a line they found fitting: “Listen to your life, see it for the fathomless mystery that it is.” 

That’s Buechner, but if you look again at the way he describes the prof who left “so powerful and lasting an impression,” the perception at the bottom of that judgment and in his teacher’s theological direction is one and the same–life itself is a fathomless mystery.

And it is, isn’t it? More than 125 years ago, three boys (on land not so far from where I’m sitting) are probably starting to think about picking corn, hoping the weather holds because picking is no blame fun when the snow flies. Probably to them, picking corn by hand is no fun any time, really.

Not one of those Muilenburg boys will stay on the home place; each one will leave for higher education; and all three will achieve some significant prominence, two of them as theologians, preachers, one I think quite certainly not. Not one of them will ever come back to live here in Siouxland, and only one is buried here: Walter J, the one who may well have traveled farthest away.

Fathomless mysteries, I guess.    

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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