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Passing It On

By July 30, 2016 23 Comments

Last week Thomas Goodhart bid adieu to his regular slot on this blog. Today is my turn. The most immediate reason is the approaching departure of me and my wife for a ten-month teaching gig in China. “The Twelve” seems to be threatening enough over there—or just part of the dubious category of American religious sites—for the authorities to block. I suppose I could find a work-around, but I don’t need to be bugging other people to post my stuff.

Besides, some former “Twelve” contributors, in cycling off, have explained that it’s good to make room for fresh voices from time to time. And since I’ve been here from the start—now four and a half years ago!—you can’t say that I’m fresh. Well, you can, but not in the Whole Foods sense of the term. So, it’s an apt time to go, but not before a few closing remarks. (My students know that phrase does not indicate a truly imminent end. Only the backwards-baseball-capped yokel who slaps his notebook shut with a loud sigh at the first hint that my lecture is approaching touchdown falls for that. Back to Game-Boy, dude. And good luck with your job search.)

I can’t help but reflect, at this ending, on the long track of journalism that is represented in “The Twelve.” The blog grew out of Perspectives magazine, which was born in the 1980s among writers in the Reformed Church in America who wanted an outlet for reflection and commentary beyond that available in the denomination’s official magazine, The Church Herald. In 1991 Perspectives absorbed The Reformed Journal which had begun forty years before amid intense quarrels theological and ecclesiastical in the Christian Reformed Church, and which was supported (at a financial loss) all that time by Eerdmans Publishing Company. The Journal offered the thoughts of scholars, pastors, and other thinkers in American Reformed circles for the benefit of the proverbial generally educated and religiously interested reader. In that effort it picked up the baton from The Calvin Forum which had originated in the mid-2310s as, well, a forum in which the faculty and friends of Calvin College and Seminary could reach a broader public on theology, philosophy and issues of the day.

In short, “The Twelve” stands at this end of an eighty-year school of Christian—more exactly, Reformed Christian—journalism. The wording of its hypothetical mission statement may have changed over time, but the substance has remained the same: this tradition has consistently hoped to speak from a Reformed point of view upon the whole orbit of church, culture, society, and daily life. No mean ambition! And way beyond the means at hand to meet the task. The disparity has often prompted rueful self-reflection on the part of the people trying to carry it off. Occasionally, it has also incited Self-Important People from the Right edge of the Beltway Commentariat to sneer (or, in one case I witnessed, literally to foam at the mouth) in indignation at the temerity! the effrontery!! of people from Grand Rapids!!! who thought they had something to say about issues of national import. Let’s consider both the sigh and the sneer as tribute to the maxim that you have to aim high to reach even the middle.

The same may be said of the journalism lying still further back of these eighty years, the newspaper/magazine combination started by Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands in 1872. Now we’re nearing a century and a half ago! By no means have all the writers who have contributed to all these outlets over the years been Kuyperians. Nor would it have been anywhere close to good had they been. But the standard erected by Kuyper (and there’s a joke there, baseball fans; his political daily was De Standaard) remains worthy of emulation. To be well grounded in a sound, consistent, and comprehensive theological system. To reflect therefrom upon ideas and movements across all domains. To run a feedback loop from said reflections back upon the theology. And to do so in a way understandable, and energizing, to ordinary people. The result would spur, Kuyper thought, a responsible and coherent application of “Reformed principles” to the needs and opportunities of modern life.

Boy, do we need that now. I’m thinking of the death this past week of Tim LaHaye. The span of tomfoolery he pumped out in the name of Christianity has created lasting disrepute for the faith. The creation “science.” The “end-times” irresponsibility, compounded of self-pity, blaming others, and a certain cultural idolatry. All of it redolent of the John Birch Society swamp from which he first slithered. Still, it’s the sort of religious fantasy you can expect to hit the American best-seller list. The death that really strikes home for me is the moral nadir of Mr. Family Values, “Dr.” James Dobson. His endorsement of Donald Trump puts paid to any pretense that the ethics and politics he pushed, lo, these many years have come to anything but authoritarian nationalism with a particular macho strut. For that is Trump. Dobson’s worse for covering it with smarmy God-talk.

I say this hits home for me because back when I was on a denominational committee studying the future of the CRC’s magazine, The Banner, we were given some research stats of readership habits and opinion. James Dobson turned out to be the CRC’s #1 rated authority on current events. Charles Colson was its #1 theologian. The Fraud and the Felon atop the Calvinist hit parade. Two minor sins in that revelation somehow stuck out for me. Dobson, a member of the Church of the Nazarene. Read rank Armininian. Colson, invoking the name of Kuyper as he bullied along.

All this, I mused, was the price of that “Americanization” to which the CRC, as an immigrant church, had been long pushed to accede. Well, nationalist mush compounded by militancy turns out to be the bitter fruit of that process. And so it is today.

I don’t pretend that Kuyper ever represented more than a small fraction of Dutch people claiming a Reformed commitment. Ditto, in Dutch-American Reformed circles, for The Forum, The Journal, or Perspectives. But these magazines have fought hard and punched way above their weight because of that magic formula that Kuyper caught, and taught. And it’s worth carrying on their mission, worth trying to maintain cultural, political, and theological integrity above the open sewer into which white-American Christianism has descended.

I’ve been privileged to carry on a little bit of that tradition—and to have studied it a lot! I can’t say I’ve always sat down with a happy heart of a Friday evening to compose my Saturday post. I can say that almost always I have learned something in the process, and have gone to bed glad of the assignment. I wish my successor and the other Eleven all best in carrying on. With all of you I’ll be a faithful, and grateful, reader—if I can find a work-around.



James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Duane Kelderman says:

    Thanks, Jim. Have a great next chapter of your life!!

  • June Huissen says:

    Thanks brother Jim for your history lesson and heartfelt remarks. I will miss you and your writing. Safe travels and a most successful year in China.

  • Grace Shearer says:

    Thanks for you thoughtful comments, Jim. Blessing to you and your wife in China.

  • Jeff Munroe says:

    I hope you come back to The Twelve in a year. The other eleven of us were buoyed mightily by the distinction you brought.

  • Expectations of a kinder and gentler Jim Bratt in his last posting are decisively refuted. Keep your eyes peeled for evidence of a Kuyperian transformational Christian vision in China — some seeds have been planted. (Incidentally: your post initially sent me looking for a James Dobson obituary, but then I realized you were referring only to the death of any shred of moral integrity in the still-living man.)

  • James Dekker says:

    Thanks, Jim. Kuyper wasn’t perfect, as he well knew–unlike the American Christian bullies you described and others whose sepulchral throats would also offer fitting targets for your journalistic knives. Keep ’em sheathed in China, but do good in God’s name.

  • Jessica Bratt Carle says:

    I’m grateful for your writing all that you’ve taught your readers over these years! Best wishes in China.

    • Jessica Bratt Carle says:

      …your writing *and* all that you taught your readers.
      (Clearly my editing skills have declined since ceasing to write for the 12!)

  • Ron calsbeek says:

    Jim, I’m going to miss you greatly. Happy trails.

  • John Suk says:

    Thanks Jim. Even if you’re done with the blog, I hope you have a few books left in you! I’ll pick them up immediately!

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    My association with Perspectives goes back 16 years now and you, Jim, were there from the beginning, welcoming me to my first retreat with that highly intelligent, hugely uproarious Board on the shores of Lake Mackatawa. Won’t be the same without you around but blessings in the upcoming trip and in all you do. Your voice has been singularly resonant all along. (And thanking your for hilarious memories of the classic film De Duva!)

  • Gordon Vandenberg says:

    Thanks Jim for your years of contributions and this historical perspective of the origins of The Twelve. I will miss your plucky insight and deliberations. God go with you and Tina

  • Ron Rozema says:

    Exceptional, well-thought and rightly toned piece again, Jim. Thanks. Best in your China gig. Hoping you’ll return in good time inspired and ready to take up the pen, OK, keyboard, again.

  • Jim Grayson says:

    Will miss you, Jim, you’re one of the most courageous writers around. Can’t imagine this upcoming political season without your commentary. Both you and Jon Stewart leaving us within a year! So sad! But China? Couldn’t you find something in southern France or the Spanish Riviera? Get your shots and don’t forget your germ mask.

  • /svm says:

    Of course China; it runs in the family. Eager to read all your new ideas when you get back, in less than a year. Take notes copiously. Re-entry experiences will provide yet more fodder. Yes, I was counting on your perspective on this year particularly in politics — but my next thought was envy at your being able to opt out of the circus.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thanks, Jim!
    Sorry to see you leave but happy you’ll be teaching in China, you and Tina both perhaps.
    Experience tells me that you’ll never be quite the same after nearly a year in China.
    And that you’ll have much to share with the Twelve.
    Blessings, and keep your mask handy.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Nou jong, ik weet niet wat te schrijven maar ik zal je erg missen, en ook wat uit je ziel door je vingers geschreven is. Tot kijk, als God goed is.

  • Ruth Vis says:

    I will miss you on these pages, Jim. Please return to write here again. Be well!

  • Fred Wind says:

    Thanks, Jim!

  • Rebecca Koerselman says:

    I will miss your historical reflections, Jim. Thanks for sharing here and inspiring readers like me!
    Blessings on this next step for you both…

  • Leanne Van Dyk says:

    All best wishes, Jim – I discovered to my delight that you possess a rare blend of wisdom, knowledge, humor, and hope. You know a lot, laugh a lot, inspire a lot. Have fun in your next chapter!

  • Duane VanderBrug says:

    Will you be able to find a way to comment on the book Chris Meehan wrote about the church/Christian school racial struggle decades ago when you spent a late 1960s summer in Lawndale? Eerdmans hopes to publish it by next spring. Sure hope so ! !

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