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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.