I’m much more of a Jeopardy fan (may we have a moment of silence on The Twelve for the late, great Alex Trebek, please?) than Wheel of Fortune. But occasionally, if nothing else is going on, I’ll settle in and watch the Wheel before my beloved Jeopardy.
One of those evenings happened recently, and I was struck by something early in the show. Pat Sajak was going through the usual pleasantries with the guests when he came to a contestant whose name was Robert.
“Tell us about yourself, Robert.”
Robert said, “I’ve been with my husband Brian for twenty years, he’s the love of my life, and I’m happy to be here.”
Of course Pat then said, “Wait a minute. There’s been a mistake. You don’t belong here. Someone like you isn’t supposed to be on this show.”
No, he didn’t say that. Pat smiled at Robert and turned to the woman next to him and said. “Here’s Susie from Little Rock, tell us about yourself Susie,” and the show went on. Robert won a few thousand dollars but wasn’t the big winner. Neither was Susie. A third contestant won a Caribbean vacation and a bunch of cash.
But I was sitting there, scratching my head, wondering how we’d gotten to the point where Robert could proudly proclaim his love for Brian on Wheel of Fortune while the two of them would be shut out of so many of our churches.
Wheel of Fortune? You can’t get more mainstream. This isn’t Schitt’s Creek on Netflix. This is “America’s Game,” that comes on just after the dinner hour in every television market from coast to coast. Like their simple game, Pat and Vanna are ageless and dependable. They are a bowl of vanilla ice cream, somehow both bland and enjoyable (with no nutritional value) at the same time.
How is it that Wheel of Fortune, the antithesis of a trendsetter, can be in such a different place than the church? As a bellwether of middle America, the Wheel is pretty accurate. The Wheel has gone to a place the church is deeply divided about.
I used to suggest (tongue in cheek), that someone needed to write on The Twelve about how God caused the pandemic to keep both the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church together. I’m not serious about the theology of that, but I am serious about the beauty of the cease fire. Now that the pandemic is waning, the rival factions are heating up again.
Do you sometimes feel like, to use a well-worn cliché, the church is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? The culture has moved on while we’re busy fighting ourselves. I used to think the line “Cure thy children’s warring madness” in the hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory” was about international conflict. Now I think old Harry Fosdick was just writing about the church.
I’ve been reading about the early days of The Reformed Journal, which was started in 1951. Eerdmans Publishing Company sponsored the Journal, but most of the work was done by a collection of Christian Reformed pastors and theologians. It makes sense that a new progressive CRC voice would emerge on the heels of World War II.
Historians Jim Bratt and Ronald Wells put it this way, “The war had swept hundreds of young people out of Christian Reformed enclaves into what was said to be a crusade to save civilization from totalitarian destruction. . . By contrast, the timid legalism, the petty customs, the reflex defensiveness of the old CRC seemed passé at best, irresponsible at worst.” Some of the same returning veterans who started the Journal were appointed to the faculty at Calvin Theological Seminary.
Predictably, with all this new wine going into old wineskins, an internecine dispute broke out that resulted in the termination of almost the entire seminary faculty. The finer points of the dispute are long gone, but at the time it was life and death. Just like every disagreement in the history of Christianity. I suppose one could argue that our squabbles have given us fine things like The Reformed Journal or the Belgic Confession. But isn’t it clear, when we look through the spectacles of history, that all our disputes are simply about the same thing? They are always about power.
And throughout the history of the church, our disagreements have been a zero-sum game, a weaponized duel unto death. Who gets to be in charge? Who gets to tell the story? Who gets to decide who’s in and who’s out, to tell Robert and Brian come on in or get lost? I simply wish we’d be able to live in the tension of disagreement. But that’s not acceptable. The way we fight, one side must win and the other be vanquished. No one seems to care much about what will be lost.
I was in a conversation with a friend once about some issue — my memory of what the issue was has since faded — but as we talked my friend, who is pretty conservative, became convinced of my argument and, for a moment, indicated a willingness to adopt a different viewpoint.
“So you’re going to support it?” I said to him.
“No, I can’t,” he said. “You see, the thing is, even though I agree with you, I just hate liberals. I cannot be associated with them.”
I’ve been reminded of his statement many times recently. It’s not just conservatives hating liberals. The animosity goes both ways. We are dug so deep into our ideologies that even if we see the wisdom of the other side’s point of view we won’t be able to do or say anything about it.
I’m not optimistic about either the future of either the RCA or CRC as the entities we know. Are you?