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In Memory of John Hwang

This first appeared on Du Mez CONNECTIONS, Kristin’s Substack newsletter on November 5.

I usually keep a degree of separation between the personal and the professional, but not today.

On Friday, I attended the funeral of my friend John Hwang. John was just 44 and died completely unexpectedly one week ago today, leaving behind his beautiful wife and children.

If you’re reading this, John has already touched your life.

I met John around 2015, if I have my dates right. I was newly appointed to the board of Reformed Journal and was honored to step into the role. These were my people, and this was my tradition. I’d looked up to so many Reformed Journal writers over the years and was looking forward to carrying on the tradition. But over bagels and coffee at that first board meeting, I learned that the situation was bleak. Funds were running low, subscriptions were waning, and it seemed all but certain that the Reformed Journal was destined to go the way of countless other print magazines.

I can’t remember if it was that meeting or the next when John showed up and made his pitch. It wasn’t time to shut the doors, he insisted. Now was the time to lean in. To innovate. To go digital. There was so much untapped potential, he told us with excitement. In a room full of stodgy academics—and Calvinist ones at that—John was a ray of light. And possibility. He had a degree in computer science from Calvin University and he loved the Reformed faith. Rather than becoming a pastor like his father, in true Reformed fashion he used his gifts in computer science to further the kingdom. But he didn’t just pay lip service to the idea. He lived it.

He had come to Reformed Journal to save the day, because like me, he cherished the theological and intellectual tradition. And, he told me quite plainly, he was frustrated that the likes of John Piper and the Young, Restless, and Reformed guys were the public face of Reformed Christianity in America. He wanted to show the world the more expansive, generous strand of Reformed thinking that we knew so well.

He was inspiring. So much so that we wondered if this guy was for real. He absolutely was.

After one of these early meetings, John walked me out to my car. “Kristin, I see what you’re doing and you need to get your work out there. I can help you with that.” I politely declined, telling him I wasn’t interested in having any sort of public presence. It wasn’t my thing.

Anyone who knew John knows that he was unfailingly kind, and patient, and persistent. Every time we met, he tried to change my mind. He told me he’d make me a website for free. He’d produce video content. He’d coach me every step of the way. I kept telling him it wasn’t for me. I didn’t love being in the public eye. In fact, I told him once that if it were possible for academics to publish anonymously, I’d do that. I loved putting ideas out there, I explained, but I didn’t love putting myself out there. He stopped me and said: “Kristin, your ideas will go nowhere if there isn’t a face behind them. That’s how this works. We need you putting your ideas out there.” I told him that I believed he was right. And that I still wouldn’t do it.

But this was John, so he persisted.

Three full years after he first suggested the idea, I caved. I let him make me a website. He did everything, filming the video content, training me (okay really my husband) how to update it, and providing all kinds of encouragement (and gentle prodding) along the way.

All this was before I wrote Jesus and John Wayne, before I even thought about writing it. But very quickly I saw that he was right. Ideas alone didn’t do it. People weren’t just looking for ideas, they wanted genuine conversations and connections.

Over the years, John’s business grew. So did my own “platform.” He was delighted.

A convert, I brought John over to the Anxious Bench several years ago to share his vision with a wider world. Here’s a taste:

Christian scholarship is alive and well, but the problem is that nobody knows about it outside of your guild…. “Christian scholarship has a distribution problem.” It’s not a question of quality or quantity.  The problem is we have no clue how to distribute Christian scholarship to the public or to a wider audience….

Ironically, so many academics insist on being “assertively humble”.  Many have bought into the “Field of Dreams” fallacy: “Build it and they will come.”  They hide behind their work and hope that their work will speak for itself.  Truth is, this strategy almost never works.  Academics spend several years writing and publishing a book, but no one reads it.  

…The first step to tackling this problem is acknowledging that there is indeed a problem.  Our model of scholarship is still stuck in a 500- year- old distribution model.  Once we shift our mindset and learn how to adopt new models of distribution, Christian scholars will be able to expand their cultural influence beyond their guild.

It used to be that you needed permission from publishers, radio stations, and movie studios to green light your projects.  We needed permission from gatekeepers at every level of distribution.  The mobile revolution, the rise of social media, faster internet speeds, the commoditization of video and audio has removed all of these barriers.  You don’t need permission to share your ideas.  Now, you can reach anyone with a click of a button….

Stop asking for permission

You are more than qualified. You are experts.  You are able to bring clarity to the complex.  You certainly don’t need permission from gatekeepers and publishers.  So many academics have shared that they feel like they can only speak into their own field of expertise.  Your voice needs to be heard.  Give yourself permission to speak your mind and cause a ruckus.

Out-teach your competition

Leverage your greatest strength: teaching.  You wouldn’t be teaching at a college if you didn’t enjoy teaching.  You are trained to equip and shape the minds of the next generation of leaders.  You are well equipped to stand and teach in front of a classroom and in front of large audiences.  You’re made to be in front of a video camera or behind a mic.

The best way to build a tribe and earn the trust of your audience is to deliver value and to educate. Teaching is much more effective than hype.  Out-teach your competition….

The Church needs you.

Your role as a public intellectual is more critical than ever.  It’s more important than ever that we expand our popular reach. Your voice is important. The Church needs it. The world needs it.

Like many of his clients, I never came close to maximizing John’s suggestions. Every time I’d see him, he would keep nudging. I would keep dragging my feet. We’d smile, and do it all again the next time we’d meet up.

I last saw John a few weeks ago. We had both attended a public lecture at Calvin, and as usual, John was there to see how he could amplify the work of the scholars presenting. That was always his purpose—to find people saying things that were good, true, and beautiful, and bring those things to as many people as possible. (You can read his “Public Scholarship Manifesto” here.) After the event, we ran into each other as we were both rushing out the door to our next appointments. But we hadn’t seen each other in a while, so we stopped outside on the sidewalk and caught up for ten minutes or so. We were both late to our next meetings. Neither of us regretted it.

In his obituary, John’s sons describe him as “always cheerful, happy, and an optimist.” This is who John was at home, at work, and in the world. But his wasn’t an empty optimism. It was a “let’s get to work, we can do this” optimism. And we could, because he was always there coming alongside, equipping and encouraging.

I’m not sure that I’ve attended a more beautiful or painful funeral. Everything was simple and stripped down, but the words spoken were of such goodness, truth, and beauty, it was breathtaking. And heartbreaking. He is loved so deeply by so many. By his wife, his sons, his parents, siblings, in-laws, fellow church members, and colleagues. And by so many friends.

Through his cheerful relentlessness, unfailing kindness, his generosity, and his joy, he used his gifts to lift up so many of us.

I liked the world so much better with him in it.

He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. —2 Timothy 1:9-10

This is a link to a Meal Train organized to help the Hwangs — Amy, his wife, and their three boys, Evan, Ian, and Owen. Although it is called “Meal Train” there are also opportunities to give monetary gifts and gift cards.
Please consider supporting the Hwang family in this difficult time.

Header photo of John, courtesy of Trinity Christian College website

Kristin Kobes Du Mez

Kristin Kobes Du Mez is a New York Times bestselling author and Professor of History and Gender Studies at Calvin University. She holds a PhD from the University of Notre Dame and her research focuses on the intersection of gender, religion, and politics. She has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC NewsReligion News Service, and Christianity Today, and has been interviewed on NPR, CBS, and the BBC, among other outlets. Her most recent book is Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.


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