Dutch Guilt: An Editorial on an Editorial

 

Yesterday I received the latest issue of the Banner magazine, the official publication of my denomination. Guest editor Gary Mulder wants to offer a lesson in popular existentialism (“A Fish Doesn’t Know It’s in Water”).

Starting with the observation that “missional” has become a buzzword in the hipper expressions of the church-elite, and not particularly guarded about what that may entail, Mulder takes up the issue of cultural dissonance in the Christian Reformed Church. This caught my eye, since I at once have active membership in the CRC and am fairly well removed from what it means to be Dutch Reformed, emphasis on the Dutch. And my wife is as much a cultural mutt as me. (While she can point to her maternal grandmother’s immigration from Scotland, and I to my paternal great-grandfather’s trek from Eastern Europe, it more or less goes a whiter shade of pale after that.) We have often bemused at the ways in which we are not exactly all-in-the-family. My personal favorite is to suggest an initial “Van” to our surname (Zrimec) in order to prevent its very common slaughtering. And like the day Zechariah was given his speech back, the pronunciation rolls off the Dutch tongue.

True enough, my blonde-haired, blue-eyed and plain-vanilla-white-bread persona goes a long way in the interests of assimilation. Yet, the rearing in secular unbelief, as well as being third-generation Slavanian, seem to go even further at winning the day…or losing, as the case may be. If the concentric circles that keep me simultaneously in and out are real, I very much get what Mulder is putting is finger on here.

But since one of the things the Dutch Reformed and I share is the fact that we are both Caucasianittes I feel rather confident to confess on both our parts a vulnerability to “white guilt.” I tend to think this accounts for all the African-American spirituals in the gray Psalter Hymnal, as well as the multi-cultural tinge of the CRC in general. Speak with most ethnic minorities and they will tell you how easy it is to spot white guilt in our ranks. I don’t doubt that; it makes sense. Those who are outside certain sociological demographics tend to often times be the better barometers on another’s foibles. In the same way, the white guilt black Americans discern amongst us white folks finds its parallel in the way those of us perfectly un-Dutch might discern it amongst Dutch Reformed folks. So as I read Mulder’s editorial I get a sense of what it must be like for black folks to watch us white folks do social penance:

“I recently re-read the editorial by former Banner editor Andrew Kuyvenhoven titled, ‘It’s Time to Burn the Wooden Shoes’ (Nov.3, 1980). He says that, for immigrants, taking along some of the traditions they grew up with is a legitimate part of the immigration process. But he also notes that if the church becomes ‘our church for our people,’ this ‘ethnic exclusivism becomes sinful’…Yet often we’re unaware of how we hurt people by how we show our ethnicity…Those of us in churches made up primarily of a single ethnic and/or cultural group may not be aware of how we show our ethnicity or culture…When we play ‘Dutch bingo,’ we exclude people. When joke about the many people whose last name starts with a ‘Van,’ we exclude people.”

This rather Pollyanna self-flagellation is actually quite common in my circles, and it brings into rather bright relief the misguided spirit of the CRC. They are very aware of their entrenched culturalism. They are aware of how it seems to frustrate the universalistic nature of the church whose program rightly transcends tribe, tongue and nation. This is to their credit. But like the 21st century descendant of plantation sires who admits freely to a held-over institutional racism, they really don’t know what to do about it. So they flail and fall over themselves, thinking it has something to do with a card game and certain jokes. Worse, instead of employing a churchly means to correct the problem they simply repeat the very culturalism they mean to dismantle. There is never any conscientiousness, for example, to recover the confessional forms or Reformation history that transcends particular times and places. Rather the answer is to simply parrot religious versions multi-culturalism and the weirdly therapeutic language of “hurting people.” The great equalizer isn’t so much Christianity according to the Reformation as it is to celebrate all the colors of Benetton.

Mulder bids an awkward outreach the way a well-meaning suburbanite goads his son to seek out the lone black kid who just moved into the cul-de-sac:

“If you attend a church made up of people who have mostly Dutch roots, try to find a non-Dutch person in the congregation who is open to talking with you about this issue.”

Well, all right, as long as you asked. First, in the interests of familial civility, I should point out the great debt I owe to the Dutch Reformed among whom we have moved for the last decade or so. Finding the Reformation on paper is one thing, but finding a living body of Reformed believers is quite another to say the least.

That said, families are nothing if not able to get real with each other about their evident dysfunctions. So, if you really want to be “serious about being a missional church” and to be “much more intentional about identifying and eradicating the ways [your] ethnic roots make it difficult for people to become part of [you],” you might consider the whole phenomenon of Christian day schooling. I know that’s a big one. But until the Dutch Reformed begin to grasp that their educational enterprise is less a way to “cultivate the Christian life” (Wolterstorff) than a carried over project at a particular cultural cohesion, your claim to be “serious” may be overstating things a bit. You can’t help actually being Dutch, nor should you. But education is a powerful cultural tool to keep certain people in and others out. You can keep your card games and jokes about names. They don’t bother this outsider much at all.

But if you are really taking requests, and the day schooling is too much too fathom, I would also suggest exorcising your Reformed narcissism (“I am Reformed; I think x; therefore x is Reformed”) and contemplating a more honest re-discovery of the Protestant Reformation. Coming to the Reformation as deliberately as I have, it seems to me you have assumed way too much about what it means to be Reformed, resting more on cultural indicators than on churchly ones. I appreciate your polite offer to brainstorm over coffee “about the subtle ways your ethnicity or culture might exclude people,” as well as your sunny visions of “people from all cultures and socio-economic groups” inhabiting the denomination one day. But, frankly, it’s all a bit too polite, not a little patronizing and misses the point entirely.

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10 Responses to Dutch Guilt: An Editorial on an Editorial

  1. heldveld says:

    “instead of employing a churchly means to correct the problem they simply repeat the very culturalism they mean to dismantle. There is never any conscientiousness, for example, to recover the confessional forms or Reformation history that transcends particular times and places.”

    I have often wondered that myself. There maybe a bit of ‘white culture’ stigma in the confessions in that they were written by a bunch of white Europeans, but since they do a great job of summarizing salvation by grace and the Christian faith they certainly transcend culture.

    The funny thing after being in the RCA and reading the Herald(=Banner) where diversity seemed to be talked about endlessly, most of their church plants seemed to be designed to attract the white emergent type/white college student/white coffee house connoisseur.

    Why isn’t preaching the gospel of salvation through Christ the solution to anything?

    Full disclosure: I am Dutch

  2. Zrim says:

    Held,

    I don’t buy the “white stigma of the confessions” argument one iota myself, for the very reason you cite. OK, they used proper grammar, a thing we white folks seem to like. But beyond that, fubar.

    The siren song of diveristy seems to be the realization of the fears of the Dutch old-timers: full assimilation. But this is where the old-timers fell down, because they were really talking about cultural assimilation and confused cultural assimilation with cultic. I see no stake in the “Dutch or American” fight, since to be Reformed or not is the only question.

  3. mboss says:

    Zrim,

    It’s a Friday so my tired brain might be wrong, but I think Dr. Cornelius Venema wrote an article in the Outlook recently (within the last year or so) about this whole issue of “burning the wooden shoes” in the CRC. He made the point that many CRC folk thought/think the “wooden shoes” and “confessionalism” are the same thing meaning that departing from the Three Forms is how we (more full disclosure, I’m also Dutch) shed the Bingo, the Tulips, and the Peppermints.

    As someone with multi-generational CRC ties, I think this has a lot to do with the Boomer generation and whatever was the norm for CRCs in the 1950-60s. That generation, I think, just got really bored with church and blamed it on confessionalism rather than traditionalism.

    Mike

  4. Zrim says:

    Mike,

    If that’s the case, then three cheers for Venema. Though he never disappoints, something tells me he’d hedge on the education point though. To my mind, that is something of the brass ring in all this.

    I quite agree with your boomer insight. At best, the boomers and their parents in my CRC circles regard their rote command of the catechism a quaint relic of the past, winking at it like an adult winks at a charming child who is absent a worldly understanding yet.

  5. Interesting points. While I am 50% Dutch by heritage (my wife is 100%), I’m really not as tied to my heritage as some. I’ve also got French and Scotch/Irish roots on my mom’s side, and I never was part of anything approaching a Dutch community growing up. To be frank, I was raised sort of “generically evangelical” and didn’t start exploring specific doctrines until I attended a Nazarene university and was surprised at how much I disagreed with Wesleyan ideas of personal holiness.

    My wife, however, was very much raised in a Dutch community. Her “home church” was a primarily-Dutch RCA; she was also close friends with people at the local CRC, and she attended a Christian school full of Dutch Reformed kids.

    When I visit her family, there are plenty of “If it ain’t Dutch, it ain’t much” jokes, with which I’ve gradually become less uncomfortable over the years. Also, it turned out that her family knows my dad’s family, which was a bit odd to discover (but, don’t worry, we checked and we’re not related).

    Fortunately, my “outsider’s perspective” helped her to detect the closed-off nature of her home church, and their lack of familiarity with anything outside their narrow limitations ended up eventually proving itself in dramatic ways that soured her on church as a whole for a while. Her entire perception of the church had been within that one particular body, and my broader early experience turned out to be an asset as I showed her how this one group of people was not a sterling example of Christians as a whole.

    When we got married (right after I graduated college), we ended up in the PCA, and it was a great experience to be able to lead her back to a trusting fellowship in a healthy body. In addition, driving my own roots into the Reformed confessions has been a deep and enriching experience, thankfully unencumbered by tight-knit ethnic community baggage.

  6. mboss says:

    Zrim,

    Re: the boomers and the wink, it is an attitude that presumes the gospel, which has disastrous implications for the next generation (mine), in my view.

    On a related note, I wish I had a nickel for every time my alma mater, Calvin College, awkwardly trumpeted its multiculturalism.

  7. Zrim says:

    Mike,

    Me too. I’d be able to afford a full ride for my daughters to go there.

  8. mboss says:

    Zrim,

    You sure you want your daughters to go there? They don’t teach a literal 24/7 week in the science departments, and some of their professors are political liberals!

  9. Zrim says:

    Mike,

    Maybe you’re right. Maybe something like U of M would be a better idea?

  10. mboss says:

    Zrim,

    Ann Arbor is a lovely town, although Ann Arborites are very proud of being Ann Arborites.

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