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.