Tribute to David Timmer

This month we complete a line change on the Perspectives hockey squad. In an accompanying column we offer homage to Fran Fike, our outgoing poetry editor. Here it is my pleasure, but also sad duty, to say farewell to David Timmer in his role as co-editor of this journal. A pleasure because David is exactly the sort of unassuming but skilled craftsman that goes under-noticed in our culture, until his absence begins to tell. Just the sort, therefore, that deserves credit in his own right–and to even the score against the show-offs and mere celebrities who gobble up so much cultural airtime. At the start, then, think of David as the anti-Paris Hilton, the un-Terrell Owens, and give thanks.

A sad duty, on the other hand, because it leaves those of us who carry on wondering where the quality control is going to come from. For instance, the metaphors I used in the above paragraph might border on excess but are more sober than those that first came to mind because I asked of these, “What would David say?” and quickly struck them out. For I knew that, just as “the Lord” that was declaimed from my childhood pulpit “didst mark transgressions so that in His presence none could stand,” so would my verbal flips elicit a quiet clearing of the Timmerian throat and hence slither down onto the reject pile. Nor did David just keep up the standard on the critical side. The hockey-shift image from the first line of this column is his, one example of the images that flow effortlessly from his dry wit and well-stored mind.

Indeed, David was part of a “millennial” line change at this magazine, he notes. He assumed the role of co-editor along with Leanne Van Dyke and Roy Anker in January 2000, and with them helped Perspectives flourish over the next six years. His term now ending by rule, the two of us who have cycled on find him (temporarily, we hope!) irreplaceable. David’s issues in the 2006 rotation will be taken by guest editors while the Perspectives board looks for a longer-term replacement. We hope that person can, in her own right and by example to the rest of us, further the pattern of contributions and accomplishments that David has established.

What are those? I would list first of all the empathic critique that the best editors exude and that David regularly demonstrated. If we received a bloated, rambling, too dense, too imitative, or just too long submission, we would sigh in relief if (in truth, when) David volunteered to “take a turn at it” and make it into something publishable. He did that by locating and calling out the writer’s core argument, connecting the severed threads thereof, and hiding the sutures and seams. Characteristically, he described this process as a “lonely wrestle with the text, trying to capture the writer’s most forceful and affecting voice.” Precisely.

Then, too, David brought wide-ranging knowledge to the task. A person who teaches religion at a small liberal-arts college will of necessity be broadly learned and careful of speech, practiced at conveying hard truths with nuance and gentle tones. David has reliably carried over that function to these columns, spelling out–and more importantly, modeling by his own pen–the policy this journal observes in discussing such controversies as samesex marriage. In board meetings David’s is the voice to preempt quick dismissals of what all thinking people simply know to be wrong. “You know, Intelligent Design just might have something to offer if only they, or their critics, could learn to ask the right question.” Every journal needs subtlety, confidence, and independent thinking of this sort. We’ll have to keep a virtual David in our midst even if the real item is at home enjoying his new grandkids.

Finally, David has stayed right on the arc that Perspectives took up from the Reformed Journal before it. He first found that line when the Lewis Smedeses, Richard Mouws, and Nicholas Wolterstorffs of the Reformed world were carving out an alternative path amidst the theological and political polarities of the 1960s. To keep a tradition alive, of course, requires that one go forth from its putative golden age and ply its animating spirit on a perhaps foggier scene, over more broken terrain, with a modulated voice. That David has accomplished, with true faith, fine collegiality, and much success. And for that, David, our lasting gratitude.

James Bratt is professor of history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and co-editor of Perspectives.