Touring the Land Where Giants Roamed

APRIL 2012: REVIEW

by Scott Hoezee

The Best of the Reformed Journal
James D. Bratt and ROnald A. Wells, Eds.
Eerdmans, 2011
$20.00 325 pages.

This new book, like the periodical it memorializes and celebrates, is as plain-Jane as they come. The cover is the equivalent of a plainbrown wrapper: black and white with slight shadings of gray. There’s nothing particularly fancy about the font or layout—it has all the sexiness of a daily newspaper. But if, proverbially, you judge this volume by its cover, you would be making as big a mistake as did anyone across the mid to late twentieth century who did not pay attention to what was arguably one of the best religious periodicals of recent times: The Reformed Journal.

Perspectives, of course, was the Journal‘s would-be doppelganger and is now its heir, having merged with some of the talent from the Journal after publication of the latter ceased in 1990. CoverAs a reviewer, therefore, I do not lay claim to any thoroughgoing objectivity—I was both a huge fan of The Reformed Journal and a co-editor ofPerspectives in the years following the quasi-merger of the two magazines. (To this day I revel in the time in the late-1980s when I was a seminary student and the RJ published a letter I wrote as well as a subsequent dialogue I had with the author of the article in question. It was my brief moment in the RJ spotlight—probably not even fifteen minutes’ worth of RJ fame—but one takes what one can get!) So if this “review” is more a tribute than a critical engagement, that should be acceptable: the volume in question is likewise a tribute to an outstanding enterprise.

Thanks to the editorial expertise of James D. Bratt and Ronald A. Wells, we now have a compilation of the Journal that somehow manages to encompass a startling array of what made this magazine distinctive and excellent. This is a veritable Whitman’s Sampler of Reformed truffles. But unlike Forrest Gump’s mother, who claimed that life’s box of chocolates meant you never knew what you were going to get, pluck out any single treat from this volume and you are guaranteed to get Reformed theological and cultural reflection at its best. If it were not so spiritually edifying to read, you’d almost have to say the whole thing is sinfully delicious!

As the editors remind us in the introduction to this collection, The Reformed Journal was born in the midst of significant tensions in the Christian Reformed Church at midcentury. Bratt points out in his fine book Dutch Calvinism in Modern America—and reprises in this book’s introduction—that the Christian Reformed Church had long been an uneasy amalgamation of mindsets. On one side were the defensive and reflexive Calvinists: world-wary, isolationist, fearful of anything that could water down the theological rigors of the tradition. On the other side were the more urbane, optimistic Calvinists: culture-engaging, curious, energized by new ideas that could reinvigorate a theological tradition that was strong enough to stand up to almost anything.

Following World War II and all the ways by which that great conflict opened up the wider world for many Christian Reformed scholars and pastors, the perennial tensions in the Christian Reformed Church began to explode as accusations of heresy were lobbed about and as the synod of the Christian Reformed Church sacked essentially the entire faculty of Calvin Theological Seminary out of concerns that “Barthianism” and European ways of thinking were infiltrating the Christian Reformed Church at its highest levels (cue Senator McCarthy). Out of all these tensions emerged in 1951 The Reformed Journal, founded by the like-minded scholars Henry Stob, George Stob, James Daane, Harry Boer, and Henry Zylstra.

The Reformed Journal soon became not only the Reformed voice for a more progressive Calvinism but quite simply one of the finest organs of theological reflection in print. For the next forty years, when readers entered the landscape of the Journal, they entered the land where the giants roamed (and some of them were quite young giants at the time): Lewis B. Smedes, Richard Mouw, Virginia Stem Owens, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Nicholas Wolterstorff, George Marsden, Mark Noll, Kathryn Lindskoog, and Cornelius Plantinga Jr. were among the bevy of regular contributors and editors that shaped the magazine and gave to it amazing intellectual heft and spiritual integrity.

This new compilation contains ninety judiciously chosen essays, reviews, and “As We See It” pieces organized by category (including “Education and the Arts,” “Race and Rights,” “Vietnam,” and “On Gender”) and spanning the entire history of the Journal. This review can but scratch the surface of what is included, but suffice it to say that the flavor of RJ comes through nicely as we are treated to a Reformed perspective on everything from Billy Graham and his crusades to Babe Ruth and the meaning of baseball.

Although many readers may well recall some of the essays reproduced, it is astonishing how fresh, vibrant, and downright insightful they remain even all these years later. When Henry Stob writes about academic freedom at Calvin College in a 1952 essay, it is as though he wrote the piece last month in the face of present-day conversations on this very topic. Stob’s legendary, laser-like ability to sum up complex issues is well on display in this piece as he distinguishes secular versions of freedom from a more nuanced definition that operates well in a biblical-theological tradition. “The secularist . . . who prates of a human freedom proper only to God is bound to lose both God and every freedom proper to a creature.” Stob also argues for space to be given to scholars at Calvin College to do their work. “But [Calvin professors] should not have men breathing on their necks and constantly peering over their shoulders. They can’t work that way. What they need is trust. They must be free to attack knotty and complex problems in the knowledge that they have the confidence of the Church. . . . What they need, too, is freedom from fear and reprisals. And what they need most is freedom from the sting of uninformed prejudice, freedom from name-calling, and freedom from silent but enervating suspicion.” Brilliant stuff, that.

This volume is also studded with bracingly accurate reflections on cultural happenings. Marlin Van Elderen’s review of the film Taxi Driver—and his observations on the erstwhile Calvinist screenwriter Paul Schrader—nicely distinguishes the kind of deep engagement with evil one might wish to see from the sheer voyeurism and shock-value-for-shock-value’s-sake that actually characterized the film. Lewis B. Smedes wrote with deep insight on the Vietnam War, lamenting in 1967 how clear it was that the government was not leveling with the American people as to the whys and wherefores of the war, much less about its current status. Two years later in 1969 Smedes weighed in again to lament the silence of the church and its leaders in not rebuking in a prophetic way the madness of a war about which no leader in Washington could articulate what victory would mean. “Would to God that the Christian community had seen five years ago that [the war] should not have begun, and said so. Water over the dam? Not quite. We can still prevent the Orwellian vision from becoming the American reality: the war that never ends. And Christians must keep saying so.” Alas, they mostly did not say so, and such silence repeated itself thirty-some years later when another war without cause and without a discernible endpoint was once again launched. As they say—and as the Journal‘s finest reflections remind us in retrospect—the past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.

Richard Mouw went even further in a 1972 essay in which he quite brilliantly makes the case to consider President Richard Nixon’s “peace with honor” strategy as being nothing less than “theological heresy.” With his usual rigorous skills of argumentation and his ability to come up with analogies that are inarguably apt, Mouw made a case that few in the wider church world at the time would ever have likely tumbled to.

But at its best The Reformed Journal was not always trafficking in such dire topics. John J. Timmerman frequently brought matters around to the wonderfully vital topic of baseball. Readers of RJ will recall with a smile his many such occasional pieces on the national pastime, most of which are encapsulated by his 1975 essay in this volume, “Babe Ruth and the National Pastime,” where Timmerman waxes eloquent on baseball as it once was and maybe could be again. (The screenwriter for Field of Dreams could scarcely top Timmerman’s ability to evoke all that was once good about the game and the country.) And to those who were minded to chalk up such things as trite, as being about “just a game,” Timmerman had an answer: “the best catch I ever saw occurred in a game at Riverside oval in Paterson, when a centerfielder called Murphy ran at top speed into the farthest reaches of leftcenter field and caught the ball with his bare right hand. There were no important consequences; it was simply a marvelous piece of judgment and coordination as pleasing in its own way as a well-executed sonnet. There is something memorable about excellence wherever it occurs.”

Unsurprisingly, within Reformed circles The Reformed Journal was always at the forefront of gender issues in the church. In this book Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen’s 1986 “Does God Listen to Girls? Women in Society and the Church” provides at once deep insights into the overall field of gender studies as well as the role the church could play in making room for all people. “Churches and Christian organizations can fulfill a central role in the process as they make more visible and frequent use of the leadership talents of women. In so doing, they will be affirming that most important message of all [to young women]—that the parable of the talents is not qualified by sex, and that God does indeed ‘listen to girls.'”

Meanwhile, in “Sexism: A Random (House) Sampling,” an essay both savvy and exceedingly clever, Kathryn Lindskoog takes note of how the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, whenever it included sentences to illustrate the proper use of various nouns and verbs and adjectives, consistently cast girls and women in a bad light. So on one page men were consistently portrayed along the lines of the sample sentence “He became a monument in his own lifetime,” even as women turned up on that same page in sentences like “She spent the day mooning about her lost love.” Adjectives like “manly” and “manful” were always used positively whereas “womanlike” and “womanly” were insults. Perhaps today we may not find such observations all that startling, but when Lindskoog made them in 1975, they constituted the insightful equivalent of “breaking news.”

And I could go on. And on. But I will let readers discover these and so very many other pleasures for themselves. The Reformed Journal emerged from an era when in many circles rigorous theological debate and cultural reflection/critique were welcomed. In more recent years one could wonder whether even some in the Reformed community have been co-opted by the age of the snap judgment and the sound bite. Perhaps reading this anthology, then, can remind us not only of more stimulating times in the past but point us forward to a recovery of such discourse.

The Calvinist in me is pretty sure, after all, that this messed-up old world still needs just that.

Scott Hoezee is the director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and a former editor of Perspectives.