Richard Mouw: Reflections on His Writing

Nicholas Wolterstorff

When Rich Mouw became president of Fuller Seminary twenty years ago, I and others anticipated that his career as a writer was more or less over; almost all his time would henceforth be consumed by administration and fund-raising. We have been astounded. Rich’s pace of publication has quickened during his presidency. By my count, five titles appeared before 1993 and eleven since, not counting those co-authored with others. A little voice says, “They must be potboilers.” The little voice is mistaken; there’s not a potboiler among them. Several have whimsical titles: Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, Praying at Burger King, The Smell of Sawdust. So whimsy, yes; but potboilers, no.

I discern a number of themes running throughout Rich’s publications; let me highlight two of them. One theme is the calling of Christians to social and cultural engagement. This theme is up-front in his early publications Political Evangelism (1975) and Called to Holy Worldliness (1980); it’s up-front again in a recent publication, The Challenge of Cultural Discipleship (2001). In He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (2002), Rich gives theological grounding to his call for social and cultural engagement by Christians. In Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (2010), he discusses the “how” of Christian engagement: it must civil.

Another theme—or maybe I should call it a characteristic—that I discern running throughout Rich’s publications comes out most vividly in Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport (2004). The title refers to the hilarious episode in Paul Schrader’s movie, Hardcore, in which a pious Calvinist from the Dutch Reformed tradition tries to explain to a prostitute in the Las Vegas airport the theology encapsulated by the acronym TULIP; he is unsuccessful. Rich uses this episode to lead into ref lections on how Calvinism might be communicated to someone who either knows nothing about it or operates with stereotypes.

Rich is a theologian, no doubt about it, but a theologian of a rather unusual sort. In all his thinking and writing there is what I shall call a disposition toward the concrete. He has little interest in purely abstract theology; his goal is always to get his readers to perceive reality and to imagine alternatives through biblical and theological spectacles. I am intentionally borrowing a metaphor from Calvin here; Calvin speaks of the Christian as seeing the world through the spectacles of Scripture.

It is this disposition toward the concrete that accounts for the whimsy in much of Rich’s writing, for his frequent use of the illustrative anecdote, and for his conversational style. It accounts for the topic of Consulting the Faithful: What Christian Intellectuals Can Learn from Popular Religion (1994). And I would say that it accounts for the elements that turn up in his writing, every now and then, of what one might call revival. I have in mind The Smell of Sawdust: What Evangelicals Can Learn from Their Fundamentalist Heritage, in which Rich reminds evangelicals who are inclined to dismiss their nineteenth-century forebears of what was good and admirable in the revivalist tradition; and the book he did with Mark Noll on nineteenth-century hymns, Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology (2004).

The figure who hovers over almost everything Rich has written is Abraham Kuyper. His 2011 publication, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction, is the key to his corpus. In this publication Rich expounds Kuyper—though the title is telling: it’s a personal introduction, a personal exposition. In his other writings he does not expound Kuyper but instead thinks along Kuyperian lines about issues in present-day church, society, and culture. If you want to know how a “Kuyperian” might think about such issues, a “Kuyperian” who is both engaged and engaging, read Richard Mouw.

Up to this point I’ve been speaking objectively. I cannot leave it there. Rich and I have been warm friends ever since we first taught together in the philosophy department at Calvin College. I feel privileged to have been a friend, and to be a friend, of someone whose writing has contributed so signif icantly to making Reformed Christianity alive, concrete, and socially and culturally engaged. It’s a friendship I treasure.

Nicholas Wolterstorff is professor of philosophical theology, emeritus, at Yale Univeristy in New Haven, Connecticut.