Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Abraham Kuyper: my own short and personal introduction
I'm quite sure I had to get to college before I ever heard the name of Abraham Kuyper. I didn't hear the name in high school, I'm sure; and I honestly doubt whether either of my parents ever knew much at all about him, even though he was, at the turn of the 20th century, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, and folks from both sides of my family are intensely Dutch.
My mother's side of the family was tucked away here on Lake Michigan's western shore long before Kuyper made his name in Holland. My father's family was too--with the exception of a his mother's father, a seminary prof who, I'm told, would not be counted among the man's great admirers. It would make sense to say that Abraham Kuyper had a very limited effect on my family or my childhood, despite the fact that I am, for better or for worse, a purebred Dutch-American.
Then I went to college. Things changed. At college I met some of Abraham Kuyper's most devoted following, descendents of generations of Dutch-Americans who'd come to this country at the turn of the 20th century, arrived on Ellis Island with Near Unto God, Kuyper's famous devotional book, tucked in their back pockets and forever in their hearts. What's more, when I got to college there were hundreds of students from the post-World War II era in Holland, kids who could still speak Dutch, students who cut their teeth on words like "world view" and phrases like "sphere sovereignity," students who revered the Free University of Amsterdam as if it were nirvana.
But I don't know that anyone ever taught me a thing about Kuyper, and thus I didn't know him as a human being, in his time, in the way I knew the brooding thoughtfulness of Abraham Lincoln, for instance. I didn't know Kuyper was "converted," so to speak, by pious, commoner Hollanders who believed their young preacher's particular brand of school-bred modernism was anathema. I didn't know a thing about a phrase like "the antithesis," and I'd never, ever thought about my faith as if it were an ideology, a starting point, a place to stand. Faith, for the most part, the Christian faith, was something nestled lovingingly in my heart, not necessarily in my head; and "the world" was the rotten place where "worldliness" began, a place to leave, to reject, to want to walk away from.
In college I became a Kuyperian, a neo-Calvinist, because, in part, during the Vietnam War the neo-Calvinists around me were the only Christians I knew making any sense. The pietistic folks were simply buying into the conservative politics of the era--Dr. King as a communist, Richard Nixon as God's appointee by divine right, and Vietnam as a righteous war against godless communism.
I've been one ever since, even though I still don't know much about the man, never studied him, really. Once upon a time I decided to read my grandfather's dog-eared copy of an English translation of Near Unto God. Ten pages in, I liked it so much I started rephrasing it because it was translated in a particularly annoying English, a stiff preacherly style, it's own kind of crochety preektone. That book is still available (here)--in some ways my own personal introduction to a man who still is the leader of some stubbornly devoted followers among whom I counted myself long before I knew much at all about him.
If you'd like a primer, maybe for the first time one is available. Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Seminary, the largest seminary in the country, has just written one, titled Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Eerdmans), available here. It's not a tome, but it is, in its own humble way, a major work because it does the kind of work that someone like Mouw needed to do.
Mouw doesn't genuflect--Kuyper had his warts, visible to all. What he does is outline the major ideas in a fashion that makes them both understandable and compelling, even today, in our post-modern mix. What's more he does it quickly and efficiently, in a style that is both quick-witted and endearing.
I'll grant you this: I'm one of them, a Kuyperian, and therefore decidedly prejudiced. But I've always been a little shy about pinning on the nametag, in part because I really didn't know him. I'd never studied him. Sure, I've tossed around a line like "every inch" as if it were my own design, but what Rich Mouw does in this little book (I read it Sunday) is joyfully enumerate and unpack the hearty handful of really significant contributions this man Kuyper has brought to Christian thought. He does it honestly and fairly and, best of all maybe, clearly.
I happen to be among those who would say that the contributions of my people--Dutch-Americans--to life here in these United States include, among other things, wonderful office furniture (I'm sitting in a grand Herman Miller chair right now), comprehensive garbage collection (Waste Management), heart-of-America pyramid sales (Amway), and sturdy industrial equipment (Vermeer), not to mention, of course, Dutch-American Presidents (the Roosevelts).
But among our greatest cultural gifts may well be someone who never got here except to give a speech or two. If you don't know Abraham Kuyper at all, trust me, you should (wooden shoes are optional). I say you can't do better than Rich Mouw's new little book. Take it from a Calvinist, a neo-Calvinist, a Kuyperian.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:49 AM