Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Reading Bratt's Kuyper (II)--Sweetheart

It took the little Dutch community where I grew up an entire century before it built, with its own hands, its own Christian school. I'm sure some people, all these years later, still wonder whether it was something that needed to be.  But my parents and others were hard core, and one went up just about the year I was born. 

Here in Iowa, local Christian schools long ago celebrated their centennial anniversaries, even though the communities, farther west, are often fifty years younger. Local Christian schools are a staple of most Dutch communities, suburban or rural, but not all. The difference is traceable, really, to the tireless advocacy of a man who never lived anywhere in North American soil, visited but once, and didn't seem to be all that taken.

No matter. Abraham Kuyper's shadow looms over my life even though I never read a word he wrote (he was Dutch), not even in translation, until I was well into my forties. The college where I taught was created out of his wide-ranging influence as a preacher, a politician, and visionary, just as all those Christian schools were, none of which would be here if it hadn't been for his influence.

He's mighty, really.

But, my word, he was no lover.

For reasons even their parents didn't understand, when it came to a helpmeet, young Abraham chose a woman named Johanna Schaay, who was--and everyone must have seen it--not much at all like the young scholar. He plucked her out of her mercantile family, and both families, James Bratt says in his mighty biography of the man, pulled up their noses. Had Johanna done similarly, most people would have understood her disaffection; after all, Kuyper, lordly Kuyper, seemed insistent on making sweet Johanna over in his own image. 

When she told him she would rather read Charles Dickens than William Shakespeare, he rolled his eyes and pleaded with her to lift her sensibilities up to his. But he didn't blame her for her wretched tastes because, he told her, she'd come by them quite understandably from her own business-class upbringing. You might think poor Johanna's parents (who weren't poor) were little more than a Dutch version of Duck Dynasty. She lacked, he told her, a taste for the finer things of life, which is to say his things. 

He created a reading list for her, a list which began with John Milton. There was no Paradise Lost in Dutch, of course, so poor Johanna had to slave through what most people would think of as pretty thick stuff in a language that really wasn't hers.  When she told him she was working at the books he'd sent her, he scolded her.  You don't say "books," he preached--you say "Milton" and "Shakespeare." Once again, he must have rolled his eyes. It's a wonder she didn't take a hike.

Kuyper was, first and foremost, a theologian, so when it came time for Johanna to make profession of faith, her aspiring suitor/savior quizzed her more intensively than any consistory might have, trying to ring from her the kind of awe he himself took home from studying the catechism. She wasn't nearly so taken as he.

Bratt quotes from his notes, Kuyper's letters to Jo:  "Turn back from this smooth way, my dear, dearest Johanna! I pray, I abjure you! Shake yourself awake and become what you must be."

That, of course, was what he wanted to be.

Someday, he told her, "you will thank me for my efforts to make you happy."

Johanna Schaay married him anyway. Bore his children. Put up with his moods. Died in Switzerland on one of his therapy getaways. 

I spent 37 years teaching in a college that lionized the man, a college that wouldn't exist if it weren't for his understanding of the nature of Christian education.  My children went to Christian schools, as do my grandchildren--and that's wonderful. I wouldn't take all of that back.

Abraham Kuyper has had a profound influence in Siouxland, where I live, an influence that vastly surpasses his name recognition. He bequeathed a foundation for Christian education, showed his followers a means by which to think of the Lordship of Christ in every last avenue ("sphere" is the word) of life--you know, "every square inch." That's all grand, worthy of profound thanks.

But he sure warn't much of a lover.

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