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Stranger in a Strange Land: Joel Carpenter

The Conversation

A tribute to "The Reformed Journal."

This is a guest column by Joel Carpenter, who works at Calvin College. He published his first piece in The Reformed Journal in 1977. His latest book is Walking Together: Christian Thinking and Public Life in South Africa (ACU Press, 2012).

I bought my first copy of The Reformed Journal in 1976 at the bookstore of Calvin College, where I was a visiting instructor. The RJ, as it was called, didn't have many over-the-counter sales outside this particular outlet. It was surely not on the racks at Barnes & Noble. But there it stood, next to the Borkum Riff pipe tobacco and the Droste chocolate bars, one of the favorite treats at Calvin. As a Calvin student I had been only vaguely aware of the RJ, but from the faculty side I saw that it was an extension of the lively conversation on and around the campus about the Christian "cultural project."

James Bratt and Ronald Wells' anthology of "greatest hits" from the RJ richly illustrates the magazine's role as a small but pungent intellectual stewpot, replenished monthly by Reformed intellectuals and their friends. It published some of the most stimulating and original writing on Christianity and culture then available. Like other religious periodicals the RJ did theology and churchly affairs, but it ranged far wider, engaging business, gender, politics, race, film,[1] TV, visual arts, music, writing, even sports. It published poetry and fiction too.[2] It was more like the Atlantic in its range than like the Christian Century. In its forty years of life (1951-90) the RJ, sponsored by the William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, never had a circulation of much more than 3,000. Even so, its influence spread far beyond its subscribers, probably because so many of them were opinion shapers.

I think, for example, of Harold Myra, who saved Christianity Today from demise and expanded its parent firm into a diverse family of magazines. Harold told me that the RJ was his favorite magazine. He found some ideas there that he could repackage for his readers, but more frequently he went there for a second opinion. Harold said he needed to hear the RJ's challenges to mainstream evangelical assumptions and values. The RJ was quite a hit at the church in Wheaton where Harold and I were members. It was filled with parachurch leaders, business executives, attorneys, and Wheaton College professors. I once saw a chemistry professor reading the latest issue during the sermon. Harold found it frustrating that such high-quality "thought journals" couldn't cover their costs. If, over the years, Bill Eerdmans, Jr., worried about the bills paid for the magazine and the Eerdmans editorial time it required, he perhaps consoled himself by thinking that the RJ was good for the book business. At long last, however, he decided to end it.

What a run it had. At its start, the magazine was an outlet mainly for professors at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary and for the more intellectual sort of Christian Reformed pastors and missionaries. Eventually it networked out to Judaea—to include Reformed Church of America thinkers at Hope, Western, and New Brunswick; to Samaria—for the views of "Big P" and "split P" Presbyterian intellectuals; and unto the uttermost parts, including varieties of American evangelicals and the RJ editors' Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, and Mennonite friends. Before there was First Things for conservative Catholics and Protestants, before the Christian Century opened up to more un-liberal Protestant thinkers, and even while Sojourners was trying to organize the thoughts of the Christian Left, there was the RJ.

The magazine was a month-to-month conversation on paper, running at a pace that seems incredibly leisurely in a day of web-based social media. But the talk was rich with wit and knowledge, guided by Christian thinkers who came from a community that felt compelled to talk things out. "Let us haff un converzation," the old Hollanders would say, as they sat around tables in Holland, Grand Rapids, Pella, and Paterson. The community's skills for handling ideas came from long practice, honed in many a sermon, consistory room, or school board meeting, and rehashed in like fashion around family parlors and dinner tables.

There was a certain style to the RJ's writing. First some current event or life experience grabbed the writer's attention. Calvin English professor John J. Timmerman recounted a speech he heard by a vice-president of General Motors, launching GM's annual "Parade of Progress." Then the writer exegeted the deeper values driving the topic. The American way of life, Timmerman said, was being identified with an abundance of things. At the dramatic heart of the article, the author put out a tight statement of the core truth at stake. Timmerman, drawing on an enduring Puritan strain, insisted that "the real American sees beyond the means to the goals they should serve." And then the deeper intellectual play commenced, riff upon riff, showing the varied ways the truth penetrates and bounces off the episode.[3]

What saved these pieces from becoming tedious or predictable was their playfulness. They were more like jazz than like sonatas. Postwar conservative Protestants of various kinds were re-engaging American culture, but the neo-Calvinists seemed more skilled and confident about this mode of thinking. They were less uptight about making mistakes or straying too close to the boundaries of propriety, patriotism, or orthodoxy. I saw this difference being played out at a remarkable event, "A New Agenda for Evangelical Thought," hosted at Wheaton in 1987. There was a panel of conservative evangelical theologians, including luminaries Carl F. H. Henry and Kenneth Kantzer. How earnestly they labored to keep the conversation rightly centered and bounded, and their body language underscored their efforts. Later came a panel of RJ types: Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., of Calvin Theological Seminary, and Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen and Nicholas Wolterstorff of Calvin College. They were relaxed, making jokes, trying on thoughts and arguments for size, gesturing and improvising freely in a brilliant intellectual jam session.

So the RJ conveyed orthodoxy with a forward view. It was Calvinism as an invitation to a conversation, not as a conversation stopper. It offered mixed feelings about American life, enjoying its bounty and creativity but bristling at its materialism and arrogance. Unlike Sojourners, which started publication as the Post-American, the RJ writers did not accuse the USA of being the main driver of evil in the world. Unlike Christianity Today writers, the RJ crowd readily saw and critiqued American individualism and its lack of regard for the power of history, institutions, systems, and structures.

The magazine operated from a communal, collective understanding of how the world works and how God deals with it—and us. These understandings were underscored by covenant theology and supported by immigrant sociology, but they did not lead the RJ people to keep to themselves. Instead they saw the worth of other faith communities. Space was granted for mutual learning and some gentle debate with other Christian traditions—especially the Catholics, the Orthodox, and the Mennonites. This usually came by way of the editors' friendships and contacts—with, for example, Rich Mouw's links to Anthony Ugolnik, the Orthodox theologian, literary scholar, and college hockey coach, and to John Howard Yoder, Mennonite theologian and teacher-at-large.

But the most frequently engaged "significant other" was mainstream evangelicalism. The RJ's main rap on evangelicalism was its individualism and voluntarism. What did church, tradition, historical links and causes, and mutual accountability mean to evangelicalism, asked Lewis Smedes, an RJ editor. Not much; evangelicalism had an unreality to its leadership, authority, and institutional grounding. So "evangelicalism" was a fiction, he concluded.[4] We hear similar critiques today from former evangelicals who have joined more ancient churches, but the RJ scored bigger hits, I think, because they came from so close to home. Both Smedes and founding RJ editor James Daane taught at a premier evangelical outpost, Fuller Theological Seminary.

And RJ editors and regulars were pioneers in building relationships with Christians to the global South and East. English professor Ed Erickson brought Solzhenitsyn to the magazine.[5] Archaeologist Bert de Vries and philosopher Nick Wolterstorff brought home the plight of the Palestinians.[6] Wolterstorff and others encountered apartheid in South Africa, and the RJ was one of the few American publications to give voice to Christians leading the struggle against it, publishing not only Allan Boesak[7] but Steve Biko too.

When the RJ announced its closing in 1990, I felt bereaved. For many years it had connected me to a conversation that was deeply challenging and nurturing. I wasn't the only one who was missing it, I found out. I met over coffee with RJ editors Rich Mouw, Mark Noll, and George Marsden—and our friend at CTi, Harold Myra. What was to be done? The magazine's legacy couldn't be squandered, not least because its conversation had begun to morph into something broader. The hospitality of the Grand Rapids Calvinists encouraged Christian intellectuals of many kinds to engage each other. So out of the legacy of the RJ, and with CTi's patronage, a new experiment began. We decided to call it Books & Culture.

1. See, e.g., Roy Anker, "Grace Notes [On Tender Mercies]," in The Best of The Reformed Journal, ed. James D. Bratt and Ronald A. Wells (Eerdmans, 2011), pp. 298-302. All citations hereafter are from this book.

2. E.g., Mark Noll, "Born to Raise the Sons of Earth," p. 303; Lawrence Dorr, "Risen Indeed, A Story," pp. 314-321.

3. John J. Timmerman, "The American Way of Life," pp. 37-39.

4. Lewis B. Smedes, "Evangelicalism—A Fantasy," pp. 218-220.

5. Edward E. Erickson, Jr., "A Prophet at Harvard," pp. 250-52.

6. Nicholas Wolterstorff, "An Evening in Amman," pp. 267-69.

7. Allan Boesak, "Black and Reformed: Burden or Challenge?" pp. 261-2.

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