Retrospect at 40, part one
  • Thursday, June 27, 2013

Cæli enarrant

Family, church, and school serve, according to the Christian Reformed Church, as overlapping and mutually formative institutions, and this is true. Our family stood awkwardly with a foot in East Grand Rapids and a foot in Calvin College, as visitors to foreign lands. But we more properly found a modus vivendi on the left wing of the CRC, associated with the broad and bold ecumenism of The Reformed Journal, locked in steady if irenic dispute with the conservative and confessionalist right, sometimes productively. (Stanley Wiersma, godfather: Pray for us.)

Which is not to say we were theologically non-traditionalist. Our own Church of the Servant carefully cultivated Christian depth and scriptural seriousness, ordered around weekly Holy Communion, with various artistic accretions added to taste, largely without sentimentality. One exception may have been the liturgical dance, which seemed stuck in a cycle of blooming flowers and dramatically shielded faces year round, only the leotards changing with the seasons. In a veiled victory for common prayer, my ex-Episcopalian father, serving on the congregation’s liturgy committee, insinuated into the regular order the Collect for Purity, which we all duly recited without recognition or attribution.

Coming into consciousness around age 3, I gratefully recall sunny rooms in the safety of home; oranges, yellows, that avocado green and its variants; the smell of Mom’s skin; the aural comfort food of “Vande Voort, Van Zytveld, Stegink.” And, back in the motherland c. 1977, the love and laughter of friends, and warmth of English accents.

The domestic church is primary — imperfectly one, holy, catholic, and apostolic as an aid to learning, propagated by providence — and therefore hard to describe.

Yet here is the cradle of language, and the dawning of reality. The words in our home were colorful, variously accented in the wake of immigrant journeys by grandparents from Newfoundland and Sweden, with further modifications and appropriations in the new world, especially via post-war Brookline, MA, where my father learned a range of folkways and a distinctive style of humor from his primarily Jewish neighbors and friends. Subsequent years spent in England and Ireland further extended the repertoire, which subsisted in long, winding stories, rich with allusion, plays on words, impersonated characters, and inevitably hilarious endings, with additional space left for lament and loss. Folk songs from Ireland or England, fit for boisterous accompaniment, provided further layers, upon which we piled still more, like recordings of English choral music to blare throughout the house on Sunday morning while readying ourselves for church.

In this space we practiced mutual encouragement, the art of truth-telling, and unconditional love, fed by principles of respect, obedience, and self-restraint. Church attendance was presumed, but wide-ranging religious, cultural, and political questions were welcomed in a spirit of inquiry and debate, without fear of reprisal or disagreement, though conclusions were anticipated. Wooden orthodoxies were discouraged, while moral engagement was inculcated. My older brother and I were warned off too much television, made to take piano lessons, and pressed into weekly chores of a menial sort, with modest allowances of 50 cents on their completion — till, I believe, junior high when it was raised to $1. We had paper routes of our own choosing, which Dad helped us fulfill when it rained or snowed in excess. Sojourning travelers, international students, visiting scholars, and latterly alienated youths were welcomed for meals, or extended stays, beginning with tea and digestives, and moving to marmalade or marmite in the morning.

And there was much else, of course, especially invented games with my brother, and vast contemplative stretches for reading and the curating of bottle cap, baseball card, and stamp collections. Summer trips to visit family in Boston and weeks on Lake Michigan were beloved high points, and a brief return visit to England in the mid-80s provided a permanent touchstone. Monopoly, “spying,” whiffleball, and bike riding occupied many happy hours with friends. Star Wars proffered a universal grammar, while Little House on the Prairie propounded a surprisingly solid, if nostalgic, “Judeo-Christian” morality in perfectly packaged 40-minute segments.

School started at Martin Luther Elementary, where I savored my first kisses and my first sentences read on a page. Next came a stint at Lakeside Elementary, with its more formidable culture of football and fights at recess, wealth, and substantially improved academics, yielding scholastic successes and joy in learning for me.

Soon thereafter followed Sylvan Christian Elementary and Junior High, where I stayed put for 7 years through the 9th grade, for sustained Christian formation amid an old-school curriculum and pedagogy — sentence diagrams, memorization, whole books read — undertaken by fine teachers. I recall liking my peers, on the whole, and especially forming several dear friendships, aimed, as C.S. Lewis says, at matters of common concern, since friendship is always about something. I played multiple sports without especially excelling at any, though I tried mightily in the case of baseball and basketball. I found more success singing in the St. Cecilia Music Chorale, and acting in school and community theater, which were singular pleasures. I developed incipient political commitments (imitative of my parents), with special concern for the history of race in America and its continuing consequences. And I recall liking church, especially Pastor Roeda’s long sermons, to which I listened intently.

Grand Rapids Christian High School provided a natural terminus ad quem, on the doorstep of departures and new challenges beyond. Church and family had, I suppose, imperceptibly done their work, while school remained enjoyable, for the most part. A side trip to London for seven months during my sophomore year proved ennobling, as fears gave way to a singular adventure of inter-cultural encounter alongside Anglo-Saxons, Indians, and Pakistanis at Christ Church School. I grew especially through friendships in and around a maturing Christian commitment that seemed more presumed than discussed, but nonetheless real and, to my mind, chosen.

In modern American fashion, we spent considerable time immersed in pop culture, crafting sophisticated tastes that typically formed the basis of our bonds, which in turn became vehicles for self-discovery and exploration in deep and beautiful ways. Led by my fearlessly eclectic brother, we took the Beatles and the Stones as read, placed U2, the Smiths, and R.E.M. alongside Steely Dan, Springsteen, and Prince, and then added the canon of classic rock (including disco, the oldies, and glam variants, plus 1980s Top 40), to arrive finally at post-punk developments in the neighborhood of Sonic Youth, the Pixies, and Bad Brains. The grittier edges of mainstream film, with some drift into the avante garde, domestic and foreign, attracted additional interest. As did girls.

And in my case, books, especially American literature, provided an opening for post-high school plans. As I recall, Richard Wright’s Native Son planted the idea of a gap year of community service, and soon thereafter I stumbled upon Boston’s nascent City Year program, an “urban Peace Corps,” which was perfect. My family proudly saw me heading back to my Dad’s hometown, in proximity to my grandfather, with good work to do, and the rewards were incalculable. I grew up and out, in many ways. We completed all projects as a team composed of maximally diverse — educationally, racially, socio-economically, equally divided between men and women — members, according to the progressive ideals of the program’s founders, Harvard Law graduates with Jonathan Kozol in hand and RFK on the wall.

It worked because highly concrete, practical programs of service in the name of justice — or love — can cut through the cynicism and boredom of distracted and ill-formed youths, capturing their longing for meaning and energy for mission, while forming them for future leadership. I myself floundered at first, readjusted, and then flourished, as did nearly all of my teammates. Looking back, it seems that I unconsciously pressed the program in the direction of the gospel ideals I had previously learned — John 17 and Acts 2, in effect. Within City Year’s primary ethos the Christian-cultural precedents for our work remained unexplored, and were sometimes dismissed and otherwise misunderstood in the teeth of a would-be secular self-sufficiency, married to a naïve optimism about prospects for genuine human progress unaided from without. I myself stopped going to church that year after an initial pass on Episcopalian superficiality at a society parish in the city. The Fountainhead briefly made sense but, thank God, something more like Born to Run won out, seasoned by early Sly Stone, mid-career Stevie Wonder, Tracy Chapman, and I think Marge Piercy and Robert Coles, among others. A semi-secular library, trafficking in inherited hope.

As the year drew to a close I sensed unfinished business with Christianity, and chose St. Olaf College (over a handful of secular alternatives) because it offered a safe place to ask hard questions of the Western tradition. This proved truer than I ever could have imagined. My mission, as I might have articulated it then, amounted to something like fighting the power to the end of freedom and justice for all, at least in the United States. Sly said to Stand / For the things you know are right, and I meant to do just that.

Christopher Wells


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