Notable and Quotable

There was a certain style to the RJ [Reformed Journal]’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.
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.

–Joel Carpenter in Books and Culture, May/June 2012, page 5 (my emphasis)


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