Hope College, Dutch Heritage, and I

To West Michigan, Dutch American culture, I am an outsider with one foot inside that small tent. As a child I was always aware that to my mother there was a qualitative difference between “here” (meaning Saginaw, Michigan) and “there” (meaning Grand Rapids). She spent most of her growing years in a house on Calvin Street in eastern Grand Rapids, just down the street from the site of Calvin College (then). Her Dutch American relatives, six aunts and numerous others, lived around the area; in the summers we drove to Newaygo to attend a summer church camp run by her home church, Westminster Presbyterian in Grand Rapids (where her ashes are now interred).

This Dutch American background (such as it was) became more vivid to me in the two years I spent at Hope College, 1974-1976. I earned my degree there after three years at Michigan State (one year in a music program there that gave me practically no transferrable credits). I came to Hope as an outsider with some sense of how things worked in that community, but I had been formed by highly negative experiences in a mediocre public high school, and then three years (1971-1974) at completely secular Michigan State. I studied in an “alternative” residential liberal arts college, Justin Morrill College, which was closed in 1979. I liked Hope’s far greater structure, but I never took it as the definition of a liberal arts college.  I knew there were other options, some of them very good.

I was completely unprepared for what Hope meant by Christian college at that time, since I was really interested in Classics (Greek, Latin, history, philosophy), and German, and kept a low profile in almost everything else except organ performance. My academic experience there was intense, demanding (I had was the only Classics major and had an Oxford-like experience of demanding, fast-paced tutorials), and formed in me the habits that Princeton would nurture to maturity. It prepared for me for the intensity of graduate studies in a major program of the history of Christianity (Princeton Theological Seminary), without which I would have been lost. That Calvin wrote in Latin (complex, literate, humanistic Latin) was no news to me.  (My dissertation work was on the Carolingians, thankfully, far removed from the obsessions of the Reformed.) The Christian emphasis, however, was at first an puzzling add on, even as I was nurturing a desire to study the history of Christianity very deeply.

Hope’s cultural pendulum at that point swung “liberal” (thanks to then-recently-departed President Calvin Vander Werf), so I largely ignored the cultural evangelicalism of many of the students around me. It was a comfortable, even snug world, but it was never really my world; I would not have stayed there had that been possible. My academic work was done. I freely admit that I was in Hope, but not really of it. I joined the German Club, otherwise I was what in Princeton they called “a grind.”

After Hope I spent a year as a Fulbright Commission English teaching assistant in Vienna (arranged by a powerful Hope professor with many ties there, Paul Fried), and then took up M.Div. studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. Princeton in turn left me with an enduring respect for serious, top-flight scholarship, tough writers such as Kierkegaard, Barth, Bonhoeffer, and a far more global sense that both “Reformed” and “Anglican” worlds that were much broader and more diverse than my experience in Holland, Michigan had suggested. Eventually I became a librarian (another story), and ten years later returned to Princeton for doctoral study. The encounters I had with Evangelical doctoral students in the Ph.D. seminars were frustrating (with one exception), because their preparation was often so superficial, even glib. (Even that one exception previously had left the Assemblies of God for the Lutherans, ELCA.)  While at Hope I had become involved in an Episcopal Church, and that involvement left me with enduring liturgical preferences that eventually made my sojourn in the Presbyterian Church untenable.

During all this time I grew up in the cultural orbit (neighboring township) of Frankenmuth, Michigan, which offers a curious contrasting parallel to Dutch Americans in West Michigan. Frankenmuth (“courage of the Franks”) was settled (1845) by immigrants from Rosstal, Franconia (Bavaria) sent by Pastor Johann Konrad Wilhelm Löhe just two years before A.J. van Raalte led his group to the shores of Lake Macatawa in West Michigan. The settlers of Frankenmuth in time wound up in the very conservative Missouri Synod and worshiped in German well into the 20th century, later than most equally conservative Christian Reformed churches worshiped in Dutch. The doctrinal rigidity of both groups is formally similar and each has regarded itself as “the true church,” to the obvious exclusion of the other tradition (never mind everyone else). Growing up I was a heathen Congregationalist, so was (or would have been) beyond the pale of respectability in both groups: an outsider, with one foot inside the tent.

These families were emotionally convinced, I am sure, that Jesus spoke Martin Luther’s German via God’s true Bible, just as many Dutch in West Michigan would have assumed that Calvin spoke and wrote in Dutch, and correctly conveyed Jesus’ teachings in Dutch (of course! –he could not have been French!). To this day when I am confronted by passionate attachment to the 1611 Authorized English Bible, or the 1662 (or 1928) Book of Common Prayer, I can only smile: I have been here with others in other languages. Linguistic fundamentalists are everywhere, I suppose. Both groups used theology and language as shields against encroaching “American” ideas in rising generations –a losing fight, to be sure.

PiperHolland

Douma’s book (How Dutch Americans Stayed Dutch) delineated the manner in which Dutch Americans created and marketed new traditions through the development of Tulip Time in Holland, Michigan. Tulip Time marked not how much they remembered about the Netherlands, but how much they had forgotten. He specifically refers to Eric Hobsbawm’s “invention of tradition,” that cultural practices or traditions may not be genuinely historic but are adapted or invented to serve ideological ends. In turn, Werner Sollors (The Invention of Ethnicity) extended this to ethnic traditions; and in turn Douma extends it to Tulip Time in particular. It established a new channel of Dutch American ethnic identity that was a modern re-interpretation of actual 19th century Dutch identity which by the 1930s was passing or had passed away. By 1975 (my only direct experience of Tulip Time), it had become an unintentional but devastating caricature of Dutch Americans themselves, quite apart from anything really related to the Netherlands. It was very precious. It re-interpreted ethnicity in service to an ideology of the market.

I watched (though unawares as a child) this same invention unfold in Frankenmuth, mutatis mutandis. In 1959 William (Jr.) “Tiny” Zehnder Jr.,and Dorothy Zehnder organized a Bavarian Folk Festival to inaugurate major additions and renovations to the old Fischer’s Hotel on Main Street. (I remember it!) The Bavarian Inn sat opposite Zehnder’s restaurant (another repurposed former hotel), which had been operated since 1927 by William Zehnder, Sr., and then by Tiny’s brothers. The original festival (1959) was a success and the community organized a Civic Events Council to oversee it annual continuation. From its beginning, the Bavarian Festival was an invented tradition, one marked by usually polite sibling and community rivalries.  For many years the Festival was a major “all hands” event in a small town, and a major source of social and financial capital. As the residents’ ability to volunteer decreased due to homemakers’ return to the work force and employment that did not allow so much time off, the Festival gently downsized and its now four days rather than a week, and under the control more of commercial entities more than of volunteer community organizations.

Other than commerce, why did the Festival endure? It’s continuation was possible because of the unusual, cohesive character of the town, where civil, business, church, and school authorities all knew each other their whole lives. It expressed a positive way forward with a German American identity in a town that still felt it. German Americans, unlike Dutch Americans, had to negotiate the realities of being related to the enemy in two world wars, an enemy who committed the Holocaust, and in defeat endured a bitterly divided homeland (1949-1989). German Americans sought to be a model all-American minority because earlier generations (especially 1914-1918) were none too sure about them.  In the 19th century, earlier German American celebrations originated in the overlapping circles of workplace, Arbeiterverein (workers clubs), churches, and civic organizations.  That network largely passed by the turn of the 20th century (the Arbeiterverein were sometimes suspected of socialism!). With well-known German American celebrations in Wisconsin and Chicago as both example and warning, Frankenmuth’s Bavarian Festival –entirely unrelated to any of those earlier– allowed ethnic reclamation by using the word Bavarian rather than German. In the 1960s and 1970s hardly a (West) German flag was to be found: all the flags were the lozenge-patterned blue and white Bavarian flag. I worked as a waiter in the Bavarian Inn in the summers of 1972-1974 and 1976, putting on the slight lilt of Frankenmuth English to complement the hokey costume.

“Historic Frankenmuth” is made-up history at its finest, an imagined narrative in service to an ideology of the market. The town looks like a theme park mashed up with a wedding venue and a fudge shop. Holland, by contrast, is a larger small city with more to do than just tourism; the Dutch kitsch is comparatively restricted to Windmill Island and a few other locations. They are, each in their way, sui generis appropriations of fading ethnic consciousness.

When I lived in Europe, I immediately sensed the profound difference between the invented traditions of Tulip Time and Bavarian Festival and the national experiences and characters of the Netherlands, Bavaria, and Austria.  The gap left me scornful of those invented American ethnicities for a long time. To be sure, each community remembered the largely rural, pre-industrial 19th-century Netherlands or Franconia, with a great deal left out that was present even then.  For example, each neglected to mention that in both the Netherlands and much of Bavarian a significant amount of the population was Catholic! (Franconia was historically mixed). Subsequent to their departures, indutrialization and the experiences of the wars and the then-very-present Cold War assured a general atmosphere of willful social amnesia and fear of the past that contrasted very oddly with the happy-go-lucky invented pasts in Frankenmuth or Holland. I suspect that imagined history has returned over there as well, in the form of ultra-right or neo-Nazi movements.

Since I had very little background in evangelicalism, scholarly examination of the Bible was nothing new to me: the textual methods were very similar to those employed by Classicists on “difficult” texts. Early on in Princeton (1977) I just could not fathom the passionate objections to documentary hypotheses about the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”) and the Gospels. I had little appreciation for the anxiety of many classmates and their habits of proof-texting or the assumption that Jesus’ place and time was just like ours. Hence I had little idea how passionately many would cling to their belief that God could bless only procreating, married heterosexuals.  It turned out, over a decade or so, that many alumni/ae of Hope were gay or lesbian –so many that once I asked one, “Was I really so socially out of touch that was completely oblivious to your identity?”  He responded, “How could I have expected you to know something that even I did not know or acknowledge about myself at that time?”

During the 1980s and 1990s the horrific experiences of illness and deaths of numerous gay friends, and those who survived, meant that ahead of the curve I grew away from the homophobic culture in which I was raised. I was also living in the East, and in much more cosmopolitan, pluralistic environments. I grew impatient with the endless Presbyterian fights over the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers. I was so done with that. When a person I knew in seminary and truly respected was essentially run out of his parish in California (by vengeful elders of a neighboring Presbytery, not by his own congregation), I called B.S. –I had had enough. In 1992 I joined the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in New York City (Episcopal) and embraced my identity as a high-church Episcopalian, but one who likes good preaching, competent theological reflection, and tenacious, progressive social outreach.   My “elective affinity” ethnicity had long since become Scottish (in large part because of my name), and my Dutch heritage became less important. My understanding of Calvin was completely revised by reading William Bouwsma’s John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait (1989) in my Ph.D. residency.  Bouwsma restored Calvin to a context of other 16th-century writers and humanists such as Eramus and Montaigne.  I found that my previous understanding of Calvin had been just as invented as Tulip Time. When I visited Hope once for an alumni/ae event, I realized that I grown away from what I never really embraced anyway.

In the same years, Hope’s pendulum swung in an extremely conservative direction during the campus pastorate of a certain Ben Patterson (1993-2000), an evangelical hired by Gordon van Wylen and tolerated by John Jacobsen (presidents). Patterson instituted or encouraged practices –such as public confession, confrontations with faculty members, praying outside the residential rooms of gay students for their conversion and correction–which I regarded as beyond the pale, divisive, and unfaithful. James Kennedy’s Can Hope Endure? A Historical Case Study in Christian Higher Education (2005) confirmed my worst fears. Patterson’s departure in 2000 did lead to change, however. In 2005 the highly respected Miguel de la Torre (since at Iliff School of Theology, Denver) was forced out of the faculty (how many Hispanics did they have then or since?). De la Torre’s offense: he wrote a newspaper column satirically condemning James “Focus on the Family” Dobson’s “outing” of Sponge Bob Square Pants as gay. (I’m not making this up!) Plainly the College could not tolerate any challenge to televangelists and their ilk lest its stream of money from evangelical supporters dry up.  (I’m looking at you, DeVos and Van Andel families!) Apparently if Dobson said it, then College President James Bultman believed it, and that settled it. (Always beware of making the former baseball coach your College president!)

Nothing changed. In 2009 Dustin Lance Black was insultingly treated by the same College president and Dean of Students Richard Frost, treatment that warranted national press attention.  Opponents of nonsense organized a group Hope Is Ready, but unfortunately it was not.  The College’s current policy (2011) is riddled with inconsistencies and hypocrisy: “Hope College will not recognize or support campus groups whose aim by statement, practice, or intimation is to promote a vision of human sexuality that is contrary to this understanding of biblical teaching.”  Further down: “Hope College promotes the indispensable value of intellectual freedom . . . . Hope College affirms the dignity of every person.” Obviously this is untrue and a bold-faced lie: you can talk about “it” (non-heteronormative sexualities) but do nothing more than talk. We talk the talk of intellectual freedom and personal dignity, but we will not walk the walk. This kind of policy relegates the College to the evangelical reservation: only those who agree need apply, and are wanted; the rest are second-rate. It affirms superficiality and mediocrity as a consequence of narrow-minded, misguided Christian faith.  It is unfortunately consistent with Richard Frost referring to “you people” in a semi-clandestine conversation with Dustin Lance Black.

In 2013 James and Deborah Fallows visited Holland as part of their journey through America that they called “American Futures” and resulted in their book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America (2018). Holland was one of the first towns they visited, and they saw much to like: a vibrant, highly functional community with a both financial and social capital and sense of the future quite at odds with our paralyzed and dysfunctional national discourse. They wrote about the many positive aspects of Holland, but about its negative aspects, too. In his final post about Holland, James included a number of ‘I won’t live there’ messages, the first of which came from me:

I’m a graduate of Hope College, magna cum laude in [XX subject in the late 1970s]. I know the area well. I have some Dutch ancestry. My sister is [an official] about 30 miles north. I know Holland and western Michigan and Dutch-American culture from the inside.

I grant all the excellent qualities you have written about –hard work, ingenuity, social cohesion, and a sense of an America very different from DC or NYC.

I won’t live in Holland, and when my own children [three ages 15-19] have looked at colleges (or will), I never suggested my alma mater. My reason: the social narrowness of smug Dutch-American culture. Although there is a very significant Latino population in Holland, it has not successfully challenged Dutch-American Christian Reformed hegemony. That hegemony will allow no compromises.

You alluded to this smugness when you mentioned the failure of the gay rights initiative(s) there. I wouldn’t want to raise my children in this atmosphere, and I don’t want my children going to college in it. The hateful things that were said during that discussion give evidence of the smugness of that culture.

I live in Connecticut now (outside New Haven), and there’s a lot wrong with CT. But we experience far more cultural, religious, and racial diversity here. It’s not perfect, but we’re working on it.

Holland has many fine qualities. But it’s suffocating for many people, including me. Do mention the numerous people from Holland, and Western Michigan, who have fled the cultural suffocation.

Later in the same post James Fallows summed up Hope College pretty accurately (and with more than a touch of snark):

Hope College, once considered a “Harvard of the Midwest,” now aspires to be a middlebrow Christian college. Babbit lives! A pharisaical pedagogy prevails (“Thank, God, we are not as others!”)

James Bultman, Richard Frost, and Hope College trustees: I’m looking at you.  In 2017 Bultman’s successor, John C. Knapp, resigned a year after nearly being forced out, by most accounts because he wanted to move the College to a more mainstream, inclusive position, again warranting negative national attention.

In 2016, the 40th anniversary of my graduation from Hope College came without my even remembering it. I received an unsolicited note subsequently from a Hope development officer, and I responded:

The dust-up about Lance Black was truly the end of me and Hope College, then. Living in CT, a state where the legislature passed marriage equality, a judgement that was sustained by popular referendum in 2008, the whole “gay” controversy is just so over, and marraige equality is an established fact on the ground here, and was in 2009. Amazing to say, the sky has not fallen in, western civilization did not come to an end here (necessarily more than it has anywhere else in the age of Trump); I don’t notice that personal morality has improved (or declined) since 2008. But candor has improved, and that can’t be a bad thing. Good friends who have been partners for decades —longer than many so-called “straight” couples— have become legally equal to my own marriage relationship, and I can’t see what’s wrong here.

Perhaps this is an overly confessional letter, because you wrote to me at the end of Lent, a good time to attempt greater self-awareness. I just don’t think about Hope College or my past relationship with it very much; it doesn’t feel relevant to much in my day. Our three children have each found their way through the college application process, and I never considered recommending Hope College to them — I just think they would find it too “other.” My younger son is a finalist for a  merit scholarship at DePauw University School of Music (vocal performance), but living in Greencastle may be a stretch for him. [In May 2018 he finished his sophomore year there, and is commited to staying to complete his degree.] He calls it the middle of nowhere, but I’ve let him know that nowhere is somewhere other than central Indiana —I’ve seen the middle of nowhere, and it’s called Houghton, Michigan. DePauw’s “look and feel” is much more emotionally and religiously accessible than is Hope’s, and since he has both profound faith questions as well as long-time gay friends (though he is straight), I just didn’t see him at Hope.

Since I’m not wealthy —I’m director of an academic library— and not the profile of the usual Hope alumnus, I really don’t think I have very much to offer your College. I do wish Hope College well. My own acquaintance with the Reformed tradition at Princeton Seminary led me to understand it as very open to the world, to the new findings of the humanities and sciences, and not afraid of the truth. I suspect that colleges of any theological stripe which regard themselves as the Fortresses of Faith will have a very tough go of it in the coming decades. If Hope College were a good deal more open, and more willing to defy previously-articulated evangelical orthodoxies, it could really have something very positive to offer American higher education. Lord knows that higher education (and especially private higher education) as a sector is in deep trouble.

That note, and this blog post, says what I have to say.

Michael Douma’s book was really helpful to me. I can now see, in the course of my own family background, how genuine Dutch identity in the Netherlands changed as it did from the 19th century to the modern, very liberal state. I can see how Dutch Americans evolved their own historical tradition that is almost a caricature of the Dutch and really has nothing to do with them. Just as Frankenmuth Bavarian identity has almost nothing to do with contemporary Bavaria and Franconia. That Hope College chose to double-down previous mistakes and became a defensive denizen of the shrinking evangelical academic reservation is a consequence of the “invented narrative” of Dutch American culture, shop-worn and sad. The accelerating withdrawal by younger “New Millennials” from organized religion of every stripe bodes ill for a College that values a defensive orthodoxy over liberating pedagogies.

It’s almost July, and I remember how amazingly beautiful West Michigan can be this time of year, especially near the Lake. Shelly and I will visit my sister in Muskegon, and our younger son at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. Grand Rapids has changed profoundly: for example, the town LGTBQ adopted anti-discrimination ordinances in 1994, East Grand Rapids in 2015; Holland has yet to do so. The Grand Rapids arts community thrives, as do numerous ethnic communities. There is much to like and much more ahead than behind.

I regret that Hope College chose the path that it has (Babbit lives!). I havelittle to do with it or about it. My own life has gone on elsewhere, and for that Deo gratias!