A Tale of 3 Cities

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Last weekend Rose and I drove to Grand Rapids “kidplay” with grandchildren while their parents took a weekend getaway. (Kidplay — invented by our daughters: NOT babysitting, but playing with kids.) Friday morning while the kids were in school, we took a cheap date to Grand Rapids’ spectacular “Art Prize.”

And that’s where I experienced at one installation the opposite of an epiphany. After a leisurely 90 minutes of poking around fascinating, multi-media projects by artists from all over the world, the anti-climax of our date bottomed out at the riverside. There a 25 by 12 or so foot tableau drew us by its sound of rushing water. But the former Grand Rapids in the river weren’t the source of the sound. Instead a huge mug pouring translucent brown liquid into a vat, flanked by a partial profile of the Grand Rapids skyline, proclaimed Grand Rapids as “The Beer City” according to some craft beer industry survey.

Although I thought that large, impressive piece should be awarded “Tackiest Piece” in Art Prize, it occurred to me as — I spent too much time contemplating at the sudsy vat — that the project marked a third epoch in Grand Rapids’ cultural history.

For many years Grand Rapids was known as “The Furniture City.” That title honoured owners, designers and workers in the industry that put Grand Rapids on America’s map. Among the brands were Hekman and Baker Furniture, names with significant history in the Christian Reformed Church. Over the years Grand Rapids also gradually became the well-known centre, not only of Christian Reformed life and history, but of many denominations, thus called “The City of Churches” by many.

Though colloquially known throughout the CRC as “Jerusalem,” Grand Rapids has made significant contributions to American Christianity. A respected group of book publishers — Baker, Kregel, Eerdmans, Zondervan — sprang from Christian Reformed roots. All have taken significant places in the ranks of Christian publishers, surviving and even thriving as the publishing industry has taken a beating as the digital age has burgeoned. For more than 40 years Eerdmans was a patron (at a usual loss) of The Reformed Journal, edited originally by Christian Reformed pastor-scholars Harry R. Boer James Daane, Henry Stob, George Stob, later succeeded by Richard Mouw, George Marsden, Marlin Van Elderen, Jon Pot, Neal Plantinga and other leaders in Reformed-evangelical life and thought. Along with their loyal opponents on the right who published The Torch and Trumpet (cynically called by some “Old Glow and Blow”) flames of generally healthy and intelligent theological debate burned for many years.

So now Grand Rapids is The Beer City. I’m not pouting about a lost past; I like a wide variety of beers as much as the late Fred Klooster, teacher of generations of pastors in Calvin Theological Seminary. Meanwhile, though, I recognize that Grand Rapids never held a monopoly on rigorous American Christian thought. Today many other locales and institutions throughout North America continue to discuss theology and Christian life; not a few trace their birth or stages in their maturation partly to today’s Beer City. Many of them stand as far apart on the theological spectrum as Tea Party loyalists and Obamacare supporters. So I wonder, perhaps with others: What centre have we lost? What should we do to rebuild or establish a real centre more lasting than the head of a schooner of beer?

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Jim, we got the designation through an unscientific survey, a web-based poll. So Grand Rapidians (including me) voted themselves in as Beer City. But all is not lost. Besides Christian publishing, we gain a certain fame--and notoriety--from Art Prize, but the Christian world also sees us, though the work of Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, as a major stimulant and resource center for worship renewal. Through industrious work, we have also managed to become a metropolitan region of more than one million people -- by census counting. Still, your main point is right, that our prominence as a theological center has declined significantly.