As Betsy DeVos Steps Into Limelight, so Does the CRC
March 2, 2017
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I didn't grow up in the CRC but from what I understand, the Christian Reformed Church has always sort of scooted along under the radar of the media and has generally avoided being named in popular discussions about trends in Western Christianity. We don't have any prolific pastors or best-selling authors on par with the likes of Tim Keller or Barbara Brown Taylor (although Bill Hybels and Rob Bell might just be products of our cultural waters, but that's a different story), our mega-churches aren't so mega that they draw a lot of attention, and we haven't spawned any movements on par with the New Monasticism or launched new outreach strategies like Alpha. For many of us, this lack of a spotlight or larger stage to speak from has been just fine.
However, with the appointment of Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education in President Trump's cabinet, the international spotlight has found its way to the Christian Reformed Church. News of DeVos's nomination was immediately followed by several journalistic dives into her background, many of which focused on her ties to the CRC and its institutions in West Michigan. While some of those pieces really missed the mark (Calvin's own James KA Smith had some classic interactions with several writers on Twitter about the blatantly lazy and mistaken reporting), there have been a few pieces that I think have managed to paint a decently accurate picture of life and faith in the Christian Reformed Church.
The latest of these articles, "Betsy DeVos's Misunderstood Alma Mater" (The Atlantic), focuses on the somewhat unique place Calvin holds among the broader swath of private Christian colleges. An underlying statement here seems to be that while many of the leaders President Trump surrounds himself with hold to a broadly Evangelical Christian identity, there seems to be something different about the type of Christianity that shaped Betsy DeVos during her formative younger years. At several points, the authors hook that uniqueness to the theology and life of the Christian Reformed Church. While the article centers on some of the tensions and debates at the school, I think that many of the topics explored (increasing diversity in a once mono-cultural institution, increasing polarization around issues of sexuality and politics, the influence of donors, and practical implications of differences in theological and biblical interpretation) are also at play in our wider denominational landscape. It seems to me that many of the same questions in the air at Calvin are being asked, although perhaps in some slightly different ways, across the CRC.
Another recent article, "Advancing God’s Kingdom: Calvinism, Calvin College, and Betsy DeVos" (Religion and Politics), came straight from the pen of a Calvin grad who grew up in the CRC. The author, Abram Van Engen, tries to clarify many of the misconstruals of the CRC and Calvin College that were initially published in other places, especially when it comes to language around "advancing God's kingdom" and "engaging the world." He highlights an interesting dynamic many in the CRC face: explaining and living out a faith that in many ways uses the same words as many of the more popular Evangelical expressions of North American Christianity, but isn't necessarily always speaking the same language.
What really interests me here is the way both these articles point to the unique place the CRC occupies in the current North American religious scene. Our institutions and approaches look and feel different because our theology is different from more popular strands of Christianity. In many places, popular Christianity stresses a more individualized gospel focused on my choice to follow God and the blessings that come to me if I give my heart/money/vote to God and can hunker down until Jesus returns to rescue us all (can you tell what kind of church I grew up in?). Often, this stands in contrast to CRC's Reformed-infused approach, which cries out "Our world belongs to God!" and calls us to worship deeply, giving our whole lives to celebrate and join in the creation of the beauty around us while working to restore the brokenness to health. Our only comfort isn't in the decision we make to invite Jesus into our hearts but that we belong, with body and soul, in life and in death, to our savior.
It remains to be seen whether or not DeVos’ actions as Secretary of Education reflect her CRC roots. However, her rise to prominence has brought with it an opportunity for us to shine the light on some of the “buried treasures” that shape the CRC’s Reformed faith and worldview. As someone who grew up in and then walked away from a more broadly Evangelical “turn or burn” expression of American Christianity, one that had no room for the type of debates highlighted in the Atlantic's Calvin article or the richness of the theology expressed in the other, I’ve long lamented the fact that the CRC doesn’t speak louder or seek more of a spotlight. Why don't we seek to share with more people how we believe we are called to live out our identities as God's world-engaging followers of Christ? Maybe I’m too new to this to know any better, but I think it’s just the sort of thing that so many of those who have given up on shallow, unengaged, “me”-centric expressions of faith are looking for.
So, what's your take on having these recent spotlights on the CRC? What role should the CRC play in the broader religious landscape in North America? Should we be actively seeking more spotlights and larger stages to share how our Reformed faith shapes our hearts, minds, and the work of our hands? If so, how might we do that?
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I have mixed feelings about having the CRC associated with a woman who didn't do her homework prior to her being interviewed by the Senate for her qualifications as Secretary of Education. I can admit she would have preferences, but that does NOT excuse her ignorance of rhe public school system in her own country and its strengths and weaknesses.
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