Earlier this year, the front page of the Canadian biweekly Christian Courier featured a headline that, to me, was perfectly stunning: “100 Ordained Women in the CRC Ministry Today.” Pardon me for having to draw a quick breath, but those of us old enough to remember the women-in-office wars may do a double-take when stumbling across that tally. You’re not kidding? A hundred women pastors? What hath God wrought?
Seems like yesterday I sat in packed synod galleries intensely attuned to discussions as rigidly polarized—or more so—as United States politics during the Obama era. Packed rows of staunch believers were praying that our church doors wouldn’t swing open to women’s ordination, while even more men and women in that gallery were storming the gates of heaven with a polar opposite request.
I was a Banner reporter back then, not a synodical delegate. Editor Andy Kuyvenhoven had asked me to help his staff cover synod, so although I was decidedly “liberal,” I was largely unaffiliated with either side. I used to tell people it was very difficult to go to war with good friends and family. On my own church council, if I wasn’t alone I was part of an almost nonexistent minority. Still, all of us worked together and prayed together. Often.
During those years, many people left the denomination in confounded exhaustion. War kills in many ways.
Twenty years later, that headline: “100 Ordained Women in the CRC Ministry Today.” Amazing.
I bring all of that up because I wonder whether, in my lifetime at least, those years may have been among the best years of the official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church. Words mattered because issues mattered. Thousands left the denomination for more progressive churches; even more left for more conservative fellowships. But everyone read The Banner. Not everyone loved it, but everyone read it.
Who my age will forget a pair of wooden shoes blazing away on the cover, set there by an immigrant preacher/editor who may well have been more Dutch than most of his readers? People cared deeply about issues, probably too deeply. Words counted. The Banner put ’em out there, and people read The Banner.
An even higher percentage of denominational readership read the magazine from 1928 well into the 1950s, when Rev. H. J. Kuiper—a preacher who came as close as anyone to being a CRC pope—was editor. I was a kid in the 50s, too young to care about any magazine or editor, but my parents read The Banner eagerly and loved editor Kuiper, who, said James Bratt in his Dutch Calvinism in Modern America, was “the authority on all matters of truth and morals, a voice whose every word was to be eagerly awaited, treasured, and—most of all—heeded.”
It was a wholly different Banner, a wholly different CRC, and a wholly different age. Back then, in the spring when the magazine published pictures of seminary grads, lots and lots of grandmas cut out those pictures and pasted them in scrapbooks. People followed “our Indian cousins” in New Mexico, and 18-year-old kids bound for college rarely considered going anywhere but Calvin in Grand Rapids, Mich. Dutch Bingo wasn’t all that popular because everyone already knew everyone else.
My parents in Wisconsin could not have imagined Sunday morning without listening to Rev. Peter Eldersveld preaching on WHBL, Sheboygan. They loved his passion and his thoughtfulness—in part because he was ours. Ours is a strange word no one uses today. Rev. B. J. Haan, the founder of Dordt College, frequently talked about “our people” from the pulpit and from behind the radio microphone: “Our people have to talk about this or that,” he’d say, as if we were a tribe or a bowling team. Even if you weren’t one of us back then, you knew very well who he was talking about.
All of that has changed, and The Banner has become an entirely different magazine to serve a vastly different readership in a whole new world.
Not long ago, my wife and I visited a Christian Reformed church where the screen up front ran announcements, including a line announcing the topic for that day’s adult Sunday school: “Why we should no longer read The Banner.” I thought Rod Serling might step in suddenly to tell me I’d entered The Twilight Zone.
The big alterations The Banner has gone through in my lifetime have resulted, at least in part, from far more comprehensive changes than the varying politics or theological reflections of its editors and staff. The Banner is new, and it must continue to be new in our ever-changing world.
I grew up at the very end of an era when a nap was the path of righteousness come Sunday afternoon—a nap and a Banner. My father’s father, a pastor, was immersed in denominational culture. When my dad came home from World War II, he longed for the stability and peace he believed he could find in that same tradition. The Banner continued to hold as deified a place as it had maintained with his father before him, required reading op Sondag (on Sunday). That’s the way my parents chose to live.
But I remember sitting down between a driveway basketball court and home on a Sunday afternoon, sitting still so my shirt could dry where it was wet from a pickup game far enough away from our place not to be seen or heard. I simply didn’t dare go home full of sweaty sin.
When, in the mid-60s, strict Sabbath observance began to loosen, The Banner lost its place and probably many readers, not because editorials had changed (either too liberal too conservative), but because we had changed. In Wisconsin, where I grew up, Vince Lombardi and the championship Green Bay Packers playing on TV every Sunday may have done as much to diminish Banner readership than any series of articles inside the magazine. The world of H. J. Kuiper was history.
Since 2005, there’s been a new plan: every CRC family receives The Banner free of charge either at church or in their mailbox at home. It’s a monthly, not a weekly. And just this morning, I watched a video of Dr. Steve Timmermans, executive director of the CRC, explaining a brand-new program that will put most of the CRC library of materials in the hands of churches and individuals. Books of mine will likely be included—at least I hope so. Books, videos, and most other resources will be free to CRC members so we can use them on any computer or tablet or smartphone.
The CRC Digital Library is yet another emblem of immense change. Lots of folks call the era in which we live “the Information Age” because the mass of information we access night or day, on our desks, in our laps, in our hands, is endless. Today Time weighs a quarter of what it did two decades ago. Newsweek is gone. General interest magazines still exist, but they’re strapped for subscribers. What happened to The Banner happened also to countless other periodicals.
Me and The Banner
While I know all of that to be true, some of us still have to reach for the Kleenex.
In 1981, I led a young people’s retreat in northern Ontario. The hosts put me up at a little farmhouse just east of Emo. It was the home of the Veldhuizens, a family of more than a dozen kids, a household already putting up five or six out-of-town guests visiting for the retreat—and me.
One morning I watched dad and the boys butcher a cow. “What are you going to do with the guts?” I asked when they were scooping them up into the loader.
“Dump them out back in the bush,” one of the boys said, climbing aboard the tractor.
“Seriously?” I said.
“The bears’ll eat ’em.”
They weren’t pulling my leg.
I knew I had a story. I wrote it and sent it to editor Kuyvenhoven, along with a note proposing that I do a whole series of stories of ordinary people in the CRC, stories that highlight our lives. I told him I thought it would be interesting to ask people what they thought of being CRC at a time when—looking back—we were just moving forces into position for the wars to come.
Kuyvenhoven liked the idea. He told me he’d give me $6,000 for travel and let it be known that I had to go to Ontario, California, New Mexico, and Florida. Then he let me find the stories. For two years those stories of ordinary people appeared each week in The Banner; when it was over, they came out in a book.
It's not my place to judge whether readers liked those stories or simply turned pages. But I learned far more than I’d ever imagined by just listening to people spin out the story of their lives and answer that single question I always posed: “What do you think of the CRC?”
I heard this particular line quite often in response: “the preaching of the Word.” Men and women on both sides of the issues that divided us used those words reverently, as if the idea was, after a fashion, the very heart of things in the denomination, maybe even its soul.
When I told that to people, some claimed the line was repeated unthinkingly, by rote, no more to be valued than any other cliché repeated ad infinitum. I didn’t believe that then, and I still don’t. After all, I was the only one who heard those people say it.
All of that is just part of my own Banner story.
I made a copy of the first check I ever received from the Banner office—$25 for a book review that filled up most of a page. No book reviews get that much ink today. Just yesterday, a review of a new book of mine came out in The Banner, four sentences long—but I’m not complaining.
I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to get that check, as well as a note from editor Lester DeKoster asking me to write more, which I did.
Years ago, The Banner ran essays and short stories of mine, some in a long series. I wrote about Diet Eman, a hero in the Dutch Resistance, in a series that appeared in The Banner before Things We Couldn’t Say was ever published. And in the early 80s, The Banner ran the harrowing story of a Tai Dam refugee who became a Christian Reformed evangelist: a man named Khay Baccam.
Editor Suk gave me the green light to write an entire novel, Touches the Sky, that was serialized for a more than a year in The Banner—the story of immigrant Dutch in South Dakota at the time of the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Hard to imagine, but I’ve been a part of The Banner’s story for forty years and never lived in Grand Rapids.
It’s been a joy to work with Banner staff, from Gertrude Haan to Sandy Vander Zicht, from Lil Grissen to Malcolm McBryde, Jennifer Parker, Jena Vanderploeg, and today, Judy Hardy. Over these many years, Banner editors—DeKoster through Vander Zee—have been bountifully good to me.
Our lives as believers include three separate office doors: we’re prophets and priests and kings, all of us. I have some problems being a king, but then poet Stanley Wiersma used to say most of us have some trouble knowing what a king is, not living in a monarchy.
The other two I understand. To be prophetic is to whisper—occasionally shout—into the ears of others the vital truth we’re missing. The Banner has done that—and occasionally been beaten up for it, I’m sure.
Me? I’ve never been particularly prophetic. I prefer the robes of a priest. Tim Keller says, “As prophets, Christians call neighbors to repent, but as priests they do so with sympathy and loving service to address their needs.”
I hope I’ve done that. I know through all the years my many friends at The Banner have.
In the spring of 1970, I was a senior in college and assistant editor of the Dordt College Diamond when some Calvin College delinquents published a spoof they called The Bananer that included fulsome shots at Dordt (“Warp College, mid fields of golden corn”). I loved it.
Envy devoured my system like gangrene. I’d never seen anything so masterful, a pitch-perfect parody, cover-to-cover hilarious, but oh my goodness, how naughty!
My parents were aghast. One of the articles featured a pregnant girl in Oatsburg, Wisconsin. People who called Oostburg home were livid. I know. They told me.
The nation was at war right then, in Vietnam but also at home. Just a week later, after the shootings at Kent State, I’d be marching in Washington. That violent generational divide meant there were probably only two ways to read The Bananer. First, with a belly laugh that came to me only after my jealousy flat-lined. Second, with righteous horror, my parents’ way. To them, The Bananer may not have been outright blasphemy, but Lord a’mighty, it was a definitely sacrilege. “How to View the Second Coming”—can you imagine?
The Bananer succeeded in doing what it attempted only because The Banner itself was so greatly loved. Everyone knew The Banner, and everyone got the joke. Many didn’t laugh. Some cried. Today, a response to the same effort would be ho-hum.
In late April 1970, the late 60s crashed headlong into my parents’ blessed denominational culture. Things would never be the same.
Neither would the Oostburg CRC, I suppose. Neither would The Banner.