(Here’s another random chapter from my new book, Letter to My Grandchildren: Brief Essays on Identity.)
When I was in third grade I started to attend weekly catechism classes at my church, something I would do until I graduated from high school. At the time I thought children all over the world did pretty much the same thing.
In catechism classes we memorized the 129 questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism, a doctrinal statement published in 1653, in a city called Heidelberg, in what is now Germany. It’s a lovely medieval city. I have been there, and I hope you are able to visit someday as well.
Why an eight- or nine-year-old child would be expected to memorize words written roughly 400 years before he was born is what this part of my letter to you is about. You might be surprised to know that, looking back, I am grateful for the experience.
As I mentioned in a previous chapter, I am descended from Dutch people who immigrated for both economic and religious reasons. They were hoping for a better life, but to them “better” meant more than having an income and employment and enough to eat. To them “better” meant having the opportunity to fully embrace their strict interpretation of the Calvinist faith.
You would have to grow up among these people, as I did, to appreciate how fiercely they fought for what they believed, including seemingly insignificant bits of doctrine. People like my grandparents and great-grandparents, who had no formal education beyond the eighth grade, knew how to hold their own in a theological debate. They didn’t hesitate to correct a pastor, either, thinking that the pastor’s theological training was itself a reason to be suspicious.
I clearly remember a time when my “Grandpa Pete,” who was my grandmother Minnie’s second husband, left a church service one Sunday night in the middle of the sermon. He stormed noisily out of the church by way of the center aisle, muttering “Storyteller!” under his breath, but still loudly enough so everyone could hear him. Even as I child I knew that this word was uttered in anger and directed toward the preacher.
I also remember hearing my grandmother whisper in response, somewhat embarrassed, and probably exasperated, “Oh, Pete!”
She did not follow him out of the church.
The issue, I learned later in the evening, after asking a few questions, was that my grandfather wanted doctrine in the sermons he heard, not sentimentality. He wanted the truth presented in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner, just as it was presented in the Heidelberg Catechism, which he surely knew as well as anyone in the church, including the preacher. And any preacher who added superfluous words – or homely anecdotes – wasn’t worth his time.
That was just my mother’s side of the family.
On my father’s side there was as much debate, though it was somewhat less volatile, perhaps out of necessity, with a young child around. When my father’s grandfather, Henry VanderVeen, became a widower, he went to live with his daughter Jessie and her husband, Jay Brouwer. Henry was a member of the Protestant Reformed Church, Jessie was a member of the Christian Reformed Church, and Jay was a member of the Reformed Church in America, making for a toxic brew of different church allegiances in one household.
My father, like all children in situations of family conflict, was mostly a silent observer of what was happening around him. I like to think he first started to paint idyllic rural landscapes during this period of his life. He seemed to find great comfort in his painting throughout his life.
To explain the situation, maybe it’s easiest to begin with my grandfather Jay. His denomination, the RCA, was the first to abandon the singing of Psalms in the Dutch language. The RCA was also, as I recall, somewhat lax in its attitude toward Masonic lodge membership. There must have been other deficiencies about the RCA as well. What all of this meant, of course, was that my grandfather Jay was willing to accommodate and assimilate and therefore let go of much that made the new immigrants distinctive within American culture.
My great-grandfather Henry’s denomination, the PRC, broke away from the CRC on the matter of common grace, which is far too complicated to explain here. Whatever the particulars, it must have been quite a fight, and for my family, as well as the Dutch immigrant community, the stakes would have been high, even though the actual theological differences between all of them now seem relatively small.
In 1924, a year before my father was born, the PRC broke away from the CRC to found its own sectarian brand of the Reformed faith, and my great-grandfather, Henry, proudly went along. If the family was wounded or thrown into conflict by taking this stand, then to him that was a price he was willing to pay.
I’m not sure what role my grandmother, Jessie, played within the household. She seems to have taken up the moderate position – if the CRC can be considered moderate, which not many people think it is – but she was a strong person and would not have kept quiet about her opinions. It’s possible that women did not, as a rule, express themselves on these or other matters, except in the privacy of their own homes.
Only later in my life, after I had moved far from Grand Rapids, did I learn that most Christian people, those from other theological traditions, did not grow up in doctrine-obsessed households. Frankly, I felt superior to these other Christians, at least at first, because I had learned the language of doctrinal debate so much earlier in my life. Memorizing the Heidelberg Catechism, I have to say, gave me the feeling that I knew more than I did.
It’s ironic, when you think about it, because the Heidelberg Catechism is mostly a peaceful document. A few unfortunate sentences in the catechism notwithstanding, it has a good spirit overall and has rightly been called a “catechism of comfort.” The German prince who oversaw the writing of it and who likely wrote its introduction was himself a Lutheran – with some strong Reformed leanings – but the overall intent seemed to be to find common ground.
Today, several different denominations in the U.S. and around the world embrace the catechism as authoritative for their beliefs, even if they don’t always like each other very much.
By the time I was in high school I finally had the thing memorized. Standing in front of the church elders, with my classmates, many of whom had been with me since the third grade, I could recite the answers to the questions we were asked as well as any of them.
Today, I don’t remember the catechism quite as well – a few key phrases, maybe, but not the whole thing, certainly not word for word. And yet, the catechism, to which I gave hours and hours of my time, both at church and at home (where my parents reinforced my memory work) is imprinted on my life. In large ways, and small, it tells me who I am.
The first question and answer of the catechism (which I can still say from memory) lies at the heart of my faith. I never fail to get tears in my eyes when I say the words. This is the faith that my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents passed on to me, and I am grateful to them:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.