I am regrettably a latecomer to the Abraham Kuyper fan club. Somehow I managed to make it all the way through college and seminary loving Reformed theology, but on a completely Dutch-free diet of foundational works. I discovered Kuyper—the statesman, theologian and former Dutch Prime Minister—when I began to take an interest in the way buildings reflect, as well as shape our sense of community.
Whereas Calvin showed great concern for the moral health of Geneva, he didn’t seem to feel that the way the buildings looked or how they were arranged was of any theological import. More contemporary theologians could craft a profound statement about God or even be great architects of systematic theologies, but when it came to the building crafts or the architecture of homes, they were completely useless.
It was in this wilderness of theological mentors that I stumbled across this exegesis of standardized housing penned by Kuyper in the 19th century in a speech entitled “Uniformity: The Curse of Modern Life“:
There is not a gable to be seen which in any way violates the absolute symmetry to which door and window, cornice and roof window, have been fitted. Precisely those straight streets and rectangular corners, those utterly level gables and standardized houses make the modern outgrowths of our cities fatally exhausting and boring. You have to number the streets and count them out so as not to get lost in so featureless a collection of houses.
Standardized housing as theologically suspect because of its failure to reflect the exuberant creativity that serves as a distinct mark of those who are made in the image of God! I was hooked.
Since that time, I have learned to value an approach to theology that doesn’t allow even one square inch of creation to be understood as outside of the purview of our Lord. I routinely find myself wanting to know what Kuyper has to say when I am exploring some territory that seems too obscure for more timid minds.
I also like Kuyper’s romanticism. He has a keen eye for the way God’s Spirit takes hold of a particular people at a particular time in a particular place, allowing him to embrace and enjoy local color. This resonates well with our family’s philosophy of enjoying what is distinct about the particular place to which you have been called by God. In Berkeley, I spent the majority of my waking hours in coffee shops and used bookstores. In Montana, we made every attempt to ski in the winter, fish in the summer, and hike the rest of the time.
Ever since the Lord called us to Tacoma, I have been wracking my brain, trying to figure out what is distinct about this place. Though I try to resist it, I have known the answer since the day I moved here: Tacoma has the best pubs of any place I have ever lived. Within walking distance from my house are four world-class pubs—The Parkway, Doyles, the Hub and the Spar.
Since making this discovery, I have tried to be a good steward of this rich cultural resource. Last summer, a few local pastors got together on Wednesday afternoons at the Parkway to share a pitcher and attempt to navigate the rich intricacies of Colin Gunton‘s theology. Just last week, I gave a lecture on neighborhood life at a downtown pub to a lively audience of city officials, architects and neighborhood advocates. The organizers wanted me to do it at my church, but I thought that that might limit our audience and have a dampening effect on our conversation.
The problem that I am facing intellectually is that, as much as I love my local pubs, I can’t in good conscience take Kuyper to any of them. This seems to be one area in which our taste for the local diverges. In the same speech where Kuyper critiques standardized housing, he also includes the frequenting of pubs in his list of the evils of modern life:
No longer should every man spend his evening hours at home with his own wife and children, but all should meet around the card tables of our clubs or in the taprooms of the local bars.
Since stumbling upon this passage, I have been haunted by the possibility that I may have discovered at least one square inch (or at least 16 fluid ounces) of creation over which Jesus Christ does not declare “it is mine.”
I am admittedly a pretty poor historian, so I am giving Kuyper the benefit of the doubt here. I’m hoping that what we are dealing with here is a problem of intensity, not action. Perhaps, when he was writing, men were spending every evening at the local pub and no time at home with their wives and children. In such a context I, too, might warn about the evils of the pub.
However, Kuyper may also be reflecting a suspicion of public life characteristic of evangelicals during the Victorian era. Robert Fishman, in his book Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise And Fall Of Suburbia (Basic Books, 1987) argues that evangelicals during this time tended to see nature and family life as spiritually edifying settings, whereas commercial and public life were much more suspect.
Fishman credits this impulse as being one of the driving forces in suburbanization and especially its being embraced by evangelical Christians:
This contradiction between the city and the Evangelical ideal of the family provided the final impetus for the unprecedented separation of the citizen’s home from the city that is the essence of the suburban idea. The city was not just crowded, dirty, and unhealthy; it was immoral. Salvation itself depended on separating the women’s sacred world of family and children from the profane metropolis.
While this suspicion of public life and idealization of family life seems quite compatible with an Evangelical worldview, it may also present some significant problems.
On the one hand, it may not be good for the family to be isolated from society. Richard Sennett in The Uses of Disorder (W.W. Norton, 1992) claims that such intensification of family life—expecting the family to meet all of our needs for socialization—is too much pressure for that particular social institution. It can exacerbate our fears of society as a whole, and severely limit any opportunity that we might have to impact society for the good.
As an evangelical as well as a devoted husband and father, I have to say that I tend to agree with people like Ray Oldenburg who, in The Great Good Place (Paragon House, 1989), claims that neighborhood pubs and cafes actually provide important places for socialization and identity formation, and that they complement, rather than compete with, home life by providing a place of transition between work and home.
For this reason, I feel inspired to raise a glass and declare, “God bless Tacoma’s pubs and all such auspicious institutions.” If Kuyper cannot echo this benediction, I trust that in the eschaton, I will have time to convince him otherwise—over a pint at Doyle’s, of course.