(James K.A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the author of a number of books including Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition and, most recently, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. He also serves as the editor of Comment magazine.)
What book are you reading right now?
I’ve finally moved James Bratt’s biography, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013) to the top of the stack. I’m not sure that Jim ever envisioned this as a “beach read,” but in fact I enjoyed reading it while decamped on the gorgeous sands of Grand Haven, Michigan, our very own “west coast.” That I eventually dozed off is no commentary on Bratt’s prose, which is far from soporific.
Why’d you choose that particular book?
As a member of the Christian Reformed Church and a Christian scholar at Calvin College, an institution nourished by Kuyper’s legacy, reading this book is pretty much an occupational requirement. But like the law of love, it is a happy obligation! Abraham Kuyper was a remarkable individual whose life makes for a compelling story: a convert from bland liberalism, he went on to become an influential pastor, newspaper editor, theologian, and statesman (serving as Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901-1905). My own thought is deeply indebted to Kuyper and his heirs, but I knew the ideas and not the man. But my interest is not just antiquarian or a biographical fascination: I’m also intrigued to see how a Christian like Kuyper operated in the public sphere—a public sphere that was increasingly secularized and pluralized, and thus beginning to look more and more like the world we currently inhabit. I’m intrigued to see if there are lessons to be learned here, including lessons to be learned from Kuyper’s failures.
What’s the best part about it so far?
Well, first and foremost, I have to say that Bratt’s prose is lively and engaging, characterized by a verve and wit that he exhibits in person as well. One of Jim’s best friends, the film scholar Bill Romanowski, recommended that Bratt organize the biography like a screenplay, and I think that’s reflected in the book’s dramatic pace. Second, Bratt’s mastery of the archival materials is remarkable. For example, Bratt goes back to early sermons and captures their key themes in ways that bring Kuyper to life beyond his published legacy. But I also love it that at the same time he draws on Kuyper’s love letters to his fiancée, then wife, Jo. As Bratt puts it, “Father Abraham” was a romantic in more ways than one. Finally, so far I have learned the most from Bratt’s ability to locate Kuyper in the social, political, and intellectual context of 19th century Europe. It is far too easy to read someone like Kuyper anachronistically, reading him as if we were just a contemporary American. Bratt’s biography is an important antidote to that.
What’s the worst part about it so far?
I don’t think I’ve encountered a “worst part” so far. I would just say this: I can already feel a certain theoretical frame that Bratt brings to the story of which I am a tad suspicious. I’m just a little worried that the “true” heirs of Kuyper are going to be progressives, whereas “right wingers” (as Bratt puts it, gratingly) are going to turn out to be unenlightened repristinators. I’m suspending judgment until I’m finished the book, but I’m on the lookout for an interpretive frame that might load the dice just a bit.