Saturday, May 1, 2010



I just finished reading De eeuw van mijn vader aka My Father's Century by Geert "Big" Mak. What a ride.

Normally, you can judge a book by its cover. It's called marketing. They're designed that way. In a language other than your own, it's different. It's unlikely that you will have the background knowledge to know what you're getting into. The less you know, the more surprises you get. This also means you're taken places you didn't want to go. It goes beyond new and interesting points of view. Still, I'm in favor of exploring.

I leave this book with Geert Mak looking back at the last century in Spring 1999. At the time, the Balkan wars were raging. Although there was a lot of heated rhetoric at the time, he points out that the last century meant the early death of some 115 million Europeans, 54 million of whom were Russians who died due to internal persecution and famine. He compares the collapse of the Soviet Union to the collapse of Czarist Russia and the Kaiser's Germany, saying that it all happened from within.

He uses statistics to point out that the Dutch in 1999 lived like kings compared to 1899, when his father was born.

Of course, the closing chapter, like many of the others, includes a lot about politics within the Dutch Reformed Church. He spotlights the more liberal groups in the fragmentation process. A lot of what other Christian groups would consider to be basic doctrine was called into question or thrown out. Still, some social activism kept going.

At a one to nine week temporary job I just started, I met a member of the Dutch Reformed Church. I asked him about what I have read and my conclusions. He agreed that there is a Reformed identity that goes beyond the splinter groups, but mentioned that his own branch of the faith is yet another new one.

I can identify the Reformed paradox, but I can't explain why it exists. Everyone looks back to Abraham Kuyper, the great unifier, but new divisions arise all the time. It seems even more strange when you consider that the denomination was never very big to begin with.

My colleague laments that many Reformed people here have moved into megachurches that are, "Just entertainment."

Mak uses his own family to show that the Reformed in the Netherlands are moving away from religion entirely. Each generation moved further away from the whole idea, though in 1999, one person was a Moslem.

The section about Dutch identity was thrilling. I have no stake in the matter, but part of the joy of another language is reading and hearing what's intended for other audiences. After pointing out the decline of religion and other things, he said that, "Civic Religion," was the way to go. He used the American term in English.

I was surprised. Civic religion has declined in the United States to the point where some groups are at the point of deassimilating. Education spending has steadily declined for many years, and consequently, fringe groups who, "Don't believe," in science and other things proven as fact are now more mainstream. Home schooling exacerbates the trend. After news articles about immigration, one often finds hysterical comments about the need to defend our language. Often, they are shot through with spelling errors.

Civic religion has had its measure of success in the US, because it was well thought out at the beginning. While revisionists deride early America as overwhelmingly WASPish, it was diverse for its day. Also, as the percentage of WASPs becomes smaller, comemmorating their contributions may become necessary to carry them forward. They, after all, gave us our civic religion, leaving a framework so that others could be included over time.

The main challenge for the success of civic religion anywhere is transmittal. It still happens in some school settings and in the military, but it does not happen nearly enough.

The book ends on a personal note. Mak looks back at his parents' wedding picture, standing on the steps in 1924. He talks about how he can still see his fathers hands, spotted and veiny, "Like a landscape."

This blog will have two more posts. Next week, I'll take the Dutch to English test for TSF and report where I am linguistically. After that, I'll take a last look at this whole project.

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on your accomplishment and thanks for taking us along for the ride.