I was pleased and amused when I saw the Las Vegas question answered in your most recent column. As a Calvin graduate, I’m fully aware of the importance of history and the danger of not paying attention to the past, not to mention the attendant danger of seeing everything as if we are living in a continuous present. But I’m beginning to feel some sympathy for my brother or sister in Las Vegas—this year, apparently, we should be spending a lot of our time and energy celebrating 100 years of Chimes and 100 years of the Calvin Alumni Association, as well as the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Christian Reformed Church. Has it come to this, that all we can do for the foreseeable future is celebrate the past?
My answer is yes and no. But first a little background.
I’m glad you were pleased by my Las Vegas answer a few months ago, but I can readily see why you are tempted to join the company of those who grow weary with the ongoing—from your point of view, the ceaseless—celebrations of institutional anniversaries of one sort or another. Fifty years of Spark, 50 years of Knollcrest, 100 years of Chimes and the alumni association, 150 years of the CRC—these are, at least for the general public, not events to make the pulse race or to bring on raucous celebrations, marching in the streets, or shouts of acclamation and approbation.
For one thing, the entertainment culture we belong to in North America has taught us to demand a great deal from almost every event we are asked to observe, and the production value of celebrations had better be such that the level of entertainment and distraction is demonstrably high. You may have noticed that observing and celebrating the anniversaries you mentioned will almost necessarily be quiet, chaste, muted and modest (with the exception of the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the CRC, which will consist of a noisy, sustained and spirited series of celebrations in the States and in Canada, a moveable feast of sermons, lectures, concerts, conferences and symposia meant to engage and reform the senses). And, in general, we don’t quite know what to do with quiet, chaste, muted and modest celebrations without appearing ourselves to be a little less exciting than we’d like to think we are.
Second, not all of us wrote for Chimes, not all of us are active in Calvin Alumni Association activities (beyond reading at least this column in Spark, that is), not all of us hang out at Knollcrest and not all of us are Christian Reformed. For some of us, celebration is hard to do when we are not celebrating ourselves. I don’t exactly mean that we are shallow and narcissistic, although that could be true, but that we naturally are inclined to celebrate those things and events that feature us as central players, that are closely associated with who we are; it’s harder to celebrate those others who are not ourselves.
Harder, I said, but not impossible. Consider briefly the list of Chimes editors over the years; the list itself is a wonderful testimony to the remarkable men and women who have graced the halls of Calvin College and the offices of the college newspaper. There’s no need to rehearse here the lovely history of the delusional football ambitions of the Les Jacques de Chimes in spite of the superior athletic abilities of the faculty and staff who have stymied those ambitions over the years. Nor do we need to rehearse once again the various controversies and spoof issues that have made this storied paper such a rich part of our heritage.
Third, almost all of us find isolated historical facts a little less than compelling sometimes, especially if those facts seem to illustrate what Henry Ford once apparently described history as being, namely, just “one damn thing after another.” We need the magic of narrative that turns historical details into a story that re-animates the historical facts. Think, for instance, of the kind of story that would explain why, 50 years into its existence, the Christian Reformed Church needed Chimes. Consider, moreover, the fact that Chimes, which began in January 1907, was followed three months later by the inauguration of the Calvin College Alumni Association. An innocent person might think of this unadorned set of dates as nothing but one blessed thing after another, but those who have eyes to see could very well notice consequence or cause and effect where others see mere sequence. Here, suddenly, is a much more interesting set of questions that could produce a far more compelling narrative: What did the CRC need that was supplied by Chimes, and why did the alumni association suddenly leap into existence three months later?
Fourth, it is a commonplace that we are from time to time seduced by various tense- and mood-related temptations, a set of afflictions known collectively as mood and tense shift disorders. For some of us, the past perfect has a strong and nearly fatal attraction; for others, it is the present imperfect that dominates our days and spoils our nights; for still others, it is the future progressive that leads us into temptation. Meanwhile, the imperative mood has its devotees, too, as does the subjunctive, particularly the condition contrary to fact. And that is why it is good for us sometimes to live with what we blithely refer to as the simple past and to see ourselves in relationship to it—products of the past, but not necessarily or completely mastered by it.
For the foreseeable future, then, we will probably have to live with the past. But you can be sure that we’ll be doing lots of other things, too, especially those of us who read Chimes, pay attention to the alumni association, keep an eye on Knollcrest, and continue to love the college of the CRC in historically appropriate ways.
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