Immediately after James Bratt '71 learned that he had been awarded the college’s Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching, he had to teach an interim class on film noir: “I haven’t been that nervous to teach in quite a while,” recalled Bratt, a 25-year veteran of the Calvin history department, “’cause I was just imagining these trustees and so forth, members of PSC [Professional Status Committee], coming into the room and listening to me for a few minutes and thinking, ‘Geez, is that the best you’ve got? We’re going to reconsider.’”
Bratt is the 21st recipient of the presidential award, the highest distinction that Calvin bestows on a faculty member. He is a teacher of numerous courses on American and American religious history, the author/editor of eight books and more than 50 articles, a scholar on the life and work of Reformed thinker Abraham Kuyper, a two-time Fulbright Scholar, the recipient of numerous grants, the mentor of honors students and a fixture on college governance committees.
He offered this perspective on his record: “If you work long enough, you’d better have a pretty long CV.” And he laughed.
“He’s very smart, witty, kindly, restive—that’s a positive term,” English professor Roy Anker described Bratt. “He’s curious, wants things to be better, not comfortable and relaxed … . When something disturbs him, something he thinks is wrong, he can be very straightforward and direct and brave, even.”
“He doesn’t lack courage, that’s for sure, and he’s very principled,” said Bill Romanowski, the communication arts and sciences (CAS) professor who co-teaches the film noir interim with Bratt. “And he’s also deeply entrenched in and committed to the Reformed enterprise.”
Jim Bratt is the middle of five children born to Bert ‘41 and Anita Bratt ‘42. His father was a teacher of history and Bible at Oakdale Christian School (Grand Rapids, Mich.), where Jim and his siblings attended. “The issue in my family was not about money,” he said. “It was about serving people and being the best you can. Cultivating your mind and achieving in school was highly rewarded. But you couldn’t just be piling up knowledge; you had to get outside yourself.”
Bratt was both comfortable and restless growing up in Dutch Christian Reformed culture. “It gave me a lot of resources, high ideals, a strong sense of calling,” he said. “There was a lot of junk I had to work through as well, but that gave me strong, worthy issues to struggle with. I think that’s part of a good culture.”
He has fond memories of Oakdale, but at Central Christian High School, he struggled to find a community. “The things the awards assemblies were for were always athletics,” Bratt said.
“In high school, I played football and he studied,” said Romanowski, a friend and collaborator of Bratt who grew up outside Dutch Christian Reformed Church culture, “and one time I said to him, ‘You know, it’s a pity we didn’t know each other,’ and he said, kind of meekly, ‘You would have beat me up.’”
Bratt began attending Calvin in 1967, riding the bus back and forth between the Franklin and Knollcrest campuses. He loved history, philosophy and English equally and only declared a history major when forced to choose. He also reveled in the intellectual discussions that flourished both inside and outside of the classroom. “We were pretty serious people asking pretty big questions,” he said. “We were keeping our professors’ feet to the fire … . We were not just grinding for grades.”
Or, he emphasized, to get a good job: “We didn’t care about money. We wanted meaningful work.”
As an undergraduate at Calvin during the ’60s, Bratt joined the campus protests over the Vietnam War, civil rights and other landmark events of the era. But even while pushing back at the establishment, Bratt was grateful to his professors for helping him to clarify what he believed. “I, for myself, had a lot of doubts, including religious and theological doubts, and I think the most valuable service that faculty provided was … not to quash those doubts but to think out loud with me and give me, on their part, a pretty sophisticated Christian method and base for coming to doubt the doubts.”
History professors Dale Van Kley and George Marsden wrote the letters of recommendation that got Bratt into graduate school at Yale. “They got me into what was then and remains the number-one rated American history program in the world,” he said, “and that’s when I should have learned about grace. I think it didn’t take.”
In 1971, Bratt moved on to Yale, where he felt welcome and affirmed and where he first watched films like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, the beginning of his preoccupation with film noir. “It’s one of those things that you pick up on the hop that just shapes you,” he said.
In 1973, Bratt married Tina Bruinsma, who he’d met at Calvin. He graduated Yale with his PhD in 1978 and landed a job teaching in the religious studies department at the University of Pittsburgh, where he stayed for nine years. He loved the topography of the city, its world-class symphony and sports teams. “Our son Peter was born 12 weeks premature, so we found out they had world-class health care,” he said. The couple have three more children: Suzanne, David and Eric. When Bratt landed a Fulbright Grant in 1985 to study “Abraham Kuyper and the Image of America in Dutch Neo-Calvinism,” the family lived for six months in the Netherlands.
In 1987, Bratt moved on to Calvin. “I knew I didn’t want to teach in a big state university for the rest of my life,” he said. “And coming back to my alma mater, I really believed in the Calvin educational project.” He joined a history department that included Wells and Van Kley, Robert Bolt and Herb Brinks.
Throughout his career, Bratt has followed three streams of scholarship: Dutch-American history, the life and thought of Abraham Kuyper, and American religious history in the antebellum period. Animating all of these investigations is Bratt’s preoccupation with the gap between profession and function: the difference between what people say they believe and how they actually live. It is a tension rooted in his upbringing, he admitted. “The college sophomore in me wanted to rant and rave about hypocrisy. But then, as you start to mature a little bit, you realize that this is a very interesting and almost universal problem in human culture … . So that’s kind of given me a career,” he said.
“Reading him is such a delight. He has the mind of a scholar and the soul of a poet,” said history professor David Diephouse.
Bratt loves teaching, but confesses, “I’ve never been one for innovative pedagogies … I assume that you as a student are able to think and that you want to think, that’s my assumption, and now we’re going to think about this together. My way of motivating is to show how interesting this is.”
Students respond to this straightforward approach—some by taking as many Bratt-taught courses as they can fit into their schedules. Elissa Leunk Malefyt ’05 took four in her time at Calvin.
“When I took my first class from him, I was aiming for a business communications major. By the end of the semester, I knew that history was what I was meant to study,” said Malefyt. “And though I actually ended up working in business, I spend much of my free time on learning more history. I also learned my parlor trick from him, which is to spout ridiculously obscure historical facts about things.”
This spring, senior Laura de Jong is taking her fifth class with Bratt. “I think my favorite thing about Bratt though is that his door is always open—even when it’s shut! He’s always ready for a good conversation, for a joke, either at his expense or mine, or to help with recommendations or homework questions,” de Jong said. She was among the students in “Great Ideas/Great Texts,” a class Bratt created for residents of the Honors Floor of the van Reken residence hall. “At the end of the year, he went above and beyond, inviting all 30 of us to his cottage near Lake Michigan for a barbecue and a time to hang out on the beach,” she said.
Bratt has fond memories of leading the 2006 Semester in Britain. The theme of the course was “The British Empire,” and the itinerary took the students to the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, the House of Commons, the tower of Big Ben, the Greenwich date line, St. Albans, the carneys and cheap food joints at Brighton, and a session of Parliament.
“Three knuckleheads—that means guys—in the middle of February got up and walked Hadrian’s Wall. They almost froze to death,” Bratt recounted. The semester-long teaching experience allowed him to get to know students a little better and learn about their strengths. “It’s like a movable feast,” he said. “The conversations continue in class and out.”
Bratt values today’s students’ insights and is intrigued by signs of their restlessness. “A number of them, a good number of them, enough to keep me hopeful and interested in my job, have a sort of sacred discontent,” he said, “but I am not a guru to lead them in a different way. I am one of many colleagues here who are adding layers to what each other does … .We’re trying to layer up a set of aspirations that are worthy for them to pursue and, in some ways, to do better than we did.”
Bratt also serves alongside his colleagues in the governance of the college: chairing the history department twice, mentoring new faculty, directing both the Developing a Christian Mind program and the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship, co-leading the Kuiper Seminar and the Faculty Fellows program, and serving on numerous committees, most recently the Reformed Identity and Mission Task Force.
“He regularly serves on committees and task forces, even if doing so comes at real personal cost,” said history professor Kristin Du Mez.
In 2012, Bratt landed his second Fulbright. He was named the Fulbright-Dow Distinguished Research Chair of the Roosevelt Study Center, Middelburg, the Netherlands. He used the grant to finish a biography of Abraham Kuyper. By coincidence, his son Eric (then a Calvin student) earned a Fulbright that same year to study the Mandarin language in Harbin, Manchuria. “It made for a very special time,” Eric said.
Bratt has high praise for his history colleagues: “It’s been a very high-functioning, very healthy department. We get differences on the table and you just negotiate,” he said. “I’m friends with my colleagues. You come to work every day, and there’s no one you dread seeing.”
Du Mez said she is grateful for Bratt’s unstinting support and encouragement: “To me he is one of the few people I turn to as a model Christian scholar. His scholarship is extensive, insightful and highly regarded, but he remains unfailingly humble. He leads as a servant.”
At some point in his career, Bratt realized how his background had left him with his own profession/function gap. “Calvinists preach total depravity,” he said, “but they expect perfection.”
He had to come to terms with his CV. “The message of Reformed theology is that you count as something in the eyes of God as you are, not because of what you’ve achieved … . When you finally realize existentially the limits of achievement, I think that’s really when you become open to grace,” he said.
Myrna Anderson is Calvin’s senior writer.