Editor’s Note: Personal Address to Third van Reken
To those who came to this blog from the digital aether: thank you for reading this blog. It’s my vision to spread the writings of Old Alexius to as many people as possible. He was an inspirational figure in my life and I would not have half the powers of discernment and commentary that I do without him. Yes, he was no titan in any field the star of no story but his own, but he had a charm and incisiveness all his own. So, thank you. That said, this post is primarily meant for those coming to this blog from the group of peers that attend college with me in the flesh. I won’t have you prosecuted for snooping or write letters to your parents, so please read if you find the address below interesting. For now, however, this editor’s note is specifically designed for those who know me in person.
On to business, then.
Dear Residents of Third van Reken, Peers and Fellow Students,
To those who do not know me, let me introduce myself. I am Jonathan Hielkema, and I will be your cultural discerner. That means I am responsible for monitoring and improving the cultural life of the third van Reken community. I will be organizing events around culture, fostering, leading, and participating in conversations about culture, and being your resource for culture on the floor. That being said, you’re probably curious about who, exactly, this masked man (And I mean that sincerely. I will be wearing a mask and a bit of a costume while mediating culture for you.) is. Who is he to tell me what movies are better than others? That is not my job. My job is to tell you what art is most important to me and offer up my opinions, not to turn you into a drone, as much as my megalomaniacal tendencies tell me to do the latter. I will offer up this short description.
I am an American/Canadian double citizen who identifies as Canadian in most circumstances. I was born and baptized in the Christian Reformed Church but am at most a reluctant Calvinist who believes in inclusive, if not universal, salvation. To me the Bible is useless without the guidance of the Holy Spirit in reading and interpreting it (and everyone interprets using their outside experiences. Some will just deny that they do it.) I’m interested in attending and possibly joining the Religious Society of Friends. Creationism and intelligent design are less theories than abject fantasies that make no sense to me. Kierkegaard was right when he wrote that doubt is the natural reaction of the rational mind to faith; I experience profound doubt every day but persevere in my leap of faith. I vote for Liberals in Canadian elections and hope to become a member of that party when I can live in Canada full time again. I wear hats, love reggae, hip-hop, jazz, and rock music, enjoy a good red wine every now and then, read history books and literary fiction along with many newspaper comics, play casual volleyball and weird experimental video games, draw and paint a little, write short stories and have a couple of unfinished novels, and hope to become a history professor. For superficial profiles, that is about as good as it gets.
I intend to offer up in this post a vision for the floor community this year. I wish to express nothing more or less than my deepest and highest hopes for the state of community living and engagement, conversation and fellowship on this floor. These hopes apply for us as a community of persons living in proximity, as a collective of dedicated students who collaborate and compete, and as a fellowship of fellow seekers and declared followers of a distinct religious vision. Recognizing that each person has more than one facet, and that even the most single-minded organizations reflect a diversity of opinions and stances, I will address all of these in turn as best I can. As befits my position as a cultural discerner, I will be biased toward addressing the cultural component of all of these manifestations of the group.
We all share a common living space, constantly in contact with one another. Whether we are sitting in silence, conversing humorously or seriously, or going out to eat together, there is no escaping the commonality of our living situation. Not entirely. I hope that within this locale we can all relate in grace and civility and understanding and navigate the tension between our commitments to ourselves and to the group. Last year, I observed a hospitality and welcoming spirit that, whatever its origin, was conducive to healthy living. Maintaining that should be a high priority. Our interactions around culture, however, tended to be rather monotonous. One of the benefits and detriments of the honors floor is that it attracts many like-minded individuals. This was noticeable especially when it came to the kinds of popular culture that were celebrated and discussed on the floor.
Properties and characters associated closely with geek culture and childhood were, frankly, covered to death, and it felt as though there was little oxygen for discussions and events that did not align with this view of culture. Part of my job as cultural discerner, as I see it, is to break down barriers and harmful stereotypes around certain forms of art. College is a great leveler, and I hope that as a discerner I can provide a forum for all of us to share our own likes and dislikes, even those that are very unpopular with others on our floor. Bringing out these differences will both remind us all that people are a diverse group and teach us how to deal with differences in opinion even over subjects that can seem trivial.
Therefore, as we form a community of unique persons, I hope that we emphasize mutual respect and allow room for people to seek their own way in any area, including but not limited to cultural preferences. Even in such a warm and welcoming setting, there can be a tendency to give in to fear and avoid discussion of our differences. Luckily, I think we have a core group of combative and confident people whose commitment to academic rigor should carry over into normal relationship. This is my hope: warm respect, lively and respectful debate, and a conscious effort to make room for all points of view.
People who choose this floor do so intentionally, and often because they want the company and support of people who share their academic skills. Most of us think of ourselves as highly intelligent and “good at school.” What is crucial in this environment is to recognize that all of us come from different academic backgrounds–some went through public school their whole lives, some toiled in private academies or Christian private schools, and others never walked into a school building their whole life. Where and how we were educated in our childhoods shapes who we are today, and this needs to be recognized when considering our respective strengths and weaknesses.
Always in communities, especially of an academic persuasion, there lurks an element of comparison and competition. We compare ourselves to others and want to be better than they are. This is not only prideful and counterproductive, but plain silly. Never make achievement in academics the sole object in your life. I need to tell myself this every minute of every day, but eventually it will sink in. This is not to encourage backsliding or malingering, but honest work that is joyous and not stressful, and does not punish the body for the sake of a number. Sleep enough and play enough to stay balanced. I do not exercise, but I eat well. It is infinitely better to do both.
Let us also recognize that this college we attend allows us to calibrate the level of stress in our classes. None of us are martyrs carrying a uniquely heavy burden on the way to some special enlightenment. We are people who can make the choice to lighten our course load and free up time for reflection and more individual work if we want to. Most of us, being honors students, feel enormous inward and outward pressure to do many things excellently. I would challenge that. The honors floor is a place for deep study and community, not superficial overachievement. Education is first a tool of social and personal improvement. If all you’re getting from college is a degree and the dwindling promise of a better middle-class life, then I would suggest you reconsider your place on the honors floor. Some would cushion that previous statement by saying that there is nothing wrong with seeking a steady job and a good life for them or their notional future family. I will say that if that is your goal, then you are mistaken about what this singular life of ours is really about.
Seeking after money and comfort and status are anathema both to my understanding of the Christian calling and to the mission of this floor. That some jobs are more lucrative than others is something we have to deal with, but the mission of a doctor, accountant, engineer, or lawyer is not their money but the service they offer other people. Perhaps I can only write this because I am a history and Japanese double major with totally uncertain job prospects and an internal acceptance of my probable future poverty and struggle. That said our areas of study are so valuable in their own right that in an ideal situation we should all be free to seek knowledge where we might without fear or anxiety, and I pray that we can all adopt a little of that perspective when approaching our unknowable futures.
Finally, we are also a group of students who identify with a particular religion. Calvin College adopts not only the obligations of a university–encouraging free thinking, promoting excellence, adding to the world’s body of knowledge and seekers of knowledge–but also of a Christian institution–advocating for Christians in the world, serving its community, and providing a safe haven for religious inquiry and the practice of a common faith. Though many of us will come from a specific denomination within the Church, all of us will have different upbringings and understandings of what our faith means in our lives.
Part of the reason that I feel this way is that I suspect that beneath our adherence to a common faith lies a whole host of individual experiences and trials. I also find talking about faith and theology fascinating, and wish we could directly address such topics. Most of all, I want all of us to come to honest positions on God that we can hold to with integrity, whether our parents, friends, or school holds those views or not. This may be difficult and require charity and compassion and listening, but the rewards could be immeasurable.
To complete this letter, I extend a warm welcoming hand to the incoming first-year students as well as any sophomores who might join us throughout the year. Returning residents, thank you for showing your appreciation of what the floor has to offer. Thank you for believing in this floor. We might not have a concrete theme, but I think we can be an example for the whole campus of how to construct a devoted and dedicated Christian community that neither rejects the world nor swallows it without consideration. When we approach culture, we should employ all the faculties we would normally devote to school work. Does that mean we have to take everything seriously? Yes, it does. That does not imply not having fun, however. God’s world is a playful and joyful one, and reveling in that is no bad thing in itself. What we watch, listen to, and play affects us, shapes how we view the world. So have fun, but be careful. That is, I suppose, the central message of this entire letter. I hope we can dance on the edge of the cliff without either quailing or falling off the edge. Might be a bit dramatic, but these are our lives we are playing with. We can only be totally certain of having one, after all, and what could be a more tragic waste?