Abraham Kuyper Goes Pop

A brilliant new film series pictures how to live out our salvation.

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today (October 2014), p. 72.

The statesman and theologian theologian Abraham Kuyper is all but forgotten in his native Netherlands, but his reputation continues to flourish in the United States among Christians looking for better ways to imagine their role in Western society. They often come to Kuyper for his account of the “cultural mandate”—the biblical theme of responsibility for the world so often neglected in narrower versions of conservative Christianity. But they stay for Kuyper’s most distinctive contribution, his carefully developed account of culture’s “spheres,” each with its own features, functions, and significance. The family, government, science, art, education, and more are each essential. None can be reduced to the other, and each requires particular virtues and bequeaths us particular forms of flourishing.

Now, the Dutch Reformed heartland of western Michigan has given us a cultural product that Kuyper surely never imagined, but that would surely make him proud. It is designed to help the church reclaim our true calling: to live out our salvation, in the words its title borrows from the Orthodox writer Alexander Schmemann, “for the life of the world.”

Each episode explores the Christian vision for flourishing in a different cultural sphere—and the “exile” in which we currently languish, far from our true purpose and destiny.

Here Comes Everybody

A curriculum of seven films each lasting 15 to 20 minutes, For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles advances a sophisticated theological anthropology. Schmemann’s breathtaking sacramental view of ordinary life is here, as are Kuyper’s distinctive spheres. Kuyper’s fellow Dutch Reformed thinkers Herman Bavinck and Lester DeKoster contribute a high view of common grace and human work, respectively. Catholic theologians such as Josef Pieper and Hans Urs von Balthasar testify to the significance of the family and the centrality of beauty to the Christian life. Rigorously careful with its language, the curriculum unapologetically resorts to Greek in its first and last episodes to articulate core concepts of oikonomia (stewardship), anamnesis (remembering), and prolepsis (anticipation).

Though true, the preceding paragraph is almost comically misleading. Because from that description you would surely never guess that our protagonist is a manically expressive 20-something named Evan (Evan Koons, who cowrote the script). Evan lives in a house filled with retro bric-a-brac, furnished circa 1940, and undisturbed by any technology invented since 1983. He is given to playing the ukulele, declaiming poetry, drinking lemonade from Mason jars—and to breaking the fourth wall, freezing the frame, and scrambling narrative sequence, using every trick of the postmodern visual storyteller.

When we meet him, Evan is in the throes of a quarter-life crisis. He’s sure that if faith means anything, it must have implications for everything, but finds little guidance from the church toward a viable calling in a pluralistic world. Evan begins the series, and ends every episode, handwriting a letter to his fellow Christians: “Dear Everybody.” The question that Evan finds most worrying is, “What is our salvation for?”

The Virgil who meets Evan in this dark wood is Stephen Grabill, avuncular, professorial, and frequently bow-tied. (A Kuyperian scholar in real life, Grabill very much plays himself throughout. But he also shows up as a hockey player, a baker, and a pipe-smoking psychotherapist.) Each episode explores the Christian vision for flourishing in a different cultural sphere—and the “exile” in which we currently languish, far from our true purpose and destiny.

It is almost impossible to convey in words the sheer inventiveness with which these themes are explored by Koons, Grabill, and their collaborators. (On camera, these include Dwight Gibson, Amy Sherman, and Anthony Bradley. Behind the scenes, joining directors Eric Johnson and David Michael Phelps, are Jars of Clay, many of the artists who helped create the Nooma videos, and an exhaustive list of contributors with Dutch-inflected last names.) They treat us to a balletic sequence evoking the Holy Trinity and the mystery of marriage; a Mumford-style hoedown on inaugurated eschatology; a wacky misreading, in front of increasingly indignant schoolchildren, of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree; and, in the series’ most profound and rewarding episode, a wordless three-minute invocation of wonder and worship worthy of Terrence Malick.

Along the way are luminous interviews with the community development pioneer John Perkins and the artist Makoto Fujimura. Marionettes enact the story of Jean Valjean and the Bishop of Digne. A Wallace and Gromit–style contraption makes pancakes. A child climbs a tree; a carpenter hews a table; family and friends sit down at an outdoor feast.

Deep Pop

If all this sounds grab bag, it can feel that way at points—a curriculum for the Etsy generation, unblinkingly earnest and borderline twee. My teenagers loved the series unreservedly, but they laughed at its hipster bona fides. If you are a Gen Xer who insists on a side dish of irony at every meal, you may want to steer clear. Then again, Evan and his friends might be the tonic you need to recall just how wondrous, serious, and joyous the Christian story is and can be.

For the Life of the World comes from the Acton Institute, a Grand Rapids, Michigan, think tank known for its robust (not to say strident) advocacy for liberty in economic and political affairs, drawing mostly on the Catholic tradition. (Full disclosure: I spoke at 2014’s Acton University, and the Institute is one of the distributors of CT’s own curriculum on vocation, Redeeming Work.) Keen observers, or suspicious ones, will spot free-market economics in the episode on work (“Creative Service”), which seeks to show how markets create dignity for workers along the whole value chain. They will notice that the episode on government (“Order”) quickly moves from social justice to hospitality—though that potentially individualistic transition happens in a moving, graceful, and, to this viewer, persuasive way.

But overall this series is marvelously catholic, in the small-c sense. All but the most progressive Christians (who will chafe at the traditional language for God and the implied endorsement of traditional marriage) and the most conservative (who may be alarmed at the Trinity being represented by three cherubic girls) will be able to watch it with profit and delight. It makes the best case I have seen for the essential coherence of the Great Tradition’s view of the world—and the creativity, beauty, and service that flow from that view.

The Kuyperian tradition has excelled at producing high-flown philosophical treatments of culture. It has produced fewer examples of down-to-earth popular communication. Too often, meanwhile, Christian popular culture has been cut off from the faith’s deepest roots. Very rarely do artists emerge who have the talent and training to present deeply Christian themes in widely accessible ways.

In For the Life of the World, some of those artists have emerged. This is Christian popular culture that embodies theological and spiritual maturity—and childlike humility. I can only hope that many of us will indeed watch and learn. And that we will then give ourselves away, as skillfully, promptly, and sincerely as these filmmakers have done, for the life of the world.