“Dust in the Wind” by Kansas. My Alter-Hymnal and “Musica Universalis.”


I once sought truth in text. Reading the Word of God is central to growing up in the Reformed Church. My father read the Bible to the family after each meal. At school children memorized the books of the Bible and many of its passages. Two sermons on Sundays plus weekday youth groups and catechism classes, we became biblical scholars. I can still quote the Bible but it is no longer my source of truth.

The Song of Solomon is the most beautiful book in the Bible. Verse one names it “the song of songs.” It is love poetry, a woman’s expression of physical desire for her lover, and then his for her. The church had a strained relationship with the book. It was rarely read. As children we tittered about the mildly erotic imagery. The woman’s breasts are compared to twin fawns. I think the church struggled with the fact that the book was more song than text, resisting literal interpretation. It never mentions God. We were advised that the book is an allegory for Christ’s relationship with the church. Of course.

The church also celebrated with song, the approved ones in the Psalter Hymnal. The songs remain with me. I still love singing Abide with Me, How Great Thou Art, and O Come all Ye Faithful. Atheist though I am, I imagine Amazing Grace being sung at my funeral. Of course I also have a list of atheist “hymns,” Scare Away the Dark by Passenger, Dust in the Wind by Kansas, and We’re Here for a Good Time Not a Long Time by Trooper. Call this second list my Alter Hymnal.

I once sought truth in text but now I follow a kind of music. The complexity of life cannot be captured in words. The signal of truth seems to me more like music. “Musica universalis” means universal music, an ancient philosophical idea about the movement of celestial bodies, more to do with mathematics than literal music. Today scientists are able to record radio waves leftover from the Big Bang. Artist-technologist Honor Harger tracks them as a sort of music of the cosmos. I think of music as a metaphor for truth, better than text at describing the complex dance of life and love on Earth.

I am estranged from a community of faith. I can live with that.

Growing up in the Reform tradition, I turned eighteen and joined my peers in classes at the Minister’s house after church on Sundays. It was a privilege and a pleasant time, with coffee and cake and light discussion of the Nicene Creed. We were being prepared to stand before the church and recite the Profession of Faith, a personal statement of commitment, like a marriage. We would take our place as adult members of the church, submitting to its authority. I became more anxious as the classes neared their end. I asked the Minister for some personal time, but I could not frame my questions and he could not help. I dropped out. I lost my place among the people.

From a distance of decades, it seems no surprise now that I dropped out. Calvinism is rooted in the Reformation, the Protestant break from the Catholic church. Martin Luther taught that salvation is achieved not through the authority of the church but as a free gift through the grace of God. Sounds nice, but Calvinism is a stern theology. Its main five points can be represented by the acronym TULIP, the Dutch flower. “T” stands for “Total depravity,” the idea of original sin. Put simply, man is born in sin and must be saved. “U” is for “Unconditional election”, the God has already picked those who will be saved, while the rest are bound for hell. Need I go on? (Aside, the Reformed tradition is the one in which Donald Trump claims membership. His pastor has declared him inactive.)

On my own, spiritually, I learned different world views and experienced new insights. Today I call myself a happy atheist — happy not to worry about the fate my soul, happy to live by a practical morality of love and service to others, happy to find meaning in the small stories of life.

A few months ago I ran into a boyhood friend, one who always seemed more certain of his theology. Today he makes a living researching religion. I told him I am an atheist. He made a friendly joke about him not having enough faith to be one. I was impressed by the consistency of his religious belief over the years, but curious if anything had changed in his thinking over the years. He said his faith is less fearful, more embodied. I believe him. My atheist worldview disembodies me to some extent. I do not have a soul located in my body. I do not belong to a separate people, a religious tribe. I am estranged from a community of faith. I can live with that.

We are all a “People of the Book”

I am a son of Dutch immigrants, a people whose spiritual and cultural centre was the church. The Christian Reformed Church espoused a stern Calvinist theology, emphasizing frequent and close reading of the Bible. Three meals a day ended with scripture. Two sermons on Sunday plus weekday youth groups and catechism classes forged children into bible scholars. In English class at the public high school, I was the one who caught the Eden symbolism of the two rivers in John Knowles’ A Separate Peace. No one spoke of business on Sundays, but as a boy I was hired part-time by at the garage owned by church friends. Church members sent work to one another. They looked after one another, in business and spirit. You could say we were a “People of the Book.”

The Book imprinted deeply. Movies and dance were forbidden but books were always permitted. I believed myself clever escaping into forbidden reading, The Lord of the Rings or Catcher in the Rye. In university I imagined myself free of the influence of the religion, but I always signed up for long essay courses of a philosophical bent. In graduate school, I published my own book, Slow Reading, about the benefits of reflective reading. Books, always books. I was imprinted with a need for deep reading and metaphysical thinking. I was a person of the Book.

The expression, “People of the Book,” is Islamic in origin, applied variously to Jews, Christians and other religions that emphasize scripture and a monotheistic God. It is a friendly term, encouraging tolerance among people of like beliefs. I wonder, though, who among us is not a person of the Book? Whose beliefs differ so much as to be outside its influence? Most of us grew up in a print culture. Many books are not religious, but most have a single author, an authority to which the reader is expected to submit. The content is organized into a hierarchical table of contents through which truth is linearly revealed. Every book implies a Biblical worldview. To some extent, we are all a people of the Book.

Atheists are a minority but this is changing, especially among millennials. This change coincides with the advent of digital technology. Think about it. Websites are compilations of multimedia content, created by many, dynamically changing, constantly remixed and reinterpreted in in different ways. Digital media lends itself to complex truths and knowledge. Today, I am atheist. I still read books, but they are diminishing in favour of digital reading. I am no longer a person of the Book. I believe that embracing diversity of thought allows for even more peaceful coexistence.

Lead type and ink caused me no harm, except for imprinting my soul with a love of letters

I grew up in a print shop. In the seventies my father acquired a Gestetner 480 to print church bulletins. As other printers modernized my father picked up their old presses for a song. He had to tear open a wall to bring in an elephantine poster press. That one never saw a job and it was carved up and sold for scrap metal. 

In exchange for work, my father bought me an old but solid Underwood typewriter with a three-foot carriage, designed for typing sideways on legal and other over-sized paper. I started a neighbourhood newspaper, selling ads for a dime, printing on a ditto machine.

My favourite machine was a tabletop letterpress used for printing wedding invitations. I made words with my hands, assembling lead type into a metal form, packed into place with spacers and wooden blocks and wedged tight. The form was clamped onto the upper jaw of the press. Wedding stock was placed on the lower jaw and secured by guide pins. The press was hand cranked. In one deft motion, rollers would get pulled over the ink plate and type, closing the jaws so the inked type pressed upon the paper. You did not want to pull too hard for fear of smudging the ink or wrecking the type.

The printing industry was challenged by the digital revolution of the eighties. My brother developed the shop into a full-time competitive operation, upgrading to a desk-sized “Comp 1” typesetter and a Multilith 1250 press. Family and friends worked late hours, printing, collating, cutting and binding. For a time we kept up but a complete and expensive digital overhaul was required. The shop closed.

I grew up in the print shop, literally. While it lived, it operated out of our family home, next to my basement bedroom. At night it was my my job to clean the darkroom and presses. I could never wash the ink completely from hands and nails. Lead type and ink caused me no harm, except for imprinting my soul with a love of letters. I delivered newspapers. I became an avid reader. I imagined a career as a journalist or author. Instead I underwent a digital overhaul myself, making a living in the computer industry. Code is made of text; I suppose I am still a maker of words.

My story begins with a book

My story begins with a book. I recall a few things before I learned to read, but precious few: a favorite red baseball cap, a fun summer barbecue, a nasty rooster named George. There also comes a time much later when I found the end of books. In the end I learned my answers after reading; more on that later. In between these two points my life was a journey through books. Even before I could read, my parents read to me, and when they read, it was the Bible. Today I am a happy atheist but early on I had to sort my way through religion. My story, the story of John, begins with a book, and that book was the Word of God.

My parents immigrated from the Netherlands to Canada after World War II. My father’s family was poor, surviving the war by collecting and selling firewood and duck eggs. My mother’s family had a tobacco farm. Both families emigrated to improve the lives of their children. My father prospered as a mason contractor and my mother worked on her family’s new and bigger farm. They married young and had seven children. I was the second youngest. 

The Dutch immigrants were a close knit community. Their religious and cultural centre was the Christian Reformed Church. It was a protestant denomination, evangelical and Calvinist, emphasizing careful reading of the Bible. Three meals a day ended with scripture. At the Christian school — the “Dutch school” with all those blond heads — the curriculum reinforced the readings. My grade eight science text, Look to the Ants, quoted from the Bible. Add to all this two sermons on Sundays plus weekday youth groups and catechism classes, the children of Dutch immigrants became biblical scholars.

I remember my upbringing with fondness. If it was too serious, it was also simple and certain and loving. Visiting a classmate on Saturday the lunchtime routine was the same, a seating at the table for prayers and Bible reading. It cultivated innocence for learning without fear. It developed a literary mind and fashioned a thinker and truth seeker. Of course, one book leads to the next, and I followed that path, ultimately discovering its end, and the enlightenment that follows.  

The elephant is a symbol of memory. One strand in this series will be memoir, my stories.

Welcome to the first post in my After Reading series, an exploration of ideas about books, the internet, and machine life. Above is my illustration of an elephant. I sketched the elephant as a symbol of memory. One strand in the telling of this series will be memoir, my stories. Jumbo was a famous elephant whose life ended in my hometown of St. Thomas, Ontario. A life-sized statue of Jumbo has been erected there. The elephant is also used as a brand by the Evernote software I use to keep notes today. It spans the range of time for me. The elephant also symbolizes intelligence and wisdom. Its image is used by religious and political groups. The “elephant in the room” is an expression of important and unspoken truths. The series will make its way through all these subjects. Welcome.