Wednesday, July 10, 2024

From the Bookshop Basement

My Christianity is not my father’s Christianity. His was not his father’s, nor his grandfather’s, which was different again.

You will understand that I am not talking about differences in the substance of what was and is believed or practiced. We have a common salvation. The faith was once for all delivered. Paul taught the same things in all the churches and in all his letters. If one departs from these things, he is preaching “another Jesus” and “a different gospel”.

That’s definitely not what I have in mind.

Intergenerational Faith

No, I am thinking of the ways in which each generation experiences the outcome of their faith in real time, the emphasis they put on certain truths and the lack of emphasis they put on others. These things differ from generation to generation, as they must, since contending for the faith demands we confront the enemies currently attacking it, not those successfully repelled by our fathers or grandfathers. I’ve never been a warrior, but I imagine they spend more time sharpening and polishing weapons they are regularly using than those they are not.

Christians have headed the last four generations of my family and set a tone of orthodoxy in their homes. (My great-great-grandfather attended a high church, but had a serious drinking problem that cut short his life. Nobody can say with confidence how that worked out for him in eternity, but at least he took my great-grandfather to church.) That is not to say that all extended family members over the years were Christians — sadly, many were not — but a tradition of faithful Christian testimony goes back on Dad’s side at least to the early Victorian Era.

I had occasion recently to compare and contrast the four generations.

An Unlikely Visit to a Bookshop

My grandfather wrote a little book about his life and faith the year after I was born, just prior to his death in his late seventies. I don’t think it was one of those vanity press jobs — it had an actual publisher and even a price of “four shillings and sixpence” — but given the market for such things, I would be surprised to find that more than a few hundred were printed. I remember seeing a stack of copies in my father’s study as a child, reading with curiosity the chapter that concerned Dad’s conversion and subsequent progress in the faith, with which Grandfather was evidently delighted.

Not having given the book a thought in several decades, I was walking and praying near the end of last week when it occurred to me that I don’t have a copy. I suddenly wanted one. I texted my sister, only to find out that when she cleaned out Dad’s study after he went to be with the Lord, none of the original copies were to be found. For Dad the book had served as a sort of extended personal tract, and he had probably given them all away. Of course, my sister being my sister, within about thirty seconds located two copies of the original hardcover printing for sale online. One was in England. The other, by no small coincidence, was in the basement of a used bookstore in the very Ontario city I just “happened” to be visiting for three days. I retrieved it the next day at the trifling cost of $16, and it gave me opportunity to read about Grandfather’s and Great-Grandfather’s experience of living out the faith in their generations in the former’s own words.

Faith Times Four

My first thought is that our family is unusually privileged. Every new believer from an unsaved background is a unique joy and a testimony to the saving power of the gospel and the love of Christ, and each has the opportunity to pass their faith on to their children by godly example and persuasion. That acknowledged, a faith that travels through a family over four generations offers the opportunity to examine the Christian experience in multiple cultural and societal settings, in the hearts and minds of men of vastly different temperament and life experience.

It is readily evident to anyone who has known us both that I am not my father. That’s not a compliment to me in most respects. He spent his life among the people of God, while I have spent much of mine, for good or ill, relating to the unsaved world. I have, however, been impacted tremendously by his understanding of scripture and how to communicate it to others, even when I was only sucking it up by osmosis. It’s humbling to come across a wonderful scriptural truth you had never previously unpacked for yourself, only to give it a moment’s thought and realize that Dad had patiently recited the same truth in my presence dozens of times when I wasn’t paying any particular attention.

In any case, after years of such observations I have a decent idea of how my faith and practice compare to my father’s. I had no idea at all how his compared to my grandfather’s, who, to the best of my recollection, I never met. Grandfather passed away across the Atlantic when I was probably learning to walk. For that, I have to rely on the accuracy of my grandfather’s recollections and self-awareness.

My Great-Grandfather’s Faith

My grandfather portrays his dad as a man who grew up in a home that was religious but severe. His high church background inculcated a works-based salvation theology that gave him no peace. Despite a naturally retiring disposition, upon discovering that it is faith that saves he became a joyful, door-knocking evangelist who believed every aspect of his life was of concern to God, cared deeply for the poor, and gave his children the spiritual education and godly upbringing he had never received at home.

By his son’s account, he was sentimental and perhaps even mildly superstitious with respect to God’s disciplinary work in his life, but exemplary in self-control and personal study of the scriptures. Possibly in reaction to his own austere upbringing, he was fun-loving, humorous and affectionate, and sorely missed when he went to be with the Lord 28 years before his wife.

My Grandfather’s Faith

Other than the book’s introduction, when their home is destroyed by German bombs as the family takes refuge in the basement, Grandfather’s life by his own account seems to have been comparatively uneventful, characterized by work (as a chartered accountant), church and especially domesticity, all lived out very locally. I don’t think it’s unfair to say Grandfather was a bit of a moralist: every anecdote in the book has an obvious spiritual point, usually emphasized with a proof text, a quirk which may be generational. He saw evidence of the truth of scripture in almost every human interaction.

Possibly a less emotional man than his father, he also seems to have been a bit of a romantic. My father’s own rather more reserved accounts of the same stories and people seem more plausible to me than Grandfather’s rosy optimism. Grandfather, like his dad, made frequent attempts at evangelism despite a shy disposition and was clearly a consistent student of scripture, but he says little about his own church life and Christian relationships, commenting, “I have always tried to fulfil my special home responsibilities and not neglect them for Christian service.” In describing his own salvation, he writes, “I knew for the first time that I had a Friend at hand who was able and willing to help me through all the difficulties and complexities of life that I would meet.”

Does that sum up Grandfather’s relationship with the Lord? It’s hard to say on the basis of a mere 68 pages, but perhaps so. It’s certainly the dominant theme of his book.

My Father’s Faith

Dad was a comparative risk taker, joining the Royal Navy as a teen when he might have been exempted and subsequently coming to faith in Christ as a result, then relocating halfway across the world in his twenties and never looking back. Later, as a married man, he would move his family every few years in order to serve the Lord more effectively, including over three years abroad teaching the Bible. In this, he was very much unlike his stay-at-home father. I have come to believe his broader experience of the world and its Christian community probably broadened his view of God.

Dad taught me that every bit of love and unity we enjoy at church or at home proceeds from the love generated by another relationship entirely: that between the Father and the Son, which was the most important thing in the universe before mankind ever existed and would be if I had never been born. “Christ is God’s,” as Paul puts it. Dad made me passionate about Psalm 2, which has literally nothing to do with me personally, and taught me the principle that in studying scripture, we are very often reading other people’s mail. If it doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy, and if I can’t pull a proof text for the day out of my morning reading, it is no less important in the plans and purposes of God. I don’t see a hint of Dad’s personal detachment or enjoyment of God and Christ for their own sakes in Grandfather’s memoirs, which is not to say the concept was unfamiliar to him, but that it was either not relevant to his subject or not high on the list of spiritual truths he felt important enough to mention.

Where To From Here?

I am who I am largely through my father’s influence. To the extent I diverge from his practice or assumptions about scripture, it is probably for the worse, because Dad was always learning and growing, looking for a more exact understanding of Christ and a more faithful way to do his business in this world. He was adaptable in ways that surprised me, never fearing to ditch traditions that were merely traditional or habits that were merely habitual. In later life, I discovered he made a few enemies along the way because of it, for which I applaud him. He took his stands on scriptural principle as he understood it. On the rare occasions when he may have been wrong, he was wrong in good conscience, out of a desire to help others better understand the will of God.

Likewise, my grandfather would not have been who he was without his father, and my father would not have been who he was without his. We build on what we receive from prior godly generations.

My question is what have I passed on to the next one.

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