1972 AACS Niagara Conference
Perspective Report by Robert Lee Carvill
What a conference! How can I describe the atmosphere of the 1972 Ontario AACS Conference — it was too big for words to cover. From Friday night, August 4th, to Monday afternoon, August 7th, 730 persons of every age, interest, colour, ethnicity, background and nationality gathered at Niagara Christian College near Fort Erie across from Buffalo, New York to drink in a weekend of study, singing, praise, relaxation, sharing and stimulation with the growing AACS community.
It was a gathering marked by new beginnings. New faces lectured as old standbys were given time off or re-deployed in other places, other conferences. The areas of popular music, science and technology, and literature were opened for scrutiny and reformation according to the Word of Life. Arie Leegwater , Bert Polman and Hugh Cook spoke at an AACS conference for the first time, and they did an excellent job of introducing an extremely diverse audience into their fields of insight, even to the proposing of viable Christian alternatives and tasks that needed doing. The false spirits of the American dream were confronted.
It was a conference that sang, and sang and sang choruses to the Lord. Around the campfire until late at night, before the lectures, in an all-out talent show, during a tremendous worship service, and even early in the morning during thundershower downpours. I tell you, this conference was attended by a joyful, singing people.
It was a conference that bought thousands — yes, thousands of books with biblical guidance and insight. There were books for little kids, books of meditation and practical wisdom for parents, and books giving Christian perspective on the studies of college students. Calvin Seerveld’s latest book of scripture translations and meditations, For God’s Sake Run With Joy, was just off the presses. Peter Schouls’ second Christian Perspective booklet, Insight, Authority and Power, was available. It was a conference that will change Iives because of all the reformationalIy Christian books that people bought to read.
Worship Was Wonderful
Sunday morning at 11 a.m. , Dr. Hart gathered up a volunteer chorus of about 75 persons, including musicians, singers, guitarists, children, These participants packed the large stage, and led about 800 people (including visitors for the day) in a wonderfully worshipful celebration of song and praise in anticipation of the return of the Lamb. Helen Breems, recruited on the spot, led this massive choir of voices as we raised our hearts in praise, exultation and hallelujah — and the Spirit of the Lord filled our presence. The singing was thunderously powerful, and the reading of Revelation rang in our hearts .
There was no sermon, but readings from the Book of Revelation. The second coming of the Lord was proclaimed and prophetically brought home to the People as Arnold DeGraaff gave preparations and Hendrik Hart led the congregation, reading through the poetic passages. Trumpet, drum and voice punctuated the service, and prepared us to hear more of God’s Word.
Part Two of the worship service was a Fellowship meal which we shared with our brothers and sisters; we remembered our liberation together by the Word of the Lord, and how the Spirit set us free.
Part Three of the service was one of response: praise, adoration, thanksgiving, admonition, witness and prayer were offered from all over the congregation.
If the worship gave us inspiration, the meat of the conference was in the lectures. We’ll just give you the high-points of the lectures here; please get the printed lectures when they appear next year as Christian Perspectives .
All in all this service was the high point of the whole conference, and we shall not soon forget it. We wish that all of you could have been with us as we sang, clapped our hands, played many instruments, and made a joyful noise of exultation before the Lord. It was a very moving, heart-moving affirmation of our hope and salvation in Jesus Christ, King of heaven and earth.
Artful Music for a New Creation
Bert Polman is a young man with an Abe Lincoln beard, immense sincerity , and an intense desire to teach North Americans the history of music on this continent from the perspective of the Way, the Truth and the Life .
On Saturday and Monday, Mr. Polman spoke on “Artful” Music in Paradise: the Paradox of American Popular Music. Popular music in America —including the 19th century traditions of gospel/revival hymns and parlor/minstrelsy music; and 20th century ragtime popular music, jazz and swing, and even rock and folk — show a tension, conflict and paradox between the American dream or ideals of natural simplicity, innocence, objectivity, non-culturalness, and the American reality of complexity, death, violence, cultural activity, etc.
Illustrating his two lectures with a multi—media show, tapes of different kinds of music, and with brief piano passages, Mr. Polman stressed again and again that the American desire to set up a timeless paradise has all too often led all Americans, including Christians, into an artless impasse. Formula music has again and again re— placed skill, experimentation. In this rather dark picture, there are a few rays of light, including the continuing traditions of Black music which were never accorded the complete acceptance of the American dream, and also some contemporary experiments in the post-Beatle, post-classical rock age.
Christians ought to find and write good texts as lyrics, Polman suggested by way of improvement of the Christian contribution to American culture. He encouraged his listeners to explore new instruments, to more closely harmonize text with music, and to experiment, experiment, “Don’t be afraid to become expert in new areas, or to try the untried!” he said.
For popular hymnody in our churches, he suggested that we go back to the tradition of the psalms and exploit the many different kinds of psalms for our worship and praise services. Worship needs more emphasis in its communal musical dimension, he said. We ought to seek more communal styles with music that encourages broad participation by everyone present. “Explore various styles,” he said. “Try anything from chant to soul; there’s no difference between sacred and secular, so use any music that seems appropriate — and redeem that which doesn’t.”
And above all he exhorted us to be artful in the creation of “good music for God, and for His people.” Mr. Polman’s lectures opened up the whole area of music for study and re-formation; the people greeted his talks enthusiastically; he showed beyond a doubt both the damaging effects of false spirits, and what our reformational responsibilities are as followers of Christ, the King of culture, including music.
“This is the Place”
On Saturday evening at the Niagara Conference, Hugh Cook, professor in American literature at Dordt College, gave a fascinating lecture entitled “The Rise and Fall of the American Dream: Notes on American Literature”. He traced the historical development of a key motivating force in American literature and civilization — the view of America as an actual geographical location where man could establish an ideal society. With the discovery of the new world, men saw the attainability of the dream and that “this is the place”. Always inherent in this dream were the ideals of an optimistic faith in progress and democracy.
Professor Cook described how the dream, beginning with the Puritan concept of “a new heaven and a new earth” which was to be “a Commonwealth together for all the people of Christ,” became increasingly secularized as time passed until, finally, America was merely considered a place for a materialistic “better, richer, and happier life” for “all our citizens of every rank”.
He explained how the Puritans’ identification of the image of God with man’s Reason gave rise to the deistic Enlightenment view of life. The new dream was best exemplified by the Declaration of Independence, in which all men were seen to have certain inalienable rights and to be ruled by the principles of Reason. The man-centered dream continued to be upheld by the Transcendentalists (such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman) , and the Pragmatists (James and Dewey) with some alteration. It was challenged by the Naturalistic writers (Crane, Dreiser, and London) who adhered to the Darwinian view of man as a “biotic pawn” in a menacing or impersonal universe. The counter-reaction was a 20th century neo-Romanticism, in which hope of the dream’s attainability was shattered by World War I, but tragic dreamers were eulogized and a naive faith in the common man and mass democracy persisted.
Cook concluded by explaining that even contemporary critics of the dream put their hope in some other humanistic ideal and that Christian criticism and alternatives to it have been woefully lacking. It was encouraging to hear a Christian philosophical critique of American literature presented, and hopefully this will inspire real Christian literary effort.
Dr. Arie Leegwater met up with a host of technical problems while giving his two lectures on the role of science in the rise of the Western society since the 17th century. A voice more attuned to classroom presentations than public lecturing to hundreds, a faulty loud speaker system, and intermittent downpours so loud that they blotted out his already faint voice— all plagued Dr. Leegwater’s delivery. Nevertheless, his thorough grasp of the demonic forces of the mechanistic world view, and of the technocratic spirit allowed him to break through and hold his audience.
“The Scientific Revolution: The Emergence of a Scientific World View” traced the historical development of the new religion of scientific certainty in the 17th century. Prophets like Francis Bacon led the rise of faith in scientific inquiry, especially in the mathematical and physical dimensions of reality.
Later on, this over-emphasis on mathematical method and mechanical scrutiny led to a reduction of all the natural sciences to mathematical and physical models which distorted a true understanding of the phenomena under investigation. There was a tendency to over-stress functional operations, and to completely neglect the analysis of individual types. Chemical bond analysis was reduced, for instance, to physical atomic models because scientists were blind to the God-given uniqueness of the chemical dimension of reality, placing their faith in the certainty of mechanistic analysis. Today the spirits of mechanistic and scientistic certainty are still with us in various disguises, Dr. Leegwater asserted.
“The Technological Revolution: The Technocratic Spirit at Work Today” showed how the present confidence in technological salvation has spawned the sciences of futurology and cybernetics. In a setting of close inter-relationship between scientific analysis of the structural regularities of creation and the technical out-workings of these discoveries in tools, processes, automation and computers, a new and frightening determinism has arisen to threaten the very possibility of humanity or individual freedom.
The earlier effort to control nature through autonomous human scientific investigation, lately wedded with technological formation, has emerged today, for example, in the disciplines of futurology and cybernetics.
Futurology is a combination of sciences pooling their empirical, mathematically quantifiable data so that alternative futures can be provided for politicians and other planners . According to Leegwater there is a strong tendency for futurologists to bless the status quo and to extrapolate the future on the basis of present attitudes and societal structures, overlooking any normative concepts through a pragmatistic reduction of humanity to manipulate pieces of logically correct bits for computer simulation.
Cybernetics is the science that studies feedback. In a dynamic process, sensors feed information back to machines that are able to correct their performance. Many scientists, like Norbert Wiener and B.F. Skinner, would like to see increasing control be exerted in human relations so the future can “at least partially be predicted.”
But where does this leave corporate and individual human choice and freedom? Precisely these horrifying trends have led the French Calvinist thinker, Jacques Ellul, to argue in his Technological Society that the only recourse for Christians is to individually oppose the technocratic juggernaut in a dialectical act of refusal through personal responsibility.
Although Dr. Leegwater sees with Ellul that the technocratic spirit’ could lead us into a frightening future far worse than even today’s developments, he doesn’t share Ellul’s pessimism or his acceptance of determinism as our lot. Why? Because, says Leegwater, “In the end the solution to the problem does not lie in taming technology, planning new strategies or preventing future shock. What has to be challenged is the technocratic spirit and the view of progress that it espouses. Despite some signs of critique and crisis, the present faith in progress via science, technology and economic growth is still directing Western society. If that faith continues to lead society, we can indeed expect the judgments of the Lord” .
What are we to do? “The task of Christians,” says Leegwater, “is to communally witness to the restoring and healing power of the Word of God for society. That witness will have to confront the technocratic spirit, however difficult it seems to tackle. We do not have the option of dropping out of society, nor is it an option to function as modern-day Luddites, violent opponents of the technological system, condemning technology and science as powers of the prince of darkness. We have to witness to the new creation of Jesus Christ, a new creation in which science and technology can properly have their legitimate places and be responsibly performed”.
A lively hour and a half discussion pursued in which the ways that this might be done were explored. Peter Steen from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania and Gerald Vandezande from Toronto presented provocative alternatives and points of departure from a biblical outlook.
A Time of Challenges
If there was one challenge that this latest Ontario conference brought to the fore, it was the one of how broad an audience can be served in an academic way. In 1969 when I first attended the Ontario AACS conference in Bolton there were hardly any people there over 30 years old. In fact, I was simply amazed that all the people were so young .
But in three short years all that has changed. Last year ‘s massive turnout at Delaware in western Ontario, and this year’s community-oriented conference in Niagara, call for new arrangements that will serve both the needs of university students and graduate scholars, as well as the needs for the fruits of biblically founded learning in the broader Christian community. The early Unionville days of exclusive scholarly analysis are gone forever. The popular needs of ever greater numbers of Christian kids and parents are yet to be adequately met. Something should be done to revive the earlier scientific precision for advanced students, while moving even into more popular territory for the families present .
Finally, perhaps there have been sharper, more scholarly lectures given at past Ontario AACS Conferences (this is now done at the seminars and graduate courses at the Institute for Christian Studies), but the Niagara Conference of ’72 will be hard to match for its spirit, its community, its joy, and its affirmation that the Kingdom of God is at hand , and that Jesus Christ calls us to occupy this earth by seeking first that Kingdom until He comes.