I Grew Up in a Print Shop

I was born on Inkerman Street in St. Thomas Ontario, a fitting street name for a printer’s son. In the seventies my father acquired a Gestetner 480 duplicating machine 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; it was later 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, and 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 offset 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 became an avid reader. I delivered newspapers. 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.

People of the Book, People of the Internet

Matthew and I joined our peers at the Minister’s house after church on Sundays. We grew up together. At age eighteen we were getting ready to stand before the congregation and recite the Profession of Faith, a commitment to the church and its authority. The classes were pleasant social events with coffee and boterkoek (butter cake) and light discussion of the Nicene Creed, yet I developed a sick feeling as they went along. I worried how casually I had wandered into the faith, agreeing to believe.

My parents immigrated from the Netherlands to Canada after World War II. My father’s family was poor, surviving the war by collecting firewood and selling 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 center was the Reformed church, a branch of Protestants that broke from the Roman Catholics under Martin Luther and John Calvin. The church emphasized close reading of the Bible. Three meals a day closed with scripture. I met Matthew at the private Christian school, the “Dutch school” with all those young blond heads and blue eyes. The curriculum reinforced the Bible readings. Add two sermons on Sundays plus weekday youth groups and catechism classes, the children of Dutch immigrants became Bible scholars. We were a People of the Book.

Church members looked after each other, spirit and body. We bought milk from Van Ryn’s store, a car from Zylstra’s garage, and our house through Kielstra the real estate agent. When my father fell sick and could not work in construction, the church waived our tuition, hired him to print church bulletins, and sent a Christmas food box. There was a dark side, prejudice against outsiders: Catholics, blacks, gays. Still, in the war, Dutch families risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazis. The people were kinder than their politics and theology. If my upbringing was too restrictive it was also safe and loving.

The expression, “People of the Book,” is Islamic in origin, a community of Jews, Christians and other religions that follow scripture. It is not that they agree on scripture. Muslims follow the Quran, Jews the Torah, while Christians prefer their New Testament. They do agree in the ideas of a single sacred book, one God, and one true people.

As the Profession of Faith classes neared their end I wondered if I could stand before my people. Did I belong? Matthew did not share my doubts. I asked the Minister for personal time but I could not frame my questions and he could not help. I watched from the pews as Matthew made his Profession with the others.

Today I am a happy atheist — happy not to worry about the fate my soul, content to live by a practical morality of love and service to others, and satisfied to find meaning in the small stories of life.

From the distance of decades, it seems no surprise now that I dropped out of the church. Calvinism is a stern theology. Its main five points are represented by the acronym TULIP, the Dutch flower. “T” stands for “Total depravity,” people are born in sin and must be saved. “U” is for “Unconditional election,” the idea that God has already picked those who will be saved, while the rest are bound for hell. There it is, the exclusive club, written right into the belief system. “L” for “Limited Atonement,” Jesus died only for club members. Not what I remember hearing in church. “I” for “Irresistible Grace;” God calls everyone but the “elect” receive a special call. The fifth and last letter, “P” refers to “Perseverance of the Saints;” salvation cannot be lost, club membership is good for eternity. Calvinism is not a flowery religion. (2017-09-14 I guess I just wasn’t one of the lucky ones picked for the club.)

If the theology is objectionable, why not join a more open church? When my own children were young my family joined the United Church. This church is enlightened. We baptized our children, not because God requires it, but as a symbol of fellowship with the church community. We partook in communion without making a Profession of Faith. The way the pastor explained it, church rituals were a step toward faith, not conditions to prove it. Openness notwithstanding I did not believe the literal Bible story. I would translate it in my head into a human message of hope. A few years later we moved away and did not join another church.

The Book imprinted on me deeply. As a high school student in English class, I caught the Eden symbolism of the two rivers in A Separate Peace. Movies and dance were forbidden so I always read, increasingly straying into divergent material, The Catcher in the Rye or On the Origin of the Species. In university I always signed up for essay courses of a philosophical bent. In graduate school I published a book, Slow Reading, about the benefits of reflective reading. For a long time I remained a Person of the Book.

Last Christmas Matthew moved into my city and we caught up the years over coffee. Matthew founded a faith-based research group. I told him that I am an atheist. He joked about not having enough faith to be one. I became an information technology consultant. He mumbled something about having people who install software for him. So do I, and I brushed it off, but it piqued a question. Did technology make a difference?

Religion prefers the Book. Books are generally written by a single author, an authority to which the reader is expected to submit. The chapters are organized into a hierarchy, a table of contents through which truth is linearly revealed. Religion and books share a top-down world view, one in which certain people and selected ideas are ranked higher than others.

After I left the church I kept reading books, searching for a deeper truth, in philosophy, in science, and in literature. I read my way to the end of books and onto the Internet. I was a teenager in the eighties when personal computers first became available. I was a natural, learning to program from a book, later searching the Web while building websites. The Internet extended my brain. Websites are different than books. Readers and writers co-create content that is constantly being remixed and reorganized by a shifting web of links. The Internet comes from a bottom-up world view, a diverse global village. It is said that information technology changes the way we think. It might also change the way we believe. Atheists are a minority but this is changing, especially among millennials, the digital natives, the People of the Internet. I am a digital immigrant, a Person of the Internet.

The Signal of Truth Seems More Like Music

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.

“An empathy wall is an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can be make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances” — Arlie Russell Hochschild

An empathy wall is an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can be make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances.

— Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right