In Defense of Hybrids: in Installments

by Tom Tredway

Part I My first year at North Park (when dinosaurs still roamed the banks of the North Branch) I spent a lot of time trying to figure out which was worse: not being from Minnesota or not being pure Swedish. In those days to be a mongrel was cause for self-doubt and maybe even a touch of shame. When I got to Augustana after two years at North Park (then a junior college) with my Associate of Arts degree in hand, I discovered it was OK not to come from the Land of Sky Blue Waters, but that it was still a shame not be 100% Swede. Never mind that the Swedish royal family was French (and peasant to boot) or that pushing blond blue-eyed purity had pretty much been discredited during the Second World War.

Well, half a century later it turns out that it’s acceptable to be a hybrid. The winner of the 2000 U.S. presidential election told us to go out and buy hybrid cars—part gas, part electric. He even won a Nobel Prize from the Swedes for saying so. And the winner of the 2008 election (who even got to be inaugurated) is himself a hybrid of Kenya and Kansas. So now, in the first decade of the third millennium, it’s sort of “in” to be of mixed descent. We live in a country whose fields are planted with hybrid wheat and corn and whose White House is occupied by a family of mixed racial heritage. We drive hybrid cars (if we can afford them). And mongrels, such as many of us are and which many of us adopt from kennels, it seems, are said to be stronger and tougher than purebreds. I think of a colleague of pure Scando-stock who, discovering that his daughter had decided to marry an Italian-American, sighed wistfully, “Well, maybe the blood line needs some refreshing.” Or the Moline coffee club (also pure Nordic) at the Hasty-Tasty whose members are still wrestling with the fact that the Scandinavians are socialists, but one of whose members was overheard last week wondering whether maybe America could learn something from Swedish politics. People can still baptize their kids Helga-Sonja or Knut-Olaf if they want to, but history seems to be moving in the direction of the Dag-Marios or the Johanna-Fatimas. We live in a time of hybrids; and politics, economics, culture itself, are being mongrelized.

Now that may have religious implications. When I got to North Park, age eighteen, I felt I was finally in a place where I could get it all figured out, acquire a complete Christian world view and go forth, armed and ready-to-serve. There were people there who fed my inclination, and there were also others, who let me know they thought I was naïve. Augustana had both types as well. They offered pure Lutherans who looked on Covenant types as persons to be first pitied and then educated. The educating would come particularly through the “Department of Christianity” in which you had to take a course each of your undergraduate years. (It was years later re- or de-christened the “Department of Religion.”) There were a few others as well who allowed that Lutheranism was in the end only one expression of the Christian Faith rather than synonymous with it. One gloomy Rock Island March morn it dawned on me that these two institutional kissing-cousins, Covenant Pietism and Lutheran Orthodoxy, had much in common, but that if you took the claims of their purest and strongest advocates seriously, both could not be completely true. If the Covenant view of baptism was correct (infant or adult, either acceptable), then the Lutheran insistence on infant baptism only was off a bit. Or if the Lutherans were right that non-Lutherans should not be allowed in Lutheran pulpits, maybe they had some truth that nobody else had figured out, and I shouldn’t be listening to Covenant sermons in the first place. (I’m sure anyone reading this is already cranking up a protest, and I know the Editor-in-Chief is always glad to get letters.)

In any case, the point I want to make is that it is time to consider the possibility of hybridizing our religious outlook(s) as well as our cars and our government. If we assume that our theological or religious positions are, after all, only our own feeble attempts to understand our lives and our place and fate in the mysterious universe, then we ought to be constructing them out of whatever meaningful elements we find at hand. We can decide after careful consideration which of them are, so far as we see it, valid. There is, in fact, one such hybrid world view that has over the past few decades recommended itself to me, and in the next issue of Pietisten I want to set it out on the back porch and see if the raccoons come sniffing around. Stay tuned, if for want of anything better, you can find the time to read some navigational-historical ruminations. Like Charles Dickens and Flash Gordon, this column is being serialized. Profundity is forthcoming—in installments.

Tom Tredway is President Emeritus of Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

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