The Holland I Never Knew

A first-generation Dutch Canadian wrestles with her religious history in the land of her ancestors

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Published in United Church Observer in March 2016

The most important piece of art from my childhood was an 1866 Dutch print titled De Brede Weg en de Smalle Weg (The Broad and Narrow Way). It hung in my Oma and Opa's dining room and was a vivid rendering of the contrast between worldly pleasures and virtuous living. I would stare at it for long periods of time, examining the two options.

On the one side was a humble uneven path dotted with a preacher's tent, pilgrims carrying parcels on their backs, windows and children, a cross and a healing fountain, all leading to a golden palace encircled by ten angels blowing trumpets.

On the other side was an expansive paved street lined with a theatre, dance hall, pawnshop and lottery table. Beautifully dressed women carried parasols and glamorous couples danced in each other's arms. A group of men raised glasses of ale at an outdoor patio.

There were clear signs of trouble on this carnal course - the tiny image of a man hanging by his neck outside the pawnshop, someone pulling a knife on an unsuspecting traveller, an agry man whipping his donkey. In the far distance was a battle scene and, beyond that, a city engulfed in fire with bodies falling into the flames. Black angels circled ominously above.

I fixated on the two small bridges at the top of the picture that connected the paths, offering a last chance to cross from one side to the other, thus avoiding the fiery Armageddon. In my child's mind I was already hedging my bets, calculating how I could experience a bit of the worldly life, then a quick right turn and, bingo, I'd be with the angels.

This picture epitomized my theological education as I scanned, Where's Waldo-style, the dozens of characters in this moralizing tableau, all annotated with Bible verses in tiny type. In the Canadian Reformed Dutch community in which I grew up, it seemed the narrow way, which glorified suffering and simplicity, was the only way to salvation. All other roads led to hell.

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