Marilynne Robinson: Christian, Liberal, Calvinist

I really enjoyed Robert Long’s piece in The American Conservative on Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson.  Not unlike the writings of cultural critics such as Wendell Berry or Christopher Lasch, Robinson’s work appeals to both liberals and conservatives.  Her respect for religious belief, tradition, rootedness, and duty tends to attract the attention of conservatives.  Yet she claims that she is a liberal Christian who grounds her faith in the teachings of John Calvin.

Here is a taste of Long’s article:

Calvin looms large in Robinson’s work: Gilead and its 2008 companion novel, Home, are surely the only bestsellers to hinge on a scene where a preacher ruminates about predestination. In her essays, Robinson presents Calvin as a Christian humanist—contrary to his stereotype as a cold-hearted theocrat—and his intellectual heirs as a vital corrective to our cheapened discourse.
As she tells TAC:
Something I find regrettable in contemporary Christianity is the degree to which it has abandoned its own heritage, in thought and art and literature. It was at the center of learning in the West for centuries—because it deserved to be. Now there seems to be actual hostility on the part of many Christians to what, historically, was called Christian thought, as if the whole point were to get a few things right and then stand pat. I believe very strongly that this world, these billions of companions on earth that we know are God’s images, are to be loved, not only in their sins, but especially in all that is wonderful about them. And as God is God of the living, that means we ought to be open to the wonderful in all generations. These are my reasons for writing about Christian figures of the past. At present there is much praying on street corners. There are many loud declarations of personal piety, which my reading of the Gospels forbids me to take at face value. The media are drawn by noise, so it is difficult to get a sense of the actual state of things in American religious culture.
Most Americans still call themselves Christians, but Robinson finds our politics afflicted by a debased and un-Christian view of ourselves. “We have forgotten that old American nonsense about alabaster cities, about building the stately mansions of the soul,” she writes in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. Instead, we “adopted this very small view of ourselves and others, as consumers and patients and members of interest groups.

Help, Mom! There are Arminians Under My Bed!

Yes, this appears to be the title of a children’s book written by a Calvinist pastor from a church in Sidney, Montana.

Over at his blog Moral Minority David Swartz quotes from one of the customer reviews:

We bought this for our three boys, Beza, Calvin, and Van Till! They loved every minute of this book! Buying this book will root my children in a holy fear of the Arminian heresy!!! The joy they got out of this book made me almost as happy as when little Calvin started quoting the Institutes, little Van Till argued for the existence of God by assuming He existed, and little Beza threw rocks at that Methodist kid in his class! I know that God has predestined them to great things!!! I am so proud of my three little supralapsarians!!!

Swartz thinks it is a hoax.  It just might be.

Eric Miller Reviews James Bratt’s Biography of Abraham Kuyper

Abraham Kuyper is famous for saying, “There is not a single square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: Mine!”  Today, those who follow his transforming vision of everyday life are often called “Neo-Calvinists.”  Many Neo-Calvinists have found an intellectual home at Calvin College and some of the other institutions who hold membership in the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. (For example, many faculty members at the evangelical Wheaton College have been deeply influenced by Kuyperianism).  Mark Noll once wrote that Kuyper “was as filled with noteworthy achievements as that of any single individual in modern Western history.”  Wow!

James Bratt, a member of the History Department at Calvin College, has written the first English language biography of the Dutch theologian, politician, and public intellectual.  It is titled: Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat.  Over at Christianity Today, Eric Miller offers a review of the book.  Here is a taste:

Kuyper was a progressive—and a disappointed one. Bratt notes Kuyper’s affinity with his American Presbyterian contemporaries, William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson. Both men also “wished not to overthrow the prevailing order but to humanize it.” In fact, when Kuyper came to the United States in 1898, he found himself both attracted and repelled. He found hopeful the open religiosity of American politics and politicians. But he disdained the unabashed materialism there. “Your capitalistic classes have too much power,” he told reporters. Decentralizing power and dispersing authority was his hope for a truly human life. 

Kuyper was stateside to give the Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary—later published as Lectures on Calvinism. He sounded what Bratt calls a “revolutionary proposal”: that, in Kuyper’s words, “all knowledge proceeds from faith of whatever kind,” and that “the person who does not believe does not exist.” It took some time to find its American audience, but Kuyper’s thinking on “worldview” would lay the foundation for the intellectual renaissance among evangelicals. 

By the turn of the century, Kuyper had spent decades distilling and developing these insights into a form that was impelling movement of all kinds—cultural, intellectual, political, social. From his teaching at the Free University (which he helped found in 1880 and where he taught until 1901) to his reporting and scholarly writing, he elaborated what Bratt calls his “enduring dream,” the hope of a Calvinism refitted for action on the world’s stage. Orthodox yet contemporary, it would transcend “mere dogmatic theology” to forge a “‘life system’ whose ‘root principle’ branched out into every domain of human life and learning.” Kuyper’s vision centered on grace: the special grace of salvation for the elect, and the common grace God elects to give to all. This is the grace that makes possible a full, culture-invading, culture-making witness.

David Barton and Louisiana College

Joe Aguillard

It looks as if there are a few colleges out there who are still supporting the historical work of David Barton.   Louisiana College appears to be one of them.

Some of you may recall that this college made news a couple of weeks ago when the president dismissed several faculty members for apparently teaching Calvinism.  (Louisiana College is a Baptist college, but apparently they believe that Baptist faith and Calvinism are not compatible.  I am sure Roger Williams, who many have described as the first Baptist in America, is turning over in his grave).

The Calvinism controversy at Louisiana has led to other criticisms of current president Joe Aguillard.

In a recent post at a blog called Faith on View, Louisiana College alumnus and former faculty member (and Teacher of the Year) Scott Culpepper describes an encounter with Aguillard over Barton’s interpretation of American history.

Here is a taste:

My first direct encounter with Aguillard’s style of managing subordinates came in the spring of 2009 when I voiced concern, first through a series of e-mail messages and then through a letter sent to leading administrators as well as select faculty members, about comments made by David Barton at the spring commencement.  Mr. Barton made several comments at the ceremony that were erroneous.  Not only students but faculty members seemed to be taking his false assertions as fact.  I had already communicated to the administration before the event Barton’s well known reputation for distorting facts and his nearly universal repudiation by Christian academics.  I requested that Aguillard allow us to present the other side of the argument for students and faculty who might be aware of Barton’s factual distortions.  The response was bizarre.  Dr. Chuck Quarles had also written a letter in which he echoed some of my concerns about Barton’s presentation.  Aguillard requested that his personal assistant, Joseph Cole, vet my letter and Dr. Quarles’ for factual accuracy because we probably “misunderstood Bro. Barton.”  Cole was a music major with no background in history who had not even completed his undergraduate degree.  Aguillard finally called me in for a rather strange conversation in which I tried to convince him with historical evidence that Barton was incorrect, and he responded by continually asserting that I would believe otherwise if I felt the spiritual vibe at Barton’s headquarters in Aledo, TX.  The meeting ended with Aguillard saying that he forgave me for my letter.  When I tried to diplomatically say that I stood by the letter and was not apologizing for its content, Aguillard said it would be best for my long term future at Louisiana College to forget about Barton.  I am still convinced that if Dr. Quarles had not been involved as well and I had not just been selected as Professor of the Year by the student body that spring that my treatment at  this time might have mirrored the ordeal that Rondall Reynoso endured two years later.

Culpepper, I might add, resigned his post last year, claiming that he “could no longer serve under Joe Aguillard in good conscience because his leadership contradicts the very core of the scripture he claims to defend.” He is now teaching history at Dordt College.

ADDENDUM:  After I scheduled this post I ran across Tommy Kidd’s post on the topic at The Anxious Bench.  Check it out here.

Woodrow Wilson’s Calvinism

Check out my colleague Dean Curry’s excellent review of Malcolm Magee’s What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy. (Baylor 2008).  Here is a taste:

Magee concludes that the tragedy of Woodrow Wilson “had more to do with Jerusalem than Athens. It was a tragedy of faith.” And so it was. The lesson of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency is not that Jerusalem has nothing to say to Athens in the realm of international politics; rather, it is that good intentions inspired by misguided theology can lead to disastrous foreign policy consequences.

The antidote to idealism of the Wilsonian sort is a deep knowledge of the contours of history, a keen understanding of the moral ambiguities that delimit human action in the “meanwhile” in which we live, and a commitment to honing the virtue of prudence in defining the purposes to which we direct national power. In short, Reinhold Niebuhr is not a bad place to start after all.

For those of you interested in some of the nuances of twentieth-century American Calvinism, Matthew Tuininga offers a slightly different perspective on Wilson.

The Historical Society Conference Recap

This past weekend I was in Columbia, South Carolina for the biennial conference of The Historical Society.  The focus of this year’s conference was “Popularizing Historical Knowledge: Practice, Prospects, and Perils.”  It was hosted by the University of South Carolina.

On Friday morning I chaired a session entitled “Religious History and the Public Imagination.”  Adam Brasich, a graduate student at Florida State working with John Corrigan, gave a presentation on the way Reformed Evangelical minister and author John Piper utilizes the legacy of Jonathan Edwards to promote his 12st century religious agenda in the same way that Jonathan Edwards used the life of David Brainerd to promote an 18th century version of evangelical Reformed piety. 

Charles McCrary, another Corrigan student at Florida State, lamented the way that the news media does not understand religion.  His paper focused on popular evangelical preacher Rob Bell and the response to his controversial book, Love Wins.  McCrary encouraged historians to bring historical thinking skills and responsible American religious history to bear on current events

Jason Wallace of Samford University traced the history of the way Americans have looked to the religious past to promote popular causes.  He suggested, rather controversially, that historians did not have much to offer the public in the promotion of a virtuous republic.

After lunch with friends–Jay Case, Beth Lewis-Pardoe, and Christopher Graham–I attended a very interesting session on “popularizing Andrew Jackson.”  Mark Cheathem of Cumberland University and Jacksonian America blog fame, offered a very entertaining paper on the way the contemporary play “Bloody Bloody” enlists Jackson in the cause of populism.  Cheathem questioned this appropriation of Jackson because it failed to account for his elitism and status as a wealthy planter.  (I could not help but ask him about the play poster and its possible connection to Springsteen’s “Born to Run” album cover).  Dan Allosso followed-up with a talk on some nineteenth-century letters of a New England family who settled the Old Northwest.

At 3:00pm, I sat on a roundtable entitled “The Perils and Promise of Popular History in a Digital Age.”  I was very happy to be included in this stellar lineup of historians who are committed to trying to reach the public through the Internet.

Yoni Applebaum started things off with a discussion of the “digital essay” (or what Dan Cohen has recent called the “Blessay“).  He discussed his work as a writer for The Atlantic and encouraged the audience to consider this kind of writing as a way of bringing history to larger audiences.  I told Yoni that his talk inspired me to try to do some more writing in this genre.

Christopher Cantwell introduced us to digital history through the exhibits he is helping to design at the Newberry Library.  Of particular note was an upcoming exhibit on religious pluralism in Chicago and his own work on the Pullman Digital Collection. Chris gave us a glimpse of what looks to be a very informative map of congregational life in the Windy City.  His talk got me thinking about some of our own digital humanities initiatives at Messiah College.  On the way to dinner we had a good chat about the world of digital humanities and Chris gave me some good suggestions for moving forward in this area.

When my turn came I talked a bit about The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  I shared how I got started in blogging and some of the “perils” and the “promise” of this kind of writing.

Finally, Beth Lewis-Pardoe of Northwestern University discussed her work as a blogger and a writer for the Inside Higher Ed blog “University of Venus.”  Beth’s talk was particularly insightful for those of us who are trying to write good history for popular audiences.  She shared the ease in which she is able to write popular blog posts and the difficult in using the same style of writing to make her scholarly work accessible.  I think that this is a struggle that many of us face, but I was disappointed that there was not more discussion of this during the Q&A.

I was only able to stay in Columbia for one day, but it was certainly worth the trip.  I left the South excited about the possibilities of doing a new kind of public history and public writing that brings the past to light for non-scholarly readers.

It was also great to meet so many people who, until now, I have only known through the Internet or e-mail.  This list includes Heather Cox Richardson, Dan Allosso, Mark Cheathem, Chris Beneke, Seth Bartee, and Yoni Applebaum.

My 8 hour ride back to Pennsylvania was less than smooth.  When I pulled out of Columbia on Saturday morning I realized that one of the tires on my rental vehicle was rapidly losing air.  Thanks to the good folks at Pope-Davis Tires in Blytheville, SC, the massive screw (see below) was removed, the tire patched, and I was back on the road in less than an hour.

By the time you read this post, I will be in Mount Vernon for the George Washington Book Prize dinner.

The Grand Rapids Intellectuals

The Calvinists of Grand Rapids, Michigan, informed by their Kuyperian (as in Dutch intellectual and politician Abraham Kuyper) view of the world, have been largely responsible for the revival of the evangelical mind.  Names like Marsden, Plantinga, and Wolterstorff come immediately to mind.  Many of these Dutch Calvinists taught at Calvin College and found an outlet for their ideas in a publication called the Reformed Journal

Now Eerdmans Publishing House, another product of this Grand Rapids intellectual culture, has published The Best of the Reformed Journal, edited by Calvin College history professor James Bratt and retired Calvin history professor Ronald Wells.  Eerdmans was gracious enough to send me a copy of the book, and though I have not read all the way through it, I can say that it offers an excellent introduction to this intellectual tradition within conservative Protestantism.  I was too young to be aware of The Reformed Journal during its heyday, so it is good to have some of its best essays in one collection.

John Schmalzabauer reflects on this book and the “Grand Rapids Intellectuals” generally, in a piece at Cardus.  Here is a taste:

Aside from Gerald Ford, can anything good come out of Kent County, Michigan? Not surprisingly, the answer is yes. More than any other group, the Grand Rapids intellectuals have played a central role in revitalizing conservative Protestant thought in North America. From the philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff to the historians George Marsden and Joel Carpenter, they have brought the insights of Dutch Calvinism into the halls of academia.

In an Atlantic cover story on the “opening of the evangelical mind,” sociologist Alan Wolfe credits Calvin College and the Christian Reformed Church. Historian James Turner concurs, citing the influence of neocalvinism on evangelical scholars. Both note the long shadow of Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper. No stranger to readers of Comment, Kuyper provided the intellectual framework for the North American Calvinist subculture. Anticipating the post-modern critique of scientism, Kuyper pointed to the role of presuppositions in shaping all inquiry. According to George Marsden, the “triumph of Kuyperian presuppositionalism” has energized Christian intellectual life by legitimating the presence of religious commitments across the disciplines.1

More than a disembodied set of ideas, Dutch neocalvinism was incarnated through a host of institutions that together formed the infrastructure of an intellectual renaissance. Thanks to William Eerdmans, Sr., and his nephew Pat Zondervan, Grand Rapids became a publishing Mecca for Christian scholars. Along with Kregel and Baker (another uncle-nephew publishing dynasty), Eerdmans and Zondervan served an expanding network of evangelical colleges. Chief among these was the Christian Reformed Church’s own Calvin College, a center for Christian philosophy and church history.

Witherspoon vs. Edwards on Moral Philosophy

As Joseph DiLuzio argues at the website of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s American Studies Center, Jonathan Edwards and John Witherspoon, two of the leading figures of 18th century American Calvinism, parted ways on the issue of moral philosophy.  His argument echoes much of what Mark Noll argued in America’s God and Princeton and the Republic, what Ned Landsman argued in From Colonials to Provincials, and what I argued in The Way of Improvement Leads Home and briefly in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

Here is a taste:

Despite the progress of the college during his tenure, I will argue in what follows that there was an inherent conflict between Witherspoon’s Scottish Enlightenment philosophy on the one hand and his Calvinist Presbyterian orthodoxy on the other.  Such incoherence did not characterize the thought of Jonathan Edwards.  Witherspoon was an epistemological optimist: he advocated an empirical approach to the study of ethics, believing “a time may come when men, treating moral philosophy as Newton and his successors have done natural, may arrive at greater precision.  It is always safer in our reasonings to trace facts upwards than to reason downwards upon metaphysical principles.”  In his Lectures on Moral Philosophy, Witherspoon teaches that “the principles of duty and obligation must be drawn from the nature of man,” though he concedes that “there is nothing certain or valuable in moral philosophy, but what is perfectly coincident with scripture” (Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon 1802: 3.470, 380, 471).

 In practice, Witherspoon ignored the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity, which states that original sin corrupts every aspect of the unregenerate person’s being – mind, body, and soul.  (It does not, as is popularly assumed, mean that the unregenerate person is necessarily as evil as he could be.)  Even those who have been saved by grace continue to be plagued by sin as God progressively sanctifies them.  As Paul writes to the Ephesians of his own formerly unregenerate state, “[we] were by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3). 

None of this is to say that the study of the (natural) moral sense is inherently incompatible with the tenets of Reformed theology.  Indeed, Jonathan Edwards promoted the study of the moral sense.  He claimed that all humans share a “natural conscience” that “should approve and condemn the same things that are approved and condemned by a spiritual sense” (Works of Jonathan Edwards 1974: 1.134, italics mine).  What distinguished the moral philosophies of Edwards and Witherspoon was their respective confidence in natural man’s ability to reason properly.  Edwards did not share Witherspoon’s optimism, and in this, he followed in the tradition of Augustine and ultimately of Paul.  In his letter to the Romans, the apostle admits that what can be known about Godis plain to all but that the ungodly suppress the truth by their unrighteousness: because of their disobedience, the unregenerate have become “futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:18-21).   

HT: Jonathan Rowe     

Evangelical vs. Liberal in the Pacfic Northwest

Over at Books and Culture, Matthew Sutton reviews James K. Wellman Jr.’s Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest.

Sutton’s review begins with a fascinating discussion of how conservative Reformed (Calvinists) Christians are taking over the town of Moscow, Idaho.

A few years ago I moved to the inland Pacific Northwest to take a position at Washington State University in Pullman. The university is located in a rich agricultural region known as the Palouse, which it shares with the nearby town of Moscow, Idaho, home of the University of Idaho. It did not take long for me to realize that something curious was happening in the area. New friends and colleagues warned me that the fancy French restaurant in downtown Moscow was run by members of a powerful “fundamentalist” sect. I was also admonished to avoid a particular coffee shop, also run by these religious fanatics. I was even more surprised to learn that the coffee shop housed a cigar lounge. A “fundamentalist” cigar lounge? (It has since been shut down by the passage of an anti-smoking ordinance).
My interest was piqued. Who were these dangerous fundamentalists who smoked cigars, indulged in French cuisine, and who were apparently determined to take over downtown Moscow? They were members of a local church affiliated with the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches, a small movement steeped in the classical reformed tradition. Like most evangelicals across the nation, they have taken stands against gay marriage and against female ordination. But unlike many other conservatives, they place significant emphasis on cultivating the life of the mind and on rigorous intellectual debate. To that end they have established a small college, also located (of course) on prime real-estate at the center of downtown Moscow.
A clash of Christian cultures has been brewing ever since. Liberal Protestants and their allies are facing off against the aggressive, entrepreneurial, community-oriented conservatives in the area. What is surprising is that in this tie-dye drenched, hippie-loving university town, best known for its thriving farmers market, co-op grocery store, and natural beauty, the conservatives are winning. And apparently Moscow is not an exception in the Pacific Northwest.
Read the rest of the review here.

Faith and Leadership Interview with George Marsden

Marsden reflects on Christian education, Jonathan Edwards, and Reformed spirituality.  Here is a taste:

Q: It seems that institutions driven by an explicit confessional Christian commitment provide reasons for being that are stronger than simply training people to make money.

That’s certainly true. A few years ago the retiring academic dean at Harvard, Harry Lewis, wrote a book called “Excellence Without a Soul,” talking about why he saw Harvard education as becoming empty, because it’s too much driven by immediate vocational interests, and competing interests and vocational interests of faculty; no one is thinking about holistic education.

Whereas higher education in the more evangelical frame has been driven by a vision of Christians as having a cultural task as well as evangelistic tasks, the idea that there should be an infusion of Christian principles throughout everything people do in their lives. It provides a coherence that a lot of people are seeing as lacking in the educational mainstream.

That has something to do with these schools doing relatively well with respect to growth in the last 15 years or so. Even though it costs a lot to send people to those institutions, parents and students recognize you’re getting the kind of education that people have traditionally imagined college should be about, that has some direction to it, some coherence to it. It’s not just a cafeteria of odd things that you might be interested in studying.

Calvinist Revival

In the early 19th century as Americans became more democratic, consumer-driven, and individualistic they turned away from the eighteenth-century Calvinism of their fathers and turned toward a free-will (Arminian) theology that fit better with the culture in which they lived.

This was a time of unprecedented choice. All men could vote for their choice of political candidates. Consumers were empowered to choose products and churches. And in religion, one could choose to accept or reject the gospel. If you didn’t want to get up from your seat and respond to the altar call during a Charles Finney revival you had the power to just say no to the gospel message he was preaching and stay seated. As Wilfred McClay put it in his Merle Curti Prize winning book The Masterless:

…the era was marked by the emergence of a restless, individualistic, egalitarian, wide-open, romantic, liberatory, antinomian, and anti-authoritarian spirit…All these elements seem to merge and coalesce into a heroic fantasy of boundless individual potential, a vision of personal infinitude that impatiently brushed aside the severe and impassible limits imposed by custom, by history, by the accidents of birth, or even by the venerable doctrine of original sin.

Calvinism was simply out of place in this era. It taught that the “restless” should find “rest in Thee.” It taught that the individual was only important in relation to the sovereign God who created him. God was in control–humans were not. The Calvinist God was an unwelcome symbol of authority in a democratic society teeming with self-interest and civil liberty.

Calvinism has taken a back seat to free will American religion ever since. But according to a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, old-fashioned Calvinism is making a comeback. It is appealing to Christians who are sick and tired of the kind of therapeutic, feel-good religion that places no demands on one’s life or fails to recognize the sinfulness of the world and the limits of this world:

Today, [John Calvin’s] theology is making a surprising comeback, challenging the me-centered prosperity gospel of much of modern evangelicalism with a God-first immersion in Scripture. In an age of materialism and made-to-order religion, Calvinism’s unmalleable doctrines and view of God as an all-powerful potentate who decides everything is winning over many Christians – especially the young.

Move over Joel Osteen. Here comes John Piper and Mark Dever.

More from the Christian Science Monitor:

By most logic, the stern system of Calvinism shouldn’t be popular today. Much of modern Christianity preaches a comforting Home Depot theology: You can do it. We can help. Epitomized by popular titles like Joel Osteen’s “Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential,” this message of self-fulfillment through Christian commitment attracts followers in huge numbers, At the same time, a strict following of the Bible, which Calvinists embrace, hardly resonates the way it once did in American society. The Barna Group, a California-based research firm, recently did a survey to find out how many US adults hold a “biblical worldview” – for instance, believe that the Bible is totally accurate, that a person cannot earn their way into heaven simply by doing good, that God is the all-powerful creator of the universe.

Marilynne Robinson and Calvinism

I am have been plodding my way through Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel Housekeeping. For whatever reason, I am having a hard time connecting with the characters and the novel as a whole. That is why I was glad to read Thomas Gardiner’s essay “Marilynne Robinson, Narrative Calvinist.” Gardiner explores the theological dimensions of Robinson’s writing in a way that has helped me make better sense of Housekeeping. Here is a taste:

For Robinson, Calvin’s theology centers on the belief that God has given individuals the ability to commune with and respond to him without the mediation of priests or bishops. “Perception is at the center of Calvin’s theology,” she observes; God willingly floods our senses with his grandeur in such a way that we can take it in and reflect it back, his glory “shining forth” as we participate in it. “It is as if we were to find a tender solicitude toward us in the fact that the great energy that rips galaxies apart also animates our slightest thoughts.” Think how elevated a vision of the human soul this is, Robinson suggests, and how far it is from how we often view ourselves.

At the same time, our ability to perceive God is deeply compromised. None of us sees clearly; indeed, none of us even desires to. All of us turn away from God’s presence, failing “to acknowledge what ought to be obvious,” Robinson writes, inclined instead “to indolence and selfishness, dishonesty, pride and error, cruelty.” She calls the notion of total depravity the “counterweight to Calvin’s rapturous humanism,” insisting that we can’t understand the one aspect of his thought without the other.

Working together, writes Robinson, these twinned elements of “our strangely mixed nature” mean that the passage of a soul “through the vale of its making, or its destruction” will be marked by halts and recoveries, each attempt to find meaning chastened by a recognition of limits. This almost exactly describes Ruth’s voice in Housekeeping, now traced to one of its sources…

How to Bring Your Calvinist Friends Some Christmas Cheer

Evangel” is the relatively new First Things blog written by evangelicals about evangelicalism. Its writers are mostly young evangelicals who I am not familiar with. This is clearly an “insiders” blog designed for those who know something about the evangelical sub-culture It is worth a look if you are interested in what thoughtful evangelicals (not an oxymoron) are thinking about today.

One of Evangel’s more prolific writers, John Mark Reynolds, has an entertaining piece on American Calvinists and the celebration of Christmas. He makes some references to Calvinist theologians and leaders that some of my non-Calvinist or non-evangelical readers may not recognize, but the post is still worth reading. Reynolds divides Calvinists between what he calls “Couric (as in Katie) Calvinists,” “cool Calvinists,” and “dour Calvinists.” His explanation of these categories are quite revealing and funny, but the real hilarity begins when Reynolds focuses on the so-called “dour Calvinists” and tries to bring them some Christmas cheer.

Reasons for Dour Calvinist Cheer:

I. . . . because God may not have chosen you for the team, but He did choose Al Mohler and John Piper and both guys are smarter individually than John Spong and the whole Anglican communion collectively . . . at least since the death of C.S. Lewis taken by God in the knowledge that John Piper and Al Mohler were on the horizon.

II . . . because Calvinists no longer have to ban Christmas

III . . .because Oliver Cromwell is still dead, but the Second Coming is one day closer.

IV . . . because the Pythons had heard of the Inquisition but ignored Servetus.

V. . . because you need only memorize TULIP and not something like POINSETTIA.

VI . . . . given her birthplace, there is a better than a fifty percent chance the Swiss Miss is a Calvinist.

VII . . . because you can have alcohol in your wassail and smoke cigars while reading Edwards.

VIII . . . because Wesleyan-types take the risks and make the converts, but when the converts hit middle-age Calvinists acquire them and their tithe.

IX . . . Rembrandt was Calvinist and El Greco wasn’t.

X . . . Francis Schaeffer may have worn knickers, but he never dressed like Benny Hinn.

Are the Roots of Modern Liberalism Christian?

There is some excellent discussion going on (you will need to scroll down a bit) over at The Immanent Frame on Nicholas Wolterstoff’s new book, Justice: Rights and Wrongs.

I have yet to read Wolterstorff’s book, but from what I can glean from this discussion and other reviews, he is arguing that the roots of justice and rights are not to be found in Greek or Roman civilization, the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, but in the Bible and the early church fathers.

Much of Wolterstorff’s argument is based on the scholarly work of political scientists John Witte Jr. and Brian Tierney, whose recent books are on my reading list as I work on my current project on Christian America.

I found the posts by John Schmalzbauer and James K.A. Smith especially interesting. Schmalzbauer discusses the ways that evangelicals have struggled to adopt “rights talk”:

…evangelicals regard “rights talk” as an alien language with little connection to Biblical faith. Raised in the evangelical subculture, I have experienced this attitude firsthand. During my undergraduate years at Wheaton College, one of my professors presented the class with a startling claim: human rights are a product of modern political thought and cannot be found in the Bible. At the time, I wondered how he could square this statement with the dozens of Bible verses proclaiming the rights of the poor. In Justice: Rights and Wrongs, Yale University philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff offers a devastating critique of the historical narrative employed by my professor.

Smith claims that Wolterstorff is promoting a “Whig Calvinism”–a Reformed version of the neo-conservative Catholicism associated with the late Richard John Neuhaus and his First Things gang. He concludes: “Wolterstorff…has unwittingly been assimilated to regnant paradigms in liberal political thought and is now “baptizing” them with a theological story.”

The posts by Schmalzbauer, Smith, and others are worth checking out in their entirety. I should also add the Wolterstorff responds to his critics.