Review: Calvinist (2017). Director: Les Lanphere. 87 min. Not Rated (but suitable for all audiences)
Review by Benjamin M. Guyer
The March 23, 2009, issue of Time listed “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” Among these was “The New Calvinism.” The 2017 documentary Calvinist tells one version of this story by looking at how young American evangelicals began embracing Calvinism in the late 1990s. Calvinist is aesthetically elegant in every way, mixing 8-bit graphics with digitally (but lightly) filtered visuals and a compelling musical score. Calvinist tells viewers how New Calvinists see themselves, and how they want other Christians to see them, too.
The film opens with a remarkable (and, frankly, unbelievable) historical narrative. In postwar America, Billy Graham made the message of Jesus’ atoning death central to American evangelicalism. However, this led to the neglect of all other doctrinal matters, which resulted in evangelicals losing their spiritual direction and vitality in the 1980s. The narrator tells us that evangelicals were complacent and afraid of offending others; the documentary shows clips of televangelists to reveal the extent of evangelicals’ alleged moral decadence. What was a young Christian in the 1990s to do? At 7:50, the narrator informs his viewers, “This is the story of a generation — my generation.” Upon his discovering Calvinism, he explains, “We fell in love.” Lanphere believes that his audience will, too.
Calvinist is a visual tract intended primarily for American evangelicals unaffiliated and possibility unfamiliar with the movement. Its first ten minutes make clear that the New Calvinism did not come from within historically Calvinist churches (e.g., the Presbyterians), but from within the much larger melting pot of American evangelicalism. This raises an important question. Is the New Calvinism anything other than the result of American evangelicals cherry-picking their way through Calvinist history?
Much of the film is an exposition of New Calvinist doctrine as related through the five points of Calvinism, classically summarized with the acronym TULIP (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints). Perhaps reflecting its often-grudging but undeniable genesis in American evangelicalism, the film contains no discussion of Church order, the sacraments, the wider Church catholic, or any number of other issues that Calvinists (and most other Christians!) have traditionally devoted their time to studying and discussing.
One such absence is political theology. With its evident indifference to the aforementioned theological topics, the New Calvinism is, in many ways, just another version of American evangelicalism. But as the documentary develops, an important difference emerges.Calvinist tends to denigrate all things American, revealing the New Calvinists to have a difficult relationship with the right-wing political culture that developed within (and, sometimes, because of) postwar American evangelicalism. Whenever America is mentioned in the documentary, the reference is critical.
In its evident cynicism about civic participation and belonging, the New Calvinism is not only closer to the contemporary American left, but far from its namesake. The earliest Calvinists cultivated a politics both apocalyptic and patriotic, even to the point of endorsing revolutionary violence. If this documentary is a fair representation, then the New Calvinists have nothing to say about citizenship. They do not even offer an exhortation to Christian service. Perhaps ironically, it is difficult to imagine a more deified and self-satisfied form of American individualism than this.
Evangelicals might find the New Calvinism appealing for two reasons. First, it makes sense of Scripture. If being inundated with scriptural soundbites is equivalent to making an effective theological argument, then New Calvinists will win every time.
Second, and in a curious sort of way, the New Calvinism strives to comprehend suffering, the most difficult of human experiences. Since the 16th century, the Calvinist deity has decreed salvation and damnation by fiat; what is this if not a fundamentally tragic theology? Following this conviction, the film unflinchingly declares that God is not interested in human happiness. The New Calvinism therefore comprehends suffering neither by explaining nor by ameliorating it, but by declaring it irrelevant.
By denying that we are what we experience, the New Calvinism mirrors ancient Stoicism and traditional Buddhism. All three teach that in the face of every contingency, we must strive for a self-mastery not defined by present circumstances. In Stoic terminology, the goal is ataraxia (Greek for impassivity). New Calvinists aim for the same, albeit without Greek terminology. Perhaps surprisingly, this does not become an excuse for personal indifference or passive living, but for the opposite. The New Calvinism is a call to conscious living. At the conclusion of an extended discussion of divine disinterest in creation’s suffering, the New Calvinist preacher John Piper is shown telling his church, “Don’t waste your life!” Perhaps this is cruel; the New Calvinists believe it is effective.
Inconsistent with this theme is the documentary’s pervasive concern with racial reconciliation. Calvinist features multiple African Americans. Shortly before it concludes, the musical artist Shai Linne says that Reformed theology has historically been associated with the rich and powerful, rather than marginalized groups. He believes that minority perspectives are necessary. But is a God uninvested in our happiness even concerned with such matters? Why should he be? And why should his followers, who care only for their own salvation, be concerned with the suffering or struggles of others? If God does not care about our happiness, it is more consistent for the New Calvinist to emulate the same, rather than work to rectify one or another contingent but oppressive (or even destructive) realities.
The documentary may prove thought-provoking or even inspiring for those already converted to the New Calvinism, but as one watching from outside the movement, I am perplexed by such contradiction. How does one coherently endorse both divine indifference and racial reconciliation? In this, at least, the “new” Calvinism is much like the old, for it remains a religion of divine disjuncture. Calvinists’ early and violent oppositions to monarchy, episcopacy, and ritual were explicit denials that anything earthly might intimate or even reflect more heavenly splendors and archetypes. Calvinist’s tragic theology borders, at best, upon intellectual incoherence.
Other criticisms are in order. First, where are the women? The only woman who appears is Summer White, cohost of the podcast Sheologians. The New Calvinism has ties to the Biblical Manhood and Womanhood movement, which holds that the Bible mandates distinct roles for men and women (proponents calls this view complementarianism). However, the film gives no place to complementarian theology, and White’s presence pushes, albeit gently, against the conviction of some New Calvinists that women should not even participate in theological study. Perhaps Lanphere ignored this issue for strategic reasons, wishing to avoid a divisive issue in the New Calvinist world. But if so, this mitigates the general preference of New Calvinists for declaiming perceived truths irrespective of tact, impact, or other social considerations.
Second, the generational emphasis that opens the film is one of its less attractive features, not least because it is simply wrong. Lanphere’s experience does not stand for that of a generation, although the film correctly identifies a singular historical catalyst in the development of the New Calvinism. The rise of the Internet in the 1990s is central to the story told here. The IMDb synopsis reads,
When a generation finds the theology and practice of the modern church wanting, they turn to the internet for answers. An investigation into the roots of the reformation reveals a theology that challenges everything they thought they knew about Christianity.
The Internet has unexpectedly bequeathed new life to all sorts of once-marginal ideologies, and their various converts tend to share the confident conviction that their rapid growth today will continue tomorrow. Of course, only time will tell. For now, I suspect that New Calvinists’ self-congratulatory indulgences are, at best, generationally myopic.
Third, on several matters of historical fact, the film too often errs. Post tenebras lux (after the darkness, light) was not the motto of the Reformation. Thomas Aquinas lived in the 13th century, not the 12th. The Scots did not attend the Synod of Dordt. (Walter Balcanquhall, a convert to the Church of England, was the only Scottish member of James VI’s otherwise English delegation.) It is sheer nonsense to claim that in the 1980s, amid the rise of the Religious Right, evangelicals feared offending their fellow Americans. Finally, by equating Roman Catholicism with Pelagianism, and Arminianism with Roman Catholicism, the documentary substitutes 17th-century theological invective for historical accuracy. In the end, Calvinist is hugely combative, and misleading to the point of being the worst sort of propaganda. This is very regrettable. But, in light of Calvinist history more broadly, it is also very predictable.
Nonetheless, I must confess: Lanphere has made his subject look interesting and attractive. Every New Calvinist youth group should own a copy and watch it often. I am fascinated by the documentary’s sincere appeals to history, and I am drawn to how New Calvinists frame their arguments as appeals to a tradition. Theirs is a far more interesting form of Christianity than you’ll find in the vast bulk of Anglican/Episcopal churches. It is less bourgeois but more honest, less concerned with politeness and more concerned with honesty, however abrasive. These people would be terrible at parties. But they might be enjoyable in small doses (and in small groups) over several rounds of beer. Because ours is an age of Internet-mediated resurgences, serious Anglicans may soon find that their primary debate partners are not the aging, granola-crunching Episcopal pantheists of today, but biblically invested and historically interested New Calvinists.
I think I might welcome the change.