Richland ARP recently had a "movie night" which featured the 2017 release, "Calvinist." For the small crowd on hand, there were favorable responses. But we live in a world with differing views on almost everything. It seemed fitting to provide some sort of "balance" to the topic. However, some of the "anti-Calvinist" offerings often degrade into a series of scriptures and questions that often construct a "straw- Calvinist" none of us really know. Although lengthy, the following reviews are fair and insightful...
"After Darkness, Light?"
Review (#1) 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."
"Movie "Review": Calvinist"
Review (#2) by Lucus Dorminy
"CALVINIST is the brand new documentary created by Les Lanphere of The Reformed Pubcast (podcast show) and co-creator of the popular Facebook group, The Reformed Pub. The documentary catalogues the “resurgence” of the American phenomena that is New Calvinism and its seemingly quick acceptance among young evangelicals. These young people would later be dubbed the Young, Restless, and Reformed (YRR).
I do want to preface this review with the fact that half (maybe more) will be my thoughts on the movement itself rather than the movie. There really isn’t much to critique about the quality of the movie or the content arranged within it, but there is quite a bit to say about New Calvinism as a whole. After all, isn’t that one of the points to having this type of documentary, to spark interest and debate.
As a product of the YRR movement, I thought it fitting that I give this documentary a watch as a bit of a nostalgia piece. Mr. Lanphere was quick to point out in an interview done on the podcast Popcorn Theology that the documentary was meant to pay homage to the YRR demographic that makes the majority of The Reformed Pub Facebook group, a sort of “love letter”, if you will. I found it to be exactly as he described it.
Before getting into any of the nitty-gritty of the movie, I want to point out how well-made this film is. From what I had gathered from interviews that Les had done, he was pretty much the sole film-maker for this project, with the exception of a few volunteers every now and again. This is a big deal. He did most of the filming, scoring, animation (which was a lot), and editing all by himself. Even without this in mind, he did an amazing job, and it is such a relief to see Christians actually making good art. The quality of the film was top-notch.
Not only was it visually pleasing, but I felt like the pacing of the movie moved the viewer along very well. Unfortunately, I had to make this watch a two-day endeavor, but I didn’t feel that the movie dragged or lost cadence all that much. The pace remained consistent throughout. Interestingly enough, I found that there was a definite pattern that shaped the film. While taking notes during the movie, I noticed a chiastic structure that I thought was worth noting. It is loose, but it is most certainly there, and it is easy to see what the focus of this film is:
A. Great Commission
B. Anti-ecclesial movement – Billy Graham
C. Emergent church vs Resurgence
D. Word and Reformation
D’. Historicity of Reformation theology/ Banner of Truth
C’. John Piper/Christian Rap vs Mark Driscoll Failings
B’. Call for ecclesial reformation
A’. Great Commission
As you can see from the chiastic structure above, the TULIP acronym is at the heart of the film, but it is interestingly bookended by the Great Commission of Matthew 28. I think this is a fair encapsulation of the New Calvinist movement. The focus has always been evangelism with the doctrines of grace as the engine driving it all. Virtually every sermon I listened to by a Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, Francis Chan, John Piper, et al. was an evangelistic rallying cry focused on re-evangelizing nominal Christians or otherwise converting unbelievers using the doctrines of grace as a mechanism to move one’s heart to repentance. To be honest, the New Calvinist movement, to me, was a third Great Awakening (only with Calvin’s soteriology). It was Billy Graham’s gospel-preaching with a new face and confessionalism to stand on.
As a New Calvinist, this is what the church was to me: an evangelism center. This, of course, is a criticism of the movement in general, but if you were to walk into a church shaped by the Resurgence™ of Calvinistic doctrine in the years 2008-15, you would see a church with a worship band playing three or four songs, a prayer or two, and a 45min- 1 hour long sermon about justification by faith alone (or similar). While the film takes aim at the anti-ecclesial movement of Billy Graham’s Crusades, the depth and richness found in New Calvinist doctrine did not produce much more than longer, exegetical preaching about the doctrines of grace and possibly a little bit more doubt thrown in for good measure.
I don’t want to be overly critical of the movement because it has produced much fruit throughout the kingdom of God. It brought nominal Christians back to a time period apart from the 1950s “easy believism” of their parents and transported them to the Protestant Reformation of the 1550s. By rooting one’s self in a historical movement, one can begin to rediscover teachings that have since been lost or dormant. However, I thought the movie failed to produce any sort of evidence for the claim that New Calvinism is rooted in the historical church besides listing confessions of the Protestant Reformation. There is a 1500 year gap of church history that is overlooked. In order to prove New Calvinism’s historicity, Les starts to list historical figures throughout church history that held to the doctrines of grace, but he starts with St. Augustine (4th cent.) and then jumps immediately to John Wycliffe (14th cent.). That sort of jump neglects 10 centuries of Christian theology. I found this to be either an editing error or, quite possibly, just a prioritization decision.
There were a couple of other moments like this that left me with a brief head scratch. An example would be the small attack on the Latin translation of the New Testament (Latin Vulgate) which laid the claim that the Latin text did not go back to the original Greek manuscripts. Or, perhaps the most frustrating jab was when Ligon Duncan (?) simply stated that St. Thomas Aquinas believed one’s rationalism transcended one’s self to a position where they could believe the gospel and repent of sin. This is a simplistic understanding of Aquinas’s views of faith and reason. In fact, throughout the Suma Theologica, Aquinas assumes Augustine and Anselm’s presupposition, “credo ut intelligam” – I believe so that I may understand. Little things like that poke at my theological nerves, but I don’t think it took away from the goal of the film.
Throughout this documentary, one of the constant themes is returning to the Word. This is a wonderful aspect of New Calvinism, but it can also become a snare. While returning to the Word of God as the ultimate authority of faith and practice is, of course, a good thing, the over-correction of the New Calvinists ended in the almost complete neglect of the sacraments so cherished by the Protestant Reformers. Just read through Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and one can’t ignore the overwhelming emphasis of Word and Sacrament. The sacraments are not just appendices to the Christian life, but in New Calvinism they are hardly mentioned beyond the definition of “visible words”. The issue with that definition is there is no room for an act since words are only viewed and thought upon, not used for washing or eating. Word apart from sacrament is deficient, and sacrament apart from Word is ineffectual.
T.U.L.I.P.The five points are at the heart of this work, and this is to be expected. Later in the film you can hear various theologians discuss the importance of moving beyond the five points to a deeper understanding of the Reformed faith and ecclesial life. However, the five points were the highlight of the film because of the importance of soteriology in the Reformation debates of the late medieval church. The five points are as follows:
Perseverance of the Saints
The wonderful “T.U.L.I.P. timer” helped one keep track of where one was throughout the segment. The animations and cut-scenes were really helpful to pace the film and keep one interested. Now, as far as content during this section, I left (even after believing these five points) asking more questions than saying “Amen”. For example, the Limited Atonement segment left no room for the doctrine of apostasy that Calvin clearly taught in his Institutes. If the blood of Christ is only applied to those whom our Father chose for eternal salvation, what of the offender in Hebrews chapter six? How can one trample underfoot the Son of God (Heb. 10) if the Son is never given to him? Having a category for this person does not negate the doctrine of Limited Atonement, and John Calvin knew this.
More questions arose during the Irresistible Grace section. The ordo salutis was heavily pushed in this part. The doctrine of “union with Christ” is picked apart and segmented into a chronological timeline. This is good for systematic theologians, but biblical theologians (those who practice “biblical theology” rather than systematics) tend to avoid such cutting and pasting.* An even bigger question that was sparked from this conversation was in regards to the doctrine of regeneration and it’s priority in the ordo salutis. I have pushed back a little on the metaphysical “nature” of regeneration here, if you wish to take a look. I don’t feel the need to jump into that but only offer another Reformed view for consideration.
Yes, the New Calvinist movement was a great thing that helped so many young men and women understand the sovereignty of God in salvation, but that should only be the beginning of Reformed theological inquiry. The Reformed tradition is much broader than Calvin’s five points, and the church is much richer than we could have ever imagined. To Les’s credit, this is the direction he turns us to at the conclusion of his documentary.
This may not be the “review” you are looking for, and I have so much more I could say about the topic of Calvinism, but I am really thankful for works like this. No, it wasn’t everything I had hoped for in a Reformed documentary, but it wasn’t supposed to be. It was a “thank you” to some great men who sparked theological interest in thousands of young and restless men and women. For this we must give thanks.
I loved how the film concluded. Les ended it with a call for ecclesial and confessional fidelity, a call for men and women to trust the local church and the Holy Spirit’s work through history. This call cannot be given enough to my generation who, for so long, rejected any sort of authority outside our own heads. New Calvinism can make an even greater impact by trusting the Godly wisdom of these good men, serving our local churches and communities, and worshiping faithfully every Lord’s Day.
For all of my seemingly petty complaints about this film, I found it to be a great encouragement for the Church. And, Les, if you are reading this, ignore my critiques of the movement and know that you created a great “thank you card” on behalf of the YRR generation for the good and faithful men that helped us to see how great our God really is."
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