Untimely Observations

Evidence of Non-Wimpy American Christianity

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Calvin is Back
The Christian Science Monitor

By Josh Burek


Welcome to the austere – and increasingly embraced – message of Calvinism. Five centuries ago, John Calvin's teachings reconceived Christianity; midwifed Western ideas about capitalism, democracy, and religious liberty; and nursed the Puritan values that later cast the character of America.

Today, his 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.

Twenty-something followers in the Presbyterian, Anglican, and independent evangelical churches are rallying around Calvinist, or Reformed, teaching. In the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant body, at least 10 percent of its pastors identify as Calvinist, while more than one-third of recent seminary graduates do.

New Calvinism draws legions to the sermons of preachers like John Piper of the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Here at CHBC, the pews and even rooms in the basement are filled each Sunday, mostly with young professionals. Since senior pastor Mark Dever brought Calvinist preaching here 16 years ago, the church has grown sevenfold. Today it is bursting at the stained-glass windows.

Yet the movement's biggest impact may not be in the pews. It's in publishing circles and on Christian blogs, in divinity schools and at conferences like "Together for the Gospel," where the rock stars of Reformed theology explore such topics as "The Sinner Neither Able Nor Willing: The Doctrine of Absolute Inability."

"There is a very clear resurgence of Calvinism," says Steven Lemke, provost and a professor at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.>The renewed interest arrives at a crucial inflection point for American religion. After reviewing a landmark opinion survey last year that showed a precipitous decline in the number of people who identify themselves as Christian, Newsweek declared ominously that we may be witnessing "the end of Christian America."

In some ways, Newsweek may have understated the shift. Five hundred years after Martin Luther posted his 95 theses challenging the Roman Catholic Church, some religion watchers see not just a post-Christian America but an unraveling of the Protestant Reformation itself. Their alarm is rooted in surveys that show a watering down of Christian beliefs.

Now come the New Calvinists with their return to inviolable doctrines and talk of damnation – in essence, the Puritans, minus the breeches and powdered wigs. Is this just a moment of nostalgia or the beginning of a deeper revolt against the popular Jesus-is-our-friend approach of modern evangelicalism? Where, in other words, is Christianity going?

The Monitor alludes to Max Weber's Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism, but I don't think this Calvinist resurgence is unrelated to the economic downturn. Historians may one day look back upon the hokey, Megachurch, personal-Jesus Evangelicalism that emerged in the American South and heartland as a religious manifestation of the last credit bubble. According to Joel Osteen, if you have enough faith in God, He'll make it so that you "live in victory" and "above your circumstances," which for many in the post-industrial, financialized Anglosphere, meant that if you believed hard enough, your new house might go up 25 percent next year. A religion, Christianity, that was once about God's sacrifice of his son for the sins of humanity, became instead a kind of therapeutic, self-esteem creed. Forget the afterlife and damnation, "live your best life now!"

Now that the great home-equity line of credit has been retracted, serious Christian will rediscover the austere virtues of hard work and saving. The remainder of the Evangelical movement that ensured the election of George W. Bush to two terms, and promted NPR liberals to speculate about the rise of a fascist theocracy, might end up following Rick Warren into Obamaland.

Here's a taste of that Old Time Religion, which has hopefully gone the way of sub-prime mortgage. Says Pastor Joel, "You are extraordinary, just like everyone else."