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Calvinism in the Las Vegas AirportMaking Connections in Today's World
By Richard J. Mouw
ZondervanCopyright © 2004 Richard J. Mouw
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHARDCORE TULIP
I have been thinking about writing this book ever since I saw the film Hardcore. A movie with a title like that will not strike most folks as an obvious source of inspiration for some reflections on how to be a Calvinist in the twenty-first century, so I had better explain myself.
Hardcore was directed by Paul Schrader, who had graduated from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, just before I arrived there in 1968 as a new faculty member. Even though Schrader had gone off to do graduate study in film at UCLA, he was still being talked about much on the Calvin campus-and the commentary expanded to legendary proportions during the next seventeen years I served on the faculty. Schrader's very public rebellion against his religious upbringing had already been in full swing during his undergraduate years, a pattern that had disappointed the college community. But for all of that, they monitored his successes with obvious interest, as he moved from doctoral work in film studies at UCLA into the Hollywood limelight as a screenwriter and director. You could even detect a kind of embarrassed pride in us Grand Rapids folks-and I include myself here-when some journalist would quote his comments about "the narrow-minded Dutch Calvinism" that had been such a formative influence in his youth.
We kept track of all of his movies-Taxi Driver and American Gigolo were two of his early successes-even though the content was quite racy for folks like us. But the one that created the biggest local buzz was Hardcore. Schrader filmed it in Grand Rapids, and that itself was enough to build the excitement. The film people borrowed a well-known Christian Reformed minister's robe for the church service scene, and we all knew where the house was in which they shot the family dinner event.
I don't recommend Hardcore for people seeking spiritual edification. But there is one scene in the film that I have regularly pondered in my own theological reflections. Jake Van Dorn, a pious Calvinist elder played by George C. Scott, is sitting in the Las Vegas airport with a thoroughly pagan young woman named Niki. Jake's teenage daughter has run away to California and gotten involved in the pornography business, and he has set out to find her. His initial efforts thus far have failed, but he has managed to enlist the help of Niki, a young prostitute who knows his daughter. They have just followed a lead in Las Vegas, but having discovered that the wayward daughter is no longer there, they are moving on in their search.
CONVERSATION IN THE LAS VEGAS AIRPORT
As they are sitting in the boarding area, waiting for their plane, Niki informs Jake that she considers him to have a very negative outlook on life, and it is obviously connected, she thinks, to his religious beliefs. "What kind of church do you belong to?" she asks. "It's a Dutch Reformed denomination," he responds, "-a group that believes in TULIP." The conversation continues:
Niki: What the crap?
Jake: It's an acronym. It comes from the Canons of Dordt. Every letter stands for a different belief, like-Are you sure you want to hear this?
Niki: Yeah, yeah. Please go on. I'm a Venusian myself.
Jake: Well, T stands for "total depravity": all men through original sin are totally evil and incapable of good. All my works are as filthy rags in the sight of the Lord.
Niki: That's what the Venusians call negative moral attitudes.
Jake: Be that as it may, U stands for "unconditional election": God has chosen a certain number of people to be saved, the elect, and he's chosen them from the beginning of time. L is for "limited atonement": only a limited number of people will be atoned and go to heaven. I is for "irresistible grace": God's grace cannot be resisted or denied. And P is for the "perseverance of the saints": once you're in grace, you cannot fall from the numbers of the elect. That's it.
Niki: Before you can become saved, God already knows who you are?
Jake: Oh yes, he'd have to. That's predestination. I mean, if God is omniscient, if he already knows everything-and he wouldn't be God if he didn't-then he must have known, even before the creation of the world, the names of those who would be saved.
Niki: Well, then, it's all worked out, huh? It's fixed.
Jake: More or less.
Niki: I thought I was ****ed up.
Jake: Well, I admit it's a little confusing when you look at it from the outside. You have to try to look at it from the inside.
Let me say right off that I get the joke. Schrader is poking some fun at his tradition, and he learned his catechism lessons well. It is the obvious incongruity of the situation that makes it so funny: a puritanical Grand Rapids Dutchman solemnly summarizing the teachings of the seventeenth-century synod that met in the Dutch city of Dordrecht-often shortened to "Dordt"-to a theologically clueless, profane Valley girl.
HUMOROUS BUT DISTURBING
I see the humor-but I also find the scene very disturbing. It symbolizes a deep personal struggle for me. The beliefs that Jake describes are important to me. At the same time, though, I live as a twenty-first-century Calvinist in a world where Niki's way of viewing things is in the ascendancy. The struggle to connect the two ways of experiencing reality is a daily one for me. I believe that TULIP, properly understood, captures something very central to the gospel. And I want to bring that gospel to Niki and her kind. Because of that, Jake's conversation-ending observation that "You have to try to look at it from the inside" is not good enough for me. I want to invite people like Niki into that "inside."
Jake's way of responding to Niki exemplifies for me a typical pattern among Calvinists. We take seriously the apostle's mandate, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Peter 3:15). And Jake surely fulfilled the literal requirement here: the young woman asked him what he believed, and he responded with a straightforward summary of Calvinist doctrine. But in what seems to me an all-too-typical Calvinist fashion, he did not acknowledge the rest of what the apostle requires. The verse in question continues, "But do this with gentleness and respect."
While I sincerely subscribe to the TULIP doctrines, I have to admit that, when stated bluntly, they have a harsh feel about them. To articulate them "with gentleness and respect" takes some effort. Indeed, I am not convinced that summarizing the TULIP teachings is really the best approach to take in a situation like the one depicted in Hardcore. I think it would have been more effective simply to turn the young woman's question back to her, encouraging her to talk about her own spiritual interests. What about those "Venusian" convictions she referred to in her own way of viewing things? What, if any, are the deeper hopes and fears that motivate her in dealing with the basic issues of life? And in probing these matters, it would be important to stay on the lookout for an opportunity to point her to the heaven-sent Savior who went to the cross so that messed-up lives could be put back together again.
But, again, I believe that TULIP captures some very important elements of the story of salvation's plan. And I would hope that if she were to accept Jesus as her Savior, Niki would eventually come to understand the basic issues at stake in the TULIP doctrines. But I would want to lead her in that direction "with gentleness and respect."
I must also say up front that it isn't just in our conversations with unbelievers that I find many Calvinists lacking in gentleness and respect. I even find these qualities missing in Calvinists' interactions with other Christians. Indeed, Calvinists are often not very gentle and respectful when debating fine points of doctrine with fellow Calvinists.
I worry a lot about these Calvinist habits of mind and heart. What does Calvinism have to say to our present world? How can I best be a Calvinist in the twenty-first century? How do I as a TULIP-lover speak gently and respectfully to non-Christians about what I believe? How do I articulate my Calvinist convictions gently and respectfully to fellow Christians who see things quite differently than I do? What do the Canons of Dordt mean for people who hang around in the Las Vegas airport?
These are the questions that have led me to write this book. I will be wrestling with them in the pages that follow.
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