Calumny Against Calvin!

I have just finished my latest bout of exams and am now technically half way through my degree in theology. Excelsior!

In the course of preparing for the exams I read the excellent Reformation Thought: An Introduction by Alister McGrath. On page 230-231 he writes:

One of the most distinctive features of the modern world is the high profile of the natural sciences. The origins of modern natural science are both complex and controversial. Theories which attempt to explain the remarkable development of the natural sciences in terms of single controlling factor are ambitious and generally unconvincing; it is clear that not one, but a number of contributing factors are involved. One of those is unquestionably religious, and is due to John Calvin.

That last line grabs your attention, right? He goes on to discuss sociological examinations of the preponderance of the early scientists who were Reformed Christians. Then he picks up the idea again:

The Reformation thus appears to be implicated in the promotion of attitudes favourable to the natural sciences.

At first sight, this might seem improbable. For the last hundred years, the attitude of the reformers such as Calvin to Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the solar system has been the subject of ridicule. In his vigorously polemical History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1896), Andrew Dickson White wrote:

Calvin took the lead, in his Commentary on Genesis, by condemning all who asserted the earth is not at the centre of the universe. He clinched the matter by the usual reference to the first verse of theninety-third Psalm, and asked, “Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?

Sounds like Dickson White might have disproved McGrath’s positive claims.

Except! Calvin never wrote that.

This assertion is repeated by writer after writer on the theme of ‘religion and science’. Nobody seems to have bothered to check their sources. For Calvin wrote no such words, and expressed no such sentiments in any of his known writings.

McGrath goes on to argue, with quotations from Calvin’s actual writings to support him:

It may thus be argued that Calvin gave a new religious motivation to the scientific investigation of nature.

I am reminded of Marilynne Robinson’s comments in Death of Adam:

I have encountered an odd sort of social pressure as often as I have mentioned [Calvin.] One does not read Calvin. One does not think of reading him. The prohibition is more absolute than it ever was against Marx, who always had the glamour of the subversive or the forbidden about him. Calvin seems to be neglected on principle.

And more’s the shame.

Your Correspondent, His real name is not Fr. Rebulah Conundrum, Fr. Peewee Stairmaster, Fr. Jemima Racktool, Fr. Jerry Twig, Fr. Spodo Komodo, or Fr. Cannabranna Lammer.

My Three Favourite Books Of The Year

The novel I enjoyed most this year was Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. The way to describe how it gripped me is found in a quote from it:

And she became a better reader. At first in desperate escapism, later in search of help. By the time Walter returned from Saskatchewan, she’d dispatched the remainder of War and Peace in three marathon reading days. Natasha had promised herself to Andrei but was then corrupted by the wicked Anatole, and Andrei went off in despair to get himself mortally wounded in battle, surviving only long enough to be nursed by Natasha and forgive her, whereupon excellent old Pierre, who had done some growing up and deep thinking as a prisoner of war, stepped forward to present himself as Natasha’s consolation prize; and lots of babies followed. Patty felt she’d lived an entire compressed lifetime in those three days, and when her own Pierre returned frm the wilderness, badly sunburned despite religious slatherings of maximum-strength sunblock, she was ready to try to love him again.

I finished it in a hurry one Sunday afternoon after preaching, eager to get to the end but wishing it wouldn’t stop. Then I cried for a good long while. A masterpiece.

Other notables include The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, a page-turner about how white women discovered the liberation of the 60’s with the help of some black maids and The Idiot by some Russian dork.

The best Christian book I read was Evangelism After Christendom by Bryan Stone. I intend to read every book about evangelism ever in every single language and I’m about six away from achieving that! Of all the books the best is this one by Stone. Deep and scriptural and utterly transformative for how evangelicals should see their self-definitive act of evangelism.

Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign requires a radical critique of the present order. it is in this connection that we should understand his eventual torture and execution by the powers of his day. The truth of the matter is that the reign of God is downright subversive – politically, economically, religiously and culturally. Jesus’ announcement of that reign, his calling together of a community that would bear embodied witness to it and his own incarnation of its values and allegiances undermined longstanding patterns of domination and subordination. It subverted prevailing structures of authority and control, overturned common sense wisdom about enemies, violence, and the possibility of forgiveness, and collapsed familiar dichotomies about insiders and outsiders, saints and sinners, the sacred and the profane. However much Jesus’ execution may be interpreted later by the church as redemption or as atonement for sin, it was, in the first place, the price of subversive evangelism.

Stone’s book is full of observations that have utterly revolutionary implications for how we do mission. For example, this one, that even his resurrection was against the law!

Jesus, as we know, was executed on charges of crimes against both the temple and the state. But even before his birth, he was already perceived as an enemy of the state (Matthew 2:1-16). His resurrection was likewise against the law, the tomb having been sealed by the state and guarded by its military.

A tiny little book that I bought for two euros stayed by my bedside for many weeks. It was the collected poems of R.S. Thomas, and here’s a sample:

The Empty Church

They laid this stone trap
for him, enticing him with candles,
as though he would come like some huge moth
out of the darkness to beat there.
Ah, he had burned himself
before in the human flame
and escaped, leaving the reason
torn. He will not come any more

to our lure. Why, then, do I kneel still
striking my prayers on a stone
heart? Is it in hope one
of them will ignite yet and throw
on its illumined walls the shadow
of someone greater than I can understand?

RS Thomas: Rev. Grump

Your Correspondent, World-weary poseur

Christian Persecution Rates

Over the last few weeks I have had reason to get familiar with an organisation called Church in Chains which advocates for the vast number of people around the world whose freedom to worship the Triune God is denied and suppressed.

Volf writes in A Public Faith

… Christians themselves have suffered greatly from the imposition of others’ wisdom on them. Claims that more Christians were persecuted and killed on account of their faith in the past one hundred years than in the entire prior history of the church may be exaggerated, but persecutions of Christians under Lenin and Stalin in the Soviet Union and Mao in China were brutal and massive by all accounts.

In the footnotes he gives the figures.

This claim became popular following the publication of the Italian journalist Antonio Socci’s book The New Persecuted, only available in the original Italian: I Nuovo Perseguitati (Casale Monferrato: Piemme, 2002). Soccit derives many of his figures from David B. Barrett, George T. Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson, The World Christian Encyclopedia, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), which has been the subject of several criticisms. For an impartial assessment of the encylopedia’s data, see Becky Hsu et al., “Estimating the Religious Composition of All Nations: An Empirical Assessment of the World Christian Database,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 47 (2008): 678-93.

I love this kind of scholarship, that appropriately fleshes out the notions proposed in a way that can really be examined, deconstructed and tested out.

Pity me though, for the only kind of scholarship I will be able to provide is strong held opinions carried along by whatever momentum is generated by my writing style. Popular acclaim here I come!

If you want a copy of the paper, drop me a line and I might be able to help you out.

Your Correspondent, King of supply side bonhomie

Why Religious Exclusivism Is Good For Social Pluralism

According to Miroslav Volf:


1. Because there is one God, all people are related to that one God on equal terms.

2. The central command of that one God is to love neighbours – to treat others as we would like them to treat us, as expressed in the Golden Rule.

3. We cannot claim any rights for ourselves and our group that we are not willing to give to others.

4. Whether as a stance of the heart or as outward practice, religion cannot be coerced.

If you accept these four propositions, you have good reasons to support pluralism as a political project.


– Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith, p. 126.

You, whomsoever you may be, should probably get this short little book by the way. It is very good.


Your Correspondent, Read a book with his feet


32 Novels For Before I Finish Being 32

Courtesy of Matthew Shedden I stumbled across this blog about 30 books people should read before they are 30. I thought it was a cool idea but since I turn 30 in less than 3 weeks and I have two essays and a conference paper to write before then, it probably has come a bit late for me. So instead this morning over porridge I scribbled down 32 books I would like to read before I am finished being 32. This list is actually without a theme, except that all of the books are grown up books for grown up readers. I am very familiar with some of the authors and utterly ignorant of others.

I share the list with you only with this single goal in mind- improving it. What should I ditch, what should I throw in?

  1. Huckleberry Finn
  2. Lolita
  3. Sound And Fury
  4. Grapes Of Wrath
  5. For Whom  The Bell Tolls
  6. Middlemarch
  7. Pride And Prejudice
  8. Jane Eyre
  9. Great Expectations
  10. Moby Dick
  11. War And Peace
  12. Crime And Punishment
  13. The Big Sleep
  14. The Ginger Man
  15. The Thin Red Line
  16. The Heart Of Darkness
  17. Don Quixote
  18. The Count Of Monte Cristo
  19. Dracula
  20. Frankenstein
  21. Brideshead Revisted
  22. On The Road
  23. White Teeth
  24. I, Claudius
  25. The Invisible Man
  26. Gravity’s Rainbow
  27. Of Human Bondage
  28. The Moveigoer
  29. The Name Of The Rose
  30. The Trial
  31. Infinite Jest
  32. Go Tell It On The Mountain

So what say ye, noble web-readers?

Your Correspondent, Better you hear it from him now than from your parents when you’re old enough.

An Unbelievable Story?

I keep a blog on Tumblr where I put various things I read in books that I want to keep track of. Over the weekend I finished the Johnny Cash autobiography and there is a story in it that is so remarkable I can barely believe it. Here it is:

I was walking down 57th Street with June one Sunday morning when we happened on the First Baptist Church of New York, which we hadn’t noticed before because its entrance doesn’t look like a church’s. We saw from a sign outside that services were just about to start, so we went in, and the strangest thing happened. The congregation was seated as we entered, but about halfway down the aisle a young boy was turned around watching the door. He saw us, immediately jumped up, and yelled, “JOHNNY CASH!! Johnny Cash has come to church with me!”

As it happened, the only free seats were right next to him and his parents, so we took them, and that’s when we saw that the boy was mentally handicapped. He was so excited. “I told you!” he kept saying to his parents. “I told you he was coming!”

The preacher came over and explained to us that, yes, the boy had told his parents, and the whole congregation, repeatedly that I was going to walk into that church, sit down beside him, and worship with him. And that’s what I did. Being next to him was such a pleasure. He was so happy.

When the service was over, we walked down to the corner with him and his parents, and they filled in the story. They were Jewish, they said, but their son had decided to become a Christian after listening to some of my gospel recordings. That’s why they were in a Christian church on a Sunday morning. They were in that particular Christian church because that’s where he knew I was going to walk in the door.

Johnny Cash, Cash: The Autobiography, pp. 235-236.

I’d love to hear what you guys make of it.

Your Correspondent, Is telepathic but doesn’t mind using a phone.

One Quote Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

My first Margaret Atwood book. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t expect 1984. This is thought provoking novel but it won’t make you feel lovely and gooey inside. In fact, while an interesting proposition, it comes out perhaps as a dull finished product. I’m not saying it needs some ninjas and an alien, but the novel is largely inside someone’s head.

America is taken over by some quasi-Christian cult. Their Ayatollah style regime is obsessed with fertility. The handmaids are women who failed to meet the strict moral regulations and are trained to be nothing more than birthing tanks.

One of the most dreadful passages, in the sense of evoking dread, takes place when the protagonist is out for her daily walk:

At the corner is the store known as Soul Scrolls. It’s a franchise: there are Soul Scrolls in every city center, in every suburb, or so they say. It must make a lot of profit.

The window of Soul Scrolls is shatterproof. Behind it are printout machines, row on row of them; these machines are known as Holy Rollers, but only among us, it’s a disrespectful nickname. What the machines print is prayers, roll upon roll, prayers going out endlessly. They’re ordered by Compuphone, I’ve overheard the Commander’s Wife doing it. Ordering prayers from Soul Scrolls is supposed to be a sign of piety and faithfulness to the regime, so of course the Commanders’ Wives do it a lot. It helps their husbands’ careers.

There are five different prayers: for health, wealth, a death, a birth, a sin. You pick the one you want, punch in the number, then punch in your own number so your account will be debited, and punch in the number of times you want the prayer repeated.

The machines talk as they print out the prayers; if you like, you can go inside and listen to them, the toneless metallic voices repeating the same thing over and over. Once the prayers have been printed out and said, the paper rolls back through another slot and is recycled into fresh paper again. There are no people inside the building: the machines run by themselves. You can’t hear the voices from outside; only a murmur, a hum, like a devout crowd, on its knees.

Your Correspondent, Almost always does a whole-arsed job of it.

One Quote Review: “A Little History Of The World” by E.H. Gombrich

Countries with ailing birth-rates should subsidise this book. It makes me want to have babies just so I can read them this when they turn 9 or 10. It is a broad, lovely, human account of human history (largely European). Written in one big flurry as the NAZIs rose to power, it sparkles with the strength of a conviction that no matter how bad the past is, or how awful the present seems, humans are still worth fighting for.

Writing about what some people call “the dark ages”…

But there was more to it than that. It wasn’t all dark. It was more like a starry night. For above all the dread and uncertainty in which ignorant people lived like children in the dark – frightened of witches and wizards, of the Devil and evil spirits – above it all was the bright starlit sky of the new faith, showing them the way. And just as you don’t get lost so easily in the woods if you can see the stars like the Great Bear or the Pole Star, people no longer lost their way completely, no matter how much they stumbled in the dark. For they were sure of one thing: God had given souls to all men, and they were all equal in his eyes, beggars and kings alike. This meant there must be no more slaves – that human beings must no longer be treated as if they were thing. That the one, invisible, God the Creator of the World, who through his mercy saves mankind, asks us to be good.

Your Correspondent, Realised he could never be trusted as a historian considering how he meddles with his browser’s history