Friday, April 6, 2012

Book Review: John Calvin's American Legacy

I have picked up a new book and I plan on blogging through it. This will be my first blog-through-review of a book.

The Hoosier academic, Thomas J. Davis, is the editor of John Calvin’s American Legacy (Oxford University Press, 2010), and in his Introduction he notes that Calvin is used as a “stand-in for ideologies with which one either agrees or disagrees (usually vehemently.” Davis is absolutely correct. Calvin and Calvinism are, in the American public square, without doubt, controversial.

But the value of this work edited by Davis is demonstrated by what could have been a succinct (if it lacked parenthetical thoughts) statement-of-intent near the end of the Introduction. Davis says:

The point of this book is that, despite all of the changes and challenges; despite Calvinism’s ultimate failure to hold the American consciousness; and despite an especially fervent effort to dismiss the Calvinist outlook from American culture by sermon ([William Ellery] Channing and, after him, religious movements that numerically overwhelmed the old Puritan faith, such as Methodism) or by the art of letters and the novel ([Catharine] Sedgwick and others, yes, but also those deep within the tradition of Calvinism who brought their most anguished complaints against it to the light of day through their written work; one thinks of the Beecher children here) or by the sardonic newspaper column (H. L. Mencken), the fact remains that Calvinism in American has had an impact on American society and culture in every century, even if at times it has gone unrecognized. And behind Calvinism stands Calvin.

If this work achieves its aim, an honest yet irenic exploration of Calvin’s and Calvinism’s influence on American society and culture, and if the articles by the contributing authors work towards that aim without caricatured oversimplifications, then this should be an enjoyable read. I am looking forward to learning not only more about Calvin and Calvinism, being a point of interest since I am, in fact, a Calvinist, but also about the influence of Calvin's thought and legacy on America. Which is another point of interest, since I am also an American.

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