Essay

Calvinist Romance

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I have this weird knack of looking for Calvinism-of-a-sort, oddly appearing in pop culture, especially music and sappy romantic love. It’s not a full-time job. Not even a hobby, really.

calvinist_romance 2My thesis is that Reformed doctrines like election are actually deeply rooted in an incredible love. Unfortunately election and other Reformed touchstones have been framed more in terms of logic and law, cold and impersonal rather than warm and personal. I am a quiet defender of Dort (I’m speaking more of the canons, but nothing against the college 🙂 ). But Dort’s use of terms like “edict” and “reprobation” has contributed to this…it’s more than a misunderstanding…aversion. Critics, both secular and Christian, have simply picked up on it.

Then every so often in all the paeans to love, my ears prick up. I detect a note or two that resound in my Reformed heart. Of course, I’m not saying this is in any way intentional—(rom-coms written by secret Calvinist sympathizers?) I figure that so much is said and written about love, that sometimes it just slips into quasi-Calvinist territory. Or maybe, the eschatological magnetism of the Holy Spirit is at work.

Okay, give me an example, you’re thinking. Tell me a story already.

Savage-GardenA favorite of mine was the 1999 song by the Australian duo Savage Garden, I Knew I Loved You. (Sorry, I stopped listening to pop music around the turn of the century!) There might be little hints throughout the whole song, but the chorus was what warmed my heart.
I think I loved you before I knew you.
I think I dreamed you into life.
I knew I loved you before I met you.
I have been waiting all my life.
Might this be God’s song to humanity? To you? To me? It’s not a perfect fit, I’ll grant you that. But I hear something about love from before time. Maybe a love not built on qualities and qualifications? A deep longing for love, an everlastingly patient love, a dream that becomes finally instantiated, actually incarnated. Do you hear it, even a little bit?

Of course part of the fun was the discussions, even debates, this prompted with my then-young children. “Dad! That’s not what they’re singing about. They don’t even know about John Calvin!” And of course, they don’t. But such conversations are priceless. Treasure them. Even incite them, if your kids are still of that age. (Another source of endless provocation was “Is Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life—sorry, I’m dating myself again—a direct contradiction to Heidelberg Q&A #1?”) This sort of stuff has got to still be happening. Odd and inadvertent onramps to theology. Share your insights and experiences, please!

Wedding toastBut here’s my most recent encounter, the one that spurred this blog. It was a father’s speech at a wedding reception last month. That’s not a movie or song, but still within the wider realm of romantic love. The father is a witty, literate sort. It was probably the best such speech I have heard—humorous and tender. Then near the conclusion, the father recalled his own wedding and experience of coming to love.

Weddings meant less when I was single–I’m sure I was envious of the couple and the love they had found. And because I was so incredibly ineffective at finding that for myself, I came to the conclusion that the only way things would ever work out well is if in some mystical, magical way, love were to find me. Eventually, love did–took me by surprise, actually, and worked its magic.

“Incredibly ineffective at finding love for myself”—that phrase probably rang true for many at the reception that night—the former nerds and wallflowers, the socially awkward, the tongue-tied, the unattractive, the excluded.

To me that phrase also described me and God—actually, all people and God. Incredibly ineffective at finding love. Graciously, mystically, surprisingly—love set out to find us. Unlike the way this Reformed belief is so often portrayed, this isn’t terrifying or somber news. It is beautiful. It is good.

Because I was so incredibly ineffective at finding that for myself…the only way things would ever work out well is if in some mystical, magical way, love were to find me.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

8 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Wonderful. Van Ruler’s laughing and loving God.

  • Not EXACTLY where you’re going, but in the neighborhood, by that prolific poet “Anonymous”:

    I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
    he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
    it was not I that found, O Savior true;
    no, I was found of thee.

    Thou didst reach forth thy hand and mine enfold;
    I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea;
    ’twas not so much that I on thee took hold,
    as thou, dear Lord, on me.

    I find, I walk, I love, but oh, the whole
    of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee;
    for thou wert long beforehand with my soul,
    always thou lovedst me.

  • Beautiful, beautiful. Thank you!

  • Lovely! Thanks, Steve. glimpses of common grace? Gifts certainly.

  • Marilyn Paarlberg says:

    There was a time when I couldn’t hear these verses from the Indigo Girls “Free in You” without going straight to Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. Calvinists got it, of course, but others not so much. In fact, I told Emily Saliers this fun fact, given that her dad was one of John’s seminary profs. Let it be known that she looked at me oddly! (Story of my life.)

    “And I don’t know how you show such gentle disregard for the ugly in me that I see, that for so long
    I took so hard. And I truly believe that you see the best in me. I’m enough for your love and the thought sets me free.

    Free in you. Got no worries on my mind. I know what to do: That’s to treat you right and love you kind, thank you ever on my mind. Love is just like breathing when it’s true. And I’m free in you, yes I’m free in you.”

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Thanks, Marilyn, I didn’t know this song by the Indigo Girls, but definitely hear what you’re hearing. I always thought that “darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable, but lightness has a call that’s hard to hear” owed a bit to Calvinism too.

  • Jeff Munroe says:

    Where can I get my hands on a copy of the Calvinist Romance comic book?

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