Chapter OneHARDCORE TULIP
I have been thinking about writing this book ever since I saw the filmHardcore. 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
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
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
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
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
These are the questions that have led me to write this book. I will
be wrestling with them in the pages that follow.