Movie ReviewsReformed

Movie Review: Calvinist

Over the past year, in the lead up to its five-hundredth anniversary, Protestants across the globe have been reminiscing and debating over the implications and ramifications of the Reformation. But another, more recent phenomenon has been receiving similar attention, at least in Reformed circles. Last September marked ten years since Collin Hansen published his now famous article, “Young, Restless, Reformed”, which chronicled the rise of so-called “new Calvinism.” Christian Century dubbed the phenomenon “Calvin’s Comeback.” Two years later, Hansen published a book on the subject under the same title, investigating “what makes today’s young Calvinists tick.”

With the documentary, Calvinist, director Les Lanphere picks up where Hansen left off, and just in time for the quincentennial of the Reformation. Lanphere, who has worked on films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Smurfs, is the founder and co-host of the popular podcast “The Reformed Pubcast,” and is founder and administrator of the Facebook group, “The Reformed Pub,” a sort of online forum-companion to the podcast where the Young, Restless, and Reformed (YRR) virtually congregate and debate theology. The story of the movie’s inception and production itself is worth telling. It began as a Kickstarter campaign with an initial goal of $35, 000. This goal was met and surpassed in three days. The final budget, contributed to by over 1,000 donors, almost tripled the original.

Thanks to the robust funding, Lanphere has put together a high-quality (in every way) production, featuring a rock star cast (for Reformed theology nerds) of pastors and theologians. Among others, R. C. Sproul, Ligon Duncan, Joe Thorn, Carl Trueman, and Michael Horton are featured; as are debater-apologist extraordinaire James White, blogger Tim Challies, and the original YRR chronicler, Colin Hansen. The “star-studded” cast offers insightful commentary throughout. If one were to divide the movie in two, the first part serves as an introduction to the YRR movement and Calvinism, and the second part is a critique or analysis of such.

Lanphere’s project is a success in my book, and is already garnering attention outside of Reformed circles. I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone—from the self-professing YRR’er to the intrigued skeptic. Lanphere’s goal of giving members of the Reformed resurgence occasion to remember and celebrate, as well as exposing non-adherents to the tenets of this peculiar movement, have been thoroughly met in Calvinist.

Young, Restless, Reformed

Calvinist is an origins story. And like any good origins story, it begins with the catalyst crisis: the rise of the evangelical church-growth strategies and charismatic worship, and the emergent church movement in America (flashes of archived Billy Graham crusades and televangelists springing up as Lanphere narrates). While baby boomers flocked to these churches and bought in to seeker-friendly approaches, these churches left a younger generation hungry and questioning. Those who did not repudiate the faith entirely looked for a more transcendent, dogmatic, and historical faith.

Many of those young and restless 90s kids found what they were looking for in Reformed theology. The sermons of people like Paul Washer and John Piper, and old Puritan books published by Banner of Truth, struck a chord with them. They found therein a more substantive faith and a church that was less concerned with numerical or monetary growth than it was with scriptural exegesis and historically-rooted Christian teaching.

A Singular Criticism

Lanphere offers a thorough, yet succinct, charting of the movement’s growth, tracing its roots back to the preaching of Martin Lloyd Jones in England, to the writings of J.I. Packer, to the ministry of James Montgomery Boice in Philadelphia, and finally, to the founding of Ligonier Ministries under R.C. Sproul. This segment was helpful in reminding both adherents and critics of the YRR movement alike, that not only is the theology itself older than the millennial generation, but so are its organizing roots.  

However, I will offer my only real criticism of the movie here, regarding the historical segment. One of the purported factors that drove millennials out of the evangelical movement and into Reformed theology was a desire for historical faith. I would agree with this basic premise. Yet, what I find lacking in the thought of many, though by no means all, YRR’s I interact with, is a lack of actual historical rootedness (or much desire for it). For many of them, history contains a parenthetical period between the early church fathers and 1517. But this only pushes the issue further down the pike. Adherents of Reformed theology would do well to identify the strand(s) of thought throughout church history that support their present convictions. That is, if they want to truly satisfy their longing for connectedness to a historical church. I think this can largely be accomplished, certainly not with every theological issue, but with many. The Reformers themselves picked up on a Pauline-Augustinian line of theology, and carried it forward only after retrieving it from many medieval theologians.

But when Lanphere attempts to address the issue, he makes the mistake many YRR’s do. As Lanphere narrates regarding this historical problem, a picture of Augustine flashes across the screen, followed by one of John Wycliffe and several other Reformers. If the historical rootedness of Reformed theology can find no life in the interim between Augustine and Wycliffe, there is a problem, and common Catholic criticisms will be proven valid. As a caveat, my critique here may be something that Lanphere himself understands and would agree upon; it was not represented in the film, however.

Stunning and Helpful Visuals

A Gospel Coalition review praised the top-notch visual storytelling in the film, and I second that praise. Many such sequences were apparently created by Lanphere himself, and they are one of the film’s many strong suits. The visuals add an evangelistic component to the project which will be helpful to the viewer who is ill-acquainted (both literally and figuratively) with the basic tenets of Calvinism. As Brett McCracken noted in his review, the film doesn’t just tell a story, it teaches theology.

The part of Calvinist that I most appreciated comes in the second half of the movie, which deals mostly with the effects of the YRR movement. After discussing many of the common pitfalls of those who enter the Reformed faith, time is taken to acknowledge that Reformed theology is so much more robust than just TULIP (the common acronym representing Calvinistic convictions: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints). The commentators in the film then issue a call for a return to confessionalism and for ecclesiastical reformation.

This ecclesiastical focus strikes me as acutely necessary if the movement is to endure, settle, and solidify its presence. Unless YRR’s want to see themselves slip into the faddism and celebrityism that plagued the churches they fled over a decade ago, then they must heed this call. It’s worth mentioning that such a call is totally in line with the Reformers themselves. Luther was motivated largely by concern for his congregants. Calvin was driven by zeal to purify the church from what he perceived as idolatry. Zwingli and Knox had similar motivations. The Reformers would not recognize or accept a recovery of theology that was not attached to, and in service of, the church. May it be true of our own recovery of Reformed teaching.

Conclusion and Questions

Lanphere concludes in a realist tone, that the Reformed resurgence is not a fad and is not waning. I am inclined to agree at this stage, and hope that his conclusion will hold true. But I walked away from the movie with a few questions regarding the longevity of the movement, and Reformed theology writ large, on a global scale.

The story of the YRR movement is, at the moment, largely confined to the United States. With Protestantism growing at exponential rates in non-Western countries, one has to wonder whether a similar movement will take place in those contexts (once other brands of Protestantism have run their course), or whether Reformed theology will have a place at all. Pentecostalism is far outpacing other forms of Protestantism in the developing world; the prosperity gospel is prospering. In many ways, as Michael Horton has surmised, (from the Reformed perspective) the radical “enthusiasts” have won. It seems to me that the Reformed camp, especially those members of it who became members via the YRR movement, should want to prevent a deja vu moment in the American church. They must discover ways to make inroads in different contexts without sacrificing their dogma.

There is something to be said about Reformed theology, indeed the Reformation itself, succeeding largely in bourgeoisie class contexts in continental Europe (in fact, Luther would have made little progress without the protection of his powerful friends), and then in a top-down legislative fashion in England. The YRR movement primarily gained steam in white, middle class, young, evangelical contexts. This is somewhat fitting, considering that the Reformation itself had a youth movement component. Luther was usually accompanied by a rowdy entourage of Wittenberg students at his debates, as well as when he instigated a public burning of copies of Canon Law and the papal bull Exsurge Domine. Apparently, the students—who carried on long after Luther retired for the night—ultimately had to be quelled by the local authorities. They were young, restless, and reformed; many hailed from a then-emerging middle class and university context. Reformed theology has yet to face (at least on a large scale) some of the challenges that the developing world will present it in the near future.

The conclusion of Lanphere’s film is that the YRR movement was not in vain and that new Calvinism is here to stay. At the same time, on a global scale, the longevity of the resurgence of Calvinism and the doctrines of grace remains to be seen. There is little evidence that it has even begun in a way that could rival what has happened over the past decade in America.

As stated, Les Lanphere’s movie is worth seeing. I trust that it will be received well by most. Either way, it is bound to generate further discussion regarding the movement it recounts and the theology it expounds. And that may be its most valuable contribution.

Disclaimer: I was offered a free viewing of the movie by Les Lanphere in exchange for an honest review.

 


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Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a native of Memphis, TN and grew up in Dakar, Senegal. He is a graduate of Wright State University, and is concurrently pursuing a J.D. at Rutgers Law School and a M.A. in Religion at Westminster Theological Seminary. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, Rachel.

  • jsehrett

    Haven’t seen this yet, but anticipate doing so. I have a pretty strong sociological interest in the YRR movement, so this is really interesting to me (and your review was excellent!).

    Not being Reformed myself, I may be outside my wheelhouse to opine on this, but I’m surprised that Lanphere is so optimistic about the future of “New Calvinism.” From where I’m standing, it looks to have been a flash in the pan that’s left some major rubble in its wake.

    A tentative thesis (maybe one day I’ll write a full piece): From early on, the YRR movement seems to have largely coalesced around certain charismatic personalities – Piper, Grudem, Driscoll, Mahaney, and others. A lot of those personalities are now “tarnished brands” to some extent: Driscoll was ousted for domineering behavior, Mahaney’s “Sovereign Grace” family of churches had a huge sexual abuse scandal, Grudem went all-in for Donald Trump, and a very large contingent of YRR celebrity figures ended up on the “wrong side” of last year’s Trinitarian theology debate surrounding the eternal subordination of the Son. Perhaps stemming from this, among the people I know who grew up fervently YRR, a profound sense of disillusionment and disenchantment reigns ( many are no longer practicing Christians at all). All that to say: there seems to be a sharp contrast, both in temperament and in consistent commitment to orthodoxy, between the Carl Truemans of the world and the Mark Driscolls. And I would bet good money that if we had done a longitudinal study tracking those who “went YRR,” the rate of drift/deconversion would be just about as high as mainstream evangelicalism.

    Thoughts?

    • Timon Cline

      John, thanks for reading and for your comments. I think your analysis is basically right. I found the optimism of the film to be questionable as well. I separate Reformed theology in general from the YRR movement as a phenomenon in saying this. The documentary itself acknowledges the “dark side” of the movement, namely that many have been swept up in the charismatic/celebrity-personality/fadism side of things (something Calvin would have detested). I think this is a huge danger. I am a little on the outside of all this as well considering that I didn’t even know what the YRR movement was until long after I had assented to the Reformed faith. I came to Reformed theology by way of the Puritans, my local pastor (my father) and the Reformers themselves (an unlikely course for YRR’s). I still have yet to read a John Piper book or listen to a sermon by any of the popular level Reformed preachers like Chandler, Piper, or Washer. I guess I don’t really have the YRR chops. What this shows me is that Reformed theology will endure regardless of the fate of the YRRs, but on a much smaller scale (as it seems to have always been). I think for the movement to continue it will have to move away from its fixation on the popular level and into more robust, all-encompassing Reformed doctrine. Some commentators (like Trueman) note in the film that there is so much more to Reformed theology than TULIP, but that’s where many (in my personal experience) YRR’s stop. If YRR’s don’t do this I think they will end up like many of those you have talked to, which was basically the same fate of those disillusioned with the evangelical movement. I would wholeheartedly agree with you that there is a stark contrast between the orthodox, confessional Reformed (like Trueman) and the Mark Driscolls of the world. And I would also follow your bet on the rate of deconversion or disenchantment with Christianity in general by YRR’s. This may partly even explain the mass exodus from Protestantism to Catholicism among young people, which is ironic. It may expose that those who came to Reformed thought via the YRR movement were really in search of something else (a transcendent, historical faith) that they ultimately found in other denominations after trying out the popular-level version of Reformed theology. I think true Reformed theology can provide this for people but I’m obviously bias. Trueman’s book the Creedal Imperative (and the Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind) addresses a lot of this and provides what I see as an antidote (orthodox, confessionally Reformed Christianity, much like you may enjoy in your Lutheranism). Last summer’s Trinity debates (which were eye opening), as you mention, represent a need for a return to this model, in my view. At the end of the day, the YRR movement may end up being nothing more than a niche off-shoot of popular, American evangelicalism.

      • Timon Cline

        Also, I would love to read a sociological analysis piece by you on this stuff.