John Calvin, the Atheist
At its best, Calvinism can foster a deep humility: we aren't as smart as we like to think. Our fate depends on eternal grace, not on our feeble achievements. Our duty is not to explain the mysteries of existence but to submit to divine wisdom.
At its worst, Calvinism leads to an insufferable self-righteousness. If God knows everything, and believers take the dubious leap of deciding they can know who's saved, they can neatly divide the world into the elect and the damned. This is the sort of arrogance that chafes De Vries, and the sort he mocks so skillfully.
Like the author of the essay "The Rage of Peter De Vries: Reckoning with a Brokenhearted Humorist," I had never heard of Peter De Vries (1910-1993). But De Vries was perhaps the most literary Calvinist/Non-Calvinist in the modern era to offer up this sort of wit: "The elect are barred from everything, you know, except heaven."
Unlike the author of the essay, my dad did not hand me De Vries's novel The Blood of the Lamb at the age of 17 once upon an autumn night in Chicago. If you must know, at 17, I spent most autumn nights tucked away among the never-ending acreage of cornfields in tiny Cedarville, Ohio.
Thankfully, for those of us tucked away, there's Image journal—which brings together art and faith for the sake of cultural renewal. Of late, I've found myself bouncing around in Issue 83, which features Jonathan Hiskes's grown-up coming-to-terms with De Vries, who hailed from the same community of Dutch Calvinists as Hiskes.
In The Blood of the Lamb, De Vries's character named Don Wanderhope calls himself "a sort of reverse Pilgrim trying to make some progress away from the City of God," which, we can safely assume, is a somewhat fitting description of De Vries's spiritual journey. The book was published only a year after his daughter's death-by-leukemia at the age of 10. Hiskes says, "In The Blood of the Lamb, De Vries doesn't merely mock religion, he assaults it with every shred of his intellect and his broken heart."
And here is where I readily admit the truth: I'm an absolute sucker for a certain kind of religious mockery, especially the kind that pokes fun at one's own tribe (often without ceasing). I love the image of religious faith struggling for air under the weight of serious humor. Perhaps this is why Christopher Hitchens was said to have praised De Vries—although, for Hitchens, religious mockery was always about "the other."
However, for De Vries, a long-time editor at The New Yorker, irreverence could eventually give way to a more enriched spiritual questioning. For instance, according to Hiskes, "[The Blood of the Lamb] refers not to the blood of Jesus, the lamb of scripture, but to the young girl. [An] innocent lamb is poisoned by her own blood." De Vries later wrote, "Man is inconsolable, thanks to that eternal 'Why?' when there is no Why, that question mark twisted like a fishhook in the human heart."
Sometimes, if the mood is right and the spirit catches me, I like to imagine a fishhook deep in the heart of John Calvin himself—his devoted followers squirming for lack of answers.