NYT Mag Predestined to Be Biased? Story on Calvinistic Preacher Skews Doctrine
Perhaps the New York Times is just predestined not to get religion.
Taking on Calvinistic preacher Mark Driscoll's brand of Reformed theology, writer Molly Worthen -- herself a graduate of a formerly Puritan university -- gave readers of the New York Times magazine a skewed picture of what exactly the evangelical pastor's theology teaches about sin and redemption.
In her January 6 article, "Who Would Jesus Smack Down," Worthen -- who studied American religious history at Yale University-- portrayed the founding pastor of Seattle's Mars Hill Church as an edgy hipster "cussing" pastor who chagrins religious conservatives and liberals alike, all while confounding evangelicals with his Calvinistic take on biblical theology.
While there is a grain of truth to the characterization of Driscoll* having critics to his left and right, Worthen betrays her ignorance about Calvinism, starting in the third paragraph of her article (emphasis mine):
...what is new about Driscoll is that he has resurrected a particular strain of fire and brimstone, one that most Americans assume died out with the Puritans: Calvinism, a theology that makes Pat Robertson seem warm and fuzzy.
Certainly Worthen, as a religious historian, has to know better. After all, far from being a moribund doctrine, many Presbyterian/Reformed churches -- from the liberal Presbyterian Church USA and Reformed Church in America to the more conservative denominations such as the Presbyterian Church in America or Orthodox Presbyterian Church -- as well as some Baptist churches, all adhere to a Calvinistic view of how God saves sinners. Granted, the more liberal churches may not be as "fire and brimstone"-oriented in tone from the pulpit, but that doesn't mean predestination is a foreign or long-dead concept in America's Protestant churches.
Worthen later summed up Calvinism's soteriology (doctrine of salvation) thusly:
Human beings are totally corrupted by original sin and predestined for heaven or hell, no matter their earthly conduct. We all deserve eternal damnation, but God, in his inscrutable mercy, has granted the grace of salvation to an elect few. While John Calvin’s 16th-century doctrines have deep roots in Christian tradition, they strike many modern evangelicals as nonsensical and even un-Christian. If predestination is true, they argue, then there is no point in missions to the unsaved or in leading a godly life.
In doing so, Worthen does injustice to a doctrine that's a little more complex than that. Worthen's characterization leaves readers thinking that Calvinism teaches that God will turn away some people from heaven who wanted badly to be there while bringing to heaven some sinners who desperately want to avoid eternity with God. What's more, Worthen leaves out that the Calvinist would look for evidences of God's saving grace -- changed behavior, good deeds -- in the lives of Christians.
Simply put, Worthen does little to distinguish Calvinism from fatalism.
While it is difficult for secular journalists to grasp and accurately report on Calvinist doctrine, it's not impossible. Time magazine's David Van Biema did as much in a Jan. 31, 2007 interview with Baptist theologian Albert Mohler, who at the time was recovering from pulmonary embolisms -- an often fatal condition -- at the time:
[Van Biema]: One misconception people may have about Calvinism is that it holds that Christians act as though they had free will — when God has orchestrated everything. Can you address that?
[Mohler]: Calvinists believe that the human will is instrumental in the experience of salvation. We would take issue with the idea of absolute free will, where people are talking about the priority of the human will in salvation. The big question is whether it is possible for the divine and human wills to operate in absolute harmony. I believe it is.
*Full disclosure: I have donated to Driscoll's ministry in the past, earmarking small-dollar donations for Mars Hill Church's online ministry (podcasts, Web site, etc.).
Photo of Worthen via Yale University's Web site.