Eleven years ago, TGC editorial director Collin Hansen wrote an article for Christianity Today about Calvinism’s comeback in the American church. He followed it up with a book, Young, Restless, Reformed, in 2008.
Back then, the growing popularity of New Calvinism was still nascent and something of a novelty. The Gospel Coalition itself, for example, was in its earliest years. Was this merely a trend that would wear off?
Generation Hungry for More
Typical evangelical church kids in the ’90s—myself included—found themselves hungry, at the turn of the millennium, for a meatier, more substantive and biblical Christianity. We wanted more than just bumper-sticker Christianity. We wanted chapter-and-verse Christianity.
Many of our youth groups had offered fun but hadn’t grounded us in the fundamentals of Scripture and Christian doctrine. They had connected us with our peers, but not with our Christian past.
Evangelicalism seemed more interested in relevance and trendiness than reverence before a transcendent God. The “emergent church” movement gained some traction culturally but ultimately sputtered out, grounded as it was in revisionist rather than reclaimed theology.
Calvinism provided something deeper, older, more thoughtful, and—for millennials like me—more coherent at a time of increasing cultural confusion.
Les Lanphere’s Calvinist movie (watch it here) chronicles the way this happened: how young men and women became compelled by a theology that predated modernity, one that offered “a strong, deep, rooted understanding of Scripture, and the doctrines that emerge from Scripture through careful exegesis and reflection.”
Released this fall, the documentary features interviews with pastors and theologians such as R. C. Sproul, Ligon Duncan, Joe Thorn, Carl Trueman, and Michael Horton, as well as bloggers and podcasters like Tim Challies and Summer White.
The film both tells history and also teaches theology. For “Calvin is my homeboy” enthusiasts and hardened skeptics alike, there is much in Calvinist to consider and discuss. It’s a film made for groups—whether in a theology classroom or the living room of a church home group.
Recovering a Big-God Theology
Lanphere became a Calvinist through a Paul Washer sermon that challenged his view of man’s ability to come to Christ on his own.
“It was the most life-altering experience I’ve had, next to my conversion about a decade earlier,” he said. “But I quickly realized I wasn’t the only one. God was clearly doing something in his people to awaken a big-God theology that had been lost.”
Through his popular podcast, Reformed Pubcast, Lanphere heard many similar stories. With experience in the film industry (working in post-production on films like The Smurfs and Transformers), Lanphere decided the Reformed resurgence was a phenomenon worth narrating in documentary form.
In 2016 he created a Kickstarter page for the proposed documentary, with a fundraising goal of $35,000. That goal was met in three days and nearly tripled within a month. With strong momentum for the project, Lanphere began reaching out to prominent Reformed leaders for interviews, and some began reaching out to him.
“The whole thing was pretty surreal,” said Lanphere, who filmed Calvinist over six months and traveled around the country conducting interviews, never paying for a hotel room due to the groundswell of volunteers offering beds (among other services) wherever he traveled.
One of Lanphere’s goals for Calvinist, he said, was to offer a chance for Reformed folks to “re-live the magic of realizing that God chose you before the foundation of the world, and that God always gets his man.”
The film certainly accomplishes this goal, offering Reformed viewers ample reminders of how Calvinism first clicked with them and—in many cases—changed their life. The sheer number of voices in the film illustrate the many contours, avenues, and entry points into the movement, from the blogosphere and YouTube videos to Passion conferences and Reformed hip hop.
But Calvinist also serves as something of an explainer for those dumbfounded by the appeal of Reformed theology.
Among the film’s most helpful contributions is a largely animated sequence that takes viewers through the TULIP acronym, explaining the heady concepts of Calvinism’s five points through compelling visuals. Whether a riff on the Operation board game to illustrate regeneration, or a train sequence to visualize Spurgeon’s “two rails” analogy for the coexistence of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, the animated imagery in Calvinist illustrates big Reformed concepts as well as anything else I’ve seen.
The animated imagery in Calvinist illustrates big Reformed concepts as well as anything else I’ve seen.
Calvinist’s visual storytelling does for Reformed theology what The Bible Project is doing for biblical books and themes: making it more graspable and beautiful for an increasingly image-based world.
Blind Spots and Sustainability
As much as Calvinist has a celebratory, almost self-congratulatory tone at times, one of its strengths is how it doesn’t shy away from the faults and blind spots of the Reformed movement.
The film discusses the dangers of overzealousness and obsession, for example, as well as the tendency of young, new Calvinists to enter a “Cage Stage” prone to defensiveness and divisiveness.
“Sometimes we don’t know the difference between being a prophet and a jerk, and I think that’s a huge failure,” Jeff Durbin observes in the film.
Calvinist also discusses the dangers of celebrityism within the Reformed movement, where young Calvinists are often more influenced by celebrity pastors like Tim Keller and John Piper (whom one person in the film calls “the gateway drug of Reformed theology”) than they are by their own local pastors.
If this tendency is not corrected, observes Shai Linne, “What we will see is what we see with every other fad. Once the big shots die off, everything else is going to die off with them. And that would be tragic.”
Another blind spot the film addresses is diversity. Throughout its history, the Reformed movement has “tended to be on the side of the powerful, of the highly educated, and has not always connected well with people on the margins of society,” Hansen says in the film.
Indeed, the history the film tells—from Martyn Lloyd-Jones and James Montgomery Boice to John Piper and Don Carson—is largely white, North Atlantic, highly educated, and middle class.
Among the questions the film poses is how the Reformed movement can broaden not only its appeal but also its leadership in the next generation, including voices from minority communities and non-Western nations where the future of the “resurgence” most likely lies.
When the ‘Young’ Grow Up
As the still “young” movement matures, how will it adapt to ensure its restless passion doesn’t flame out—as some of its popularizers have—under the weight of its growing influence? How will it guard against becoming too insular and self-focused, becoming the very sort of institutional “man” it originally reacted against?
Ultimately the movement’s sustainability depends on the extent to which it exists for a purpose beyond itself.
As Horton points out in the film, the challenge for every generation remains rather simple: “Do we get the gospel right, and do we get the gospel out?”
Here’s hoping the Reformed resurgence continues to strive for both.