Most Ingenious Heretic on the Street….Depending on the Street
As the Quincentenary of John Calvin’s birth approaches this week (Friday, July 10th to be exact), Protestants around the globe are remembering the life of the pastor, reformer, and author of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Various publications, events, and conferences have used the moment for theological, historical, and political conversations about the Genevan Reformer and his legacy. And, as expected, some circles are marking July 10th, 1510 as a sort of Eliadean illud tempus, a foundational moment from which Reformed religious life eternally returns and springs forth anew.
However, few observers expected the Roman Catholic Church to take much notice of the birthday party, given that it anathematized Calvin’s views on justification in 1547, during the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent. Nevertheless, the official Vatican newspaper, The Osservatore Romano, publicly recognized the “extraordinary figure,” on Friday, noting that his impact on modern European history cannot be overestimated. They even conceded that it was “necessary to point out that Calvin was a Christian.” Yet, the compliment was slightly backhanded as it came with the introductory clause, “Considering the strength of arguments against him.” The double edged recognition continued, placing Calvin alongside Jean-Jacques Rousseau as one of “only two men who influenced some Europeans to change course and were strong enough to lead them in a new direction.” Of course the pairing with the philosophe and Jacobin, Rousseau, leaves little room for doubt that the Vatican believes that the course to which Calvin steered Europeans was disastrously wrongheaded. It’s sort of like saying, congratulations John, you’re in my Fave Five list…of heresiarchs. The article finished by noting his “ingenious creation” of Calvinism (remember, creativity is not necessarily a good thing for an institution that prizes tradition above all), remarking that the theological system had successfully resisted “all the changes or revolutions of modern life.” We are left to wonder whether resisting changes to modern life is a good or bad thing in the eyes of the editors, but suspect it might be the purest accolade of all.
All along, the hilariously qualified compliments remind me of that great Flight of the Conchords (FOTC) video, “The Most Beautiful Girl.” Beginning as a low key R & B love poem, the folk comedy duo praises the rare beauty of a girl at a party. Lead singer Jemaine woos her with the line, “Looking at the room, I can tell that you are the most beautiful girl in the……Room.” While Bret echoes, “In the whole wide room.” Lest she faint immediately with joy from the compliment, they go on, “And when you’re on the street, depending on the street, I bet you are definitely in the top 3…good lookin’ girls on the street.” Bret: “Depending on the street.” Jemaine seals the deal with dance moves, kebabs, and the flattering remark that she could be a part-time model, but probably have to keep her normal job. If you haven’t yet watched this FOTC gem, do check it out. But, if anybody feels so inspired as to make a video homage to John Calvin for his birthday, remember that the Vatican believes he is definitely in the top 3 most interesting heretics on the street…..depending on the street.