31 Days, 31 Books
The book John Calvin: His Roots and Fruits looks like a marketing disaster. The cover, originally, was not designed as eye candy and the box at the bottom indicating that this book was a part of the International Library of Philosophical and Historical Studies was not exactly the message to catch the buyer. When I first saw the book, I really wanted it. But I wanted it because it was required reading for the American History class I was taking at Texarkana College. To understand American history, you had to understand the Colonial era, and to understand the Colonial era, you had to understand the people who settled in the colonies, and to understand those people, you had to understand Calvinism. Basically, Professor Wood assigned the book, so I bought it.
And I read it. And since we were going to be tested over it, I read it a second time. And I underlined in it extensively. The girl who sat behind me in class told me before the test that she had not read the book. As it turned out, the test was a series of essay questions and we could use the book. I made a B on the test, an 87. The girl behind me made an A. I was stumped.
Later in the semester, Mr. Wood assigned another book by C. Gregg Singer. It was A Theological Interpretation of American History. It wasn’t required, but reading the book and answering some more essay questions could be done to replace a low grade. At that point, I had a solid A in the class. So, I had no need to buy and read the book. But, Mr. Wood intoned in his commanding bass voice, “Anyone who is a history major needs to read this book.” He might as well have shouted out my name.
I bought it and read it during the long college Christmas break. I thought it was almost totally incomprehensible…and dull. I had thought the same about the Calvin Roots and Fruits book. Something was dawning on me. To borrow from the way C. S. Lewis used chessboard analogies in Surprised by Joy, God was rearranging the chessboard of my life. I was discovering that all the major pieces that I thought were knights, rooks, and bishops, were pawns.
I was a history major. I was a reader. I was a serious, dedicated student. I was training to be a teacher. I was a Christian. I was doing all the necessary things to get through college and then through life. I was only mixed up and confused and wrong about one matter: Everything.
From reading the John Calvin book, it dawned on me that I didn’t know anything about the ‘why’s and therefore’s’ of history. After reading A Theological Interpretation of American History (henceforth, TIAH), I realized something else. I didn’t know much about American history and primarily, I didn’t know how to read. By that, I mean, I did not know how to read a book of ideas, of thought. In short, I didn’t know how to think, how to read thoughtfully, and how to think thoughtfully. I knew stories (and thank God for having some good teachers who helped me along with that).
Thoughtful books for me were like fine art to go on a wall. The problem for me was that there was nothing holding the wall up. In short, I could not begin understanding THE Reformation until I underwent some personal Reformation.
Making sense of history involved my needing an interpretive grid. Mr. Wood liked to call it a Weltanschauung, a World and Life View. Like most 18 years olds, I was vulnerable to whatever worldview peddler came along. After all, I had joined Young Democrats on my first day of college. And I had read and loved Thoreau’s Walden. And my world was changing. Looking back, it seems predestined that the first and most effective Worldview salesman to come my way was peddling Calvinism. The Calvinism was wrapped up in Colonial American history.
We celebrate the Protestant Reformation, but we should not view it as a relic of the past. It is, rather, a pattern of how God works. The ever spreading, ever expanding Kingdom of Grace is reaching all sorts of people in all sorts of places. Luther’s conversion and subsequent actions were world shaking. Calvin’s conversion was only mentioned once by him. He referred to God subduing his stubborn heart. We all are living out Reformation dramas. I had no idea that I would still be working on those same essay questions about John Calvin’s roots and fruits some 40 years after taking that test.