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Obsolete Ideas

12 Oct

Back in 1984 I wrote a cover story for Micro Communications magazine on 2400 bps modems. Sending data across the telephone wire at 2,400 bits per second was the hottest thing for PC users. To get a 2400 bps modem to work you manually controlled it by using the arcane de facto standard called the Hayes Command Set. It was state of the art at the time, but ridiculous today.

I got to thinking about this obsolete technology when I came across a story in the current issue of The Economist called “The New Calvins” (p.46) about obsolete theology. It describes a “cadre of  Young Turks” within the 16-million strong Southern Baptist Convention who “are looking back to the 16th century for fresh inspiration.” That is, they are reviving the now dated ideas of John Calvin.

As a rebel against the corrupt and intellectually stagnant Catholic Church at the time, like Martin Luther, Calvin’s ideas breathed life into the Reformation. And like so many theological precepts, his ideas have the odor of obsolescence about them today. He established rules against dancing and swearing. He opposed any theological notions that weren’t his and approved the execution of so-called heretics.

Calvin, who ruled Geneva, Switzerland like a despot until his death in 1564, was the theological inspiration for the Puritans who settled in the New World because Old Europe was too decadent for them. Calvinists hate the idea of free will, so it’s ironic that his ideas continue to appeal to people dwelling in the so-called “land of the free.”

Even more amusing, I think, is that Calvin’s unbending beliefs are taking hold among social conservatives. For example, Calvin was rock solid in his view of predestination. That is, no one has a choice about who he is or what he’ll achieve on this earthly plane because it was all “predestined by the Lord God.” I guess that shoots down the notion that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice.

Calvin also held that “only the Elect will be saved.” In his mind the Elect were pious people who, by outward success and achievement blessed from above, are the most likely individuals who will go to heaven. That will be good news to the likes of Sir Ian McKellen, David Sedaris, and many other modest, successful gays who are obviously among the Elect. But it may distress Calvinists whose homes are in foreclosure.

I know that many of these renegade Baptists are flocking to Calvin because they are among the “greed is good” strain of Protestantism. God’s plan, Calvin argued, is that success on earth translates to a successful election to heaven. As a proof point these new Calvinists underscore Calvin’s approval of usury, the charging of interest on borrowed money, something the awful old Vatican once made illegal in its domain. One problem for these new breed of greedy Calvinists is that Calvin himself only approved of usury for rich people or merchants. Charging the poor interest was, he wrote, immoral.

Another problem for modern Calvinists and the distinctly un-modern views of their hero, is his belief in witches. He sent no less than 34 to be burned at the stake. Social conservative Christine O’Donnell’s protestations about her being a witch would not hold water with Calvin. Once accused in Calvin’s Geneva meant you were all but guaranteed a gruesome end. (And politically it looks that way for the GOP senatorial candidate from Delaware.)

I think if you listen carefully to the tired, discredited theology of John Calvin, you’ll hear the obsolete noise of 2400 bps modems. And it’s not something intelligent people want to hear again.