Thursday, December 16, 2010

Some of my best friends are Calvinists

Whenever I write about the environment on this blog, I get a lot of interest from the global warming skeptics, and judging by my NORAD-command-post-type situation room map that shows where in the world my readers are at any moment, a lot of them live in places where you'd think people would positively be praying that the global warming scientists are right:
I mean, as much as I like Scandinavia and Scotland, even their admirers and fans have to admit they could do with a bit of warming, especially this time of year.

So perhaps it was one of those Scots readers who on behalf of the spiritual founder of the Scottish church took umbrage the other day at my use (in a post on global energy consumption and environmentalism) of the term "Calvinistic" to mean sternly moralizing and convinced of the sinfulness of man; he took me to task for this bit of "pseudo-history" and went on to explain that John Calvin not only gave us the Reformation but industrial efficiency, economic justice, the modern essay form, and I think one or two other things.

I think even I know better than to get into theological disputations, which cannot possibly be my strong point, and on this score I'll just point out that my dictionary includes in its definition of "Calvinism" (along with a belief in salvation through grace alone) the belief in the moral depravity of mankind, which was rather my point.

But I do know something about literary forms, and here I'm sure I'm on more solid ground in saying that Calvin cannot possibly be the guy to thank for the modern essay; surely Montaigne is more on the mark. What Calvin did bequeath in the way of literary form is the Scottish church sermon, a fifteen minute set-piece that has followed the same form since John Knox preached the first.

I know this because one of my favorite books of all time says so. I quote from native Scotsman R. B. Robertson's Of Sheep and Men, the finest bit of travel writing I've ever read, one of the funniest books I've ever read, and certainly the funniest book about sheep I've ever read.

The tour de force of the book is his account of the Billy Graham Crusade's appearance in Scotland, to which Robertson devotes a full chapter whose effect I can only compare to one of those Mark Twain stories whose full humor creeps up on you as it builds and builds to its convulsive climax.

"During the closed season for sin, which synchronizes pretty exactly with the lengthening evenings and the end of the winter run of salmon," Robertson begins, "religion becomes the principal pastime of our parish, as it has always been the principal national pastime of the Scots. So, when Evangelist Billy Graham picked our little country of Scotland for one of his biggest jamborees to date, he was not bringing an unknown commodity to our people."

Robertson notes at one point that "Graham, perhaps because he is at least partly of our race, followed the pattern" of the traditional Scots sermon pretty closely, which Robertson explains thusly:
The sermon is a sort of national institution in Scotland, and it is expected to fit a pattern which has been precisely defined since John Knox preached the first. It must consist of six parts: the Text; followed by a Firstly (explanation); a Secondly (theology); a Thirdly (illustration), and two Finally Brethrens, the first of which should give us a brief tantalizing glimpse of the Heaven we have undoubtedly forfeited because of our sins or because we are not of the Elect, and the second a much longer description of the Hell we are undoubtedly doomed to for all eternity.