Abraham Kuyper was fond of appealing to John Calvin’s authority on various subjects, but when he turned to the subject of art in his 1898 Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary, he did so in a rather odd way. He said that he was going to look for insights from the Genevan Reformer on the subject precisely because “Calvin himself was not artistically developed.” Since Calvin obviously had no informed opinions to offer regarding artistic specifics, Kuyper argued, we can trust him to have offered his insights purely “from his principles,” which means that “he may be credited with having expounded the Calvinistic consideration of art as such.”
Kuyper does in fact appeal to some “principles” that he attributes to the Reformer. But what seemed to intrigue Kuyper specifically is the way that Calvin—lacking the need to show off his credentials as a lover of the high arts—makes a case for a favorable divine disposition toward popular culture. For Calvin, Kuyper says, God’s aesthetic purposes can be discerned “even when art condescends to become the instrument of mere entertainment to the masses.” An art that takes the form of “common sport” can be the product of “the noble vocation of disclosing to man a higher reality than was offered to us by this sinful and corrupted world.” Any kind of art that serves to “ennoble human life” should be seen “as a gift of God, or, more especially, as a gift of the Holy Ghost.”
However we evaluate Kuyper’s overall interpretation of Calvin’s aesthetic views, it is clear that he had his own interest in putting in a good word for the art of what he referred to as “the masses.” Kuyper was at the height of his political career when he gave the lectures at Princeton. On the same visit he would visit Washington, as a leader in the Dutch Parliament, for a meeting with President McKinley. And in a few years he would be serve a term as Prime Minister of the Netherlands.
Kuyper was known in the Netherlands as an advocate for the ordinary citizenry (de kleine luyden, “the little people”). He sensed, for example, a genuine spiritual indebtedness to peasant folks, speaking fondly of a group of pious members in his first parish led by a young uneducated miller’s daughter, Pietje Baltus, who boldly informed him that she and her friends refused to attend his worship services because of his liberal theology. This encounter was for Kuyper an important step toward an evangelical conversion. “I did not set myself against them,” he later wrote. “In their simple language, they brought me to that absolute conviction in which alone my soul can find rest—the adoration and exaltation of a God who works all things, both to do and to will, according to his good pleasure.”
Throughout his career as a national leader he wrote weekly devotional meditations—widely read by “the masses”—in the newspaper that he had founded. He organized a labor union and a farmers’ federation—there is even a story in the Netherlands (it may be a joke, but it is a telling one) about a group of farmers who, inspired by Kuyper, established a “Society for the Breeding of Goats in Accordance with Reformed Principles.”
The notion, then, that John Calvin would advocate for the kind of “common sport” that served to “ennoble human life” would have struck a chord with Kuyper. And it is a perspective that speaks to our own kind of popular culture.
David MacFadzean is a TV producer who got his start in Hollywood as a writer for the Roseanne show. He later produced Home Improvement, which in the 1990s was for several years the most watched sitcom on television. MacFadzean is a theologically savvy evangelical Christian, and he once told some of us that the consistent theme of Home Improvement was “covenantal fidelity.” The plots featured healthy neighborly relations, and it portrayed a marriage in which, throughout the humorous interactions, a husband and wife stayed faithful to each other, respecting each other’s created dignity.
That, of course, is a case of a piece of popular culture wherein the shaping of the overall message was guided by faith convictions. But the exploring of themes that “ennoble human life” in the efforts of those beyond the borders of their faith communities can also be illuminating for “ordinary” Christians. I spoke recently at a large Pentecostal congregation where I was told that a study group met weekly to discuss the most recent episode of The Walking Dead. This inspired me to use my Netflix account to start the series.
The Walking Dead plots are complex and, frequently, a bit hard to take for my sensibilities. But one scene stands out for me as especially “ennobling.” The group, led by an ex-policeman, is arguing among themselves about next steps after they have experienced yet more loss and death. The structures of civil society have been destroyed and there is no longer any official law-enforcement. The arguments now are about what the group needs to do in order to survive. At a key point, the elderly farmer Herschel sternly addresses the group. It can’t just be about survival, he says: “There is still Law.”
I found that intervention “ennobling.” I have similar reactions to the moral struggles that are featured in The Americans and The Good Wife, to say nothing of occasional displays of good sportsmanship on the football field and the basketball court.
My Calvinist heroes, Calvin and Kuyper, would be pleased about what the Pentecostal congregation’s weekly study group was doing. And that group could take special Pentecost encouragement from Kuyper’s insistence that it is a good thing to explore themes in popular culture. Even there, he believed, we can on occasion discover “a gift of the Holy Ghost.”
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.