One might think it a bummer timing-wise for John Piper, releasing his new poem/video foray into the arts just before Beyoncé surprised the music world with a new album (and accompanying videos), but with the amount of tweets and Facebook shares it’s getting, it appears Beyoncé and Piper might just have different enough crowds for both bask in the limelight for a while. Very surprising right?!
What was surprising to me was just how starkly obvious it is who is targeted and probably moved by the video for “The Calvinist.” The style and content of the poem itself is obvious enough: a conflicted but committed Calvinist, extolling a powerful God above in every sphere of his life. However it is the visuals (as is often the case) that really drives home just who the target audience–the theological community to be touched by such a piece–is. Like the main character, it is the white American middle-class male (WAMM), whose God is talking to him. I encourage you to watch it if you haven’t before reading my thoughts, because it’s precisely the feel of this guy’s life that captures the theology and sentiment Piper’s aiming for.
Now I do not intend to smear Piper here, but merely provide a juxtaposition, or imaginative alternate visual accompaniment to these words, to show just how important this video starring a WAMM is to the poem. My claim, is that it has to be a white American middle-class male because the words and the theology of the poem would be puzzling or even offensive in most other visual contexts.
As a WAMM who’s privileged, got a virtually nuclear family, respectable work, time to wander the woods with his moleskin, and take long jogs, the poem fits the bill. What he needs is humility (he is fallible), a sense of appreciation for the pretty cushy life he appears to have, a continued faithfulness to fight the good fight, and above all, an understanding that God is the source of all of this blessing.
But you see, this is exactly what connects with this dude, with a young Christian man whose God serves to keep him in line, whose worship is warranted based on who he is in his power and grandeur. Indeed, it is a kingly “God above,” for whom the ocean is only a “thimbleful,” that has the majesty to pacify any quarries this young man might have. This is the most suitable God for keeping the WAMM faithful and in the word, right? For it is the sheer sublime vision of the transcendent potter vs. clay God that dishes out the perfect recipe of humility and triumphalism the WAMM needs. He needs to be humbled for sure, by the sublime immensity of his God, but he also needs a vision of the triumphal end to help him boot-strap it through to the end, and beyond.
Imagine though, for a second, if you can, the visual of an urban center. No better yet, go watch the opening scenes of Detropia, a recent documentary of the decay of Detroit. What feel would this poetic reading have without the WAMM? What if the person depicted what as young mother sitting in a waiting room at a resource center? How would “The Calvinist” feel to us with that subject? Confusing. Misplaced in it’s grandeur. Way too triumphal. Pious. Macho. Maybe even offensive.
My point is not that every theological poem Piper writes should fit any context. Of course, the form demands a gender and some loose narratives to embody the poem. Rather, my point is that theologies evidence tendencies to better expression in some contexts over others. The Calvinist, is the story of the God the WAMM needs, but not many others. Is this just happenstance? Could Piper have just as easily capture the Calvinist ethos with a poem and video set in Detropia? I highly doubt it…
What is clear I think, is that what the WAMM needs to hear about God or write in his moleskin journal is a far cry from many others contexts, and the fact that The Calvinist works terrifically well for the WAMM–it’s arch and feel is spot on–but might feel ‘all bad’ in most other contexts, is reason to give pause. All theology is contextual, and theologized art is too, but we must look for why the coherences between theology and art obtain where they do. Of course, Max Weber long ago pointed to the “elective affinity” between Calvinism and Capitalism. Have we here an evidence of an similar sort elective affinity between the WAMM and the triumphal Calvinism of the Piperian brand.
I think so and I don’t like it.