by Roger Olson
March 14, 2014
That is probably the question I’m asked most often when I talk about the “new Calvinism” that has swept up thousands of Christian young people in the last twenty to thirty years. There’s no doubt this has been and is a religious phenomenon. Most recently even the New York Times has taken notice; a few years ago Time magazine mentioned it as one of ten great ideas changing the world. Everyone seems to be talking about it even though it’s not exactly new.
I first became aware of the Young, Restless, Reformed Movement (YRRM) before anyone thought to give it that moniker. I was teaching theology at Baptist-related Bethel College and Seminary (now Bethel University) in Minnesota. John Piper had left the faculty to take the pulpit at nearby Bethlehem Baptist Church about a year before I arrived. He was still much discussed by students and faculty alike and seemed to have been a polarizing figure on campus. People tended either to love him or despise him. I had read his article about “Christian Hedonism” in HIS magazine (the now defunct publication of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship) before then and had met Piper when I first visited Bethel a few years before joining its faculty. (I still have that article in my files! I tore it out of the issue thinking maybe someday it would be important to have. Little did I know….)
Not long after taking my teaching position at Bethel I began to hear colleagues calling certain students (mostly males) “Piper Cubs.” It wasn’t long before I could identify them myself. They tended to quote Piper a lot and be passionate about Calvinism. One told me I wasn’t a Christian because I wasn’t a Calvinist!
Over the following years (approximately 1984 to 1999) I witnessed the beginnings of the YRRM. It was born and then grew and coalesced around Piper’s pastoral conferences at Bethlehem Baptist Church. Sure, there were other champions of “Reformed theology” among conservative evangelicals. Among them were one of my own seminary professors—James Montgomery Boice, pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. But none seemed to capture the attention and devotion of Piper—especially among the youthful crowd.
Sometime during the 1990s I recognized a parallel, sociologically speaking, between the budding YRRM and an earlier evangelical phenomenon—one I had also witnessed without joining during my seminary and graduate school days. That was the Bill Gothard “Basic Youth Conflicts” seminar movement. Those old enough will remember with me the popularity and passion of that movement. When I was in seminary some students were noted for quoting Gothard and talking enthusiastically about his teachings. It seemed Gothard (and his surrogates and followers) had all the answers to life’s problems and the main one was “God’s chain of command.” Anyone who resisted the message was treated as ignorant or unspiritual (or both).
The Gothard movement grew and spread and was “all the talk” among evangelicals throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. It finally somewhat fizzled out in the 1990s while leaving a lasting impression and legacy.
One thing I noticed about fellow seminarians and others who followed Gothard and promoted his message as “the solution” for every behavioral problem was their lack of critical thinking. They did not seem open to any criticism, however gentle, of the man or his message. As I watched and listened to them carefully, and often attempted to engage them in dialogue about the Gothard message (which I regarded as overly simplistic if not downright dangerous), I noticed a common tendency to equate Gothard’s message with God’s truth and reject any opportunity to sit back, consider it critically, and question its ultimacy.
It seems to me that many “Gothardites” (all that I met) were reluctant to think for themselves; they seemed to need someone like Gothard, an evangelical guru or pope, to think for them. In their eyes and to their ears he had all the answers. His message became their ideology and crutch, a substitute for the risk of critical thinking for themselves. They struck me as immature (even those in their middle years). They were uncomfortable with any ambiguity or uncertainty; they craved someone like Gothard to put the mess of life into some order for them so they wouldn’t have to deal with it themselves.
In my opinion, for what it’s worth (and this is admittedly mere opinion based on my own observation and reflection), there is a certain kind of personality that craves the comfort of absolute certainty as escape from ambiguity and risk and they find it in religion or politics of a certain kind. The religion and/or politics that attracts them is ideological in nature—absolutistic, logical (or seemingly so), simple and practical.
It ties up all loose ends and leaves nothing important out. It explains everything around a central unifying theme whether that be “God’s chain of command” or “the glory of God” or “American exceptionalism” or “reverence for life” or “feminism” or “self-esteem” or “prosperity.” Of course none of these actually do explain everything; they only seem to because the person following the ideology puts blinders on to shut out everything the shiny ideology doesn’t explain.
The common feature of this personality is passionate commitment to a finite person or movement and its central idea to the exclusion of objectivity and critical thought. Such persons flee from reading anything critical of the ideology. They cast aspersions at those who disagree or dare to criticize. The ideology is the key to unlock life’s mysteries—for everyone. They never say “This appeals to me and I find it helpful.” They must say instead “This is the one necessary truth for everyone for solving life’s problems.”
Years ago Eric Hoffer identified this as the “true believer” syndrome.
Does this exhaustively explain the YRRM? No. But I think it goes far toward shedding light on why so many people are so passionately attracted to it and then tend to grow out of it over time—as they encounter more of life’s complexity and find that it cannot be fitted into a simple formula.
Another explanation for its popularity, however, is simply its faddish nature. There’s another personality type that is simply the follower of the crowd. Calvinism is popular on college and university campuses and in evangelical youth culture generally so many get caught up in it just because it gives them a “place” to belong. There’s a lot of energy and enthusiasm there and many passionate leaders of the movement are attractive, articulate and, to all appearances, spiritually alive (without necessarily being ecclesiastically committed, by the way). The crowd follows such people.
None of what I have said here discounts the possibility that the YRRM is also a work of the Holy Spirit. I believe the charismatic movement of the 1960s was that, but I also know from personal experience that many people who “joined” it did so to find comfort and community and refused to think critically for themselves about it. When certain features of the movement were challenged many of its followers resisted angrily and labeled the critics unspiritual. The same is true of the “Jesus People Movement” of the 1970s. It, too, was a work of God, a genuine renewal of spiritual vitality, but many people got caught up in it because it was popular without ever considering its darker sides or thinking critically about the nonsense that often appeared within it.
My point is that, in my opinion, there are ideological and faddish dimensions to the YRRM that help explain its popularity. By no means does that detract from the good that it does. The passion for missions, for example, is certainly a benefit. But the lack of self-criticism and tendency to take itself so seriously and passionate commitment to it as a movement (and especially to its leaders) all point to ideology. And the shallow avoidance of ecclesial commitment on the parts of many of its followers points to faddishness.
Will the YRRM die away as did the Gothard phenomenon? (Not that it is gone entirely, but it is certainly not the phenomenon it was.) I am not sure, but I suspect so. Something else will replace it—in a few years.
The church ought to encourage absolute devotion and loyalty to Jesus Christ alone and critical thinking toward all his appointed and self-appointed representatives and spokespersons and their messages—especially insofar as they tend to be totalizing.
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