There has been a resurgence of Calvinism among American evangelicals, and a growing, expanding affection for Jonathan Edwards. Briallen Hopper of Yale wonders, though, would today’s New Calvinists would want Edwards as their pastor? Reflecting on Susan Stinson’s novel about Edwards, Spider in a Tree, and her own childhood experience of an American Calvinist church, Hopper thinks not.
“There is space in modern American Calvinism for a certain measure of awe or desire, but for many of the ‘young, restless, Reformed,’ Calvinism’s main appeal is what Reformed theologian J.I. Packer calls ‘passionate thinking’: the challenge of wrestling and mastering abstractions; the thrill of fitting theological puzzle pieces perfectly together. But how did American Calvinists go from writhing in public in the eighteenth century to more buttoned-up forms of religious expression in the twenty-first? Why aren’t today’s young Reformed doctrine nerds still shouting glory through their tears and throwing their prized possessions into the flames?”
“As much as modern Calvinists want to claim Edwards, they would likely have a hard time having him as their minister. Historic revivalist American Calvinism doesn’t fit too well with the New Calvinist emphasis on rigor and dignity. As Stinson’s novel suggests, it is risky, irrational, and potentially highly undignified to actually let yourself feel the emotional implications of Calvinist theology: to experience the squirming self-loathing of the wholly despised, the paralyzing and shattering abasement of the utterly helpless, and the wild and trembling abandonment of a sinner glutted on grace. Most people would rather not see themselves as a scorched or soaring spider. This is why so many contemporary Christians who adopt this theology intellectually often don’t take it on board emotionally. But perhaps that’s just as well. The loss of ecstasy and the diminishment of bodily experience in American Calvinism is a real loss. But Stinson’s novel shows us just how soul-crushing that experience could be.”
— Daniel Silliman