John Calvin, party pooper?

Jean_Calvin.jpg It's a big year for anniversary events, isn't it? Not only is Charles Darwin getting his moment in the spotlight in Rome, but the Dutch are celebrating the 500th anniversary of Protestant patron saint John (born Jean) Calvin.

Let me put that another way.

Judging by what we learn in a revealing Reuters piece on how the Dutch are conning Calvin's lessons to say that they are celebrating might be overdoing it.

Judging by what I learned at in church history class at seminary, Calvin doesn't seem to have been known as a big party guy himself.

According to the clever lede, the Dutch are analyzing the lessons of the 16-century Reformer in a way that might make the old boy proud:

Snuffed-out candles, skulls and hourglasses were how the Old Masters portrayed the vanity of greed. For the Dutch, the credit crunch has revived a moralistic stance from back when the first share was issued in Amsterdam.

Erupting on the 500th anniversary of the birth of Protestant theologian John Calvin, the financial crisis has spawned a splurge of puritanical debate and self-analysis.

You're not kidding. Snuffed-out candles, skulls and hourglasses? Even forgetting the Old Masters, we're in foreign territory here. It's hard to imagine a prominent American politician being quoted making such a statement while leading a government, but the Dutch system of democracy allows for divergent voices in a coalition:

Even Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende has turned to Calvin to explain the financial mess.

"If the credit crisis makes anything clear, it shows we need to strengthen the moral anchors of our economy," Balkenende wrote in an article discussing what Calvin could teach us today.

"At its core this is also a moral crisis, caused by greed, money-mindedness and egoistic trading."

Part of the reason I really liked this article is that it covers religion with a fresh eyes, showing how in a secular democracy, one of the heads of state has mined the lessons of a dead theologian and bluntly applied the lessons to his own country. I wonder if making that scathing kind of ethical analysis may be more normative for politicians in smaller nations with more homogenous populations and political points of view. Readers might find themselves asking questions they don't usually ask-and that's a good thing!

Happily, the Dutch apparently have not surrendered completely to sobriety:

A special edition magazine titled "Calvin Glossy" presents the French theologian as the "Barack Obama of the 16th Century," and compares his connection with the ordinary man and his emphasis on responsibility with that of the new U.S. President.

One religious daily, Trouw, is offering an online test to assess people's Calvinist credentials. Those agreeing with the statement "I should work harder" and disagreeing with "I like to dine in luxury" will boost their score.

It would have been very helpful if the writer had cut to the chase earlier to explain the political context in which Calvin's birthday is being celebrated:

Governing in coalition with a small but vocal religious party, The Christian Union, as well as center-left Labor, Christian Democrat Balkenende has for some years been addressing perceptions that moral values need reasserting in the Netherlands.

Stricter policies have emerged on marijuana-selling coffee shops and prostitution, and the Christian Union has also pushed for restrictions on Sunday shopping.

So what's going on here? Are we seeing a wave of moral and religious reform sweep through Holland--or, at the writer implies, is this the fruit of age-old tensions in the Dutch national character? And what is a "forward" trade in herring?

Let's not even talk about the marijuana and the prostitution-there's something fishy about that herring idea.

By the way, I believe that we are also celebrating the 500th birthday this year of the French prophet Nostradamus--I can hardly wait.

Picture of Jean Calvin from Wikimedia Commons

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