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Interview with Richard Mouw

(Brian Orme)Richard, in your new book Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, you take a scene from the movie Hardcore to expound on the issues of Calvinism and culture; do you think that the Calvinistic beliefs inherent in the TULIP are relevant for today’s world?

(Richard Mouw)Yes, and I set out–in writing my book–to try to demonstrate that relevance. The Hardcore scene gave me the sort of vehicle I wanted: a dour Dutch Calvinist elder trying to explain what it means to be a Calvinist to a promiscuous pagan Valley Girl who was clueless about anything traditional in religion. What does Calvinism have to say to such a person? I believe with all my heart that the basic message of Calvinism speaks to the deepest issues of the human condition in our own day.

(BO)Do you think that Calvinism has received a bad wrap?

(RM)Oh, definitely. The common image of Calvinism–and I hear it portrayed in this way often, even by people who know some things about theology–is that the religion of John Calvin is a mean-spirited, narrow-minded perspective where a nasty God decides to save a few people while arbitrarily consigning the vast portion of the human race to eternal suffering.

(BO)In your book you speak about going beyond the TULIP doctrines; what does this mean? Do you think John Calvin would agree?

(RM)Yes, in the sense that "going beyond" in this case means building upon, drawing out implications for a larger vision of life. I argue that the TULIP doctrines are a complex answer to the question, "How does a human being get right with God?" TULIP comes down to this: God is sovereign. We can’t save ourselves. It is all about God’s grace. But then the next question should be: "And then what? What should happen after we are saved?" And here the answer centers on divine sovereignty. God is a sovereign ruler who calls into being a people who are meant to obey his rule in all areas of life. We are saved to be a part of this people, the church. This means an active life of promoting the cause of God’s Kingdom in all areas of life. Calvin himself certainly saw his theology as having implications for politics, economics, a concern for the poor and the suffering. We serve a God who, as the great 19th century Dutch Calvinist, Abraham Kuyper, put it, claims every square inch of the entire creation as that which belongs to him. We need to serve God on all of those square inches that are available to us.

(BO)Your book provides a refreshing perspective on how to live a life that has the freedom to question God while still holding onto his sovereignty; how do we keep a healthy balance in these areas?

(RM)The answer–finding the right balance–lies in keeping a close personal relationship with God. Our questioning cannot be an expression of a cynical spirit about God’s purposes. It has to be a questioning that takes place with a real sense of being in the presence of God. The psalms are the right model here. The psalmist often complained about God, but he complained to God. Whatever our mood, our circumstances, our questions, we need to maintain the realization that we live every moment coram deo, before the face of God.

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(BO)What are some suggestions for making meaningful connections with a postmodern culture?

(RM)Postmodern people distrust abstractions and are attracted to personal stories. This means that we do best not to defend doctrines as abstract truths but rather to testify to others by telling the story of our own faith journey. For me as a Calvinist, that suggests that rather than spending a lot of time defending the doctrine of total depravity or of election I would do best to share my deeply felt sense of my own unworthiness, and to point people to the way in which I have experienced God’s gracious workings in my life.

(BO)What do you hope people will receive in reading your book?

(RM)A lesson in taking seriously theological perspectives that have stood the test of time, and in thinking about how these ancient truths can be made relevant to folks who hang around places like Las Vegas. And, I hope too, the ability to have a sense of humor about our deepest convictions!

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