Lutherans have it easy lifting up their Reformation hero. Martin Luther—bold, amusing, pugnacious, even crude at times—makes an unforgettable character. What playwright or filmmaker could resist the scene with the defenseless monk standing before the nobles of the empire and refusing to recant because “my conscience is captive to the Word of God”?
We Presbyterians and Reformed have it harder. Our man, John Calvin, is not a cartoon superhero. The predominant image of the Genevan reformer is a thin, bearded old man with a look that is dignified, bordering on dour. Calvin was a scholar whose masterpiece, the weighty Institutes of the Christian Religion, was not an instant bestseller like Luther’s fiery pamphlets. He was not given to dramatic gestures, witty repartee, or autobiographical introspection. If the vote for “Reformer of the Millennium” were taken on the basis of “With whom would you rather have a beer?” Calvin wouldn’t have a chance. The German guy would win hands-down.
Yet there is a strong argument to be made that the diffident Calvin was indeed the Reformer of the Millennium. It was he who best explained and institutionalized a renewed Christian faith that went back to the Biblical sources. There is also a story to be told about Calvin: how a man who had no ambition to be a leader of any sort nevertheless found himself guiding a great Reformation. Realizing the dramatic potential in that story is the challenge undertaken in a new play, “Becoming Calvin,” which premiered September 14-23 in Washington, DC.
For the most part, playwright Ann Timmons meets the challenge. Without overt violence and with only a brief romantic aside – Calvin’s happy marriage to the widow Idelette de Bure – Timmons manages to dramatize what is essentially an internal struggle: How would a promising young intellectual find his way through a confusing and dangerous time in the France of the 1530s? Would he follow his penchant for a quiet and studious life, avoiding the religious and political conflicts swirling around him? Or would he risk it all, throwing himself into the conflicts?
The play opens in 1527 with Calvin and a circle of friends as students in Paris. Jonathan Lee Taylor portrays the future reformer as a wiry, energetic young man, yet unsure of his vocation – quite unlike the magisterial figure of later years. We see Calvin and his friends’ excitement at new movements to study the Bible in the original languages and reform a corrupt Catholic Church. A powerful scene at his father’s sickbed shows Calvin’s disgust at the abusive ecclesiastics who had excommunicated the father.
Various mentors encourage the young scholar to use his gifts for a larger cause; however, he remains reluctant to offend the traditionalist authorities. He takes refuge in more esoteric studies. But when his friend Nicholas Cop provokes the authorities with a bold speech championing reform, a wave of persecution strikes their entire circle. Calvin, who had kept his head low, is now a marked man despite himself. Forced to flee France, he is passing through Geneva when a local Protestant preacher begs the learned French exile to help the struggling Genevan church.
Calvin’s decision to stay in Geneva is the turning point of the play. He soon gets whipsawed by city politics and is ordered by the council to leave; however, he is invited back three years later. “Becoming Calvin” ends in 1540 as he decides to return to the troubled city. Against his own inclination, contrary to what he had planned, Calvin finds God’s call in the conflicts that he previously sought to duck. Kneeling in prayer, he is surrounded symbolically by his friends and mentors, laying on hands as if ordaining him for the leadership he is now assuming.
It is this unexpected, undesired call that gives Calvin’s life the purpose that it had lacked, and directs his talents toward the task to which they are fitted: the building of a new kind of church. Geneva became a model for Reformed churches in France, the Netherlands, the British Isles, and far beyond. Thus Calvin’s own life demonstrates the very doctrines of God’s sovereignty, providence, and grace that he proclaims in his writings.
There is some sadness at the end of the play. Calvin’s close circle of friends is split as events force them to make tough choices. Some, like Cop and Calvin, commit themselves to the new Reformed churches. Others – such as the loyal Louis du Tillet, played sensitively by Steve Isaac – cannot bring themselves to forsake the Catholic fold. Friends who once shared the same hopes can only bless one another as they go their separate ways.
Naturally, the playwright takes dramatic liberties to drive her plot, inventing conversations that may never have occurred. Timmons also takes the opportunity to impart a history lesson or two to an audience that may not be familiar with the Reformation. For this purpose she often uses the voice of Queen Marguerite of Navarre, protector of the reformers, who speaks from an exalted perspective that a person immersed in the events likely would not have possessed.
Sometimes Marguerite sounds more like a modern progressive eager to do “a new thing,” when in fact the reformers more typically saw themselves as restoring an old thing (the apostolic church) that had been deformed.
The irony is that, despite their originally conservative intentions, the reformers did actually start something new.
In truth, overt didacticism is unnecessary in this play. It is in no danger of being reduced to an irrelevant historical re-enactment. On the contrary, there is plenty of material in “Becoming Calvin” to prompt reflection in a modern audience.
Young people today too are searching for some sense of purpose to which they can apply their gifts. They too can be tempted to avoid great conflicts that threaten their personal peace. But often they will find God’s will, and their own purpose, only as they engage the conflicts. They must be prepared to pay a price, as Calvin did, in leaving the places that are comfortable to them and sometimes being parted from dear friends who go in different directions.
Perhaps, with interest and support elsewhere, this thought-provoking play may find audiences far beyond Washington, D.C.
The play was commissioned in 2009 by The Reformed Institute of Metropolitan Washington. More information about the play is available at www.refromedinstitute.org
By Alan F.H. Wisdom, The Layman, October 16, 2012
Alan F.H. Wisdom, a freelance writer and PCUSA elder, is an adjunct fellow with the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.