One of my favorite movie moments was finally posted as a clip on YouTube:
That’s George C. Scott and Season Hubley in the 1979 movie Hardcore, written and directed by Paul Schrader. And the scene really does, as the title of the YouTube posting says, describe “Calvinism in Three Minutes” — sadly cutting off just before Hubley’s line about a dachshund.
Hardcore is, in many ways, a retelling of an ancient story — the hero’s journey to the underworld in defiance of the gods. The difference, as this clip shows, is that this is a Calvinist retelling of this myth.
Paul Schrader, who also wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, is a Calvin College graduate and a child of the heavenly kingdom of Grand Rapids. Schrader set this scene beautifully. It is at once deeply respectful of his Calvinist heritage and deeply subversive of it.
George C. Scott as Jake VanDorn presents the gospel of TULIP honestly and accurately, and Scott conveys the character’s abiding conviction in these theological principles.
Yet it’s all presented in the context of VanDorn as a loving father in pursuit of a lost child. Whether this reinforces or undermines the doctrines he describes seems uncertain — for Schrader, for VanDorn, for the audience. VanDorn believes this is all true, but fears what it means for his own daughter. Perhaps she is one of the elect chosen by God for “limited atonement” and his pursuit of her is a means of this divine grace. But he suspects the opposite is true. He fears that his daughter is not among the elect, and that his efforts to rescue her are counter to the will of God and, therefore, futile.
And that is where the doubt creeps in, revealed in Scott’s subtle attempts to conceal it. Because, as a father, Jake VanDorn doesn’t give a damn whether or not his daughter is among God’s own elect.
If you asked VanDorn which he would choose, his God or his daughter, he would say his God. And then he would recite, with the same devout precision that he here recites the five points of TULIP, the formula that Calvinism provides in lieu of theodicy. That is what his belief says he ought to say and that is what he believes he ought to say.
But we know that he knows it’s not true. By this point in the story, we’ve seen this man pursue his daughter with relentless courage. We know that if it came down to it and he had to choose between his daughter and his God, then his God could go to hell. He fears that this may mean that he, himself, is not among the elect and that fear cuts to the very core of his identity. But it’s still no contest. Jake VanDorn is a Dutch Reformed Calvinist and he is a father who loves his daughter, and if he cannot be both of those things, then he will be the latter.
This is why we like VanDorn, even despite Schrader’s and Scott’s refusal to make him easily likable. He’s something like a Calvinist bodhisattva — willing to forgo his own election for the sake of others.
And that willingness is ultimately what sweeps away the attractive tidiness of the five-point theology he articulates so clearly. It shows that the love Jake VanDorn has for his daughter exceeds the love of the God of TULIP. And if God is anything less than the most loving, then God is less than God.
I had written all of the above, and then, courtesy of Split Frame of Reference, happened across George MacDonald’s sermon on atonement. MacDonald, a 19th-century Scottish writer and minister, is here rejecting a separate aspect of Calvinist doctrine, but his argument reminds me of Jake VanDorn and the impossible idea that a loving father would ever accept allowing his child to be doomed:
“But you do not believe that the sufferings of Christ, as sufferings, justified the supreme ruler in doing anything which he would not have been at liberty to do but for those sufferings?”
I do not. I believe the notion as unworthy of man’s belief, as it is dishonoring to God. … Also there is another factor in the theory, and that is unbelief — incapacity to accept the freedom of God’s forgiveness; incapacity to believe that it is God’s chosen nature to forgive, that he is bound in his own divinely willed nature to forgive. No atonement is necessary to him but that men should leave their sins and come back to his heart. But men cannot believe in the forgiveness of God. Therefore they need, therefore he has given them a mediator. And yet they will not know him. They think of the father of souls as if he had abdicated his fatherhood for their sins, and assumed the judge. …