Hardcore Reformed theology from Jake VanDorn

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. …


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  • Antigone10

    I don’t believe in god, gods, or God.  I haven’t seen any strong evidence that there is any higher power that exists, or, assuming that there is one in some way that we can’t yet perceive, it has anything to do with my life.  The churches I was forced to attend made me think that the whole idea of religion was just away to justify being racist, sexist, heterocentric, classist bigots, and when I first learned about TULIP it made me think it was nihilism dressed up in god-language.  Reading the Bible didn’t help- for every “there is no male and female” there was Paul telling women to submit, for every Peter saying all was made clean there was Jesus saying that things that you think about are just as evil as things you do.   

    But reading Slacktivist, and Former Conservative and other blogs have made me see that there is nothing inherent in Christianity that makes it so.  You can read the book and get moral guidelines and wisdom as well as the terrible aspects of it as well.  So, while I’m still going to require some sort of evidence before I give up my Sunday mornings, I just have to say that appreciate what you do.  For pointing out that there are good Christians as well as bad.  And for so clearly defending a vision of God that is beautiful, instead of terrible.

  • Parasum

    ““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?””

    ## Sorry ? What is the questioner asking ?

    Each time I think I know,  the half-grasped meaning slips away. 

  • John Small Berries

    The clip reminded me of a nineteenth-century novel that I read recently (The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, by James Hogg), which took this theology to its logical conclusion: that someone who believes himself to be “justified”, and therefore guaranteed a spot in Heaven, can think himself free to commit any sin without fear of imperilling his soul.

    I tried to summarize it here but couldn’t really do it justice, so here’s the Wikipedia entry on it.

  • All this predestination stuff just looks like another word for “caste system” to me. 

  • BrokenBell

    I think the question is referring to the crucifixion being used as an excuse or justification for God having ultimate power to do anything they wish. That is, if there’s anything God wasn’t already perfectly entitled to do by nature of being God, the crucifixion of Christ removed any limit to their authority. That said, I’m not sure whether the specific question was “But surely you don’t believe in this?” or “What, you mean you don’t believe in this?” Either way, Macdonald’s answer means the same thing, so I don’t think it’s an especially important distinction.

  • Tonio

     In reviewing the remake of Cat People, Harlan Ellison argued that it’s too easy to blame Calvinism on the mindset of Schrader’s films. (approximate quote) “We have see what he thinks of the rest of us inhabiting this vale of tears…He does not like us. He does not, I think, like himself very much.”

  • SMQ

    And yet, despite MacDonald’s theological rejection of Calvinism, his “Lilith” is one of the most powerful illustrations of Irresistible  Grace — both the wonder and the terror of it — to be found anywhere.

  • Pamela Merritt

    Even as a child, I wondered what was so very terrible about The Crucifixion that made it so much worse than the thieves on either side? They could have stolen to feed their families, and also knew what the penalty would be.

  • There’s a poem by Robert Browning that says as much, “Johannes Agricola in Meditation”:

  • Pulp

    Is that the same George MacDonald who wrote “The Princess and the Goblins”?

  • sketchesbyboze

     Oh, absolutely

  • JonathanPelikan

    This. This. thisthisthisthis every inch this.

    ‘Fred, you’re a Credit To Your Religion. :D [to be read in TF2 Heavy’s voice] And you’ve helped me see that people like that are just as common, if not more so, than the other kind, the Conservative kind.  Uh. Still going to need irrefutable proof of the ‘God’ thing but the rest, with the morals and the kindness and charity, etc, we can probably all agree on.’

    Hell, I’ve said before that this blog is the closest I’ve ever been to Attending a Christian Church and I’ve gone physically to a few Baptist congregations younger in my life.

  • Anonymous

    I’m gonna go watch that movie now; it looks really good.  Thank you for clueing me in on it!

  • Well, there’s the ‘Passion of The Christ’ explanation: which is to adamently insist that Jesus suffered the absolute worst beatdown ever suffered by anyone.  (And took it like a Man!!!)  Or, alternatively, that Christ deliberately chose a death reserved for those at the bottom of the social ladder in order to emphasize the overriding message of his ministry; that it was only our vanity that imagined there to be any essential difference between ‘low lifes’ and ‘great men’, and that the morality of any action towards one or the other, good or bad, was precisely the same.

    Of course, chauvanists and authoritarians have never been able to abide the latter explanation.  So dungeon porn it is. 

  • Tricksterson

    It is good but very depressing.  And I’m with the prostitute he’s at least as fucked up as she is.


    I just wish she could have had a happier ending.

  • Tricksterson

    Fed’s statement that he thinks van Dorn would choose his daughter over his god (and I agree) reminds me of scee in Bones in which Temperance (an atheist) and Booth (a Catholic, not a Calvinist) are discussing the story of Abraham and Isaac and he outright says that God Himself could appear before him, point at his son and demand a sacrifice and no way would that happen.

  • David S.

    George C. Scott explains Calvinism in Ten Seconds: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0LzAEn3yZ4

  • Parasum

    The very same. And quite a few other tales of the same kind

  • Parasum

    Thanks :) It seems a strange idea. I can believe that idea,  *if* the “basis” for God’s authority is His grace: but as *often presented* – not always, by any means – God’s power “comes across” as arbitrary & capricious:as though goodness were not that important, compared to being able to do anything. The Christian God is “totalitarian”: but not in the obvious sense – the totalitarianism of  Christ is His total and unreserved self-giving Love, & it is most fully shown on the Cross, & that is what God is really like.   This is miles away from something like Dominionism, which is pre-Christian in temper.  

    ISTM that idea is a serious distortion of the Christian & NT notion of God, and unjust to Calvin’s theology as well. This picture of the “arbitrary God”  allow God’s Goodness & Love to fall out of sight – yet “God is Love”. Which is one reason I really dislike LB – the LB Christ is a monster, a travesty. He is not a God of *grace*, but something all too earthly. LB’s Christ is not a Crucified Christ – and that is a fatal flaw.

    So thanks again.

  • Parasum

    The character’s mistake is that he separates the moral demands of the Gospel (which Calvinism emphasises) from the predestination of the elect. Even worse, the young man’s ideas leave out Christ. Which makes the character’s beliefs little if anything better than  a sort of theistic fatalism in a sub-Calvinist disguise. The irony is that – from a Calvinist POV – if he were of the elect, he would show his election by the goodness of his life. Since his life – in both “accounts” in the novel – is the reverse of good, it seems unlikely that his conviction of being elect was well-founded. A Catholic would say he was committing the sin of presumption.

    Hogg’s story does not take “this theology to its logical conclusion” – it takes one side of that theology, and only that, which results in a grossly unChristian caricature. Not on Hogg’s part, but on the character’s part (ably assisted by his mother & step-father). 

    The Puritans,who were Calvinists, have a far healthier notion of how Christians should live. Thomas Brooks (d.1680) write a whole book on assurance of election (which is what the “hero” of the story thought he had), and emphasises the importance of Christian holiness on just about every page. It’s impossible to read it, & think that Calvinism is not aware of the need for Christians to live in a  holy & morally upright way. It is a powerful rebuke to the idea that one “can think [one]self free to commit any sin without fear of imperilling his soul.” Ralph  Venning (another superb Puritan author, of the same period) tears that idea to shreds. (His book is online, FWIW.)

  • Parasum

     It can be used as a reason for chauvinism and pride, certainly – but that is an abuse of it. The only reason human beings are predestined to salvation, is that they are united to Christ – not by their choice, but solely by His gift. Predestination is not something one can deserve – it is a gift of God’s love to those whom He has chosen for salvation even “before” the world was made.

    There  is *nothing* in the predestined to attract God’s Love for them: it’s the other way round – His Love for them, freely-given, is what makes them lovable to Him; is what brings them into being. And they are loved “in Christ”, not in separation from Him.  It is Christ Who is, supremely & uniquely, the Predestined; He is the Origin, Foundation, Source, Cause & Rationale of human predestination. Without Him, predestination is meaningless. 

  • ako

     Well, there’s the ‘Passion of The Christ’ explanation: which is to
    adamently insist that Jesus suffered the absolute worst beatdown ever
    inflicted on anyone.  (And took it like a Man!!!)

    I always found the Worst Beatdown Ever version deeply unsatisfying, not the least because I remember a child abuse case reported in my local newspaper that was far more brutal than any account of the crucifixion.  (It’s probably best if I don’t share the details.)  The whole idea falls down not only on a moral level (“I/my son got hurt the absolute worst, so I get to burn anyone I like in Hell!”), but on a factual level.

  • Joshua

    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? 

    My reading of it, fwiw:

    Do you really think that Christ’s suffering could somehow permit an omnipotent God to do anything He wasn’t free to do anyway? Really?

  • Joshua


  • Yeah, still looks like another word for “caste system” to me.

    Fred’s blog is hardly my first introduction to the idea of predestination. The way it has been consistently used in this actual world is to say that the top belong on the top because God loves them and the bottom belong on the bottom because they are not good enough for God to love them. And your explanation doesn’t wash that away — actually, I see no way in which your explanation opposes that idea. 

  • P J Evans

     The impression I had of Calvinists and predestination was that you’re never sure that you’re among the elect – so you do everything you can to be a better Christian. But the last real Calvinist in my family was probably my great-grandfather, who, as an elder, shocked some of his fellow church-members by supporting dances for younger members in the church hall (the reasoning was that they’d be someplace safe and with known chaperones, so they weren’t going to get into trouble).

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Well, there’s the ‘Passion of The Christ’ explanation: which is to adamently insist that Jesus suffered the absolute worst beatdown ever inflicted on anyone. (And took it like a Man!!!) 

    I recently read a book by an Australian Jesuit that addresses the problem of suffering. In the introduction he tells the story of a scene he observed when visiting someone in a nursing home. Another resident was a nun of advanced age, who was in considerable physical pain caused by various age-related health conditions. She was being visited by another sister from her order, who encouraged her to think of how Jesus suffered on the cross. She replied “He was only on the cross for three hours”. The author says–very good point.

  • That God is still a monster for creating billions of non-elect human beings only to have them tortured for eternity.

  • “But the last real Calvinist in my family was probably my great-grandfather, who, as an elder, shocked some of his fellow church-members by supporting dances for younger members in the church hall….”

  • Sagrav

    Even on a mythical level, Jesus’s beat down doesn’t rate at the top.  Take Prometheus. for example.  He crossed Zeus one too many times, and he was condemned to have his internal organs ripped out by an eagle, only to have his body heal itself up to allow the whole ordeal to occur all over again.  This apparently went on for many years until Heracles finally saved him.

  • alfgifu

    I’m not a Calvinist, and I find predestination to be extremely problematic as an idea.  That said, I think the best safeguard against it being a caste system is supposed to be that nobody knows in advance who is predestined for salvation and who isn’t.  So some people are better off than others, but they don’t know it.  Nobody can presume to know who is saved, so it’s best to put your effort into improving yourself to make sure you make the cut.

    Parasum, please do correct me if that’s wrong.

    Mind you, even if I’m right, that’s a belief system with a massive “use me to enforce the kyriarchy” sign branded into it at every level.

  • Tricksterson

    Crucifixion was at the time a punishment for political crimes.  Jesus was crucified for supposedly claimimg to be King of the Jews.  The “thieves” to either side of him were probably sicarii, guerillas fighting the Roman occupation.  Same thing with Baraabbas.  Terrorists?  Freedom fighters?  I wasn’t there.

  • Tricksterson

    Or Odin who speared himself to the world tree, “A sacrifice of myself to myself” and hung there for nine days.  Not to mention giving up his eye.

  • Parasum

    *If* that were an accurate description of the situation, He certainly would be. But it is not accurate. 

    Though quite why I’m defending a theology to which I don’t entirely subscribe, not being a Calvinist, IDK :)  Anyway, that  moral objection to reprobation leaves out too much, which is why it is a caricature of Calvin’s position.  The real objection to reprobation, AFAICS, is that it is not in fact how God acts. For Calvin, God is glorified in the reprobation of the lost and the salvation of the elect alike. But, this implies that God is not “engaged” either way: whereas the NT picture shows a God Who has a decided preference in favour of the salvation of mankind. 

    Since the sufferings of Christ are in some sense the sufferings of God, the Cross shows this preference or bias in action.

  • Parasum

    I’m not a Calvinist by churchmanship – only in some ways. I like his insistence on God’s centrality :)

    That said, from a Calvinist POV, people can gain assurance of their own salvation. This is regarded as something quite normal,  indeed highly desirable. Where probably all Christians would agree is that there is no way of knowing another person’s state of soul before God: only God knows that. In Catholicism there are a few examples of  Saints  being able to read consciences – but this is very rare indeed, & not at all usual. Nor is it within the capacity of unaided human nature: it is strictly supernatural.

    Like the handle BTW :)

  • Parasum

    Every day for 30,000 years, apparently.