A Movie Illustration of What’s Wrong with Calvinism

A Movie Illustration of What’s Wrong with Calvinism November 18, 2012

A Movie Illustration of What’s Wrong with Calvinism

Spoiler alert! If you intend to watch “Ruby Sparks” (a 2012 movie now on DVD) and you don’t want to know how it ends, stop reading now.

I make no claim to being a movie critic. I know nothing about production values and often like movies critics hate. This one is probably not a very good movie—in terms of what critics like. It’s sappy, maudlin, unbelievable, etc. Nevertheless, my wife and I enjoyed it. It’s a decent little story somewhat along the lines of “Lars and the Real Girl.” Just sweet and kind of silly and utterly impossible (like all those time travel movies).

I seriously doubt the movie’s writer or producer had theology in mind, but many movies have what I call theological analogies, even when it seems highly unlikely their makers were thinking about theology. Usually I try to block out my analytical mind when watching a movie and just enjoy it (as much as possible). At the end of this movie, however, I declared (probably much to my wife’s dismay) “That’s a great analogy to Calvinism and why it doesn’t work!” (I have to say, though, that she then joined in the conversation and made some great observations.)

Here’s the plot summary. A young writer wrote a blockbuster best seller that, like Catcher in the Rye, caught on especially among young people and has been used in high school literature classes. He’s a hero to his many fans, but his private life is a mess. He has several afflictions including social phobia and writer’s block. (I observed early on that the movie’s writer was no doubt comparing him with J. D. Salinger and, indeed, that comes out at the end when Catcher in the Rye is specifically mentioned.)

What torments him the most, however, is his utter inability to find a girlfriend. He was in a relationship, but it ended badly. Now he can’t seem to talk to women at all. His therapist assigns him to write about his ideal girlfriend. So he reluctantly does. He begins to dream about the young woman he is inventing in his mind and on paper. Then, by some kind of magic, she appears in his house—acting as if she were his girlfriend and had been for some time. His reaction is amazing to watch. (The lead actor is actually quite good.)

To make a long story short (as they say), the writer discovers that he can control the girlfriend by writing about her. Whatever he writes, she does. His brother doesn’t believe it, so he demonstrates by writing that the girlfriend speaks French. Suddenly, within moments, all she can speak is French. Eventually, the writer becomes disillusioned with this magical phenomenon. He comes to think of the young woman as real which, in the movie, in a sense, she is. Physically, she’s “there.” But he controls her completely. She becomes whatever his momentary whim causes him to write about her.

Finally, he has a kind of nervous breakdown and starts furiously writing sentences that cause her to be like a puppet—just to demonstrate his power over her. Then, in a moment of utter despair, loving her so much, he writes that she is real and free. At that moment she leaves him. He is devastated, but seems to realize it’s better to let her go than keep her as his marionette. Whether she returns to him is left somewhat unclear at the end. The movie leaves the viewer with reason to hope.

So what made the “magic” of being able to control the girlfriend ultimately unsatisfactory? In the denouement scene, which is pretty intense, you see two things happening in the writer’s mind and heart. First, he has compassion on the “girlfriend.” He finally sees her as real, or potentially real. He sees that she is miserable even when he “makes” her joyful. Her “joy” isn’t genuine. It’s manufactured. (Actually, the actress playing the girlfriend does a magnificent job of acting toward the end of the movie. You can see both joy and suffering on her face when the writer is making her “joyful.”) Second, the writer finds that he gets no real satisfaction out of controlling her. Her “joy,” for example, doesn’t give him joy because it’s not really hers, provoked by him through love. He produces it in her by putting it there.

I’m not treating this movie as an allegory. By no means do I regard the writer as “God.” (Unlike, perhaps, in “The Truman Show” where “Christof” is clearly supposed to be God and it’s fair to treat his character that way—as meant to be a God-figure.) Rather, I’m treating “Ruby Sparks” as a parable and it was clearly intended to be such. I take it the writer had in mind the old saw “If you love something, set it free. If it doesn’t come back, it never belonged to you.”

So about what do I see “Ruby Sparks” as a parable?

In his book The Providence of God Calvinist philosopher-theologian Paul Helm says: “Not only is every atom and molecule, every thought and desire, kept in being by God, but every twist and turn of each of these is under the direct control of God.” (p. 22) Yes, of course, he goes on throughout the book to attempt to demonstrate how this is a good thing. But, in the end, it’s unsatisfying for the same reason as the writer’s control of Ruby in the movie.

Toward the end of “Ruby Sparks,” the writer character discovers that what he is having with Ruby is not a relationship but a condition. Ultimately, she is not yet real. Or, if she is real, she is not a person. What he is having with her is not a personal relationship—from either his or her perspective. His perspective that he was having a personal relationship with her was an illusion. And his power to control her was not in any way glorifying or magnifying of him (as he seemed to think at some points). It was not only unfair to her (since he could cause her to be real and free); it was demeaning to him. What he was doing was unethical.

Now, let’s adjust the movie, the parable, just a bit and see what would happen “if.” Imagine that the writer finally decided that controlling Ruby was better than giving her reality and freedom. Better for whom? Well, for both him and her. After all, he could then protect her from the many dangers of being real and free. And he could show off his magical power to his brother (a character in the movie) and his therapist (he does reveal it to both of them). But who would think he was “protecting” her or revealing real ability? All people in their right minds, decent, reasonable people, upon realizing what he was doing to her, would condemn him for it. (In the movie his brother comes to think what he is doing is wrong. His therapist never really believes it.)

Here is my question to Calvinists: even if the writer in the movie treated Ruby with kindness, would you ever agree that he is doing something good—either morally or in terms of showing his greatness? I can’t imagine it. What’s great about using a magical power to control things compared with using persuasion to influence them? And what’s morally good about controlling another person compared with giving them freedom and entering into a real relationship with them?

Of course, Helm, and most Calvinists with him, goes to great lengths to try to show that God is different. It’s okay for God to control his human creatures whereas it would never be okay for humans to do so (except, of course for small children or hopeless imbeciles).

Christian philosopher Vincent  Brümmer (in Speaking of a Personal God) demonstrates conclusively (in my opinion) that “personal relationship” cannot be controlling. To the extent one person in the relationship is being controlled by the other, we must call it a “condition” and not a “relationship.” “For the realization of a personal relationship the initiative of both partners in the relationship is necessary.” (p. 75) (By “initiative” he clearly, in context, is not talking about semi-Pelagianism; he’s talking about consent and reciprocal agency.)

With Brümmer and the vast majority of Christians throughout history, I consider Helm’s view of God’s sovereignty reductive of personal relationship to condition. What the writer in “Ruby Sparks” was experiencing in his “relationship” with Ruby was a condition, not a true relationship. She was merely his puppet. There is nothing truly loving about such a condition. A ventriloquist may claim to “love” his puppet, but anyone hearing that claim would laugh or cry—considering the ventriloquist either joking or crazy. That would be even more the case if the ventriloquist claimed the puppet loved him!

Philosopher Brümmer also demonstrates, rightly, I think, that strict Calvinism (he uses the Canons of Dort as his foil) is ultimately incoherent insofar as it claims that God is so different, so unique, that somehow it’s good and right for God to control humans in such a manner that would never be considered right or good in human experience. If God is so “wholly other,” such that there are no analogies, then, he says, we really do not know anything about God. This is what I’ve been saying here for a long time—almost since the blog’s beginning. Ultimately, strict Calvinism, divine determinism, must posit a “hidden God,” a voluntarist God who has no nature or whose nature is so radically different from ours that we can’t even conceive of it. And, in light of hell, such a controlling, manipulative God cannot be conceived as “good” in any meaningful way.

When Helm says (or anyone says the same even if in other words) that “Not only is every atom and molecule, every thought and desire…every twist and turn of each of these, is under the direct control of God” nothing he says later can ameliorate the determinism of that or avoid the good and necessary consequence that, in light of the Holocaust and hell, God is not good. He can and does assert God’s goodness (nevertheless!), but he cannot explain how such a God would be good or how one could have a genuine relationship with him. No matter what else he says, having said that, the fact remains that, in his view, at least when he wrote that sentence, God is a ventriloquist and we are his puppets—some of us destined by God to be burned up to demonstrate his power and “glory.” There is no way in which this can be considered “good” in any sense of “good” in our ordinary languages.

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