Cultural Calvinism


By Brantley Thompson Elkins


Most of you have probably seen Steven SpielbergÕs A.I. (2001). If you havenÕt, hereÕs a plot synopsis from

In the not-so-far future the polar ice caps have melted and the resulting raise of the ocean waters has drowned all the coastal cities of the world. Withdrawn to the interior of the continents, the human race keeps advancing, reaching to the point of creating realistic robots (called mechas) to serve him. One of the mecha-producing companies builds David, an artificial kid which is the first to have real feelings, especially a never-ending love for his "mother", Monica. Monica is the woman who adopted him as a substitute for her real son, who remains in cryo-stasis, stricken by an incurable disease. David is living happily with Monica and her husband, but when their real son returns home after a cure is discovered, his life changes dramatically. A futuristic adaptation of the tale of Pinocchio, with David being the "fake" boy who desperately wants to become "real."

I had mixed feelings about the movie. I thought it was ingenious, but disappointing, taking a provocative science fiction idea but turning it into a warmed-over fairy tale. I was particularly annoyed by the whole business with the blue fairy, who grants DavidÕs wish at the end of the story. I thought it was mawkish, and that it didnÕt make sense even on its own terms. For those who havenÕt seen the film, I wonÕt give it away. But for those who have, or will, I can only ask: whatÕs supposed to happen after that perfect day?

And there IÕll let the matter rest, for this isnÕt about A.I. per se. ItÕs about a phenomenon I call the Calvinist school of criticism. One of the tenets of Calvinism is Ņunconditional election:Ó the notion that God has, from the beginning of time, chosen who is to be saved and who is to be damned. It makes a certain amount of sense if you believe in an omniscient God: if God can see the future as well as the past, he must know the fate of every soul; and if He is omnipotent, then He must have determined the fate of every soul.

In Calvinist theology, salvation is completely arbitrary. It has nothing to do with personal behavior, for that would be to admit free will. It presumably has something to do with faith, for no Calvinist would expect a Jew or a Muslim to be among the Elect. Yet the idea of unconditional election has some paradoxical consequences: nothing one can do will earn election but, by the same token, nothing one can do will forfeit election.

There is a curious novel by James Hogg, Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), in which the narrator is convinced that he has been unconditionally saved:

That I was now a justified person, adopted among the number of God's children--my name written in the Lamb's book of life, and that no by-past transgression, nor any future act of my own, or of other men, could be instrumental in altering the decree.

Hogg himself was obviously not a Calvinist, for the novel explores the tragic absurdity of the doctrine of Unconditional Election as the protagonist sinks deeper and deeper into depravity and ultimate damnation – all the while convinced that because he is of the Elect he can do no wrong in GodÕs eyes.

What does all this have to do with Steven Spielberg and A.I.?

When I saw the movie, I was already aware that it was a project originally developed by the late Stanley Kubrick, and that it was based on a short story by Brian W. Aldiss, ŅSuper Toys Last All Summer Long.Ó

Now it happens that I love some Spielberg movies – Duel, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can. Yet I have been less admiring of some of his movies that are regarded as classics – Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and even E.T. I thought his Peter Pan story, Hook, was simply dreadful; and that 1941 was one of the worst comedies ever filmed. But I was also disappointed by SchindlerÕs List; it was earnest, it was heartfelt, but somehow I thought it just didnÕt come off.

Where Spielberg usually goes wrong is in being saccharine. So I naturally assumed that the blue fairy business in A.I. was his idea, and said as much to a film critic I know. ŅWell, what can you expect of Spielberg?Ó she said, or something to that effect. But the thing is, she really hates Spielberg, despises him. Whereas she loves Kubrick.

Well, there things stood when I picked up a copy of a story collection by Aldiss that included the original story on which A.I. was based – and a painful reminiscence of his collaboration with Kubrick. It seems that the blue fairy was KubrickÕs idea; indeed it was his obsession. Aldiss tried to talk him out if it, but it was like King CharlesÕ head – it wouldnÕt go away. And as far as Aldiss was concerned, that was what sank the project.

I told the same critic about this. Her reaction was along the lines of, ŅBut of course, if Kubrick had filmed it, it would have been a masterpiece.Ó

Kubrick, to her, is a member of the Elect. He could do no wrong, just as Spielberg could do no right. IÕll spare you my own mixed reactions to KubrickÕs opus; suffice it to say that they are mixed. But then, you see, IÕm not a cultural Calvinist.

Calvinism in culture apparently began with the establishment of the Literary Canon, a list of authors and works deemed to be worthy of scholarship by academics. It never occurred to Dante or Shakespeare that their works would be treated in this manner; they were created to be read and staged.

The Canon came to be, or at least perceived to be, a class thing, with reading and study of the right books being a matter of breeding. As such, it has come under attack as a preserve of Dead White Males. Like the baseball Hall of Fame, the keepers of the Canon would admit new works from time to time; Joyce and Hemingway would join James and Trollope, who had previously joined Shakespeare and Byron. And a few women were admitted: Austen and the Brontes and later Virginia Woolf.

Just as aristocrats saw a vast gulf between themselves and the Great Unwashed, so the defenders of the Canon saw a vast gulf between great literature and popular fiction. There were the Elect, who could do no wrong, and the popular fiction writers, who could do no right.

No matter that Shakespeare himself had appealed to the masses at a time when the classes favored court dramatists like Davenant. No matter that Dickens and Dostoyevsky were writers of popular fiction in their own time, although they were later deemed to be of the Elect. 

The irony is that those who attack the traditional Canon today actually believe in canons of their own – post-modernist, feminist, whatever. Some argue that the writers of the traditional Canon are there only because they are dead white males. Anyone with an ounce of sense can see how idiotic this is.

When the Hall of Fame was opened to veterans of the Negro Leagues, nobody argued that Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had made it only because they were white; they argued simply and fairly that Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson belonged there too. But when true believers apply the logic and emotions of Calvinism to literature, common sense goes out the window.

As academics began to study movies, a similar phenomenon occurred. That is how it came to be that Kubrick is of the Elect while Spielberg isnÕt. Of course, the class division isnÕt quite as sharp as in literature: John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock are accepted into the cinematic canon, much as some academics might prefer to deal exclusively with art films.

But political polarization in recent decades has led to another outbreak of Cultural Calvinism, this time rooted in ideological fervor as arbitrary and uncompromising as that of the religionists.

Take Mystic River (2003), a movie that generally received rave reviews. HereÕs how itÕs described at

Clint Eastwood's 24th directorial outing and one of the finest films of 2003. Sharply adapted by L.A. Confidential Oscar-winner Brian Helgeland from the novel by Dennis Lehane, this chilling mystery revolves around three boyhood friends in working-class Boston--played as adults by Tim Robbins, Sean Penn, and Kevin Bacon--drawn together by a crime from the past and a murder (of the Penn character's 19-year-old daughter) in the present. These dual tragedies arouse a vicious cycle of suspicion, guilt, and repressed anxieties, primed to explode with devastating and unpredictable results. Eastwood is perfectly in tune with this brooding material, giving his flawless cast (including Laura Linney, Marcia Gay Harden and Laurence Fishburne) ample opportunity to plumb the depths of a resonant human tragedy, leading to an ambiguous ending that qualifies Mystic River for contemporary classic status. --Jeff Shannon

Mystic River unfolds like a Greek tragedy. Three childhood friends who have grown apart as adults are thrown back together by the brutal murder of Katie, the daughter of Jimmy Markum (Penn). Markum is on the wrong side of the law, not just a petty criminal but (never found out) a murderer; whereas his old buddy Sean Devine (Bacon) is a cop charged with solving the case. And one of the suspects is Dave Boyle (Robbins), who was kidnapped and sexually abused as a child and has never been right in the head since.

Convinced that Boyle is guilty but unwilling to let the law take its course, Markum kills Boyle in cold blood. It turns out that Boyle is innocent; Devine later learns who actually killed Katie. But, after feeling a fleeting remorse -- and egged on by a wife as perverse as he is -- Markum retreats into the sick macho fantasy that it doesn't matter: he's a hero, defender of his family (In Dennis Lehane's novel, on which the movie is based, Devine has vowed to get the evidence to put him away.). 

There's a lot more to the story than that, involving many complications in the lives of the three men and their families. But the same critic who hates Spielberg can't see past the fact that Eastwood had once made the Dirty Harry movies -- which were despised by liberals and cast Eastwood (in their minds) as a fascist.

Just as McCarthyites 50 years ago thought, ŅOnce a Communist, always a Communist,Ó some liberals today not only canÕt forgive Eastwood – any more than they could forgive Elia Kazan for testifying against Communists (although Kazan later reconciled with one of his "victims," Arthur Miller) -- but can't believe that he could ever have any new ideas.

So Mystic River, that left-leaning critic insisted, must be just another Dirty Harry movie. We're supposed to be rooting for sicko Markum and his sicko wife; we're even supposed to believe that Devine admires him in a closing scene at a parade where Markum, from a distance, mimes pulling the trigger on a gun.

As it happens, a right-leaning cultural observer of my acquaintance refuses even to see Mystic River. After all, Sean Penn is an asshole liberal, so no movie with him in it could possibly be any good. What's more, he's pissed off by the praise for the movie from critics who assume that, like his Unforgiven (1992), it proves that Eastwood has renounced the Dirty Harry ethic -- that he has seen the light, and recognized the ugly reality of vigilantism.

This conservative insists that such is not the case; that Eastwood is simply dealing with a different kind of situation now, and that the critics who praise him now for having supposedly switched sides are actually trashing him. I honestly don't know where the truth lies in this, but I know both the critics I have mentioned -- who can be perfectly reasonable about most things -- turn into Calvinists when their ideological buttons are pushed.

The thing is, I can agree with the conservative about Sean Penn's politics; Penn's just a knee-jerk leftist. But that has nothing to do with his acting, or even his direction. The Pledge (2001), starring Jack Nicholson, was Penn's adaptation of a chilling short novel by Friedrich DŸrrenmatt, a Swiss writer better known for The Visit (in my estimation, a lesser work). It has to do with a policeman's obsession with finding a child murderer. Once again, a plot synopsis from

The night he retires as a Nevada sheriff, Jerry Black pledges to the mother of a murdered girl that he will find the killer. Jerry doesn't believe the police arrested the right man; he discovers this is the third incident in the area in the recent past with victims young, blond, pretty, and small for their age. So he buys an old gas station in the mountains near the crimes in order to search for a tall man who drives a black station wagon, gives toy porcupines as gifts, and calls himself the wizard: clues from a drawing by the dead girl. Jerry's solitary life gives way to friendship with a woman and her small, blond daughter. Has Jerry neglected something that may prove fatal?

The novel, of course, was set in Switzerland. But the location is the only fundamental change in the movie. Durrenmatt's story is a very difficult one. The cop's obsession is an idealistic one; we can understand and even sympathize with him. And yet his very idealism is his undoing. He has indeed "neglected something," but that something isn't a clue about the case -- it is something more fundamental, something that strikes to the root of our beliefs about right and wrong, about moral responsibility. I won't say that The Pledge is a perfect movie, but it's a true movie -- true to its source and to the issues raised by that source.

But because Sean Penn directed the movie, my conservative acquaintance can't believe it could be anything but the usual liberal bullshit that comes out of Hollywood. And yet, if Penn happened to be a conservative, and had made exactly the same movie, his reaction would surely be different. Penn would then be of the Elect in his eyes, and he might not brook the slightest criticism of The Pledge.

Cultural Calvinism isn't quite the same thing as propaganda -- reflected in the sort of mind-rotting "criticism" once dominated by Marxists and later by radical feminists and lately adopted by the religious right, as in this passage about Emily Dickinson from something called Elements of Literature for Christian Schools:

Dickinson's year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary further shaped her "religious" views. During her stay at the school, she learned of Christ but wrote of her inability to make a decision for Him. She could not settle "the one thing needful." A thorough study of Dickinson's works indicates that she never did make that needful decision. Several of her poems show a presumptuous attitude concerning her eternal destiny and a veiled disrespect for authority in general. Throughout her life she viewed salvation as a gamble, not a certainty. Although she did view the Bible as a source of poetic inspiration, she never accepted it as an inerrant guide to life.

No doubt (given a time warp) one could find some similar reference in Maoist criticism to Dickinson's failure to accept the Little Red Book as an "inerrant guide to life." And if one were to change the words "Christ" and "Bible" to "Allah" and "Qur'an," this would sound as if it came from some Muslim cleric -- if we could get past the difficulty that Dickinson wouldn't have been exposed to Islam at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary.

No, the real problem with Cultural Calvinism is the idea of the Elect, of a sharp division between the sheep and the goats that has nothing to do with the reality of either the creation or the reception of art. It doesn't matter whether the Elect are defined by the inertia of the traditional canon, or by some ideological litmus test. Art, like gold, is where you find it -- in or out of the canon, in or out of the orbit of your beliefs.

C.S. Lewis, a devout Christian but a lover of literature and an astute critic who would have had nothing to do with the sort of rubbish passed off as criticism by the contemporary religious right, knew this. I shall have more to say of him in some future essay, for it was he who freed my mind of the arbitrary ideas of "literature" taught in schools and colleges.

It was a lesson well learned, and I would hope that others come to learn it. Cultural Calvinism diminishes us. To the degree that any of us is a Cultural Calvinist, he is cutting himself off from the experience of the arts. He is cutting himself off from life.