When I explain Calvinism to college students they make it clear they want nothing to do with it. Of course, I teach at a Methodist school but that doesn’t really account for their en masse aversion. (Turns out most Methodist undergraduates don’t know enough about their own ecclesial history to argue for or against, say, predestination. Plus, the class has plenty of Catholics, Lutherans, even Presbyterians who also find John Calvin deeply disagreeable).

This persists even when I tell them that predestination is hardly the centerpiece of Calvin’s theological enterprise; that divine freedom and sovereignty (not castigating judgment) frame Calvin’s outlook and agenda; that TULIP is a later, mostly unhelpful, invention; that it might even be possible to interpret Calvin, as Marilynne Robinson has persuasively done, as an aesthete.

Doesn’t matter. Those few passages in the Institutes about election (eternal glory or everlasting destruction) make Calvin and his “ism” irredeemable.

Which is interesting since there is, apparently, a kind of pop-neo-Calvinism surfacing among millennials. Mark Driscoll, the pastor of mega-church Mars Hill in Seattle, fuses old-fashioned total depravity with profanity-laced pronouncements about Jesus’ manhood (and other things) and, in the process, draws thousands to worship each Sunday. Passion is a popular conference for college and university students and regularly features the preaching of John Piper, thus melding what some conservatives have called hyper-Calvinism with a “praise and worship” experience that doesn’t much resemble the dignified liturgy of the Reformed tradition. 

But also interesting is the fact that those who reject what they perceive to be Calvin’s rigid, joyless worldview seem reflexively to embrace a later secular psuedo-Calvinism. Devotees of this religion may not use the language of election or providence but their core conviction is that substantial reward for diligence and industry in a market economy is a sign of special favor–God’s or the CEO’s. (Just ask upper management at Goldman Sachs).

 And so my students, like teens and 20-somethings everywhere, embrace the theology of the market with evangelical fervor (whether or not they are business majors). Their goal is to be free, successful individuals. Who can blame them? They’ve been told their whole lives that they were, um, predestined for this. 

John Calvin was pretty relentless in his critique of material success. And I don’t mean to suggest that college students are any more driven by the desire for stuff and status than the rest of us; I’ve met some remarkable students who resolutely are not. (One student, after reading Living Gently in a Violent World, was able to name a calling she’d been sensing for awhile; after she graduates next week, she’ll start a job in a L’Arche community halfway across the country).

But I do believe that all of us might have more in common with Calvin than we think–not the Calvin who spawned sober capitalism, but the Calvin whose God, as Robinson has beautifully suggested, wants to enjoy us, just as we were meant to enjoy God through one another and the good gifts of Creation.