According to The New York Times, a Calvinist revival is sweeping through modern American evangelicalism. Among the evidence: church libraries are filling up with books by Reformed preachers like Mark Driscoll and John Piper; many evangelical preachers are talking more about Scripture and sin; the Southern Baptist Convention has formed a “Calvinism Advisory Committee” to deal with allegations of pro- and anti-Calvinist prejudice; and a grad student at Notre Dame is writing a dissertation on the “new Calvinism.”
This proof of Reformed revitalization is persuasive, and it echoes other proclamations about the importance of this retro-chic religious movement, including a TIME piece in 2009 proclaiming “the New Calvinism” to be one of the “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” Clearly a heightened emphasis on doctrine and God’s predestining power is appealing to many. But the new Calvinist revival—which amounts to a partial shift in theological emphasis and style—is a far cry from the Calvinist revival that burned through the Northeast a few centuries ago during the Great Awakening. In churches just a couple miles from where I’m writing this essay in New Haven, and in other towns for hundreds of miles around, men and women were once caught up in controversial and unmanageable ecstasies. They wept, they trembled, they flushed, they fell senseless to the ground. They sang at the top of their lungs and threw their worldliest possessions on bonfires. They writhed with the shame of sin, and shook with the power of salvation, and fainted with the sweetness of the grace and glory of God.
These days, mass bodily ecstasies are more likely to be associated with Pentecostals or people at music festivals than with connoisseurs of Calvinist doctrine. And although there is quite a tonal range in contemporary American Calvinist culture—from the macho brimstone-punk preaching of provocateur Mark Driscoll to the lyrical meditations of Marilynne Robinson’s novels Gilead and Home—there is also a common thread. American Calvinism has largely become a religion of books and beliefs. It is a movement of the mind.
I’m fairly familiar with the modern forms of Calvinism that fall on the more austere and cerebral end of the spectrum. When I was growing up in an evangelical Calvinist church, emotions and bodily experience were suspect while correct doctrine was everything. I remember my childhood pastor once preaching an elaborate takedown of the 1970s country song “How Can It Be So Wrong (When it Feels So Right),” arguing that feelings had no correlation—or perhaps even a negative correlation—with correct doctrine and ethics.
Not all contemporary Calvinists are so severe in their rejection of feeling, but many define themselves against what they see as the easy emotionalism of mainstream, “feel-good” evangelicalism. They are often refugees from a more upbeat and accommodating kind of evangelical culture, one that has been caricatured by Collin Hansen, author of Young, Restless, Reformed, as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” and by Wheaton pastor Josh Moody as “cheesy Christianity.” Unsatisfied by the unapologetically practical and personal faith of mainstream Protestantism, modern Calvinists are seeking something rigorous, systematic, and intellectually respectable; something brainy and bracingly counter-cultural and slightly esoteric. There is space in modern American Calvinism for a certain measure of awe or desire, but for many of the “young, restless, Reformed,” Calvinism’s main appeal is what Reformed theologian J.I. Packer calls “passionate thinking”: the challenge of wrestling and mastering abstractions; the thrill of fitting theological puzzle pieces perfectly together.
But how did American Calvinists go from writhing in public in the eighteenth century to more buttoned-up forms of religious expression in the twenty-first? Why aren’t today’s young Reformed doctrine nerds still shouting glory through their tears and throwing their prized possessions into the flames? And what was American Calvinism, before it became a brainier, sterner alternative to “cheesy” popular evangelicalism?
In her quietly beautiful novel Spider in a Tree, Susan Stinson hints at the answers to some of these questions. Through an empathetic recreation of the life of the eighteenth-century Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards and the people and animals around him, she allows us to feel the urgency and cruelty and enduring gifts of this historic American religious movement.
Edwards has been experiencing a bit of a revival himself these days as a subject of renewed scholarly and popular interest. Though he is still most famous (or infamous) for his hellfire sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” he is increasingly appreciated as a sophisticated theologian and philosopher, not to mention a formidable theorist and defender of religious experience. There are many recent Edwards books, including an acclaimed biography by historian George Marsden, a spate of popular devotionals published by Christian presses, and a new Library of America edition of Edwards’s work. Edwards’s reputation has risen along with that of the New Calvinism, and most recent accounts of his life and thought fit the modern movement well.
But in her fictionalized version of Edwards’s life, Stinson breaks through the boundaries of academic research, popular hagiography, and Edwards’s own writing in order to help us recover the strange sensory immediacy of a religious life that has been lost to time. She (almost literally) fleshes out the facts, restoring our sense of the bodily experiences and complicated feelings of Puritan faith. In the process, she also makes audible and tangible the experiences of those around Edwards who were not heard or who left little legible trace, including enslaved black people, white women and children, and spiders.
The spider of the title and the insects that speak and scuttle throughout her novel are anything but random. They are an allusion to the curious complexity and range of Edwards’s religious vision. Edwards was an attentive observer of nature, and he spent hours watching the thrilling, gravity-defying, perfectly choreographed web-making technique of spiders, a creative process he was sure they enjoyed. He wrote that he saw in their precipitous silky flights “the exuberant goodness of the Creator who hath not only provided for all the necessities, but also for the pleasure and recreation of all sorts of creatures, and even the insects and those that are most despicable.” But for Edwards spiders are not just material signs of God’s exuberance and grace—they are also metaphors for human helplessness in the face of God’s damning wrath. As he famously preached:
Your Wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards Hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf … all your righteousness, would have no more influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell, than a spider’s web would have to stop a falling rock … The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.
Edwards’s peculiar combination of exuberance and terror, his simultaneous sense of the dazzling capacities of God’s creatures for pleasure and their utter loathsomeness and vulnerability, is emotionally incomprehensible to most modern readers, even Calvinist ones. Stinson’s great achievement is to help us inhabit this manic-depressive (or sado-masochistic) theology from the inside and to understand how it reverberated through real bodies and communities.
She begins by giving the spider (and, by extension, other supposedly helpless creatures) a defiant voice. In the novel’s prologue, before we even hear Edwards’s own preaching, we overhear the silent sermon of a spider in a tree: “Whatever your God would say of me, I am not damned. … Didn’t you know that I would sail out of his hand as if taking great pleasure in the motion of my escape, spinning out trails behind me lighter than air might be? … I fell, but I didn’t burn.” The spider offers a vision of spiritual escape mostly unavailable to the people of colonial Northampton, where Edwards was the minister in the years narrated by the novel.
But, as Stinson shows, many men and women touched by the Great Awakening had no desire to escape the hand of God. They found a kind of ecstatic surrender in Calvinism’s totalizing vision of the universe, in which everything, good and ill, spiritual and material, from spiderwebs to sermons, works together for God’s glory. This perspective offered believers an extraordinary surfeit of meaning that could transform everyday experiences into something sublime. As Edwards reflects while biting into a biscuit, “The natural world was filled with grace so that eating a biscuit was not a carnal indulgence, but as good as a prayer.” This theological alchemy works both ways—if biscuits are prayers, then spiritual things can feel like food. The characters in the novel have an almost synesthetic relationship with doctrine and Scripture: they crave sermons “like food on a fast day”; one woman “felt a Bible verse pulse through her as if she had taken into her body a ball of light the size of a fist.”
Stinson also shows how religious experience can offer a kind of power to the relatively powerless. Sarah Edwards, Jonathan’s wife, achieves a measure of respect and authority through her spiritual susceptibility, even though she cannot preach or vote. And for the enslaved woman Leah (who is based on a real woman of African descent whom Edwards bought), religious experience is a means of privacy and something to possess when no other possessions are possible. Leah guards her spiritual feelings in her heart: “She did not feel required to give them up as testimony. As much as a creature living or dead could belong to anyone but God, they were hers.” Of course, for some enslaved people a theology based in resignation to arbitrary power is not acceptable. Leah’s husband Saul has a much harder time with Calvinism: he needs to believe something that will allow him to question and resist the powers that be.
Religious feelings have a variety of functions for Edwards himself. For Edwards the theologian, they are part of the process that God uses to save the souls of those predestined to be saved, and a sign that this salvation is real. For Edwards the struggling pastor, they are proof that his ministry is being used by God, and thus that his professional life is worthwhile. Though he sometimes wrestles with illness, loss, and the ebbs and flows of communal life in an often fractious congregation, in Stinson’s book Edwards never experiences serious emotional or cognitive dissonance. Understandably, his own theology feels natural and consoling to him.
To some in his flock, however, the supposed consolations of Calvinism impose heavy spiritual burdens. Joyously submitting to a fate that crushes humans like spiders is exhilarating for those who can manage it, but for those who can’t, the demand to do so can be devastating. As Stinson makes plain, Edwardsean Calvinism entails a series of destabilizing mood swings: first, a dizzying free-fall into self-loathing as one becomes conscious of one’s absolute depravity; next, a warm fizzing overwhelming divine rush to certify an authentic influx of grace; and finally, for the rest of one’s life, a resolutely grateful resignation to whatever may befall, from house fires to smallpox. Unsurprisingly, some people get stuck in the despair. Early in the novel, Edwards’s Uncle Hawley is mired in self-disgust—“I am nothing but a dung hill. … I am a hard-hearted, senseless, sottish creature sleeping on the brink of hell”— and Edwards interprets his depression and doubt as “hopeful signs,” a necessary phase in the process of conversion. But instead of experiencing grace, Hawley commits suicide. The repercussions of his violent death continue to play out over the course of the novel, bringing an abrupt end to the awakening that that had been raging, and tormenting some of those left behind.
Joseph, Hawley’s son, is ultimately resistant to Edwards’s relentless attempts to justify what happened to his father, and the fraught relationship between him and Edwards is at the heart of the novel’s narrative tension. The most Edwards can provide Joseph as his pastor is a view of his father as a cautionary tale. Though Joseph strives for years to make peace with his father’s damnation, he ultimately concludes that a theology that makes such unnatural emotional demands simply doesn’t make sense. He ends up going to Harvard to study a more sensible (proto-Unitarian) theology. One of the novel’s strengths is the way Stinson traces the forces of theological evolution and liberalization to these individual histories of thwarted feeling.
In the end, the book depicts this form of Calvinism’s emotional demands as too taxing; they presume a level of emotional engagement that isn’t attainable or sustainable for most people over time. Religious feelings, it seems, are cyclical, or just die out. The novel begins with Edwards at the helm of a historic revival, but it ends with him getting kicked out of Northampton by the very same people who had once experienced the Awakening. Edwards wants to begin requiring people to testify to their conversion experiences in order to receive communion, but they rebel. They don’t want a deeply felt and publicly expressed experience of salvation to be mandatory. Ultimately Edwards’s emotional expectations for his congregants are simply too high.
As much as modern Calvinists want to claim Edwards, they would likely have a hard time having him as their minister. Historic revivalist American Calvinism doesn’t fit too well with the New Calvinist emphasis on rigor and dignity. As Stinson’s novel suggests, it is risky, irrational, and potentially highly undignified to actually let yourself feel the emotional implications of Calvinist theology: to experience the squirming self-loathing of the wholly despised, the paralyzing and shattering abasement of the utterly helpless, and the wild and trembling abandonment of a sinner glutted on grace. Most people would rather not see themselves as a scorched or soaring spider. This is why so many contemporary Christians who adopt this theology intellectually often don’t take it on board emotionally. But perhaps that’s just as well. The loss of ecstasy and the diminishment of bodily experience in American Calvinism is a real loss. But Stinson’s novel shows us just how soul-crushing that experience could be.
Briallen Hopper is a Lecturer in the Yale English department and the Faculty Fellow at the University Church in Yale. She has written about religion for The Huffington Post, Killing the Buddha, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.