John Calvin was a hipster long before it was cool.
September 7, 2010 10:36 AM   Subscribe

A couple years ago, I read a really intriguing essay that compared the American cultural ideal of "effortless cool" to the theological debate over the importance of grace vs. good acts. I believe that the writer identified the Puritans as coming down on the side of grace, and made a connection between their influence on early America and our cultural preference for grace (i.e. "effortless cool") over good acts (i.e. "trying too hard"). I would really love to cite this essay, but unfortunately, my Google-Fu is failing me. I remember that I read it online, and it was probably linked from a comment on The Blue. Any idea what I read or who wrote it?
posted by Afroblanco to Religion & Philosophy (11 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Is it linked from this thread?
posted by iconomy at 10:42 AM on September 7, 2010

Oh. D'oh. Nevermind. It was you who made the comment in that thread!
posted by iconomy at 10:45 AM on September 7, 2010

I'm not so sure that effortless cool is a universally American ideal--maybe in WASP and jazz musician circles, but there's plenty of groups that value working hard and being seen as doing so (the Puritans were big on manual labor.)

The Puritans weren't all that keen on grace, but rather on predestination--Calvin preached about unconditional election, which meant that people were saved merely by God's will, not because they were deserving (because no one is, all being sinners, etc.) but by God's mercy.

Methodism, as established by Charles Wesley, believed that" by grace we are saved through faith", Aand that "faith produces inward and outward holiness", and that good works were the fruit of one's salvation, not the way in which that salvation was earned.

I'm guessing the effortless cool ideal is really more Anglican, or Episcopalian, than Puritan, and is based in that WASP worship of all things British. Methodism caught on like wildfire in the working classes of the UK, esp. in Wales and dissenters were snubbed by the CofE upper classes.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:29 AM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

This doesn't address the question, but effortless cool sounds exactly like the Italian Renaissance ideal of sprezzatura, which is not an altogether positive attribute as it relies heavily on deception.
posted by CheeseLouise at 11:47 AM on September 7, 2010

Sounds like something out of Sarah Vowell’s "The Wordy Shipmates," but I can't swear to it.

“The United States is often called a Puritan nation,” Vowell writes. “Well, here is one way in which it emphatically is not: Puritan lives were overwhelmingly, fanatically literary. Their single-minded obsession with one book, the Bible, made words the center of their lives — not land, not money, not power, not fun. I swear on Peter Stuyvesant’s peg leg that the country that became the U.S. bears a closer family resemblance to the devil-may-care merchants of New Amsterdam than it does to Boston’s communitarian English majors.”
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:58 PM on September 7, 2010

Maybe a bit OT, but Vowell and others might do well to read Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America.

"This cultural history explains the European settlement of the United States as voluntary migrations from four English cultural centers. Families of zealous, literate Puritan yeomen and artisans from urbanized East Anglia established a religious community in Massachusetts (1629-40); royalist cavaliers headed by Sir William Berkeley and young, male indentured servants from the south and west of England built a highly stratified agrarian way of life in Virginia (1640-70); egalitarian Quakers of modest social standing from the North Midlands resettled in the Delaware Valley and promoted a social pluralism (1675-1715); and, in by far the largest migration (1717-75), poor borderland families of English, Scots, and Irish fled a violent environment to seek a better life in a similarly uncertain American backcountry. These four cultures, reflected in regional patterns of language, architecture, literacy, dress, sport, social structure, religious beliefs, and familial ways, persisted in the American settlements. The final chapter shows the significance of these regional cultures for American history up to the present. Insightful, fresh, interesting, and well-written, this synthesis of traditional and more current historical scholarship provides a model for interpretations of the American character. Subsequent volumes of this promised multivolume work will be eagerly awaited. Highly recommended for the general reader and the scholar."
posted by Ideefixe at 5:35 PM on September 7, 2010

This is maddening, because I know I've read this piece too (or something exactly like it) and my search-fu also fails. The only thing I have to add is that I'm pretty sure the piece I read (assuming its one and the same) was somehow related to Mars Hill Church - maybe what I read was quoted by one of the pastors there, or it was on one of their websites or something. That has not, however, helped my own search-fu - just got done searching their website and googling some of the above terms along with their pastors' names.
posted by allkindsoftime at 7:51 AM on September 8, 2010

Even if it isn't Jackson Lears' Luck in America, you'd probably still enjoy this interview with him.
posted by felix grundy at 8:00 AM on September 8, 2010

allkindsoftime, the NYT ran "Who Would Jesus Smack Down?" last year.

Snippet: "[Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church] came to admire Martin Luther, the vulgar, beer-swilling theological rebel who sparked the Reformation. “I found him to be something of a mentor,” Driscoll says. “I didn’t have all the baggage he did. But you can see him with a quill in one hand and a drink in the other. He married a brewer and renegade nun. His story is kind of indie rock.”

(I Googled: "Mars Hill Church" pastor puritan.)
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:17 AM on September 8, 2010

Yeah, what level was this essay on? Are we talking academically dry but interesting, or hey guys, Calvinism's cool again! 'Cause there's tons of articles about hip people getting into old timey religion, but a more academic essay might take Max Weber's usage of "charisma" as a sociological force and tie it into charisma's original "gift from God" meaning, so that charisma becomes a grace bestowed by the divine and coolness = salvation. Or something.
posted by redsparkler at 11:06 AM on September 8, 2010

Yeah, I saw the NYT piece but that definitely was not the piece I read (hence I didn't link it, thanks though).
posted by allkindsoftime at 8:14 AM on September 9, 2010

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