Once again I find myself writing the “Point of Contact” book review column, which we subtitle “Books Your Neighbors Are Reading.” The last time I wrote this column (Olive Kitteridge, January/February 2010), I lamented how too few people rush out to purchase and read the latest Pulitzer Prize literature winner. I find myself in a similar situation this time. I happen to live in close proximity to many seminary students (some of whom are quite Reformed), and I can assure you that none of my neighbors even know about the book I am reviewing for this issue, which means they’re certainly not reading it. “Someone has written a novel on Calvin?” they invariably respond with wide-eyed wonder. A novel about Luther, sure. A movie about Luther, even better. But Calvin? Colorful Luther was the interesting Reformer. Calvin, well, he did a lot of writing and preaching, and was sick a lot, but how is his life translatable to a novel?
All I can say is that yes, it can be done, and Douglas Bond has proved it. Bond, who is head of the English department at Covenant High School in Tacoma, Washington, has written other historical fiction books, but I applaud him for taking on this particular Calvin challenge for the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth in 2009. He also wrote a marvelous piece for Modern Reformation‘s special Calvin issue (“On the Road,” July 2009), transporting the reader to sixteenth-century Paris, Strasbourg, and Geneva’walking in Calvin’s footsteps and briefly tracing the history of the Reformer’s life in the meantime. What he accomplished in just a few short magazine pages, however, he successfully expanded into 363 pages of a novel. Here is what the publisher (Presbyterian & Reformed, of course) has to say about The Betrayal:
Set amidst the backdrop of the scholarship and humanism of renaissance France, and its love of luxury, power, and decadence, this fast-paced biographical novel on John Calvin is told from the perspective of a rival whose envy escalates to violent intrigue and shameless betrayal. The Betrayal is the tale of the private war of one man who was determined to sell all for a convoluted allegiance to the King of France and the jealous Doctors of the Sorbonne, even if it cost him his own soul. Get set for royal intrigue, desperate escapes, violent martyrdom, hazard-all romance and loss, high-risk debate, and sword-point confession in this tale, one that is at last a story of how God uses the humility and unflinching faithfulness of one man to break down the barrenness and bitterness of another’all accomplished by grace alone.
Sounds pretty exciting to me. A suspense/adventure tale that has to do with sola gratia‘grace alone’is an amazing feat in itself. But how does one write historical fiction about such an important church figure? How can an author show Calvin as a character in a novel without upsetting the faithful? The answer is really quite simple: tell the story from someone else’s perspective. By having a different narrator, the author can tell Calvin’s story but from the safe distance of another person. We don’t know what Calvin may be exactly thinking or feeling, but we can observe and speculate.
The book begins in April 1918 “in the war-torn village of Noyon-le-Sainte in Northern France” (13). After the Germans bombard an old man’s house, he finds among the rubble a metal chest’previously hidden in the wall and only now revealed’containing yellowed paper and what looks like a faded blue cap from long ago. The manuscript and the hat belong, of course, to our narrator: one Jean-Louis Mourin. The old man and his grandson then read through the words of “a man long dead,” curious to discover why Mourin had hid them.
Jean-Louis Mourin begins his tale when he and Calvin were schoolmates together in that small village’vividly describing all the while how much he detested him. This hatred, which is mostly jealousy, continues throughout the majority of the novel, hence the title of the book, The Betrayal. Mourin decides to make money, while at the same time deluding himself that he is doing right by king and country (and maybe God too), during the turbulent foundational years of the Protestant Reformation. Along with Mourin, we are witnesses of the arrest of these Christians and their subsequent executions by burning at the stake. Bond does not spare us any details, and what these early Protestants suffer serves to remind us of the faith we now hold to and what many others have died for. With Mourin, we are with Calvin and his colleagues and family as they are forced into hiding from the king of France, fleeing from one place to another, from one country to another. And again we are reminded of the courage and unwavering faith of such people to whom we today still owe much.
Jean-Louis Mourin is also moved and begins to regret his life of treachery. Calvin thinks all the while that Mourin is a faithful friend and servant, or so at least Mourin seems to think. One cannot help thinking that Calvin discovers his duplicity fairly early on, but that as long as Mourin sticks with him, he’ll keep him around, always hoping and praying for Mourin’s conversion to true faith. I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that Bond presents Calvin at first from the viewpoint of an enemy and works throughout the entire novel to win over that enemy. He does this by showing Calvin’s pastoral love, his careful study of the Scriptures, and his passion for the Word of God against the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church of the time. Bond does seem to overdo this on occasion, however, making him almost into a saint with his “pure doctrine.” Still, overall he paints a reasonable positive picture of this controversial figure, and provides enough evidence to persuade us to sympathize with Calvin (if any of us reading this book need such persuasion).
In case the reader wonders about the authenticity of the historical events and the quotes from Calvin in the book, Bond provides a “Note to the Reader” as a preface, assuring us: “Though it is fiction, the reader may accept Calvin’s words in dialogues, sermons, discussions, and debates with confidence. In nearly all places where Calvin speaks I have drawn and shaped his words from his letters, commentaries, Institutes, and other writings….Though shaped for fiction, Calvin’s voice in this novel is a faithful attempt to reflect accurately his own verbiage, piety, and theology” (11). To substantiate this claim, Bond provides a “Guide to Further Reading” at the back of the book, providing references to each chapter as appropriate. To further assist the reader, he lists a “Timeline of the Reformation and John Calvin’s Life,” from the death of Wycliffe in 1384 to the publication of “Calvin maligner” Jérôme-Hermés Bolsec’s “fraudulent biography” of Calvin in 1577. Doug Bond shows he has done his homework and therefore helps us to relax historically and theologically as he relates this narrative.
Not only does The Betrayal work as a novel about Calvin, it would also make an excellent film (I’d be happy to work with Bond on the screenplay). In fact, I already have an actor in mind for it. If Joseph Fiennes could play Luther, who else to play Calvin but his older brother Ralph? There are some non-Calvin fans who would agree with this choice’such as Noel Beda whom Bond quotes at the beginning of the book: “Let us banish from France this hateful doctrine of grace.” That is, they would probably find it appropriate that the man who portrays Lord Voldemort (the definitive bad guy in the Harry Potter films) would portray John Calvin. I just happen to think Mr. Fiennes is an excellent actor and rather looks like Calvin (who, according to the majority of the surviving portraits, was decidedly better looking than Martin Luther).
But whether we love him or hate him, we cannot deny that Calvin played a significant role in the church. It is time someone finally saw that his life was actually as interesting as Luther’s.