Classic Book of the Month


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, December 3rd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Well, it’s the first Tuesday of the month. That means book reviewer Emily Whitten joins us to talk about our Classic Book of the Month. 

Emily, thanks for talking with me today.

EMILY WHITTEN, BOOK REVIEWER: My pleasure, Mary.

REICHARD: Emily, I’m looking at my calendar and it says Christmas is just 22 days away. How about a recommendation for a good book to give? 

WHITTEN: I’ll do you one better. I thought we could talk about two books today—specifically, two Calvins. 

REICHARD: Two Calvins? Hm. Okay, I wonder if one of them might be John Calvin? 

WHITTEN: How’d you guess? Love him or hate him, John Calvin definitely ranks as one of the most influential thinkers of the Reformation. Some argue his Institutes of the Christian Religion first published in 1536 might be the most influential work in Western culture. At over 1,000 pages of rich theology—it’s a lot to bite off. 

REICHARD: That sounds kind of ambitious to me. For a Christmas read, I mean.

WHITTEN: Which is why I’m excited about a slim volume of Calvin’s called the Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life. The book offers a concise look at how to live the Christian life. It runs about 100-150 pages, depending on the translation.

REICHARD: Now we’re talking. That sounds doable.

WHITTEN: It’s a good place to start, for sure. Calvin wrote the book’s five chapters as part of his Institutes, but he intended them to stand alone as well. He wanted people who weren’t seminary students or pastors to read about practical Christian holiness.

Pastor Ligon Duncan explained the book’s opening lines at a 2015 Ligonier Ministries conference:

DUNCAN: Calvin says that ‘the object’ of the work that God is doing in us, to sanctify us, to conform us to Christ, to change us, to transform us, that ‘the object is to manifest in the life of believers a harmony and an agreement between God’s righteousness and their obedience.

Duncan explains holiness is an issue of family resemblance. If you’ve ever seen a baby that looks like his father—he might have his father’s eyes or his hair color. Just by looking at the baby, you know who the father is. Similarly, when people look at us, they ought to see something of God in us and know we’re His children. 

REICHARD: Physical similarities versus behavior similarities. I like it. What else makes this one a good gift?

WHITTEN: Calvin swaps the typical flowery language of the Reformation with short bullet points. He also writes about our struggles in a realistic way, with chapter headings like “Self-denial” and “Patience in Cross-bearing.” 

Pastor and author Burk Parsons helped translate one version called A Little Book on the Christian Life. He noted in a 2018 Awakening conference that Calvin chose some interesting words to describe our Christian growth:

PARSONS: You hear the language of staggering, and limping, and crawling along on the ground. That’s so often how sanctification feels, dosn’t it? Calvin says our final hope is when we enter heaven’s gates…

Calvin knows the Christian life isn’t easy. But we press on because our ultimate hope can’t be shaken. 

REICHARD: That sounds like a good message for Christmas or any season. Who’s the other Calvin you’re recommending this month?

WHITTEN: Hold on to your seat, Mary, because when I open this next book, at any moment, a tiger may pounce, and monsters under the bed may attack. This book screams danger!

REICHARD: Ok. I’m buckled up!

WHITTEN: Good, because in case you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about Bill Watterson’s comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes. Are you familiar with these guys, Mary?

REICHARD: Oh, yes. I’ve got the complete Calvin and Hobbes set! My father-in-law gave them to us for Christmas years ago.

WHITTEN: I really appreciate them, especially as Christmas presents over the years! Our family likes them enough that I asked my daughter Anna to read a strip for us. Here’s my 12 year old reading from The Essential Calvin and Hobbes:

ANNA: ‘What’s for dinner?’ ‘Salmon.’ ‘Salmon? Blech.’ ‘Calvin, one of these days your face is going to freeze like that.’ ‘Wow!’ ‘Hi, Hobbes.’ ‘Good heavens! What’s wrong with you?’ ‘Mom said if I keep making this face, it’ll freeze like this forever.’ ‘You really think so?’ ‘It’s worth a try! I bet my features are hardening already.’ ‘I always liked gargoyles.’ 

REICHARD: Anna’s a terrific reader!

WHITTEN: I agree, but I’m biased. (laughs) Bill Watterson started the comic back in 1985. It ran until 1995. It grew out of another failed comic, The Doghouse

And yes, he named this Calvin after the other Calvin we’ve talked about today.

REICHARD: So this Calvin is named after Reformer John Calvin?

WHITTEN: Exactly. Although, I don’t see much resemblance. Calvin and Hobbes reminds me more of Peanuts characters for a postmodern generation. Where Peanuts captures the 1950s culture, Calvin taps into the “be yourself,” relativistic thinking of the 1980s. I mean, a lot of the strip happens in Calvin’s imagination. But for all that, he resembles Charlie Brown in his relatability. Calvin still seems like the kid next door. 

Here’s a quote by Bill Watterson on that point. Simon Whistler reads it as part of a video series called Today I Found Out:

WHISTLER:  I suspect most of us get old without growing up, and that inside every adult (sometimes not very far inside) is a bratty kid who wants everything his own way. I use Calvin as an outlet for my immaturity, as a way to keep myself curious about the natural world, as a way to ridicule my own obsessions, and as a way to comment on human nature.

So, in a kind of secular Screwtape Letters, Calvin and Hobbes helps us see the sinfulness of our sin. It’s true that Watterson celebrates “the subjective nature of reality.” But he also skewers it. I mean, how often does Calvin jump off the roof convinced he can fly, and then, wham! Reality breaks in. So, in that way, the strip helps my kids see through a lot of self-centered thinking, postmodern or otherwise. As a parent, I appreciate that.

REICHARD: Emily, thank you for the book recommendations today.

WHITTEN: You’re very welcome, Mary. Happy reading! 

REICHARD: Today, Emily recommended the Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life by John Calvin as well as The Essential Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. Find other classic book recommendations at worldandeverything.org. Just search for Classic Book of the Month.


(Photo/John Calvin)

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