I was in Geneva recently for the European Sociological Association conference. Geneva, of course, is one of the cradles of the European Reformation, probably best known as the long-time home of John Calvin and a one-time haven for the Scottish Reformer John Knox.
I’m no scholarly expert on Calvin or on Reformation history, though my research on evangelical Protestantism in Northern Ireland has focused on the ways evangelicals appropriated certain Calvinist concepts into their own identities. These adaptations of Calvinism did not always contribute to positive relationships with Irish Catholics – though that is another story for another time.
I also attended an Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Maine for some time, where I inevitably imbibed some Calvinist theology. I especially appreciated the orderly, rational approach to scripture in this church.
So it was with some anticipation that I visited Geneva’s International Museum of the Reformation. It won a prestigious Council of Europe Museum Prize in 2007, and it was easy to see why.
There’s a lot packed into museum in the Maison Mallet, a historic dwelling built during the 18th century on the site of the cathedral cloisters where the Reformation was voted in 1536. Some of the highlights include a first edition of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and letters written in Calvin’s own hand. There were also some rather quaint paper models of various Reformation figures and of Geneva in the 16th century, with moving figures controlled by knobs. And the museum has embraced the now almost standard multi-media approach to history, including audio and video features.
It is adjacent to St Peter’s Cathedral, where Calvin preached during the 16th Century. The church is an attraction in its own right, including Calvin’s chair. Geneva’s famous Reformation Wall, featuring carvings of significant European and American Reformation figures, is in a park nearby.
For me, one of the more intriguing features of the museum was the ‘theological banquet’ room, described this way in the museum guide leaflet:
The question of predestination to salvation or damnation was one of the central – and most controversial – ideas of the Reformation. This room recreates a virtual banquet convened by John Calvin to discuss different views on predestination. Visitors can listen to the conversation between the theologians presented on the plates.
The museum provides personal listening devices for eavesdropping, as it were, on this dinner table discussion. The discussion ranged over the centuries, with the conversation moving from Calvin and others’ strong views advocating the truth of predestination to later thinkers who did not accept predestination, in full or in part.
I was amused by a small placard located on the corner of the table. It said something to this effect:
Worried about your salvation? Make sure you visit our exhibit on the 20th century.
Indeed, the exhibit on 20th century Protestantism made it clear that today predestination is not an easily accepted or majority tenant of many expressions of Protestantism, despite some neo-Calvinist revival, particularly in North America.
This section featured, among others, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr, and Billy Graham, as well as information on female pastors, Pentecostalism, mega-churches, and the spread of Pentecostalism in the Southern hemisphere.
Moving into the 21st Century room, video screens showed sample worship services from different denominations around the world, underlining for the visitors just how diverse Protestantism has become over the last five centuries.
It always intrigues me how good museums, like this one, try to balance competing interpretations of history and present thinkers who in their own time may have been bitter opponents. Especially when the history is centuries old, I think these types of presentations inevitably downplay the controversy and the conflicts to the contemporary consumer of the museum.
Where the downplaying of conflict was most obvious to me was on the Reformation Wall – admittedly not part of the museum. There was the Baptist Roger Williams alongside the Puritans of Massachusetts – without any acknowledgement that Williams was driven from Massachusetts to Rhode Island by Puritans because he was not Calvinist enough for their liking.
At least the room where you can share dinner conversation with Calvin and Co. conveyed a sense of historical and even contemporary disagreement. This reminded me that the Christian story has rarely been one of absolute convergence around all Christian practices and beliefs.
(Images: Me in a cut-out of John Calvin at the International Museum of the Reformation; The Reformation Wall in Geneva, with Roger Williams in the foreground.)