Catherine Mackenzie. John Calvin: After Darkness Light. CF4K, 2009. 160 pages. $8.99.
This biography was really a pleasant surprise for a few reasons. I’m skeptical at times about biographies for children or young adults, as a good number of the ones I’ve read end up dumbing down the real issues at stake in the story. Especially in Christian biographies, the subject matter tends to be a little light on the theological side of things, focusing sometimes on moral lessons from the subject’s life rather than really delving unashamedly into the trials and glories of the Christian life. Kids can handle this kind of stuff, and biographies would do well to include more of the whole story, because the Christian life isn’t just nice, or “chipper” as John Piper has said. The Christian story has its dark moments, but light really does win out in the end. And we would all do well to glory in our King’s victory over sin and the enemy, all the more because we’ve seen sin and the enemy for the adversaries they are.
Good Writing and Storytelling Really Matter
This particular biography is very well written from the start as it tells the story of John Calvin in narrative form. Some creative liberties are taken by Mackenzie, but overall they don’t detract from, or change the real substance of the story of Calvin’s life; the well-paced narrative puts Calvin in historical context and brings to life the wondrous work God brought accomplished through the reformers.The quality of the storytelling is truly a valuable mark for this little book. For example, the opening sentences read,
“Thundering hooves clattered along the cobbled streets. The heaving breath of a hard ridden horse left soft clouds of steam in the rider’s wake […] Occasional street torches cast a dull amber light at the corners of chapels and inns as the horse and rider rode on – otherwise the city of Noyon was both dark and silent.”
Mackenzie doesn’t divorce theological study and debate from the real adventure that it is to live as part of God’s big story of redemption. The Reformation, and Calvin’s life took place in the real world, where “thundering hooves” of horses “clattered on cobbled streets.” Theology doesn’t just affect the intellectual world, it affects everything. And the way Mackenzie tells her story reinforces this, and is what she shows about Calvin’s life – that knowing God rightly is truly an adventure, affecting all of life. Her storytelling is very, very important.
A Theological Study
The book really is part biography, part theological study. Again, it’s wonderful how Mackenzie combines the storytelling of Calvin’s life, with the important theological truths that he defended. The heavy theology could also be seen as a drawback, as there are parts where Calvin takes an aside with another character, together expounding or conversing over a point of theological debate. The downside would be that it interrupts the flow of the story, but it’s really pretty valuable all the same.
Mackenzie even goes so far as to include an appendix at the end of the book, explaining the Doctrines of Grace in case readers are wondering about Reformed theology at all, which they probably won’t be after the clear treatment of Calvin’s theology they’ve already had in the book proper. The storytelling, and the theology are robust and biblical.
Here’s a wonderful quote from Calvin at the end of his life, that Mackenzie includes among several, and which sums up the kind of picture her book paints of the Reformer:
“I cherish no other hope for my salvation than God’s merciful adoption on which alone my salvation depends. I accept the mercy God shows me through Jesus Christ, on whose atonement for all my sins I completely rely, because his blood cleanses and purifies me, so that I may now stand in his image before his judgement seat… I have endeavored in my sermons and in my writings to teach and explain the Word of God purely and faithfully. I have never, in my conflict with the enemies of the Gospel made use of cunning and subtlety, but have always defended the truth candidly and sincerely…”