Back for the Future in Calvin's Geneva
I can't imagine Calvin would be pleased to know that in 2009 Europeans remember him the way Americans remember Samuel Adams–as a brand of beer.
We hadn't even planned to visit Geneva on our 2008 spring break tour of Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. With little more than a week to visit several sites, we didn't want to aggravate our friend, who was gracious enough to drive us around Europe.
But after visiting another friend in Lausanne, we couldn't resist driv-
ing to the southwest corner of Lac L?man (Lake Geneva).
I hadn't expected to miss much in Geneva. Sure, the city boasts gorgeous views of the Alpine lake, but we could see similar views from Lausanne. Traveling on a tight budget, we knew we couldn't afford to stay in Geneva, renowned today for its robust banking industry. I wasn't drawn to visit the international headquarters for the Red Cross or learn about the League of Nations, hosted by Geneva from 1919 to its demise in 1946. What I wanted to see were sites devoted to the legacy of reformer John Calvin, who moved to Geneva in 1536. But the travel books told me not to expect much more than la chaise de Calvin. The International Monument of the Reformation looked neat, but overall it appeared that Calvin's stature had deteriorated significantly since 1909, Calvin's 400th birthday and the year construction on the monument began.
Nevertheless, we decided to add a day trip to Geneva. You might imagine my delight when I learned that the International Museum of the Reformation had opened next to St. Peter's Cathedral in 2005. Inside I learned from a presentation that recounted the issues at stake during the Reformation. In an effort to reach younger audiences, the museum even recreated a dinner debate over predestination between Calvin and several other Genevan theologians. This was my kind of museum. But I'm still not sure why they decided to include Rousseau in the discussion.
My mood dampened when I reached the room devoted to Calvin's legacy in the 20th century. It would be difficult for me remember anything from that display that Calvin would have endorsed. Then my enthusiasm dipped even further when we reached the gift shop. As a good American tourist, I was primed to buy something that would help me remember this remarkable visit. All I could find were obscure French books and lots of beer - not just any beer, but Calvinus. I'm afraid I'm not truly Reformed, because I don't drink. But I can't imagine Calvin would be pleased to know that in 2009, his 500th birthday, Europeans remember him the way Americans remember Samuel Adams.
Indeed, the last 100 years have not been kind to Calvin, nor to the continent's shrinking Christian churches. Remembering the continent's Christian heritage through a museum is a positive step. But Europe's problem isn't history. I love how Europeans preserve their past amid efforts to accommodate the present. It makes me wish Americans would construct buildings intended to stand longer than 50 years. Still, the American church has been renewed throughout the years by faithful Christians who, like Calvin, sought God's direction for how to meet contemporary challenges. Perhaps, in this anniversary year, God will begin to raise up a generation of European church leaders who find inspiration in the past, courage for the present, and wisdom for the future.