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Christian faith: Calvinism is back

In America's Christian faith, a surprising comeback of rock-ribbed Calvinism is challenging the Jesus-is-your-buddy gospel of modern evangelism.

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"Christian fellowship is so much more than hanging out with friends," says Claudia Anderson, a magazine editor. "It involves spiritual intimacy, support, learning, counseling, and stunning acts of kindness."

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Christopher Brown, a lawyer, concurs. "I came for the theology but stayed for the community," he says. "As Americans, we're so individualistic. But the New Testament rebukes this 'rugged individualism.' We're not saved to be lone rangers."

The BlackBerry-wielding Millennials who worship here say they crave teaching that challenges them – "preaching for PhDs," as one puts it. Ask them what books they're reading, and they won't mention "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." They'll reel through names of 17th-century Puritan preachers like a pack of baseball cards.

"The resurgence of Calvinism indicates that America hasn't changed so much as some might suppose," says Collin Hansen, author of "Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists." "American Christianity has splintered in myriad directions since the Puritans settled New England. But the God they worshiped – attested in the Bible, sovereign in all things, and merciful toward sinners through the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ – still captivates believers today."

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What captivates outsiders, however, is that New Calvinists are restoring the doctrine of predestination – God choosing from the outset whom He will and won't save – to a land that long ago shifted toward a "No Child Left Behind" view of salvation. Taken to its logical end, predestination means God has always regulated everything, even evil.

This belief bothers many Christians. "The shooting at Fort Hood: Did God foreordain that? 9/11? The Holocaust?" asks Professor Lemke, who's also a Baptist pastor and critic of some, though not all, points of Calvinism.

In 2008, Southern Baptist organizers put on a John 3:16 conference to counterbalance tenets of Calvinism, including predestination. [Editor's note: The original text misstated who put on the John 3:16 conference.]

What critics see as a grim and fatalistic doctrine, however, Calvin saw as good news: that God's purposes can be fulfilled despite man's sinful ways.

"To him, predestination was a liberating belief because it says that God can choose anyone, however humble, and use him to overturn the great men of this world," says Professor Bray. "It makes real change possible and puts ordinary people like you and me in charge of seeing it happen. What could be better news than that?"

Also see our related story:

The coming evangelical collapse