John Calvin's 498th Birthday Party (2007)
The Two-minute Birthday Lecture
Merci! Merci beaucoup! Many thanks. Four hundred ninety-eight years, is it? Why, it seems like only yesterday that my mother would say to me, “Jean, if you keep hanging around with those loathsome friends of yours, nothing good will come of you. You'll just be some sort of heretic — or even worse, a Lutheran.”
Again, merci. So many thanks to you all. I would offer you my heart, both promptly and sincerely. However that has been pledged to another. And so this moment is one fraught with profound ambivalence, stark divisions within me.
Since my last visit with you I have been contemplating many deep and troubling matters. This fretting has taken its toll on me, as you can see. It caused me to stroke my beard in such earnestness that the trademark has been rubbed clean off my face. And with good reason, for the problem I have been considering is indeed a grave matter close to my prompt and sincere heart.
It seems that I have an image problem. Historians and theologians have written some very unkind things about me — harsh things, mean-spirited things, dastardly things, evil things. Lies and untruths, all of them. Only those people who deliberately choose to be ignorant could overlook and deny that my one goal in life always remained this: to be a humble, simple faculty member at a modest (but influential) institution of higher learning, one of those intellectually stimulating safe havens from the storms of life. All my life I only wanted to write succinctly definitive and modest tomes on basic, simple subjects, like nature of the universe or the Trinity, sorts of things any humble scholar would successfully, and conclusively, plumb — in stark contrast to my opponents, those scoundrels and curs who tore at my heels and bayed at the moon when confronted with the irrefutable truths I dispensed, the fruits of my humble, simple contemplations.
According to some critics my character exhibits a stark, almost Manichaean quality: alternating lavish praise for the good with castigations and aspersions for the evils that threaten to overwhelm the good. These scoundrels claim to detect an epic battle raging within my placid soul. Supposedly mythic forces hack and slash at each other within my frame, vying for supremacy, not unlike storybook characters of recent vintage with whom you might be familiar: Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader. < Vader noises >
If these critics had their way its appearance of my humble visage and the sound of my very name would be accompanied by a sound track of malevolent noises: heavy breathing passed through a plastic ventilator. Imagine, me, prompt and sincere Cauvin, an evil prince, a deeply torn personality! I am a nice guy; trust me. I like a good party, especially one in my humble honor on this anniversary of my natal day. Party on, dudes!
But I must duly note the shortcomings of your efforts to bring me honor. As I survey the scene, I must admit, humbly, to a certain uncertainty. Do you honor me on this occasion, truthfully, or do you use my birth merely as an excuse for self-indulgent revelry, an escape from your assigned tasks, a ruse to avoid doing the things that needs to be done?
With ambivalence I note the location of this our gathering. Why, have we exchanged my humbly magnificent Geneva for this wild spot in North America? While flattered by your kind felicitations, I must state my deep disappointment at the need to receive them in such an uncultivated milieu. We have exchanged the shores of that noble, pure, and crystalline Swiss lake in the shadows of great mountains, its surface graced by sailboats and fishermen, for this gathering near the edge of a fetid algae-laden pond whose turbid waters host only abundant plant life and an odd duck, a hopelessly lost creature no doubt. Let me also, at long last, state my disappointment that the founders of this institution chose to compromise my name in the interest of salesmanship, casting aside the sweet sound tones of my native French (Cauvin), in favor of “Calvin” in guttural English — a loathsome dialect concocted by ancient and barbarous tribesmen most notable for tattooing themselves blue to ward off their enemies.
Finally, I recently discovered that my fame has reached beyond your much vaunted Lake Michigan to a place you call Minnesota. Furthermore, I understand one may visit among its fabled 10,000 lakes one called “Geneva.” Each summer, I have been told, by the shores of this aptly (though unoriginally) named gathering of sky blue waters, Dutch Calvinists gather to contemplate my humbly exalted views on life. Sadly, their influence on the culture in Minnesota must indeed be meager, almost as low as the elevation of that swamp strewn region at the mouth of the Rhine from which their ancestors emerged. For I am also informed that in yonder Minnesota the inhabitants are wont to boast that all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average. Though tempted to be flattered by the honor of an encampment by a Lake Geneva in Minnesota, I am deeply offended by the dissemination of such notions on the nature of humankind — observations which hardly represent an accurate rendering humanity's degraded state.
On that note, I must retire, to spend another year to contemplate which square inch of culture I should reclaim for you at my appearance one year hence. My image! My foot! Skywalker and Vader? A humble theological giant, like me? The nerve of anyone to breathe such venomous nonsense! < Vader noises > You are free to continue engaging in revelry fueled by cake and punch.