Richard J. Mouw: "Calvinist" does not mean "grim"

Whatever the merits of Kindle, to describe its demerit of "grimness" as "Calvinist" is simply loopy.

Nicholas Baker has a fine piece about the Kindle in the August 3, 2009 "New Yorker." I have been thinking about getting myself a Kindle, since many of my friends have raved about it. Baker has not quite talked me out of doing that, but he did give me pause. He goes on a great length—and in a highly entertaining fashion—about things he doesn’t like about the slim wireless reading device.

Not that Baker is doing a Luddite hatchet-job. He obviously would like a product like this to work effectively for him. Much of his criticism is directed, for example, to the Kindle’s screen: he doesn’t like the background color, and he wishes it would light up for reading in the dark.

On a more general level, Baker has a worry about the effect of the medium on the message. He reports that things that he found funny elsewhere in print were not nearly as funny when “escreened on the Kindle.” I found that a bit weak as a criticism, since having laughed at something delivered by a non-Kindle system—like a book he has held in his hand—it is a little odd to complain that it was not quite as funny when he read it again on the Kindle screen.

For all of that, though, much of Baker’s evaluation is helpful. What caught me up short, though, was his suggestion that one reason why the Kindle was not able to deliver humorous content adequately was the “resizeable typeface” Kindle employs. Here is the line that bothered me: Kindle’s use of the “Monotype Caecilia” font, says Baker, is “ grim and Calvinist.”

If Nicholas Baker wants to talk about where various typefaces fall on the “grim”-to-whatever spectrum, I am willing to pay attention. But when he starts offering theological evaluations of fonts, then I think is he working above his pay-grade.

A few years ago, when a reporter was doing a profile about Fuller Seminary, she asked a rabbi friend of mine some questions about me as president. He told her that although I claim to be a Calvinist he has a hard time believing me—because I have a sense of humor. The fact is, that whatever sense of humor I do have was nurtured in me by all the Calvinists I hung around with for so many years in Grand Rapids, Michigan—the center of Dutch Calvinism. But we Calvinists still get stuck with the “grim” image. I guess we could think about launching some sort of Calvinist humor campaign.

But to blame us for whatever defects there are in Kindle’s use of Monotype Caecilia—that seems bizarre to me. When I think Cecilia, I think Catholic and martyrdom—look here for the gory detail of the failed effort to boil her alive and then behead her. If you want aesthetic grimness, go and contemplate Guido Reni’s 1606 portrait of Saint Cecilia.

I may start a movement to pressure Kindle to do all of its really funny stuff in the Geneva font. Then if we can get Nicholas Baker to laugh at what he reads in that format, we may be making some theological progress!

Richard J. Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary.