In Frankenstein’s Shadow: When Horror and Revival Came to Geneva

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Long before Black Sabbath’s Iron Man or any Marvel comic, Mary Shelley wrote about, “Adam”—a modern genesis story. In Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (published in 1818), a god-like scientist named Victor Frankenstein created a human-like machine with artificial intelligence that goes horribly wrong.

Since then, we’ve had two centuries to think about the fearful consequences of technology. Now when we hear about A.I. that has gone wrong, it sounds like a story from modern tech journalism more than Victorian gothic fantasy.

Horror

When Frankenstein was written (1816), Mary Shelley was travelling across Europe with a small group of friends along with her philandering husband Percy. At the time, Shelley and her small group were living the free love, bohemian dream. They rented a house beside Lake Geneva in Switzerland where they could work on writing and navigate their love triangles. One project was to write a ghost story. The setting was perfect since the weather was especially dreary. It was called the Summer Without Sun, and all of the Gothic novelists could be inspired in their self-indulgent, dark fantasies.

Who could have known that the nineteen-year old’s godless creation myth would become the modern parable of the technological age? Frankenstein is more than a Halloween horror story. It is the horror of fallen humanity creating a fallen world after its own image.

Revival

Six weeks after the Victorian hippies left Geneva, another visitor came to town.

He wasn’t crafting stories, but he did carry another of his own.

Robert Haldane was in today’s terms a billionaire. He had been spiritually awakened after completing an architectural masterpiece at his estate (now part of Stirling University).  He had sold it and started giving money to missionary work. And that’s why he came to Geneva.

Just after Napoleon’s surrender, Haldane was practically a tourist. He was crossing France and visiting Geneva, in part to see the post-war state of the churches.

When he got to Geneva, he might have expected the rich heritage of live orthodoxy that John Calvin had nurtured in the 16th century. Instead what he found was a climate that was enamoured with the same ideas as Mary Shelley and her circle.

When Haldane toured Geneva, his guide was a seminary student. What Haldane discovered was that this would-be pastor was completely ignorant of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Haldane suggested that the young man meet him for a bible study. As others from the seminary accompanied him, the study grew.

All that Haldane did was work methodically through the book of Romans. The power of the Word of God shocked these students who had been numbed by French philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau. Many of these seminarians had never read the bible before.

The contrast between Shelley’s home group and Haldane’s couldn’t be more clear. Shelley’s aimed to create without God. Haldane’s aimed to see new creations by God.

Frankenstein and his monster are (in)famous. Haldane’s name is mostly forgotten. But the bible study yielded more eternal significance than an old horror story. Some of the key French Protestant leaders of the 19th century were converted in what some called, “Haldane’s Revival.”

The difference of a few months in one city was the difference between the horrors of fallen imagination and the delight of forgiveness of sins in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now more than ever our world needs Geneva’s revival more than we need new Frankensteins of technology. But can we believe that Halloween fixations on horror can give way to awakening to the gospel of Jesus Christ? Even in Frankenstein’s shadow, God is able to make the dead come alive.

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