So-called “cultural histories” are written with a general audience in mind. They are meant to be leisurely strolls in the park, not trips to the Amazon with a botanist. Observations of trees and plant life are made and distinctions noted with the goal of clarifying our aesthetic experience of the beauty of the scene. Too many details and too many distinctions and the general impression is lost. Too few observations and too few distinctions and the impression never takes form.
Stephen Miller’s new cultural history, The Peculiar Life of Sundays , takes form, but it is a strange one indeed. In the book, Miller examines the attitudes of observant, non-practicing and lapsed Christians from Augustine to the present toward Sunday. His hope for the book is two-fold. On the one hand, he hopes it will simply provide a brief history of changing attitudes regarding Sunday in the West. On the other hand, he hopes that it will serve to mitigate the fierceness of the debate between “the religious and irreligious” in America at present. Miller writes, “A look at the transformation of Sunday in America may help us to have a more measured conversation about religion and society because we will see that churchgoing and non-churchgoing Americans have a good deal in common.”
Here is where the strangeness begins. Perhaps I have misunderstood him, but after this call for calm, the first thing that Miller seems to do is dismiss Christianity as an invention of the Apostle Paul. Noting Paul Vielhauer’s view that it was “a Pauline doctrine” that one could not be saved through the Mosaic law but through faith in Jesus Christ alone, Miller states, “Paul’s view of Jewish law and Jewish customs eventually triumphed because Christians could argue that Paul’s view was supported by Jesus himself.” While Miller notes that Paul’s teaching, could be supported by Jesus’ teaching, this is not the same as saying that it is Jesus’ teaching, and, therefore, implies a constructivist view of Christianity itself. Miller is careful not to make the point directly, but, it seems to me, the implication is clear.
The rest of the book has much of this same sort of “measure.” Throughout his work Miller focuses on the fact that Sunday was often gloomy for both the “religious” and “irreligious” alike, though there are a few exceptions. This seems to be the experience Miller hopes both groups recognize as having in common. As Jay Tolson at The Wall Street Journal puts it: “Who, raised in or around the Christian tradition, has not experienced the ambivalent dolors of a Sunday? That is only one question¯but a central and recurrent one¯raised by The Peculiar Life of Sundays .”
This “central and recurrent” question, however, leads to a rather strange picture of Sundays in the West¯one that does not do justice to the diversity of Sunday experiences. The impression I was left with upon finishing the book was that individuals who held a sabbatarian view of Sunday were most often killjoys, that children raised in sabbatarian households often reject Christianity in adulthood because of their “gloomy” childhood Sundays, and that more “moderate” Christians (which Miller never defines, but uses to refer in particular to non-puritans and non-evangelicals) are often depicted as being generally happier, more cogenial people.
No doubt some of this is true. Miller notes, for example, that James Boswell’s attitude towards Sundays as both a “holy day” and “holiday,” and his preoccupation with enjoying Sunday was a reaction against his parents’ strict sabbatarian views. Edmund Gosse, Miller writes, rejected Christianity altogether because of his parents’ involvement in what Miller calls a “Calvinist sect.” However, while Miller goes into a fair amount of detail and unearths some forgotten and, to our modern minds, foreign attitudes regarding Sunday, he ignores almost entirely examples of holy pleasure and delight that sabbatarians felt on Sunday. While he notes in passing that for George Herbert Sunday was “a day for mirth,” and notes that mirth in Herbert’s poems is often “associated with the Resurrection,” he focuses instead on Herbert’s opposition to sabbatarian views of Sunday, and no where in the book does Miller provide an example of the religious mirth that sabbatarians felt on Sundays (Herbert was not a sabbatarian). He ignores John Bunyan’s views on the subject and mentions William Wilberforce, John Newton, George Whitefield, and John and Charles Wesley merely in passing. Instead, he focuses on example after example of how “gloomy” sabbatarianism was a general drag on all¯the religious and irreligious alike. No doubt it was in some instances, but returning to this point again and again makes it seem that Miller has a bit of an ax to grind.
Furthermore, Miller’s strict adherence to his paradigm of puritan sabbatarianism, on the one hand, and “moderate” anti-sabbatarianism, on the other, gets him into trouble on occasion. After making the point, for example, that puritans were sabbatarians, Miller states that Samuel Johnson “regarded Sunday as the Lord’s Day” and thought that “Christians should observe it as the Sabbath.” Johnson, Miller continues, thought of Sunday “as a holy day.” What does he mean, then, when he writes a few paragraphs later that Johnson “did not take a strict view of Sunday observance” and that he “was not a sabbatarian”?
Miller runs into the same problem with Boswell. Boswell, Miller tells us, “usually was pious on Sunday.” A few pages later, however, Miller writes, “Though Boswell sought out prostitutes and made assignations on any day of the week, he seems to have had sex on his mind more frequently on Sunday than on other days.” In addition to this, Miller notes, Boswell was often drunk on Sunday. If so, what does Miller mean when he states that Boswell was “pious”? The term, of course, means preoccupied with religious practice, but it also is used to refer to people and things that are devout as opposed to profane. There is a problem, I think, with Miller’s paradigm when he is forced to contradict himself so strongly on occasion in order to stay true to the nitty-gritty details of individual lives. Miller, however, makes no effort to explain these inconsistencies or vague references.
After examining a few more figures of eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain, Miller turns to the American colonies and the example of Jonathan Edwards. The picture of Edwards is of a legalistic sabbatarian, hell-bent against all forms of “frolics” on Sunday. Miller writes, “Edwards held his Northampton congregation to a very high standard of piety¯chastising them Sunday after Sunday for lacking vital piety.” “In 1750,” Miller concludes, “the Northampton congregation asked Edwards to resign.”
This picture of Edwards is standard fare, though it is hardly complete. While Edwards was strict regarding Sunday observance and was indeed dismissed from Northampton for his strict stance on communion, Miller ignores Edwards’ preoccupation throughout his life with the religious affections and Christian delight in God’s grace, which Edwards thought should be particularly present on Sunday. In “A Personal Narrative,” for example, Edwards dismisses his youthful delight in religion as “legalistic” and “self-righteous.” After his conversion, this self-righteous delight is slowly replaced with a delight in God’s creation and God’s grace. Edwards would often reflect on these aspects of God during a ride or a walk in the afternoon. Remembering these afternoons in “A Personal Narrative,” he writes:
God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind. I often used to sit and view the moon, for a long time; and so in the daytime, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things: in the meantime, singing forth with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer.
For Edwards, the Sabbath was the time to experience such delight. He writes in his “Miscellanies” that “it is the will of God and of Christ that the Lord’s day should be celebrated.” It is a day, he continues, of “joyful remembrance of his rest and refreshment from his [Christ’s] extreme labors and sufferings . . . a day of great joy!”
While Edwards’ actual experience of Sunday varied, so did his experience of every day, as his diary shows. In 1723, the year in which Edwards was most faithful in keeping a daily diary, his moods oscillated from dark depression to ecstatic joy. However, he was no more or no less gloomy on Sunday than he was on any other day of the week. On one Sabbath, he states that he has “lost that relish of the Scriptures and other good books, which I had five or six months ago”; on another, he writes, “I plainly feel, that if I should continue to go on, as from the beginning of the last week hitherto, I should continually grow and increase in grace.” All of this, however, is strangely ignored by Miller, who examines but one sermon by Edwards, which is, of course, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God.”
Why does Miller espouse this rather clichéd view of puritans? Novelist Marilynne Robinson argues that the dismissal of puritans as “prigs,” despite evidence to the contrary, is strongest “when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.” I don’t think this is the case for Miller, but the fact is the overall thrust of his book¯that religious “radicals” and “conservatives” were gloomy killjoys¯slays no holy cows.
While cultural histories are not supposed to be comprehensive, and all histories tell the story from a particular perspective, Miller’s choice of figures seems too orchestrated. His lack of precision is a problem, and his decision to maintain the meaning of old words in some instances (such as when he continually calls Presbyterianism a “sect”) but superimpose modern ones in others (such as when he refers to Herbert’s Anglicanism as “moderate”) is strange, to say the least.
In his endorsement of the book on the back cover, Jay Parini states that he finds the work “beguiling.” I do too, though, I assume, for entirely different reasons.
Micah Mattix is a lecturer in English at the University of North Carolina.
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