All posts from "February 2009"February 25, 2009
With diversity up and the economy down, these Sabbatarian statutes could be coming off the books.
"Blue laws" do not appear in the indices of any of the American church history survey texts on my shelf (I looked), but in many parts of the country these quirky codes are some of the most enduring reminders of a bygone era. You can't buy a car at a dealership on Sunday in Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin. Rules governing purchases of alcohol on the Lord's Day are far more complicated. On Sundays, you can't buy alcohol between 4 and 8 a.m. in New York (but if you want to get blasted before the late church service, go right ahead), between 2 and 10 a.m. in Arizona, before noon in Michigan, or at any time in several states. In some places, you can buy beer or wine, but not liquor, on Sundays, and in others, you can buy warm drinks but not cold. And, of course, almost no one gets mail on Sunday - unless you live in Seventh-day Adventist enclave Loma Linda, California, where you can't get mail on Saturday instead.
All of this could be changing soon, with potentially considerable consequences.
Though the etymology is murky, the "blue" in "blue laws" seems to refer not to blue paper or blue-bound law books but to a pejorative descriptor for Puritans, as in bluenose and blueblood. Puritans do not entirely deserve their reputation as killjoys, but they did take their Sabbath seriously, restricting trade, travel, entertainment, and sex, among other things. They did not, however, originally forbid drinking on Sunday. Those laws came later, after alcoholic beverages grew more potent and water supplies were purified.
Health and holiness were never the only reasons behind Sabbath laws. True, 19th-century revivals often spurred campaigns against such impieties as Sabbath-breaking and drunkenness, but cultural protectionism lay behind some blue law crusades as well. Jews and Seventh-day Adventists, especially in the West, sometimes found themselves targeted by efforts to halt business on a day they did not recognize as the Sabbath, while Roman Catholic immigrants felt particularly acute Protestant hostility on Sundays. For many immigrant laborers, Sunday was their only day off. Already frustrated by restrictions on alcohol (a classic attack on "rum, Romanism, and rebellion"), immigrant workers were disproportionately burdened by Sabbath-day store closings and public transportation stoppages.
Blue law backers shifted over time. After New England religion lost much of its hard-edged holiness, blue laws remained in place to promote general sobriety and, at least as important, the social status quo. It is important to remember that, generally speaking, the same people who fought for abolition went on to champion woman suffrage and Prohibition, all ideas considered "progressive" in their day. By the 1920s, though, liberal and conservative Protestants began to split on this and so many other issues. A 1920 New York Times article highlighted the opposition of the Rev. Dr. William T. Manning, rector of Trinity [Episcopal] Church, to a coalition that sought to make "church the only place to go and home the only place to stay" on Sunday. Rev. Manning proclaimed that a return to the Puritan-style Sabbath would "injure religion" and protested that "God is near in joys also." From that decade forward, morality legislation became increasingly identified, sometimes aptly and sometimes opportunistically, with the born-again wing of American Christianity.
Much of the fervor behind Sabbath-keeping has dissipated. Now that so many people worship different gods, or no god at all, hitting the grocery store - or the bar - on Sunday raises far fewer eyebrows than it might have years ago. (I still do not recommend that you mow your lawn on Sunday morning in my small Indiana hometown. You will get looks.) More important, in this economy, cash-strapped states crave revenues raised on products like beer and cars. And so, from South Carolina to Minnesota, Connecticut to Texas, lawmakers are working to scratch blue laws and open for business on Sunday.
Will repealing blue laws make any difference?
Regarding the bottom line, in places like as Connecticut, where residents have regularly crossed borders to make Sunday purchases under less restrictive laws, the local economy stands to gain. Otherwise, it seems likely that many consumers will merely spread their (decreasing) purchases over seven days instead of six. Some store owners might even decide that it isn't cost-effective to open on Sundays, considering the extra staffing required.
Regarding culture, the impact of vanishing blue laws could be larger. A study in New Mexico in 2006 found a sharp increase in drunken driving on Sundays after that state dropped its Sunday ban on packaged alcohol sales. A broader study published by MIT and Notre Dame economists in 2008 found that the repeal of blue laws led to decreased church attendance, decreased donations to churches, and increased alcohol and drug use among religious individuals. These wide-ranging effects cannot easily be pinpointed to specific causes, but one of the latter study's authors, Daniel Hungerman, suggested to Christianity Today that blue laws might have been fulfilling their original intent, to keep people pious.
Whatever the outcome of contemporary legal wrangling, we have surely wandered far from the picture presented by Alice Morse Earle in her 1909 book The Sabbath in Puritan New England: "Sweet to the Pilgrims and to their descendants was the hush of their calm Saturday night, and their still, tranquil Sabbath, - sign and token to them, not only of the weekly rest ordained in the creation, but of the eternal rest to come."
For more reading:
Sarah H. Wright, "The Cost of Repealing Blue Laws", MIT News, May 21, 2008.
Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, "Blue Law Special," Christianity Today, Jan. 2007, p. 21
Other news links:
Paige Bowers, "Will the Recession Doom the Last Sunday Blue Laws?" Time, February 22, 2009.
Jenna Hiller, "Proposal to Allow Sunday Liquor Sales on Table," TWEAN News Channel 8, Austin, Texas.
Jenny Overman, "Lancaster 'Blue Laws' May Be Suspended," Fort Mill Times, February 10, 2009.
Image: God Reposing, illustration by Vasiliy Koren (ca. 1640-early 1700s) from first engraved Russian BIble, Moscow, via Wikimedia Commons.
My own views would have been terribly out of step in the church's earliest centuries.
I've been working on a cover story for Christianity Today on the spirituality of travel. In any investigation into what the church has historically taught about travel, there's one subject that absolutely unavoidablesomething that's pretty disturbing to a committed Protestant like me.
Most of my queasiness, I think, is purely theological. I'm pretty much with Calvin in his critique that
the first abuse, and, as it were, beginning of the evil, was, that when Christ ought to have been sought in his Word, sacraments, and spiritual influences, the world, after its wont, clung to his garments, vests, and swaddling clothes; and thus overlooking the principal matter, followed only its accessory. ... It is of no use to discuss the point whether it is right or wrong to have relics merely to keep them as precious objects without worshiping them, because experience proves that this is never the case.
But part of me, honestly, is also simply put off by the notion of getting close to dead body parts. I'm a queasy man by nature.
So it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I read a church father's defense of relics that acknowledged that dead bodies are indeed repulsive. Interestingly, he found this as evidence of why relics were so holy. Everyone is turned off by dead bodies, he said. But every year we have these huge celebrations of the martyr, with his remains on display, and no one is the slightest bit disturbed. Something holy must be going on, he concluded.
I wasn't sold, but I did enjoy a bit of my reporting rabbit trail trying to understand why the early church was so nearly unanimous in their support for the cult of relics.
Christians were by no means the first people to honor the bones of their fallen. The Old Testament tells of Moses taking the bones of Joseph out of Egypt. (Hebrews 11 places Joseph's directive on this point among the great faith acts of history.) 2 Kings tells of an unnamed dead man hastily thrown into the grave of the prophet Elisha who immediately "revived and stood on his feet" upon touching the holy bones.
And in the early church, the martyrs were at the top of the holiness list. Revelation, after all, told that those "beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God ? will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years."
Writing around A.D. 200, Tertullian famously claimed "the blood of the martyrs is seed [for the church]." Whether he meant it as metaphor or not, the literal blood of the martyrs was precious, with Christians sometimes mopping up martyrs' blood with their own clothes. After Polycarp was killed in A.D. 156, his church circulated a letter about his martyrdom:
We afterwards took up his bones which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place; where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the birth-day of his martyrdom for the commemoration of those that have already fought in the contest, and for the training and preparation of those that shall do so hereafter.
Such devotion to martyrs and their remains had some critics early on. A priest named Vigilantius, for example, considered such activities to be more pagan than Christian. In response, Jerome insisted that Christians were not worshiping the martyrs any more than the sun, moon, or angels. "We pay honor to the martyr's relics only so that we may venerate him whose martyrs they are; we pay honor to the servants only so that the servants' honor may glorify their Lord." (The fact that we don't even have Vigilantius's own argument and have to read it through Jerome's refutation gives an indication of how thoroughly pro-relic the church was.)
Augustine put it a different way:
The bodies of the dead are not ? to be despised and left unburied; least of all the bodies of the righteous and faithful, which have been used by the Holy Spirit as his organs and instruments for all good works. For if the dress of a father, or his ring, or anything he wore, is precious to his children, in proportion to the love they bore him, with how much more reason ought we to care for the bodies of those we love, which they wore far more closely and intimately than any clothing?
If the bishops like Jerome and Augustine had to defend the veneration of relics to those who said it looked like paganism, they also had to defend it from believers who acted like pagans during the annual martyr celebrations. Sermons from the era are replete with criticisms of drunkenness and prostitution at the celebrations, along with gluttony, nudity, dancing, bawdy songs, commercial activity, and bedlam so great that it prevented any preaching.
And the preaching to such crowds during such celebration mattered. One bishop, Basil of Caesarea, spoke of how important the festivals were to protecting his flock from heresies.
Maybe those fights over heresies were one thing that made relics so important. The early church had spent so much time fighting Gnostics who denied the importance (or the goodness) of the physical world. They fought against those who denied the reality of Christ's humanity. And they fought for the belief in the resurrection of the dead and the communion of saints. It makes sense, I suppose, that the physical remains of martyrs would be important in this context. Matter really mattered.
In his 1999 book, The Way of the Lord, Tom (N.T.) Wright talks about his own
slowly turning away from various forms of dualism, to which evangelicalism is particularly prone, and towards a recognition of the sacramental quality of God's whole created world. ... With the incarnation itself being the obvious and supreme example, and the gospel sacraments of baptism and eucharist not far behind, one can learn to discpver the presence of God not only in the world, as though by a forutnate accident, but through the world: particularly through those things that speak of Jesus himself, as baptism and the eucharist so clearly do, and as the lives of holy men and women have done.
This leads Wright to talk about relics. The cult of relics, he says "can be explained, though not (to my mind) fully justified, in terms of the grace of God at work in the actual physical life of a person. Even after their death (so the argument runs) their body can be regarded as a place where special grace and the presence of God were truly made known."
I'm not convinced, especially since my own interest in the "sacramental quality of God's whole created world" has led me to see the presence of God breaking through suddenly in unexpected places more often than in one predictable location indefinitely. But this week, at least, I'm aware that my views would have been terribly out of fashion during the church's earliest centuries. And even though I think I'm right, it still makes me uncomfortable. More uncomfortable than being next to a dead body, I suppose.
Image: Incorrupt body of St. Vincent de Paul, Paris, France. Photo by Derek89 via Wikimedia Commons. Used by permission.
Noted historian George Marsden's 2003 Jonathan Edwards: A Life won numerous awards, including the prestigious Bancroft Prize from Columbia University. Last year he published a shorter biography of Edwards aimed at a wider audience. We discussed the book and Edwards's legacy.
You describe revivalism as America's "most influential religious tradition." How do you reach that conclusion?
The United States is often noted for its continuing religious vitality in contrast with Western Europe and Great Britain. One reason for that has been that American Christianity has from early times been more voluntary than coerced by the state. Revivalism was one of the first adaptations to that voluntary environment and has been a major reason for church growth in every era ever since.
How did Edwards help craft that legacy?
In 1734 and 1735, as a young pastor, Edwards oversaw an amazing awakening in his town of Northampton, Massachusetts. That was not the first such awakening, but Edwards was the first to publicize it widely. He wrote a careful account of this "Surprising Work of God" and it was published in England. It was, for instance, an influence on John Wesley.
How did Edwards identify a revival?
He looked for signs that the work was, as his title suggests, a "Work of God." Were people's lives truly being changed? Was their religious experience truly centered on God and what God in Christ had done for them, or were they in love with their own experience or with what they hoped to get out of it?
What was Edwards's unique contribution to the theology of revivals?
He defended the awakenings of his day by pointing out that extravagant emotions, outbursts, being overcome physically, or other ecstatic expressions were neither necessarily evidences of genuine awakening nor necessarily evidences of false awakenings. Edwards's most important contribution to this discussion is his classic "Treatise on Religious Affections." In it he argues that true Christian experience will involve deep commitment of our affections and then goes on to analyze the signs of true religious affections, focused on God, and false ones, focused on ourselves.
To what do you attribute the renewed academic and popular interest in Edwards today?
The academic interest is related to the fact that Edwards is the most impressive thinker in early American history, and so even some secular thinkers, including some high-powered philosophers, have been interested in him. Also Protestant philosophers and theologians, especially neo-orthodox and conservative Reformed, have been fascinated by his works. The popular interest is related to the resurgence of Calvinism in some evangelical circles and the quest among American evangelicals to find strong intellectual roots.
How did the First Great Awakening revivals shape an emerging American identity prior to the Revolution?
Both the awakening and the revolution were popular movements that challenged traditional authority by appeals to the experience of people. So they both reflected some larger trends. But the awakenings were only one of many factors shaping early American identity. At the time of the American Revolution, followers of Edwards and other revivalists thought the colonies were far from being truly Christian. That's why they continued to preach revivals.
When writing about Edwards, what kind of reader do you have in mind?
I have worked hard in writing to keep multiple audiences in mind. These include the general reader who may have had little previous acquaintance with the subject, Christian and non-Christian readers, and scholars.
As a historian working outside evangelical contexts, how do you explain the phenomenon of revivals?
I present the revivals through the eyes of Edwards and his viewpoint that true revivals are the work of God and false revivals are the work of Satan, who is always trying to subvert the true by way of imitations. It is up to readers to determine whether they agree with this theological framework. I also often point out that, from an evangelical perspective, revivals are fostered by the circumstances of those who participate (God uses means). So we can study those circumstances but that does not mean that such factors provide the sole explanation. One's theological perspective will shape how one determines what the most basic forces are.
In Edwards's time and for decades thereafter, revivals spread as evangelicals read accounts of them. When did that tradition begin to tail off?
I think the tradition of reading about revivals changes when the media change. By the time of the great revival of 1858, newspapers, with the benefit of telegraph, were instantly printing reports of revivals that circulated around the nation. By the early 20th century, radio and mass advertising added ways that revivalists could quickly report their own activities and I think that trend had continued with the new media.
Do you see any evangelical historians today documenting and disseminating accounts of revival?
Many are studying third world awakenings. Andrew Walls is probably the best known. And many evangelical historians have written about revivals of the past.
We moderns (and even we postmoderns) love top-ten lists. David Letterman has even managed to prop up a wilting career by providing one daily.
This list reaches fearlessly into the land of the oxymoron - you know, those lovely self-contradictory statements: "jumbo shrimp," "airline food," "Microsoft Works™." The oxymoron for today: "Hot issues in history."
That was the topic put to me a couple of years ago when my seminary's sister undergraduate institution, Bethel College, was looking to spiff up the Christian history content of its Western Civ course. Would I come talk to the course's cadre of professors about what's "new and exciting" in this field of history? So I took my best shot.
I can't say my colleagues in the guild of Christian historians are staying awake nights wrestling with any of the following 10 issues. But these are all matters that I've recently seen discussed - some of them with some heat - by historically conscious evangelicals. If there is a theme to the list, it is this: How does our history define us, and how should it?
So here goes:
1. Should we uncover and renew "lost Christianities" that early believers found valid (i.e. Gnostic options, Eastern Christianity), but were "squeezed out" for various political as well as theological reasons? See for example Christian History & Biography Issue 96: The Gnostic Hunger for Secret Knowledge, Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity.
2. Have Roman Catholics always believed in justification by grace through faith alone? This is one historical component of Mark Noll and Caroline Nystrom's modern question: "Is the Reformation over?"
3. Should conservative Protestants in today's fragmented postmodern world recover a role for tradition alongside Scripture? See for example D. H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition and, for engagement along more specific lines, Ancient Faith for the Church's Future, ed. Mark Husbands and Jeffrey Greenman.
4. More generally, did the Reformation - as modern Catholic critics have claimed - destroy medieval theological and social ideals that we desperately need to reclaim in the modern church? See not only Catholic writers such as G. K. Chesterton (his "distributism," with Hilaire Belloc - on which see this article) and Christopher Dawson (e.g. Religion and the Rise of Western Culture), but also Anglicans such as C. S. Lewis (e.g. The Discarded Image), Charles Williams (his "affirmative way" and "romantic theology"), and Dorothy L. Sayers (who insisted that what the world needed now was Dante - see especially the marvelous intellectual biography by her friend Barbara Reynolds, The Passionate Intellect).
5. Should Western Christianity seek to learn from, and correct itself from the resources of, Eastern Christianity? See for example Daniel Clendenin's Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective or Timothy Ware's The Orthodox Church.
6. Was Celtic Christianity a purer, gentler mode of faith that can be used as a template to correct all of the problems in the modern church? See for example the discussion of this in Robert Webber's Younger Evangelicals.
8. Has evangelicalism, as historians like Donald Dayton and theologians like the late Stanley Grenz have claimed, been too narrowly defined in terms of a Reformed heritage - and do we need to rediscover Pietist and/or Wesleyan roots if we are to move forward in the postmodern world? See Stanley Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology.
9. Is there anything in American evangelical history or theology that should legitimately prevent us from reclaiming (1) ecumenism and (2) social action as our own crucial concerns and arenas for action? See James S. Cutsinger, ed., Reclaiming the Great Tradition: Evangelicals, Catholics & Orthodox In Dialogue, Donald Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage.
10. Have Christian faith and science been always and fundamentally at odds? See the work of David Lindberg, especially his introduction and first two chapters of David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers, ed., When Science and Christianity Meet, along with the interview with Lindberg in Christian History Issue 76: The Christian Face of the Scientific Revolution.
So, what thinks the blogosphere? Are these really "hot issues" today? Where, beyond my brief bibliographic suggestions, are these issues being discussed most helpfully? What obvious issues did I miss in this list?
I look forward to hearing from folks on this - because after all, that's what a blog's for: to foster conversation.