Monday, September 24, 2012

On Puritanism, and Finding Myself in the Corner

            Puritanism is a tricky subject, I've discovered.  I haven't even begun to do what would qualify as research on the subject, but two issues have crept up in the little bit of reading I have done.
            The first, which surprised me, is that the term "Puritanism" is a bit more wiggly than I'd realized.  Somehow I imagined that a large number of English folks, who'd all read Calvin, got together and started being English and Calvinist at the same time and called it Puritanism.  From what little I'd already known about religious developments and revolutions, I should have known better than to imagine it as nearly so tidy.
            The second might be a bit more obvious.  Really, it has to do with prejudice, and the apparent convenience of having a scapegoat.
            Scapegoats work great when you'd like to avoid the unpleasantness of confronting reality.  Let's just say, for example, I lose my temper on a given day.  Easiest thing in the world to respond (even if only to myself) by saying something like, "Well, I was raised in a very emotionally volatile home, and my parents yelled a lot, and so I'm just like this.  I have a bad temper, and there's nothing I can do about it."  Scapegoats: mom and dad.  Imaginary redeemed: me.
            So when I notice sexual discomfort in myself and those around me, when I feel myself cringe at the sight of an unattractive/elderly/same-sex couple kissing in public, I can thank Great Britain for having graciously provided me with the Puritans.  Ready-made scapegoats upon whom I can heap my own physical and sexual unease.

            Recently I read The Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan.  I want to talk about the book for two or three posts, but I realize it's not a book I can count on having been read by most people.  So it would seem that a brief summary, with some historical notes, would be in order.
            But these complications...that I don't really know what the term Puritanism refers to...that I have loaded a term, whose original referent I don't know, with so much personal baggage...they worry me.
            So I'm just sort of pausing for a moment.  I realize the whole month of September has been a pause so far.  And I do want to correct this problem of lack of knowledge with some reliable facts and reading.  But I am in reading deprivation right now (from The Artist's Way), and I'm a little intrigued by my feelings about the Puritans.  Come to think of it, it might be a similar feeling to what most Americans have about Muslims.  A whole lot of emotions worked up about a concept which might not even exist.
            Think about that.  It's like getting all worked up because you think, say, the German side of your family was Nazis, only to discover they fled Germany before the worst of anti-Semitism had erupted because they were terrified by the xenophobia gripping their country.  You know that phrase, "All dressed up, and nowhere to go."  It's kind of like that.  "All worked up, and no one to hate."  Because they're not there.  In the corner I direct all of my judgment for nasty, fearful, repressed monsters, I have looked, and I find not Puritans there.  Only parts of myself.


  1. Scapegoating seems to be a national sport these days, at least in terms of politics and religion. (I'm guessing race was a bigger form in decades past, but it could be that it's just less respectable to be overt about that now.)

    I know that I am cautious about telling people I'm a Christian, because I don't wish to be misunderstood as someone who has just voluntarily joined the Retarded Nazi Club. I hear people talk about "those Christians" and "those Republicans" in very narrow terms, meaning things that those words don't necessarily mean at all.

    So Puritans might be the ultimate scapegoats in our culture. Where you might meet a Christian or a Republican who would offer a different point of view, the chances of your meeting a Puritan are slim-ish. Couple the lack of defense with the distance in history, and we're open to all kinds of misunderstandings.

    But I suppose we're not really referring to historical Puritans when we blame things on them, are we? Not the followers of Cromwell who actually ruled England for a while, nor the early settlers of Massachusetts. Well, maybe them a little, if we're talking about witch trials, and their connection to the mix of religion and politics today. But even then, we do so with great inaccuracy, leading to very foolish bumper stickers.

    I suppose what people mean by "Puritan" most often these days is really just "sexually uptight," in some distinctly American way. We look at the French, see them shrug at us, and use this as evidence to blame our heritage.

    But you said something very interesting about this sexual discomfort, Leigh, that I think is very telling: we tend to cringe, at least initially, when confronted with any sexuality that is not our own. And in doing so, we challenge other easy scapegoat events, like the easy dismissal of "those homophobes."

    I try to understand those people I disagree with by looking at my own past discomforts and limitations. They are not difficult to find.

    But then I look WAY into the past, to the time my dad told me how babies get made, and my reaction to that: it was the grossest thing in the world, and I knew I would never ever have kids if that was the prerequisite.

    I am certain I am not the only child to have reacted this way. So I try to help my homophobe friends along gently, by reminding them of the time when they were heterophobes. The ones not too stuck on Leviticus seem to understand.

    So yes, I, too, see only parts of myself. And if I am honest, I find them scattered in just about every dark corner.

  2. Oh, the French. I tried to be French (or my version of it) for a very long time in regards to sexual norms. I distinctly remember when I decided it was okay for other cultures to have their own, shall we say, "shapes" to their attitudes towards sexuality. I tend to have some general rules of thumb about sexual morality, but it really does seem that folks from one place would feel distinctly violated by trying to conform to another culture's sexual norms, and that it goes both ways. At that moment, I stopped trying to be French. Now I positively glow with pride when close friends chuckle, "You know, you're a little Victorian," in response to one of my many conservative quirks.

    And I LOVE the term heterophobe. And the reminder that we have all been such a thing at one time or another.

    1. So, is being called "Victorian" better than being called "Puritan"? Or do they mean approximately the same thing in the modern parlance, even though they're historically 200 years apart, and Victorians got to dress better and read Dickens?

      Forgetting the French (at least until it's time to cook dinner), you've taken another interesting angle here, Leigh. What about when you don't even go along with your OWN culture? Sexuality is such a deeply personal thing (duh), but it also necessitates some common ground with others, or at least one other, unless one resigns from such congress altogether.

      It is a good thing to stake out your own approach, and let friends label it what they will. Glow with pride indeed! Own those quirks. They are yours. And I am sure they make finding someone with compatible quirks all the more joyful. There is something about having territory just for the two of you, in spite of all the world around you. You may never need more than that. Then all the scapegoats and labels vanish into the ether.