Sunday, October 28, 2012

for I come unto Thee

            Recently on speculum criticum traditionis, skholiast responded to a post by my most recent addition to the blogroll over on the right, Love of All Wisdom.  They are particularly dealing with some of C.S. Lewis's claims, which aren't my main point.  But they, and some of the comments following the posts, do resonate with my wrap-up of Bremer's Puritanism.
            To put it briefly, I am overwhelmed by how easy it is to put a spin on a belief.  I am neglecting the real point of his post, but on Love of All Wisdom, Amod Lele says,

            Christians ... can put you in jail for your choice of sexual partners. They can make it impossible for you to access abortion or even contraception. And they can fight for – and achieve – the equality of people of all races amid a society that denies it. In the past century, Christians of various sorts have done all these things many times, and done them because they were Christians: because they believed in, identified with and/or practised Christian tradition.

            The different ways of reading Christian scripture, and even of reading the practices people develop out of those scriptures, are what fascinate me here.
            Take my little trivia sheet from last week.  Puritans insisted that all believers have access to scripture, and that those scriptures be in their mother tongue.  How easy it is to read this not as a fact, but as a towards your own personal argument.  As a reader and writer and aspiring thinker, it is essential to me that I have access to books in my own language.  And yes, to insist on keeping any essential religious texts in a language with which religious participants have lost familiarity is an obvious power move.  Looked at from this angle, the Puritans look like honest and curious intellectuals who want to engage with their belief system personally and sincerely.  Sounds good.
            But I can just as easily see myself arguing that worrying too much about the meaning distracts from the beauty.  In the modern world, where beauty seems to be largely a consumer/erotic response that can be summed up in "I like/I don't like," I'm not sure we know what beauty means anymore.  But I am still hopeful that it can actually transform my heart and life.  When I sing an Ave Maria or Salve Regina, frankly I have no idea what I'm saying.  I know that I'm singing (gorgeous) music composed for the praise of the Holy Virgin.  Looked at from this angle, I am left to wonder why the churches didn't insist on teaching basic Latin to everyone.
            So we can engage in readings and cross-readings until we end up with a divided nation that constantly cites the same Constitution to support wildly different ideals.
            My own disposition is such that I like the readings and cross-readings so much I convince myself a decision can/should never be made.  The Puritans, however, and my own Huguenot ancestors, won't let me off the hook so easily.  By the end of the book, I realized what aroused so much empathy for them:  passion.  
            The Puritan passion and devout love are why I fell for The Pilgrim's Progress far more than I would have expected.  In fact, Bunyan may have given me what I'd like engraved on my tombstone:  Take me, for I come unto Thee.  These are the last words of Mr. Stand-fast, and also the last words of Bunyan himself.  These are not the words of a dogmatic prude.  They are the words of a man deeply in love, and though they may not call me to love in the same manner, they make me distinctly less inclined to remain (forever) my loosey-goosey, reading/cross-reading self.
            Whatever my personal inclination may be, how one reads the Bible has obvious and, at times, terrifying consequences.  My general stance is that people are people and they more often than not take religion as it suits them.  In other words, to take Lele's examples from above, I suspect that our attitudes towards sexual partners, abortion, racial equality, etc. precede our religious beliefs and that we tend to take religious beliefs which support what we already wanted to think anyway.  But again, the Puritans (and to give it some credit, Christianity in general) are always there to remind me that the beliefs themselves are capable of transforming the individual so radically that the preceding attitudes are threatened.
            Too often Christians (myself included) use religion as a towards:  we tell its stories as though they were our actual point, when we are actually telling the stories in a very certain way so as to align the religious doctrine with our own egos.  Whatever their shortcomings, I have to admire the Puritans for standing, in the face of death, for a truly passionate love of transformation.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Puritan Trivia Night

            Well, I apologize for having been so long away, but I consider my excuse to be a good one.  I wanted to actually read a book on Puritanism before I started saying too much about it.  I have done so (well, a few more pages to go), and I would like to share some information I've gleaned from it.
            The book is one of Oxford University Press's "Very Short Introductions," a series I would highly recommend for those trying to familiarize themselves with the broad outlines of a topic without an interest in becoming an expert.  It is called, simply, Puritanism.  It is written by a well-known New England scholar, Francis J. Bremer, a professor at Millersville University in Pennsylvania.  I have learned to be suspicious of much of what I find on Wikipedia, though it can be useful for small things.  An actual paper book, by a person with his career interests involved, sounded appealing.
            I'm thinking I will do only two more posts on Puritanism/The Pilgrim's Progress, so for now I think it would be fun to focus on some factual information I found interesting.  The final thoughts will probably be developing further on the facts themselves.  Full disclosure:  most of these facts are ones I didn't know prior to reading the book, and were ones which allowed me to have a less judgmental attitude towards the Puritans.  While I may not be about to advocate for a reinstatement of their system, I have gotten a little tired of throwing around the term "Puritannical" as an insult whose meaning I'm not sure I even know.
            So here is some Puritan trivia for you.  May you win big money at the next "Puritan Trivia Night" at your local bar.
            Did you know that Puritans were among the earlier Christians who insisted that all believers have access to Scriptures, and that those Scriptures be in their own mother tongue?
            Did you know that Henry VIII broke from Rome in 1534?  (I'm just throwing that one in because I think everyone should know it.)  And that most of the English church managed to get along okay for awhile, avid Protestants and simple anti-Romans alike, because of their shared hatred of the Roman Catholic Church?  It's amazing how a common enemy can convince you that you're getting along with your neighbors!
            Did you know that the color black has been somewhat erroneously connected with the Puritans?  I found this one particularly fascinating.  Black gowns were, I discovered, a sign of University education.  Puritans wanted their pastors to have University training.  In other words, they wanted them educated in more than just theology.  Their training was certainly theologically grounded, and of course Christian in character.  But "the Puritans" did not wear black, if we're talking about all of the non-clergy, because black was the most expensive color to make a fabric.  They wanted their pastors to wear black because it was a sign of the pastor's status, his education, and how much his flock esteemed him, to be wearing such a rich, expensive color.
            Did you know that in 1692, in Salem, Massachusetts, nineteen people — fourteen women and five men — were put to death as witches?  I always had a sense of it, without knowing much more.  But did you also know that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, thousands of men and women were executed as witches as a result of often unruly witch hunts throughout Europe?  Just for some perspective.
            Another fact which was good for me to learn about was their opposition to icons.  I, personally, love icons.  I have a whole little altar with about eight of them.  But part of the reason the Puritans were opposed to images of God was that "such objects fixed in people's minds a specific and therefore limiting view of God."  This is a fairly obvious reason — Islam shares their concern — but what I did not know is that the Puritans were so fond of referring to the feminine aspects of the divine.  If you limit your idea of God to masculine terms, you miss out on a lot of possibility.  Peter Sterry, John Cotton, and Nehemiah Wallington all wrote about God as mother.  I think that many Christians who consider themselves perhaps the spiritual descendants of the Puritans would find Sterry's references to sucking at the breasts of the Godhead uncomfortable.
            And one last thought on sex, probably the area where we are most prejudicial towards the Puritans.  Did you know that the Puritans advanced what were actually considered the "new" views on marriage and sex?  In medieval Europe, celibacy had been seen as the higher spiritual state and sex for pleasure, even within the bounds of marriage, was often discouraged.  In Reformation Europe, and this included the Puritans, marriage was starting to be seen as something which existed for more than simple procreation.  The companionship and support marriage provided was becoming more highly valued, and sexual intercourse was seen as strengthening this bond.  Puritan ministers often encouraged their parishioners to engage in sexual intercourse "willingly, often, and cheerfully," and one Massachusetts man "was excommunicated by the Boston church for withholding sexual favors from his wife."
            Amen, Hallelujah.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Inescapable. Inescapably Painful.

some further thoughts on John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress

            I'm pretty sure I shouldn't assume people have read The Pilgrim's Progress, so here's a crash course.
            First of all, it's an allegory, so everyone has names like "Hopeful," "Ignorant," "Great-Heart," and my favorite, "the Giant Despair."
            Secondly, Bunyan was what would then have been called a non-conformist and what we would probably oversimplify a little as a Puritan.  I could take issue with that label, but I won't here.  It is significant that he was what we would definitely consider a conservative, both morally and theologically.  In other words, he not only adhered to a strict moral code (he is reported to have repented of a life which was, ahem, morally reprehensible as a result of his sins of profanity, dancing, and, of course, bell-ringing), but he also adhered to what I might call doctrinalism.  That is, the idea that what you believe — the specifics of what you believe, the specific list of things you believe to be true — was in fact what determined your spiritual fate.
            Thirdly, it's written in two parts, and this is where it started to get interesting to me.
            In the first half, we meet a man who takes the name Christian when he begins his journey.  Christian has become convinced that he needs to leave the world of sin, repent, be forgiven, and make it to the Celestial City.  He sets out.  Along the way, he encounters all sorts of obstacles and helpers, temptations and raptures.  After many tears, much soul-searching, and many debates with pilgrims along the way, he does in fact make it to the Celestial City.
           But then there's a whole second half I knew nothing about.  In the second half of the book, his wife (whom he left behind in the first part) repents of her hard-heartedness and sets out to follow in his footsteps.  She takes with her their four sons and a young woman joins her named Mercy.  Christiana (Christian's wife) and Mercy and the boys also meet many obstacles, helpers, temptations, and raptures, and they also make it to the Celestial City.
            What I discovered in going over my notes on The Pilgrim's Progress intrigued me.  At first I thought it was just an impression I got, and that looking at the details of the book would prove me wrong.  (How often do I form theories about books only to discover that the actual book doesn't support my theories at all?)  But then I went over it in much greater detail and discovered something interesting.
            Both Christian and Christiana are evangelizers.  That is, as they go on their respective pilgrimages, they draw other people into their pilgrimage.  But there are also people they meet along the way who either try to mislead them - try to send them off the correct path - and still others who think that they're pretty much doing okay, but are shown to be so off base that they really have no hope of ever seeing the Celestial City.  These latter folks are those I would say are turned off by a person remaining entirely, uncompromisingly true to their calling.
            So we'll say we have two groups of people:  those who join up, and those who don't, with those who don't falling into that category for a couple of different reasons.
            What I found so interesting in comparing the pilgrimages of Christian and Christiana is that the numbers are wildly different.
            Even taking into account people who fall into gray areas, I count thirteen people who turn away from Christian as a result of his steadfast and uncompromising faith.  Number he gathers to him?  Two.
            On Christiana's pilgrimage, there are two people who can be said to be turned away.  There are many to try to turn her and her group away, but none succeed.  (None succeed with Christian, either, of course.)  And the number she gathers to her?  Well, I'm going to count her kids, because they do actually seem to have a choice at the beginning.  And the final number is technically unknown because along the way all four sons marry and start procreating, so there is an unknown number of children involved.  But let's just keep them out of it, and we have fifteen people who join Christiana on her pilgrimage.
            I can't seem to form a consistent response to this.  On the one hand, my modern side reads this as blatant gender stereotyping.  Bunyan's male is strong, an individual who needs no one to support him or his beliefs.  He fights hand-to-hand combat with the Devil himself, and conquers all his own weaknesses.  Whereas Bunyan's female needs help.  A man called Great-heart must escort her the entire way because she is too weak to stand up to the problems along the way; but she graciously makes up for her physical weakness by carrying on with the time-honored role of social organizer, and social propagator.
            But then the church-going, realistic side of me reads some truth in this difference between how men and women often express their spirituality.  I find it amusing to strike up conversations about science or religion or whatever prickly topic I can think of, with my atheist couple friends.  Within minutes the men are as explosively religious in their atheism as a Huguenot, while their wives (who are probably the more convinced atheists anyway), roll their eyes and finally sigh, "Just drink your wine and be nice, okay honey?"  And at church, yeah; the women make 99% of what happens socially in a church, happen.
            And then on my third hand (yes, my third hand), I think about the daughter of a friend who's struggling hard with wanting to be a boy because she hates all of the stereotypes that practical (and sexually typical) people like me are happy to keep in place.
            And this gets back to who is ultimately responsible:  me.  I am happy to keep these norms in place, on some level at least.  I find it helpful, not to mention poetic, to think of the world in masculine and feminine.  Most of us think we can say certain things about "the way men typically are," and "the way women typically are."
            I never wanted to get rid of that until my little seven-year-old friend wanted to shave her head and wear boys' clothes and go by a boy's name and be called  "him."  And it absolutely breaks my heart, because when her mom and I talk about it, we just keep turning over more and more reasons it's really tough and lame to be a girl, and that the best I could offer is that it gets better someday.  Assuming you make it through the bitchy bullying and rejection by your peers (a thousand times worse than getting your ass kicked), and the anorexia, and the cutting, and the expectations that you will always and forever be pretty and sweet and not too, too smart.
            The only conclusion I am left with, especially in light of that last list of pains of being a female human creature, is that gendering seems to be inescapable, and inescapably painful.  Many, many women don't hit up against these particular pains of being a woman as hard as some.  Others hit up against even more brutal consequences of sex and gender.  But even my friends who seem to have gotten off easy are...confined.  We are all confined.  Men, women, and even those brave souls who really try to subvert the norms and move away from gender altogether.  They are confined by how the majority of their peers will respond to them, even if it's with a benign bewilderment.
            Which is all to say, I can't decide who I want my hero to be:  Christian or Christiana?  Maybe I can find another option.  Or maybe not.  Sometimes, I'm afraid, there doesn't seem to be a third option.