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Thursday, February 26 2009
The Peculiar Life of Sundays...
Sayings abound about Christianity and the organized church. H. L. Mencken once said that a clergyman was "a ticket speculator outside the gates of heaven," while Voltaire opined that "the first clergyman was the first rascal who met the first fool." Whatever views we may embrace about the Church and its ministers, few would argue that the the day of rest, Sunday, has exercised a peculiar hold on countless human beings over the past two millennia.
In his review of Stephen Miller's recently released Harvard Press Publication, The Peculiar Life of Sundays, Jay Tolson writes elegantly of how this day of restlessness has challenged both churchgoers and those outside organized Christendom over the years. Tolson begins: "Who, raised in or around the Christian tradition, has not experienced the ambivalent dolors of a Sunday?...One might think that, for the devout, this hold would be especially firm. For them, after all, the day is unquestionably holy, unquestionably the Lord's: an Easter in miniature marking their savior's resurrection. But even the faithful can feel uneasy..."
If we think the modern dilemma that believers face between their faith embraced and publicly displayed is a recent phenomena, then we are surely mistaken. Tolson mentions Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century essayist, conversationalist and one-man dictionary compiler, who although he was a committed Anglican and defender of the faith, neverthless found it difficult, indeed, almost impossible, to haul himself into church on Sundays.
Tolson writes of Johnson: "Uncomfortable with 'publick Worship,' bored by most sermons and inclined toward late-rising, Johnson was forever recording his resolution to attend church more conscientiously. But that vow 'was little better kept than the others,' as the editor of his diaries noted. Without saying so explicitly, Mr. Miller uses Johnson to show how even a deeply religious person can find the outward institutional form of his religion at odds with what he finds most sacred." Johnson's internal struggle, it seems Mr. Miller implies, was part of a much larger culture war within the world that was once, until its 16th-century fragmentation, called Christendom. At the center of that struggle have been conflicting efforts to define the doctrines and practices of a religion based on the life, death and reputed resurrection of a first-century Palestinian Jew, proclaimed by many of his followers as the unique son of the Hebrew God. Inevitably the struggle has involved -- and, yes, to this day still involves -- politics, powerful personalities, sectarian rivalries and other human, all too human, factors."
There have certainly been seismic shifts in the way the Church has been viewed since it's early first century inception. Perhaps the most significant development early on was when the Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity as the "official religion" of the western half of the Roman Empire that he ruled in 313 AD. And then, eight years later, in 321 AD, he would declare Sunday (dies Solis) a public holiday so that Christians could rest on what they called the Lord's Day (dies Domini). Constantine thus strengthened a distinction that many early Christians had started to make between the Jewish Sabbath and their own holiest day of the week, the day after the Jewish Sabbath and, according to the New Testament, the day of Jesus' resurrection. In the interests of institution-building, early Christian bishops may very well have also promoted the idea of a Christian "Sabbath" to separate Christianity even more sharply from its Jewish origins.
Miller's book provides insightful examples of other sectarian movements by Christians throughout the last two thousand years. Sunday would become an important symbolic feature of Protestant and Catholic struggles in the 16th- and 17th-century England. Church and government officials with low-church, evangelical convictions pushed for restrictive laws on Sunday (no tavern-going, no fun or games), while those of a high-church inclination lobbied for a laissez-faire tolerance of such pursuits. Their thinking was that good Christians could Christians enjoy their holy day (holiday) as well as observe it's biblical intent. In 1618, King James I would issue a three-page pamphlet, "The Book of Sports," that listed various Sunday recreations that were lawful "after the end of divine service," which included mixed-dancing, archery, and ale-drinking. Interestingly, the pamphlet ended up provoking the Puritans, much more zealous in their convictions, after William Laud, the archbishop of Canterbury, ordered that the pamphlet be read out loud in all churches.
During the Enlightenment, as Christianity would continue to fragment, and Christian churches would lose their place of privilege and credibility among the western nations, free-thinkers would grow more brazen in their attacks against such supposed religious "superstition." In the vein of Thomas Jefferson, they would call for a more rationalistic faith, no longer tethered to the Biblical authority, or even no religion at all.
While Sunday in our increasingly multicultural America will probably continue to lose more of its strict "sabbatarian" character (as churches seek to multiply service options for the religious consumer), Miller suggests that its specialness will probably never be entirely lost, and i believe he is correct. Tolson, who reviewed Miller's book for The Wall Street Journal, and is a former senior writer for U. S. News & World Report, ends his review with some provocative words for reflection about the place of Sunday mornings in our everchanging culture:
"The day is now one on which great numbers of Americans explore our great spiritual bazaar, looking for what suits them best. Some young Christians, for example, uncomfortable with the older denominations, now partake in the so-called emergent-community movement, designing worship services that are intended to blend traditional elements (including sacraments) with an atmosphere and setting of everyday casualness and spontaneity. A leaderless, sermon-free Sunday morning Eucharist in a coffee shop with bits of bagels offered as the sacramental host: Now that is a service that might have lured even Samuel Johnson from his nice, warm bed."
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