Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Peculiar Life of Sundays

By Stephen Miller, 284 pages, $27.95, Harvard University Press.

Miller sweeps through countries, epochs, and theological debates to give a sense of the dialogue between Christianity and the wider culture over the proper place of Sunday in people's lives. Christian leaders' anxiety over not offending God competed against the wishes of people who wanted to do their own thing and who weren't particularly concerned about divine wrath.

Most people in the Christian civilizations of late antiquity, and of early modern Scotland, England, and America compromised, and thought of Sunday as both a holy day, where they performed some Christian duties, and as a holiday, where they drank wine, ate big breakfasts, went to dinner parties, or hiked in the woods all day.

The theologians protecting the sabbath from the holiday-makers feared paganism. St. Augustine in the early fifth century opposed Christians going to the ancient Roman spectacles such as chariot racing on Sundays because he feared a pagan relapse of individuals in a society which was only beginning to lay the foundations of Christendom.

The Peculiar Life of Sundays shows how the strength or weakness of Sunday observance was one strong indicator of the depth and breadth of the Christianization of a given society. One hundred years after Augustine this Christianization was still incomplete, as Caesarius, the bishop of Arles, strongly opposed the practice of conducting business on Sundays. Along with other church leaders, Caesarius fretted over whether he was too tolerant of lingering pre-Christian practices.

The lack of Sunday piety was an ecclesiastical concern for centuries. As late as the ninth century, one sermon preached against “practicing divinization” on the Lord's Day, as well as hunting, shopping, and – on any day of the week – swearing “by the sun and the moon.”

In other words, the Church needed more fully to Christianize Sundays if it was to eliminate all vestiges of paganism.

Miller does an excellent job of sketching, through his study of Sundays, paganism's decline and the onset of Christendom. Sunday was an important part of the church's ability to give order and unity to a Western Europe wracked by post-Roman division, invasion, and socio-cultural chaos.

The Peculiar Life of Sundays quickly moves ahead to the sixteenth century and Queen Elizabeth I, who had her own unity problems with which to deal, including Puritans pulling her country in one theological direction and vestiges of Catholicism pulling it in another.

She succeeded because the majority of her subjects wanted as moderate a settlement as she did. Regarding Sundays, ground zero for the battle over the religious soul of the nation, her Act of Uniformity required people to attend the established church on Sunday for both morning and evening services, on pain of fine. Many Catholics, known as recusants, decided to pay the money, but many Puritans were not any happier than their Catholic countryfolk, complaining about lax enforcement of the law and people's habit of attending Sunday theater.

While the notion of a “gloomy Sunday” appears now and again in The Peculiar Life of Sundays, Miller shows that the Puritans, especially in Scotland and parts of America, were the only really gloomy people. As sabbatarians (people who wanted to keep Sunday for God), they demanded that on that day people limit their activities to singing psalms and religious hymns, reading the Bible and other religious books, and attending church. For centuries, they loudly opposed anything approaching fun or recreation.

The latter chapters of the book analyze America and writers such as Emerson and Thoreau. Thoreau was particularly anti-Christian, and like Nietzsche believed that the religion “breeds sickly consciences.” Turning things around, he called church-goers pagans because they didn't worship the sun. He spent his Sundays communing with nature.

Walt Whitman and many other American writers echoed Thoreau's emphasis on love of nature, indifference to or downright dislike for Christianity, and hyper-individualism. They saw Sunday as a day for cultivating a kind of nature-spirituality, and helped push their country towards secularism.

Miller's last chapter reflects on the current commercialization of Sunday and marginalization of Christians and anyone else trying to slow the day down.

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