The Peculiar Life of Sundays.
I finished Stephen Miller's The Peculiar Life of Sundays, appropriately, on a Sunday. That same day I went to church, graded some papers, planned a lesson for my American Literature class, and watched an eminently forgettable NBA basketball game. Across the United States, millions of Sundays were being stuffed with similarly heterogeneous mixes of work, entertainment, enlightenment, physical and spiritual exercise, relaxation, and wasted time. This motley crowd of activities that clamors for the finite treasure of a few Sunday hours also points to the need for a cultural history of this "peculiar" day.
Many of us think of Sunday as "free time" but historically the first day of the week has been tightly constrained by complex and competing value systems. Other days are also rigidly controlled, of course, but in more obvious ways. Anyone who has ever pushed up against the cozy confines of an office cubicle or eagerly anticipated a bell or whistle to end a shift knows that workplace values and responsibilities determine how we structure our weekdays. Sunday, precisely because it was set apart for something other than work, became the stage for the complex moral and cultural debates that Miller's book describes.
As the cornerstone of the modern weekend and the traditional time for millions of Christians to go to church, the American Sunday arrives today as a seemingly inalienable heritage. But neither weekends nor churchgoing were inevitable. Indeed, Miller reminds us that the Sunday Sabbath combines several distinct religious traditions: the Saturday identified in Genesis as a day of rest, the "Lord's Day" that followed it and that early Christians honored as the day of Jesus' resurrection, and the Roman day named for the Sun (dies Solis), which the emperor Constantine dedicated as an official holiday in the year 321. Constantine intended the new Roman Sunday to satisfy both the empire's growing number of Lord's Day observers and its pagan sun-worshipers. This compromise between Christian and pagan piety grew more uneasy over time and subsequently influenced nearly every conflict that Miller tracks. In Miller's chronological account, Augustine's attacks on pagan sunday worship eventually develop into seventeenth-century battles between advocates of a stringent Protestant Sabbath and those in favor of the more free-wheeling sort of Sunday outlined in "The Book of Sports" a 1618 pamphlet printed by King James I that authorized drinking ale and dancing after church--practices that appeared both pagan and papist to Puritan eyes. Century after century, Miller uncovers a similar pattern: Sunday is constantly contested by partisans that Miller loosely characterizes as "sabbatarians" or "pagans" Sabbatarians vigorously defend their "holy day," and believe that any activity tainted of secular joy or accomplishment can very well wait until Monday. Pagans typically endorse a liberated "holiday" and use their free time to seek individual spiritual enlightenment in a sacralized nature under a beneficent golden orb.
It is hardly a criticism to note that this compact volume intended for a broad audience sometimes strains under the weight of the questions it raises. Depending on an author's inclinations and expertise, a "book about the transformation of Sunday" potentially could draw in everything from ritual observance to class conflict to Western understandings of time (21). For the most part, Miller circumvents these subjects and instead follows a dividing line between the Christian Sabbath and the pagan sun-day through the lives and works of famous writers. His key conflict is between nature and the Christian God, and though this dichotomy begins near the dawn of Christendom, it comes into sharp relief during the modern era. Thus Miller's analysis begins with Augustinian disputes with ancient pagans but ultimately spends half its pages discussing eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British and American figures. Miller focuses on several luminaries--Johnson, Boswell, Whitman, Thoreau, Stevens, and Lowell, to name just a few. Attending to the personal experiences and writings of such celebrated modern Anglophones seems a sensible way to appeal to a general reader, but Miller's approach sometimes gives the impression that Sunday was designed solely as an arena in which church and nature might battle over the soul of Western literature and John Ruskin. Conceptually the modern preoccupation with a wild, pantheistic alternative to a staid and stale Christen civilization provides a fitting endpoint for Miller's millennium-spanning struggle between Christian sabbatarians and sun-worshiping pagans. Following restless modern souls as they test the gods of nature and Christendom, however, could easily have made The Peculiar Life of Sundays a survey of squirming in church through the centuries--a bland rather than peculiar rehash of Christianity and its discontents.
Miller's book avoids this pitfall by making some understated but provocative arguments. One involves paganism, which the author believes actively shaped eighteenth- and especially nineteenth-century literary culture. In a chapter on American writing, Miller challenges comfortable interpretations of transcendentalist nature worship as a mildly unorthodox revision of Christian reverence for creation or as a prototype of contemporary environmentalism. Several passages in which Miller perceives Emerson and especially Thoreau operating under a pagan belief system testify to the strength of nineteenth-century American pantheism; his technique creates a powerful cumulative effect, so that by the time readers encounter Thoreau writing about a Sunday sunset in which Apollo, "It]he Scene-shifter saw fit to close the drama of the day" (190), they have been so inundated with pantheistic utterances that they may, with Miller, spurn a metaphorical interpretation and take the writer's reference to a pagan god as a statement of faith. Many of the book's sections and chapters raise explicit questions about whether other authors should be counted among the Christians or the pagans.
While some of these deliberations seem somewhat overwrought, Christian readers and scholars might benefit from Miller's admirable refusal to shoehorn his literary subjects into Christian orthodoxies that they had consciously and often publicly abandoned. The Peculiar Life of Sundays certainly makes it more difficult for Christians to seize upon the slightest flash of spiritual life, or the mere whisper of faith, as tools to pry beloved writers from the talons of a secular hell and deposit them among the elect. Reading Whitman at his most spiritual and incarnational, I can easily find myself wondering from the depths of my own Lutheranism whether our faiths were more similar than they appear. Miller's hard line between Christians and pagans, drawn straight from the Augustinian age to the twentieth century, makes it more difficult to nurture such a fantasy. If the oldest division in Christendom still carries validity in the modern era, then Christian readers must admit that the heterodox Whitman--and Emerson and Thoreau along with him--are on the other side of the line. Come Sunday, Walt was not likely to be at church.
The danger of this perspective is that it tends to reduce the Christian variable in Miller's equation to the activities of churchgoing, preparation for churchgoing, and the forbearance from all non-church-related activities--in other words, to the strictest form of Christian sabbatarianism. Yet despite their prominence in doctrinal debates, such over-prescribed sabbaths were difficult to maintain in actual practice, even within Christian cultures that made Sunday's rigid strictures the centerpiece of social planning. Historians of popular and lived religion have pointed out that the masses of "the churched" could rarely be counted on to uphold the strictest orthodoxies into which they were catechized--or the most rigorous norms of sabbath observance. Rather than interpreting the imperfect submission to orthodoxy as a sign of unbelief, many scholars argue it indicates the persistence of more flexible forms of Christian piety than those fostered by the church's guardians of sound doctrine.
Because religious practice tends to diverge from religious dogma, and because Christian forms of Sunday spirituality have typically exceeded the constraints of strict sabbatarianism, the spiritual vacillations Sunday inspired in the lives of most of Miller's chosen authors are not actually as extreme or simplistic as the abstract opposition between nature and church implies. The bulk of Miller's selected texts reveal a common and often profound ambivalence about Sunday's meaning, rather than adamant defenses of strict polarities. Whitman's interest in preachers, for example, suggests to Miller that Henry Ward Beecher's post-Puritan Christian gospel "was not very different from Whitman's Gospel of Nature" (206). Moreover, the famous preacher's similarities with the controversial poet amount to more than superficial resemblances based on egoism and romantic passion. One of Miller's most interesting points is that Whitman, Beecher, and a great many other modern writers all stood somewhat unsteadily under the omen of traditional Christianity's long eclipse.
Thus Beecher and Whitman become brothers in ambiguity, shoveling natural freedom and feeling into a gaping void left by the slow collapse of orthodoxy. hey and their nineteenth-century peers envision Sunday spirituality, and other remnants of the Christian tradition, as features of a great and expanding middle ground stretching between faith and science, reason and instinct, the past and the future--not just between nature and church. Regardless of whether they identify as Christians and churchgoers, Miller's modern writers are all nomadic denizens of this new terrain, and their spiritual lives take shape as individualized attempts to appropriate pieces of the pagan and Christian past in the service of new forms of meaning. Despite his nod to Augustine's arguments with the ancient world's pagans, Miller's Sunday is primarily a modern concern--or perhaps even a postmodern one.
This forward thrust into a new era of spiritual seeking provides an alternative to a chronology of Western culture in which secularism emerges as Christendom's inevitable replacement. At the conclusion of his study, Miller offers a remarkable proposition. "Many American writers have not been observant Christians," he admits, "but no major American writer has been a secularist" (254). The book's penultimate chapter supports this claim through close readings of Wallace Stevens and Robert Lowell, both twentieth-century poets whom Miller identifies as uncomfortably and inconsistently lapsed Christians. To Miller's eye, they resemble Hawthorne's description of Melville as an artist who could "neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief" (247). Yet within Stevens' poem, "Sunday Morning," Miller also finds confirmation that such writers have struck a cautious but "not necessarily gloomy" balance between a Sunday no longer protected within the walls of orthodoxy and a Sunday drained of all spiritual value. Glossing the dramatic final lines of Stevens's poem--"At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make / ambiguous undulations as they sink, / Downward to darkness, on extended wings"--Miller applies the poet's comment that through poetry "the most casual things take on transcendence." "Are the 'casual flocks of pigeons' a 'casual thing' that takes on transcendence?" Miller asks himself (223). The answer, it seems certain, is yes. In this affirmation of literatures power, Miller suggests that the troubled writing he has surveyed can also knit together the fractured Christian and pagan worlds into a Sunday still potent with meaning.
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|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2010|
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