Friday, September 26, 2014

Belden Lane on Puritan sexuality:

Puritans from Francis Rous and Richard Sibbes in England to John Cotton and Edward Taylor in New England rang all the changes on the erotic language of the Song of Songs. They described spiritual devotion as a matter of “lusting” after Christ as bridegroom. They pictured the heart as a marriage bed prepared for the divine lover. The language of foreplay and orgasm became as common in Puritan preaching as anything found in the bridal mysticism of Bernard of Clairvaux or Mechthild of Magdeburg and Teresa of Avila.
All this makes it clear, then, why the Puritans had to be so careful in cautioning themselves about the danger of sexual sins. It wasn’t that they were sexually repressed, straight-laced prudes—eager to put a bright red “A” on the dress of every Hester Prynne in the colonies. They simply had a spirituality which fostered so much interior passion that setting appropriate boundaries for their exterior behavior was absolutely necessary.
 -- Belden C. Lane, Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality, 19

Probably because I've spent so much time reading their works, I'm always a bit surprised when I encounter attitudes toward the Puritans which dismiss them as mindless prudes (immortalized by H.L. Mencken's definition: "Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy"). In reading travel guides about Boston, reading interpretive plaques, and even in talking to other researchers at a historical archive I'm consistently surprised by the way Puritan scholars used to paint, and popular understanding continues to paint, Puritan sensibilities. I think we tend to look back through the lens of Victorianism and confuse their reading of history with actual history. The Victorians saw a carefulness which they confused with their own prudishness, stripped that carefulness of its sexuality, and held up the Puritans as their prudish ideal. Belden Lane has done an excellent job here of overcoming some of the missconception.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Stephen Foster and the timelessness of pastoral complaints:

In the 1580s Nicholas Brownd criticized his congregation in Bury, England, not only for bringing their hunting hawks into church during the service, but also for the casual way members of a household would straggle into the service: "First comes the man, then a quarter of an houre after his wife, and after her, I cannot tell how long, especially the maidservants, who must needes bee as long after her, as the menservants are after him."  In Dedham, just to the south, the church elders found it necessary to call "all governors of household to come to worship in a body with their servants before the service began, as well as to sit through the entire proceeding"

 -- from Stephen Foster, The Long Argument: English Puritanism 
and the Shaping of New England Culture, 1570-1700, 34.

I came across this several months ago and it struck a chord as many friends who are elders and pastors complain about how late people come into church services. Often this gets tied to contemporary culture--but it's been a problem for a long time apparently...

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Universal Problem--how our current system hurts the poor:

In early September wrote "How municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty," examining the downward cycle in which many poor people are caught: not knowing the law well enough to comply with court procedures once they have miss-stepped, finding common fines too crippling to dig out from under, etc. The opening 'case study' follows a single mother of four, working several jobs while trying to finish her education, who was hit in a fender-bender by another driver. Filing the accident report led to her arrest for outstanding warrants for minor driving infractions which led to several weeks in jail waiting to appear in traffic court because she couldn't make her third bail. The difficulty with the article is that Balko frames it as a St. Louis problem. The fact that there are so many municipalities in the St. Louis metro area certainly exacerbates the problem, but this is by no means a problem exclusive to St. Louis. The fact is that Balko has hit on a problem with our current system which particularly injures the poor, regardless of what county they live in.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Morality of Water:

"The connection between urban fountains and social reform was of recent vintage. Traditionally, fountains had played utilitarian, aesthetic, and civic roles in Western culture. They brought water to thirsty people, beautified cities, and celebrated the power of the government that had commissioned them. No one expected a fountain's water to improve the morality of a city's residents. That changed when romanticism's vision of a benevolent nature provided reformers with a new set of ideas that they could apply to fountains."
-- Michael Rawson, Eden on the Charles, 97

Rawson's discussion looks at the way advocates of public water works seized on both Christian themes (under the influence of the Second Great Awakening, during which the public water works debate took place), and romantic philosophical themes to forward their cause, which expected public water to not only improve health, cleanliness and safety (by supplying fire hydrants), but also morality and culture (bless the Victorians...).