Thursday, July 10, 2008

Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George Marsden

Jonathan Edwards is forever associated with his famous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. To read this sermon today without understanding anything about Edwards and his historic context, is to imagine him a wild-eyed fanatic who rejoiced in preaching fire and brimstone judgment to the post puritan masses. In point of fact, Edwards was a studious theologian devoted to caring for his local congregation and his large family. His preaching was nothing spectacular and Sinners was hardly his best work. George Marsden does a wonderful job helping modern Americans understand Edwards and his influence on Christian practice and belief and American culture in general. Marsden helps us to understand the historic milieu of Edwards and the practices of New England society between the Puritan Era and the Revolutionary War. Edwards wasn't an American but a British Colonial who held that God largely governed the world and expanded His kingdom in tandem with established human authority. Edwards was part of that establishment and was well-placed by birth into a dynasty of preacher families who were also tied to governments as well as God. Despite being part of the Colonial establishment, Edwards was a reformer and revivalist who during his times sought to restore the morals, discipline, and Biblical authority of the Church which had grown lax over the years. He was a man often in conflict with authority and with his congregation because he held the Scriptures in greater regard than human ideals. Marsden also paints a warm portrait Edwards and his wife Sarah and how they sought to raise their 7 daughters and 2 sons to carry on the Christian faith and be at peace with God. I have read several other books on Jonathan Edwards and this by far is the best and most engaging. Marsden neither worships nor deconstructs his subject but respectfully and sympathetically tells the story of a truly great man in the Kingdom of God and the American landscape.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know and Doesn't by Stephen Prothero

This is a book for every American but it NEEDS to be read by more educators, members of the media, elected officials, and clergy. The central theme of the book is that it is absurd to think about America apart from its religious foundation and to deny it had a religious foundation is to lie about our true history as a nation. The central prescription of the book is that the excision of religious instruction from public schools does our nation a disservice because in reality religion factors huge in our society. Now Prothero is not advocating that we turn our public schools into a Sunday School but rather that in producing an informed and educated citizenry, there should at least be some teaching about the Holy Bible in particular and its central themes and stories which are so much a part of our cultural landscape. He also believes that because America is a melting pot in which people tend to not melt in the area of religion, it would be good for every American student to have a little bit of cultural literacy concerning the other religions of the world. I appreciated Prothero's historic analysis of how we went from teaching our children to read from the Bible in public schools to near hysteria by educators if the Bible is even brought up in class. It was not surprising to read that the removal of religious instruction was something that started with the Supreme Court's rulings of the 1960's but rather began as controversies between Protestants and Catholics during the antebellum period. Since neither side could be satisfied, religious instruction began moving towards morals devoid of any doctrinal belief. I think this book would be especially helpful to those in the news media who are unfamiliar with Christianity especially since it plays such an integral part in the lives of our government leaders and definitely in politics. As a clergyman, I maintain it is the job of parents primarily to inculcate faith in their children through religious instruction at home. I believe the house of worship a family attends should supplement and support parents in this task. Like Prothero, I agree that it is the role of public schools and colleges to foster education and citizenship and to totally ignore religion as a subject in the curriculum is to be out of touch with reality and history.