Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A book suggestion

Recently I found what looks to be a fun (but slightly irreverent) read on the New England puritans, called The Wordy Shipmates. Sarah Vowell, the author, has written a handful of similar works, and is a contributing editor for NPR's This American Life.

I haven't made it far into the book yet, but I've enjoyed what I've read so far, and I suspect a lot of you who contribute to and visit this blog would as well.

Here's a brief excerpt in which Vowell reflects on the differences between the religious separatists who established Plymouth in 1620 and the nonseparatists who settled Massachusetts Bay in 1630. As you'll see, she confronts the history from a perspective that is decidedly (post)modern and satirical, but not unsympathetic:
"I admire the Mayflower Pilgrims' uncompromising resolve to make a clean break, and their fortitude, so fundamental to the American national character that Sinclair Lewis called one of our core ideals 'Plymouth Rock in a sleet-storm.'

Still, I find the Arbella passengers' qualms messier and more endearing. They were leaving for the same reasons the Pilgrims left, but they had either the modesty to feel bad about it or the charitable hypocrisy to at least pretend to. Maybe it's because I live in a world crawling with separatists that I find religious zealots with a tiny bit of wishy-washy, pussy-footing compromise in them deeply attractive. Plus, half the entertainment value of watching Massachusetts Bay come to life is witnessing all the tiptoeing and deference–frequently just a pretense of deference–to the crown. [John] Winthrop will spend most of his time as magistrate tripping all over himself to make sure King Charles doesn't get wind of any of the colony's many treasonous infractions. Because, unlike the Plymouth Separatists, the nonseparating Bostonians left England pledging to remain as English as beheadings and clotted cream."
Here's another, more punchy extract:
"I'm always disappointed when I see the word 'Puritan' tossed around as shorthand for a bunch of generic, boring, stupid, judgmental killjoys. Because to me, they are very specific, fascinating, sometimes brilliant, judgmental killjoys who rarely agreed on anything except that Catholics are going to hell."
In spite of a few moments that would seem to betray a simplistic understanding of the theological issues behind the puritan dilemma (Arminianism is defined in passing as "the doctrine that a believer's salvation depends merely on faith ... at odds with the Puritans' insistence that salvation is predetermined by God"), Vowell holds her own fairly well as a non-religious historian writing on religious history.

If any of you have read this book or plan to in the near future, please let me know–I'd love to compare notes when we're both finished.


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