The Magazine

The Sacred Weekend

Remember the Sabbath day? To keep it holy was the norm.

Feb 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By CHRISTOPHER BENSON
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While Americans continue to attend church in large numbers, especially compared with Europeans, the "Lord's Day" has become less a holy day and more a holiday, less a ritual and more a routine. Research from George Barna, a prominent marketing consultant to evangelical megachurches, predicts that "by the year 2010, 10 to 20 percent of Americans will derive all their spiritual input (and output) through the Internet." If private worship actually detracts from public worship, we should expect sabbatarianism redux, although this time it will not involve secular and religious persons, only religious persons who are inside and outside sanctuary walls.

For Miller, Sunday is not a window on eternity so much as a window on the psyche, revealing conditions that range from piety to pathology. Anti-Catholicism fueled John Northbrook's campaign against the "dung and filth of ydleness." Mirth motivated George Herbert's duties as a country parson. "Vain scruples" kept Samuel Johnson in bed. Sexual fantasies gripped James Boswell during church services. Longing for the sublime brought Thomas Gray to the mountaintop, where he perceived God closer than "under a roof of citrus-wood."

Enthusiasm drove Hannah More to skip the pleasures of "tea-visiting" for the instruction of Sunday school. Horror at the inanity of evangelicalism compelled John Ruskin to shock Christians by falsely claiming belief in the Greek gods. Gloom from his sabbatarian childhood led Edmund Gosse to sympathize with pantheism. "Vital piety" informed Jonathan Edwards's sermon that surmised an earthquake in New England was "a token of God's anger" against profaning the Sabbath. "Egotheism" propelled Ralph Waldo Emerson from the pulpit to the lectern because "every man makes his own religion, his own God." Purity animated the pagan sun-worship of Henry David Thoreau, who believed Christians were "infidels because they celebrate Sunday as the Lord's Day rather than the day of the sun."

The Peculiar Life of Sundays succeeds in designing a complex and fascinating stained-glass window with each Sunday life sensitively executed to avoid unfair judgments. Early in the book, the author expresses a hope: "A look at the transformation of Sunday in America may help us to have a more measured conversation about religion and society because we will see that churchgoing and non-churchgoing Americans have a good deal in common." By the end of the book, the reader may feel that Miller's window is romantic but not translucent enough to shed much light on what these two groups have in common.

Our post-sabbatarian society shows confusion about the source of light: some still calling it the Son of God, a minority calling it the sun god, and others calling it the sun. Like Wallace Stevens, Miller seems content with his indecision: "It is the belief and not the god that counts." And yet, we must wonder if anxiety lurks behind indecision. As Nathaniel Hawthorne said of Melville: "He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief."

Christopher Benson is a teacher and writer in Delaware.