Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hard to Make this Funny

The Wordy Shipmates
by Sarah Vowell

Any of you who have followed Ex Libris Fides for awhile know that I am a Sarah Vowell fan. She is hilarious and she knows her stuff. She presents history in a way that brings out the characters' personalities and makes them real people instead of dry words on a page about people who lived three and a half centuries ago (in the case of the first Puritans). Nevertheless, The Wordy Shipmates, while worth reading, is not my favorite of Sarah's books. That would be Assassination Vacation.

The Wordy Shipmates is a helpful read, because it clearly outlines the differences between the Pilgrims (1620, Mayflower, Separatists) and the Puritans (1630, Arbella, Purifiers). Her focus is on the latter group, and she presents the distinctions between the two groups in a way that is readable and engaging. To the extent that it is possible, Vowell has fun writing about the Puritans and their interesting worldview. That's the problem, though - this is a disturbingly uptight group of people. Talk about humor impaired. There is not a lot that's funny about people who burn women suspected of being witches, banish those who deviate from doctrine in the slightest bit, and commit genocide against the Indians. Where Sarah Vowell's quirky humor is a wonderful antidote for boredom when reading about presidential history, there is something about the rigid piousness (that word is awfully close to "poisonous" isn't it? hmmmm) of the Puritans that does not lend itself to a lighthearted outlook. Not Vowell's fault, she does the best she can. It's the material itself.

From seminary courses in Church History, I am aware of the links between those early Puritans and the Presbyterians as we know them today. I wonder what Calvin would have thought about the ways his ideas were applied by his early adherents. Come to think of it, he was not exactly known as a fun guy either. However, Calvin is like any other theologian - his works have to be consistently reread and reinterpreted for the context in which they exist, whether that was then or today. I guess we have to give the Puritans that same courtesy, difficult as it is. I suppose they were doing the best they could in their time to be faithful, just as we are in ours. The changes that have taken place in our country since the Puritan heyday does give us some hope in human capacity to learn and change. Thanks be to God.

Sometimes it is harder to picture being alive 400 years ago than 2,000. I'm glad I'm living when I am. Even though it is not my favorite of her books, The Wordy Shipmates is worth the time it takes to read it. It gives us another glimpse of our heritage as Americans and (in some of our cases) as Christians and Presbyterians. If it is true that those who do not understand the past are doomed to repeat it, then everyone should read this book. The second half of the 1600s is not a place to which we want to return.

Reverent Reader


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