Book Review

Point of Contact

W. Robert Godfrey
Stephen Miller
Monday, July 13th 2009
Jul/Aug 2009

Stephen Miller is described on the dust jacket of this curious book only as "the author of the bestselling book Conversation: A History of a Declining Art." All we know about Mr. Miller, then, is that he is a student of decline. The book under review here is primarily a study of the decline of Sunday as a cultural phenomenon.

The book analyzes attitudes toward Sunday basically by distinguishing between Sunday as a holy day and as a holiday. The focus of the book-about 75 percent-is on the eighteenth through twentieth centuries. The remaining part is about equally divided between Sunday in antiquity and Sunday in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Miller's interest is clearly on England and America. (In the chapter "Sunday in Eighteenth-Century England and Scotland" there is hardly any discussion of Scotland.) His method is largely literary, studying Sunday attitudes and practices through the lives and writings of various literary figures such as George Herbert, Samuel Johnson, John Ruskin, Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. No clear rationale is offered for the figures chosen to illustrate attitudes toward Sunday. We are left with the impression that they are simply figures that Miller has read and found interesting. While extensive endnotes indicate wide scholarly reading, the book feels more random than thorough. At times, the book seems more descriptive than analytical. For example, Miller writes that Dr. Johnson was "a devout Anglican" and "regarded Sunday as the Lord's Day, and he thought Christians should observe it as a Sabbath" (99). Yet Johnson "was not a Sabbatarian" (100). In addition, Miller records that for "approximately three decades Johnson made a resolution to go to church on Sunday-and for the most part he did not keep it" (103). The contradictions of human life are not too surprising, and Miller explains that Johnson stayed up late Saturday nights and so could not get up early enough on Sundays for church. Still, Johnson in such circumstances seems something less than a devout Anglican.

The value of the book for most readers of Modern Reformation is twofold. First, it is an interesting collection of information, particularly cultural and literary, on Sunday. Second, it invites Christians to reflect on Sunday as both a holy day and as a holiday. Such reflection should be both historical and theological.

Historically, the twentieth century has seen both cultural and ecclesiastical decline in Sunday as both holy day and holiday. For secular Americans in the twenty-first century, Sunday may be a day of work or a day off work, but the only real distinguishing mark of the day is as a day of sports. American Christians seem increasingly little different from their secular counterparts. Whereas in the early twentieth century almost all American Protestants were quite Sabbatarian in theology and practice, today most have become anti-Sabbatarian. Many churches have abandoned their Sunday evening service, and many now offer worship services in the place of the Sunday service on other days of the week. Many Christians see nothing objectionable to working on Sunday, especially as a worship service is usually available at another time. And even most conservative Protestants seem to feel that one worship service a week is enough. Many are involved in other church activities, to be sure, and usually seem to believe that such activities are more important and spiritually profitable than formal (or most likely informal) worship services.

Miller encapsulates how dramatically this historical change has occurred in the most conservatively Protestant part of the United States:

Stock-car racing, which holds its major races on Sunday, is popular….Many of the drivers, crews, and spectators are descended from Sabbatarian households, but they do not think they are profaning the Sabbath by racing on Sunday. NASCAR advertises itself as a Christian sport suitable for the whole family. Its leading figures often talk about their religious faith, and there are pit-stop church services on Sunday for the crews. (66)

The impact of these changes on the life of the church can be historically appraised. The church as an institution will certainly be less central in the life of Christians and of communities. The time and energies of Christians will increasingly be spent elsewhere. The loss of Sunday as a Christian Sabbath, I believe, has already manifested itself in a decline of biblical knowledge, discipline, and piety. As Christians, we need time for God.

Theological reflection is even more important for contemporary Christians. Our piety and practice must be informed by the Bible, not tradition. The idea of the Sabbath is God's and is grounded in creation, not only in the Mosaic covenant. God blessed and sanctified the seventh day (Gen. 2:3). The sabbatical principle of creation has been amplified and changed in the course of the history of redemption so that today this principle is maintained by recognizing Sunday, the day of the Lord's resurrection, as the Christian Sabbath. For a clear, positive, biblical presentation of this view (and helpful answers to its detractors), see Joseph Pipa, The Lord's Day.

Miller's book is well written, interesting, and worth reading if you have time. But read Pipa first. The latter's book is also well written, interesting, and worth reading-but it is also spiritually profitable.

Monday, July 13th 2009

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