Witnessing Two Americas: the Light Of Awakening vs. High-Tech War
'CULTURE SHOCK' is usually something one feels when traveling to a dramatically different land or place. But last January I had a stiff dose of it right in my studio apartment.
Partly, of course, this had to do with the Gulf war. What else can last January be remembered for? Americans clung to their TV sets, first to watch the Senate and House debates on the advisability of a Persian Gulf war, then as the incredible "illumination" took place over the night skies of Baghdad when the war coalition against Saddam Hussein's Iraq began. That was January 17.
The date is etched for me because a project I was finishing on the Great Awakening in early America (1740) was also due that day. The project required a vertical dive into original writings, records, sermons, letters, and testimonials by Puritan ministers and lay people - social and political debates, and ongoing struggles with personal issues of conscience and heart.
All week I switched between the Puritans and Cable News Network, between texts and tube. It was a strange witnessing of two Americas. At my desk was America as a tiny outpost of transatlantic Englishmen and women making history far from the power centers of London and Paris - a core group of several thousand who, to an extraordinary degree, took spiritual matters seriously. For them, only God was great, only God had power. They physically lived in a wilderness, but they mentally lived in the Bible - seei ng themselves as the new "children of Israel," asking in countless ways the central Puritan question: What must I do to be saved?
As settler Jane Palfrey told her Cambridge minister: "I had a mind for New England and I thought I should know more of my own heart ... seeking righteousness by the law or the spirit."
Yet a glance at the TV and one was transfixed and transported 7,000 miles away to a live war. Here were news anchors Ted Koppel and Bernard Shaw in a world crackling with the immediate: fighter jets roaring off in a blaze of orange-blue exhaust. Shift to the studio in New York with a bevy of military analysts standing on a giant walk-on map of Kuwait; now to a haggard Pentagon reporter, now back to New York, to voice-overs from Tel Aviv, to General Schwarzkopf in Riyadh, to Baghdad to watch fires in the night, to a Lebanese intellectual to ask if the "Arab street" would rise. Top story: Saddam's air force crushed. And now a commercial for fabric softener.... This is not the Massachusetts Bay Colony; it is America, the world's only superpower.
OK, go to the TV, turn the sound off - there's work to do. The Great Awakening awaits. No, Puritans aren't so dull. They suffer from a bad press. Thanks to H. L. Mencken, pop psychology, and just plain ignorance, they get blamed for every phobia and repression in the United States.
As scholar Edmund Morgan put it, they are seen as "kill-joys in tall crowned hats whose main occupation was to prevent each other from having any fun and whose sole virtue lay in their furniture."
What's strange, and maybe criminal about this, is that the dynamism of American Puritanism and its refinements on European Protestantism may be one of the finest achievements of US culture.
It is true the Puritans lived in a highly symbolic world where God was sovereign, and real - hence they paid exhaustive attention to details. Nothing was unimportant; nothing was frivolous. Time and money were gifts from God and not to be wasted. Puritans were quite shrewd about how the human mind deludes itself. Their attention to the smallest matters of church politics and personal redemption prepared the way for the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Whereas the Puritan family has been d escribed as cold, recent scholarship shows Puritans generally loved their children so much that they warned each other not to deify them. So stripped are these forebears of their religious dimension in history texts that one book refers to them only as "people who take long trips." They can't be understood in simplistic terms, particularly in a secular age.
As for the Great Awakening, in terms of impact it was bigger than the civil-rights movement, the campus uprisings, and the urban riots of the 1960s all rolled into one.
But wait! America is at war! I can see it. Scud missiles arc in toward land; news anchors don gas masks. Patriot missiles intercept! US guided rockets demolish targets - on video! Coalition air superiority is clear (one pilot compared his mission to the Super Bowl), and talk of the ground war commences, so does debate about the meaning of the war: Is it for jobs? Oil? Our way of life? Nuclear weapons proliferation? Regional stability? Saddam's Hitler-like persona? To free Kuwait? For a new world order? T alking heads fill the screen. I take notes.
Not so fast, pal. There's that unfinished work on your desk. Given the impact of the Great Awakening in America, it is strange that in 12 years of public education, I encounter it only once.
The Awakening comes after two decades of spiritual laziness and corruption in the colonies - described by one writer as "Men talking about the form of God, but denying the power of it." Worldliness and commercialism had taken hold.
Basically, the Awakening is all about spiritual rebirth; about sensing God's holiness now, not in the hereafter, or in a creed.
In 1739, English revivalist George Whitefield comes like a lit torch to the spiritual drywood of the colonies. He addresses rapt audiences of 20,000 - a Rose Bowl-sized crowd in modern terms - with a message of God's power to transform lives: "Would weeping, would Tears prevail on you, I could wish my Head Waters, and my Eyes Fountains of Tears, that I might weep out every Argument, and melt you into Love."
The message gets through: The first time Jonathan Edwards hears Whitefield, he weeps openly.
Edwards proves the greatest Awakener of them all. He expands the idea of God, magnifies the beauty of nature and cosmos as showing God's majesty, introduces the concept of "spiritual sense," and argues that "love is the foundation of faith and comes not... from human works, but from the Holy Spirit." Sweetness, humility, meekness, grace, excellency are his key phrases; the old view of Edwards as a preacherly black cloud thundering to "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is made for Hollywood. He loves the Enlightenment, but rejects its notion of God as a kind of machine.
Edwards attempts to meld science and faith, law, and Gospel. He wants a religion of love that is nonetheless capable of making sharp distinctions between the genuine and the merely enthusiastic. He is a mountain.
Speaking of mountains and machines, the TV describes the amazing logistics of the US in the Gulf.
By the time the war is over, some 540,000 US troops wear 400,000 yards of camouflage cloth, eat 245 million "meals ready to eat" (including 45,000 pies on Thanksgiving). Our pilots take 116,000 flights and drop 131,921 tons of explosives on Iraq. The war costs $314 million a day; it costs CNN $20 million to cover it.
Yet for all the excitement about the Gulf war, the Great Awakening seems more exciting. In towns throughout the Connecticut River Valley, people suddenly awake to their need for God, and they are preached a God that could and would reach them. To some travelers, it seems as though light is pouring out of these villages. One writer says: "In the year 1741, the very face of the town seemed to be strangely altered. Some who had not been here since the fall, told me their great surprise at the change in the general look and carriage of the people." A villager says: "There was a wonderful change among the greatest part of our people. We retire in small companies, for religious conferences or reading, praying, reading, and singing together. Many [experience] the same conversion at the same time. Sometimes they have such a sense of the perfection of God, his holiness, justice, mercy, faithfulness." George Whitefield describes one town, "as there were frequent inquiries about the things of infinite concern, so the re was a great increase of knowledge in religious matters. [The people's] looks were all love, adoration, wonder, delight, admiration, humility. It looked to me a resemblance of Heaven...."
Back to earth, CNN: culture shock. How high-profile the Gulf war, the ribbons and pyrotechnics; how obscure and seemingly hidden the Awakening.
Yet perhaps, as the Gulf war fades and seems inconclusive, despite the bravery of the troops - and matters at home seem more uncertain, and materialism and bigotry seem too prevalent - there is a need for a more reflective, alternative path. Is there need today for another Great Awakening? Or even a Pretty Good Awakening? The heart and soul are a foreign country to a technocrat, but many of our forebears were at home there.
"We wouldn't want to be Puritans today," a friend says. "But they give us something to think about." Obscure and quaint as it might seem in the world's lone superpower, the two big US debates in the early 18th century were about (1) "preparation of the heart how one goes about the process of redeeming and purifying oneself, and (2) what scholars call "declension the oft-asked question of whether the community was keeping itself spiritually alive.
Assembling a mammoth technological war party may in some ways be less challenging than the difficult task of confronting ourselves, thinking our own thoughts.
Prior to the Great Awakening, there were bitter struggles over politics, power, and theology in the colonies. Dissensions, hatreds, disagreements about wealth, ethical quandaries, and so on seemed intractable. Yet the "new light of the Awakening dispelled anxieties by giving a new focus to the thoughts" of the people, as one scholar writes. Can we today learn from history?