Students in the hands of an angry Matt

not angry, just thinking...I’m not really angry. And I don’t really mean to compare myself to the irate deity conjured up by Jonathan Edwards in his famous sermon of a similar title. I’m just slightly obsessed with the hellfire and damnation stylings of those nutty Puritans.

But let’s back up just a bit. For the past few days, we’ve been wrapping up our examination of Native American origin myths, and our discussions of the power of myth in general. The last story we read (download: Native American creation myths) was from the Iroquois tradition. The Iroquois are a large and culturally varied group, but their origin stories all have certain elements in common: A pregnant woman is cast out of the Sky World (usually falling through a “tree-hole” of some sort) and falls to this earth, which is all water. Various animals help her out, until she finds herself floating on a turtle. She then helps create all the land we live on by dancing and singing for a long time. Her child is born, a daughter, who is then impregnated by some sort of natural-world demi-god. She gives births to dueling twins (a “mischievous” twin, and a “useful” twin), and is killed in the process. Her mother buries her body, which becomes the main source of the earth’s fertility. The twins go on to have many wacky adventures.

We examined this particular myth for the values it transmits, and came up with a list of possible Iroquois values something like this:

Desirable qualities:

  • selflessness (sacrifice self for good of all)
  • hard work
  • ceremony (“religiously” significant singing and dancing)
  • respect for the law
  • empathy, forgiveness
  • patience
  • acceptance of fate

The story also portrayed some “undesirable” qualities, such as

  • jealousy
  • dishonesty
  • pride

although I think it is quite important to note that, in the story, every example of a character acting in one of these “undesirable” ways leads directly to some productive, important development in the creation of the world as we know it. In fact, that may be the most important thing we can take from our study of this story: This myth informs a culture that accepts human weakness as a potentially creative force. Far from trying to eradicate all human and natural weakness from the world, this story shows how a people can incorporate the “messy” parts of life into a constructive world view.

meeting of great minds Anyway, yesterday we crashed the Iroquois myth into the myth of the next main group of people we’ll be learning about, the Puritans.

Now, as far as texts and myths go, the Puritans did produced a quite a lot of “stuff,” but not a huge variety of stuff. Their central myths were provided by the Bible, and their main output consisted of sermons and teachings about the Bible. But even so, their contribution to the culture and unique literary style of America is profound. We’ll be coming back to the Puritan influence again and again through the course of this class.

The first and only “purely Puritan” text we’re going to look at is that old warhorse, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” by the preacher Jonathan Edwards. We’re reading it to collect two kinds of ideas: First, what are the ideas and values promulgated by the Puritans’ myths? In other words, when we consider the Puritans’ creation and origin stories, what kinds of behavior are considered good or bad? What is the purpose of a Puritan’s life, and what are their responsibilities to society? The second thing we’re looking for is a working definition of the Puritan literary “style”: What specific literary techniques do the great Puritan thinkers and writers use to describe the world around them?

I’ll post more about this as we discuss it on Friday. For now, here’s the Jonathan Edwards text for you to peruse.

Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God

And remember, Repent!



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